I Left Academia Because I Didn't Think It Was Worth All The Trouble -- Apparently Other Women Feel The Same

I’m not PhD material. Not because I’m not smart enough, but because I am simply unwilling to toil away for five years to eventually maybe get a job that I probably won’t enjoy a whole heck of a lot.
Publish date:
June 14, 2013
careers, science, academia, women in science, Royal Society of Chemistry, M

I really thought I wanted to go into academia. My original goal was to teach chemistry at the community college level. In my post-grad fantasy, I would have glasses (even though I don’t need them) and a bad diet coke habit (I would even drink one while I lectured, SUCH AN ADDICT). I had visions of writing exams that were tough but fair. I probably would make the final optional.

Because I was homeschooled throughout high school (“you don’t seem homeschooled!”), I went to community college before transferring to a four-year university. I excelled in math and science (especially chemistry) and was often the top student in my class. I THOUGHT I WAS SO AWESOME. I thought I could not fail. I thought I was going to get a PhD and make everyone call me doctor.

I was a cocky little asshole.

Things changed when I transferred to UF, joined a research group, and quickly realized that:

A) I was not a smart as I thought I was (which was pointed out more than once).

B) I did not like chemistry as much as everyone around me did (they liked to talk about it all the time, even at the bar).

C) Being a grad student meant living in a lab, even on the weekend (that’s brunch/dancing/boozing time!).

My “this has all been a terrible misunderstanding” moment came during a conversation with my advisor. We were talking about how much I had been sucking during group meetings (presenting “my” research was extremely stressful for me because it wasn't really mine and I never really understood what was going on) and he said “Claire, eventually you’ll get to the point where you fall asleep thinking about chemistry, and that’s when you know you’re a chemist.”

And I was like “I fall asleep thinking about Matt Berninger and beer; that’s probably not going to change.”

I’m not PhD material. Not because I’m not smart enough (I’m just not as smart as I had originally suspected), but because I am simply unwilling to toil away for five years to eventually (maybe) get a job that I probably won’t enjoy a whole heck of a lot. Really, I just wasn't having any fun at all and I didn't see the point of continuing down a path that wouldn't be fun.

Apparently, other women feel this way too. At least that’s what the Royal Society of Chemistry be preachin’.

According to this study, the main reason women leave academia is that the “rewards” do not outweigh the “suckiness.” There are more specific findings, and since I’m sure everyone wants my opinion on this, I’m going to address each one. These opinions only apply to the world of academia within chemistry; I can’t speak to any other field.

Out of the 81 chemists who participated in this study (I don’t know how many were male and female) a larger number of females had:

1. Been deeply affected by what might be termed ‘standard supervision issues’ (e.g. enjoying little pastoral care and having to cope with a supervisor who lacks interpersonal/management skills).

I wouldn’t say I was “deeply affected.” I will say that my advisor possessed no shepherd’s crook. We had our interpersonal issues, but these are not why I left academia.

2. Encountered significant supervision issues, which they felt powerless to resolve.

I had a hard time communicating with the grad student I worked with. He was very judgmental of “stupid people” and would sometimes just not talk for hours at a time. I was terrified of appearing dumb around him, so I rarely asked questions and tried to figure out the (upper-level) chemistry on my own. I was not great at teaching myself organometallic catalysis, so I did not have a wonderful understanding of the research I was performing. That sucked.

I’m not trying to blame the grad student for my failure, I could have tried harder I guess. But trying harder would have meant forcing conversations with someone who didn’t really want to talk, and that is not my strong suite.

3. Experienced a lack of integration with their research group, isolation and exclusion (and more rarely, bullying).

I did not experience this. I actually formed some close friendships with a lot of people in my group and in my department.

4. Been uncomfortable with the culture of their research group (about working patterns, time and expectations and the level of competition between group members), especially where the culture was particularly ‘macho’.

The only time I really noticed any type of “macho” behavior was at a lunch my advisor took me to with the other (male) undergrad and about six other male professors.

Only boy undergrad was introduced. I was not introduced. I don’t think I was spoken to. My advisor then talked about how great boy undergrad was for the rest of the meal (the kid was very smart and very good at chemistry, he’s now at Cal Tech) and I just fucking sat there, eating overpriced sweet potato fries.

5. Developed concerns about poor (though normal) experimental success rates, apprehensive of what this may infer to others about their skills and competence.

Haha, no. My experiments were actually pretty successful. I am very good at performing chemistry. My technique is fucking awesome. I am not very good at answering rapid fire theoretical questions, and that kind of thing happens a lot in academia.

6. Formed the impression that the doctoral research process is an ordeal filled with frustration, pressure and stress, which a career in research would only prolong; rather than short-term pain for long-term gain.

YUP. Shit looks like indentured servitude followed by a “publish or perish” rat race. As far as I can tell, a PhD is not equal to job. Industry is already saturated with them, so most end up taking a post doc. Those do not pay well and they look like no fun at all.

When I asked a male co-worker why he thought this influenced women more than men, he said "Because women are smarter than men."

ADDITIONALLY, the ladies (in contrast to the mens):

1. Come to view academic careers as too all-consuming, too solitary and not sufficiently collaborative.

I didn’t find this to be completely true. I witnessed a good amount of collaboration, and I found the situation with “my” grad student to be unique.

It did seem “all-consuming,” though. Grad students rarely have time for other interests (at least chem grad students).

2. Come to the conclusion that the short-term contract aspect of post-docing could not be reconciled with other aspects of their life, particularly relationships and family.

Yes, that is the conclusion I came to. When you are in a lab 50-70 hours a week, relationships suffer. My relationship was at its most strained during the last two years of my undergrad, I can't imagine what grad school would have wrought.

3. Come to believe the competition for a permanent academic post was too fierce for them to compete successfully.


4. Come to believe they would need to make sacrifices (about femininity and motherhood) in order to succeed in academia.

Sorta. Every female PhD I know has children, so that doesn’t seem to be too much of a problem. I don’t know, I never really thought about that because I only recently started entertaining the idea of having kids.

I have heard women scientists disparaged for “spending too much time on their appearance.” I guess this could be the sacrifice of “femininity” they are referencing?

5. Been advised in negative terms of the challenge they would face (by virtue of their gender).

No. If anything, there are actually a lot of opportunities for women in the sciences, simply because universities are always trying to attract more women into the science. I can say with confidence that I personally only encountered a handful of sexist people during my time at UF, but I wouldn’t say it was worse than anywhere else.

Those are just the general findings. Combing through some quotes, I found what I considered to be the biggest problem with chemistry and academia:

“It’s well known that the top chemists are really not very nice people and treat their groups horrendously but everyone thinks that’s acceptable and that’s how you become a successful chemist – to be horrible to your subordinates. Nobody ever stands up to them and says, ‘Actually you treated me really badly.’ You’d just be laughed at…”

Nailed it.

I’m not saying my advisor treated me horribly. But I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard “Oh, you think I’m bad? You should see how my Professor treated me! I’m nice!” as if that excuses any behavioral transgression. It’s a vicious, stupid, self-perpetuating cycle that reduces scientific research to some sort of hazing ritual. And, once your tenured, you can really start being a dick in earnest, because why be nice if there are no repercussions to being mean?

SO THAT’S MY TWO CENTS. Again, these opinions are formed based on my two-year experience in the world of academic research.

I don’t actually know what the solution to all this is. I do think a career in research requires an almost obsessive desire to find answers. I’m not the best candidate for this because sometimes I want to talk about music or movies or something other than rhodium complexes. Successful scientists do tend to be single-minded and extremely dedicated. They tend to not mind working the weekend. I don’t know if this is good or bad. The study suggests that a “culture change” needs to occur with “regular monitoring” of students’ progress, but it’s all kind of vague.

I do think that a lot might be helped by people just being nicer to each other, but what the fuck do I know? I only have a B.S..