Best of Systers

Leaving Academia

by Laurian Vega

I finished my PhD about a year ago. When I first joined graduate school I knew beyond a doubt that what I wanted to do after I graduated was to teach and work at a research university. What could be better than the flexible schedule, the ability to work on stimulating projects, and traveling around the world to talk about my research? It all looked so cosmopolitan.

It only took a couple of years for me to realize that things were not as pretty as what was painted. Graduate school is a unique experience for everyone, but the students that were ahead of me in the process were having trouble finding jobs. And, more troubling, they just didn’t seem as happy as they used to be. The ones who did find jobs went to post-docs (where they continued to not be paid adequately for the insane hours they worked) and the stereotype of the curmudgeonly old professor seemed to set in for my friends.

This experience is echoed in this recent article posted to systers. It reported that for graduate students “by the third year, the proportion of men planning careers in research had dropped from 61% to 59%. But for the women, the number had plummeted from 72% in the first year to 37% as they finish their studies.”

My personal experiences resonated with this article and I have since jumped out of the academic pipeline to find a stimulating and wonderful career in industry. I still get to travel to present my work, my schedule is fairly flexible, and the work I do is more than stimulating. The reasons for staying in academia were not outweighed by the apparent downsides.

Beyond my personal story, the reason this is a larger problem is the metaphorical “pipeline.” The pipeline is an theory that women move through the pipeline to obtain higher and more powerful jobs. So a woman might go get her undergraduate degree, moves on to get her masters, joins a start-up, moves to a larger company, and climbs the corporate ladder to become the CEO, as an example of moving through the pipeline.

One of the key indicators for moving women through the pipeline is more women. If you are a woman and you are thinking about applying for a higher position at a company, you are more likely to apply for that job if you see that there are other women who also hold that position (or higher positions).

Now the issue for computing is that the number of women who are even majoring in computer science is critically low. When young women are in the classroom, the people they see as one or two steps ahead of them are graduate students and professors. So, when women are dropping out of the pipeline to become graduate students and professors, the undergraduate population of female students is negatively impacted: the female undergrads do not see that people like them can obtain higher positions in the pipeline.

This means that this isn’t just a problem for those few women who decide to stay in academia, but is a problem for any company wants to hire fresh female undergraduate students. One key way to help recruitment and retention of female students is to make sure that they have positive role models in academia.


  1. Miriam Hochwald Says:
    July 10th, 2012 at 6:16 am eI thoroughly agree with the sentiments of this article, both from observation and personal experience from multiple directions.

    One possible solution is the provision of role models within the student population & early career, supported by female academics and industry. This is a combined effort which focuses on getting the female just a step ahead in their journey, challenging themselves to be the best they can be, and supporting them along the way. It also provides role models in academia and industry for which to aspire to. So, this ticks the long term goal setting as well as the near reach support and mentoring.

    Girl Geek Coffees (GGC)

  2. Marsha Says:
    July 10th, 2012 at 6:38 am eI so agree but I see the problem as men in computer science department heads intimidated at what the incoming female instructors bring. That being a softer side to the facts, detail and process thinking that men don’t seem to give. It’s not ‘just the facts, mam’ with women but a whole package of ‘female mind’ that makes DHs afraid…very afraid…smile
  3. Laurian Vega Says:
    July 10th, 2012 at 7:18 am eGreat comments. I think that creating mentoring experiences are critical. However, getting mentoring has to be an active process. Women don’t realize that they are missing out on opportunities because it doesn’t occur to them to ask for them. It isn’t until you have a woman who is a couple steps ahead of you in the pipeline that you realize that you too can make it to that next position – and that she is telling you that you are also good enough to do it. That is why I think conferences like Grace Hopper help. Not only do they show resoundingly that women have made it up the pipeline, it is a great place to find mentors (and a sense of community) that can be lacking in small organizations.

    In regards to hiring female professors, I don’t have much experience there since I never went on an academic job interview. But, the lack of women professors in STEM departments is utterly depressing. And, the research on obtaining tenure as a woman in STEM is even more depressing. While I don’t know how much active discrimination there is against female professors, I think there is a whole bunch of unconscious bias that results in unconscious discrimination.

  4. Diane McCarthy Says:
    July 10th, 2012 at 3:09 pm eWe are living in a time of constraint, where people guard their territory and become much more conservative in their thinking and behaviour. Rather than adopting inclusive and enabling behaviours, academics are being exposed to top down accountability through data mining student outcomes, and so react by sticking to what they know best; things not people, The hidden agenda in STEM is outcomes based on tick box processes, rather than creativity and engagement with enabling better practices and technologies. But isn’t that the fundamental basis of capitalism, profit ahead of elegant solutions, and keeping wages and conditions minimal to enhance the bottom line? The whole world needs to make a paradigm shift back to collectivism, the common good, and the duty of care, not just to each other, but to the planet. We can be women of influence by how we work and relate to family colleagues and friends. It is an up hill battle, but I personally cannot live any other way. Being is more important to me than having.
  5. Laurian Vega Says:
    July 11th, 2012 at 5:07 am eThose are quite strong words! Thanks for the comment.

    I think that what is best to make an argument that is both collectivist and helps hard core capitalists is all the work that has shown that teams that include women and minorities (i.e. are diverse) have a better bottom line. Which means that women dropping out of the pipeline is something that capitalists should be worried about as well.

  6. Eli Tilevich Says:
    July 11th, 2012 at 7:49 am eInteresting insights. Thank you for sharing!

    You know that I am brutally honest with graduate students when they ask me about the realities of academic life. Many of them have thanked me for my honesty. They claim that disabusing them of their false idealistic beliefs helped them deal with the adversities of grad school and beyond. In particular, I believe that when choosing a career path, people should do that with their eyes open. I hope I am not on my way of becoming “the curmudgeonly old professor.” :-)

    Many start graduate school with unrealistic expectations of academia.
    In particular, being on the tenure track is brutal, any way you put it.
    Let’s examine your own reflections on what you thought academia would be like when you started grad school:
    “the flexible schedule”
    This is true–nobody cares when you put in your 10-14 hours during a typical work day.
    Also, during my entire tenure track, I do not think I can recall a single weekend when I did not show up in the office.

    “the ability to work on stimulating projects”
    This is generally true under two conditions. You have to be able to (1) obtain adequate funding for the projects you personally find interesting, (2) recruit competent graduate students who’d be willing to work on these projects. Fulfilling either of these conditions is hard enough; fulfilling both of them can be nearly impossible in this funding climate and the intense competition for capable graduate students both across universities and within departments.

    “and traveling around the world to talk about my research?”
    Oh the feeling of arriving at a conference straight from a red-eye intercontinental flight!
    Why couldn’t you have arrived a day earlier?! Well, it would mean being away from the office an extra day! Also, when traveling on a shoestring budget, all these extra hotel nights would quickly add up.

    So why would one then ever choose to pursue an academic career? My answer is that academia is one of the few remaining environments where you can have a true win-win when it comes to work outcomes and rewards. When I write a paper with a student, I receive credit if the student’s name appears as first author. It reflects positively on my advising prowess. I.e., my effective advising has helped the student achieve this research accomplishment. If my student gets a great job upon graduation, nothing would make me feel happier. Once again, it would reinforce my image as an effective advisor and boost my academic career. I may be mistaken, but it seems to me that in industry the interpersonal dynamics between the boss and subordinates is rarely as mutually beneficial.

    My second motivation for choosing an academic career is because the computing industry is rife with age discrimination. Let’s be honest–software development is an up or out field. I don’t want to be replaced by a cheaper straight-out-of-college developer when I hit middle age. By contrast, in academia, experience is appreciated and gives you a competitive edge. Perhaps outside of software development, age discrimination is not as rampant.

    Finally, from what I have observed, few undergraduate students, male or female, see professors as role models. Many undergraduate students would laugh if you approach them about pursuing a graduate degree: “Why would I want to do that?! To spend 6-10 additional years in school to have your job?! Thank you but no thanks! I’m going to start making big bucks in industry as soon as I can.” Of course, they express these sentiments more respectfully, but the essence of their sentiments remains the same.

  7. Laurian Vega Says:
    July 12th, 2012 at 4:17 am eThanks Dr. Tilevich for your comments. I know you told me many things in person when we worked together (but at the time it was already too late, I had decided to leave academia). I agree with many of the positive aspects you brought up. I also think that the ability to teach young students is incredibly stimulating and was one of the best parts of working in a university setting. When in academia, you are also always on the pulse of the latest research and work, which is something that I’ve been missing.

    I think the point about students not wanting to go into academia is important. What I want to highlight though isn’t so much the fact that students dont want to go into academia because of the long hours and hair-pulling issues. That is important, but there is something more critical going on here in regards to the STEM pipeline. I want to highlight that by women dropping out of graduate school and becoming professors, it sends a clear message to the female students that there is an achievement gap between the genders. It says, “don’t bother trying, no matter how insurmountable that goal is.”

  8. Erin Says:
    July 12th, 2012 at 11:40 am eSpot on article. I, like you, chose to leave academics after my Ph.D., although I had planned since undergrad to pursue science policy afterwards. I am now the public policy fellow with the Association for Women in Science (AWIS), a great organization where our mission is to help change the culture that causes women to leave the STEM pipeline for many of the reasons you mentioned. However, while advocating on the Hill, I am sometimes accused of hypocrisy, having left science myself but encouraging others to stick with it. It doesn’t bother me because I believe in our mission, but I worry sometimes it undermines my message. I was wondering if you feel same way. Thanks for the great article and keep getting the word out!
  9. Laurian Vega Says:
    July 13th, 2012 at 4:18 am eVery true. I think that it does look a bit off that I’m sitting here saying there is a problem with the pipeline when I’ve not stuck with it.

    But, I like to think of myself as an example. I trained under some of the best people in my field and did valued and credible work. If I found it too daunting to stick around, what will another person in STEM who isn’t so stubborn or as lucky to have the same opportunities as me do? It is likely they’ll drop out sooner.

    Instead of academia, I went to a lean organization that values work-life balance; values collaboration; rewards dedication; and still has the same opportunities that I valued about academia. If academic organizations (and the state budgets that fund most of them) dont shape up and evaluate their job specifications, good tallent is going to leave and go to places that do.

  10. Wendy Says:
    January 27th, 2013 at 11:48 pm eI think that while it is in science where women are leaving in droves, elsewhere in the university, it is men and women. Why? Because they see that long-tern investment is no longer paying off. Theirs in the first generation where they see that more schooling, contrary to what we are told by research, just doesn’t pay. The university in terms of the social sciences and the humanities is now largely in exile–people who are mainly outsourced workers (adjuncts) who work for peanuts, but it won’t be long before the sciences go this way as well. Unlike Gen X who still had the taste of the Baby Boom Generation success in their mouths, this new generation has seen their older cohort struggle with poverty and misery and the know that the jig is up. I guess the prospect of being an adjunct or a post-doc for the rest of their lives just doesn’t sound that appealing–no matter how “flexible” a workplace it is or how much “they love their subject.” In economic terms, these attributes in oversupply do not make up for that which stay in too short a supply—namely, money. Just like a bad marriage, love alone doesn’t cut it.