A letter to a friend

Dear Ruth,

I’m very sorry that you were unhappy about the recent postings on the blog and the generally negative tone that has characterised a lot of the recent material. I’m also very sorry if you, as a fellow group leader, felt that you were being accused of exploiting the students in your care. 

Everything you wrote about your mentoring to date marks you out (I would say) as an exemplary group leader. You are sacrificing yourself to ensure that your group members have productive and positive experiences while in your lab, they are subsequently pursuing rewarding careers both inside and outside academia, and the fact that there are reunions and continued contact with group members after their departure speaks volumes about the kind of environment that you’re generating. Kudos, respect, admiration. It is perhaps telling that someone like you – obviously not the focus of my commentary – should feel accused and compelled to respond to condemnation that was never aimed in your direction.

You are of course right that a pervasively negative tone on the blog – even when it is mocking or outright silly – can be counterproductive. A negative atmosphere does make people question whether they should choose academia as a career. A negative atmosphere does make people more likely to walk away. And a negative atmosphere absolutely works against diversity, because it will exacerbate any conscious or subconscious intuitions of not belonging. The gender ratios in academia are slowly changing and there is growing awareness of the barriers faced by minoritised scientists, and both of these things need to continue and are not helped by people going around saying that things are awful. Plus, there are many people like yourself who find academia an extremely rewarding career choice for many reasons and whose positive experiences get drowned out by the wailing.

The problem though is that I am also right. ;-p

Although there are many people like yourself who find academia very rewarding, every career survey of young scientists indicates massive levels of unhappiness, disenchantment, and mental health problems. Not only that, but there are increasing numbers of mid-career scientists (like myself, I suppose) who are also leaving academia for alternative careers elsewhere under the science umbrella. Gender ratios in science are changing (and biology is well ahead of the other branches), but it’s also clear that they are not changing quickly enough at the mid-level and higher-level steps of the career ladder – there’s strong numerical support for your anecdotal observation that arrogant and less-talented (and predominantly male) scientists are disproportionately achieving promotion. And, I would argue, the fact that more people are choosing alternative careers outside academia is because many of them are realising that the very strong vocational element traditionally associated with a career inside academia has increasingly been leveraged as a means of imposing ever greater pressure on very smart people for little financial reward (you note that many of your lab alumni in industry earn more than you – current indicators are that salaries for entry-level industry jobs for PhDs are double what they would earn as postdocs).

So where does that leave us, and what should we say to the mostly female students coming to you for advice? Another important demographic factor to note here is the career logjam that disempowers young scientists – we are obviously training far too many PhD students to fill the available positions in academia. One solution I’ve heard proposed from time to time – and which I vehemently disagree with – is that we should train fewer PhDs. This is a terrible idea that would inevitably reinforce privilege and also shrink the percentage of PhD-holders in society at large, and at just the time when anti-science movements are getting very noisy. Instead, I think we should be training as many PhDs as possible, but ensuring that career paths out of academia are much better signposted to ensure that people do not hang around because they’re unsure of what other career options they have. A PhD should be a portal to all manner of rich and rewarding careers (and often is), but a disappointing number of people become aware of that only after they’ve run out of options in academia, and are also unaware that their unique talents may find fuller expression outside of academia rather than within it.

So what should we do with your female students seeking advice? I think we should tell them the truth. We should tell them that academia can be an amazing and incredibly rewarding career that is quite possibly unrivalled for its intellectual stimulation and breadth. We should also tell them about the problems that minoritised students still face, and that things remain difficult and will continue to do so for a while yet. We should absolutely encourage and support any of them that want to pursue a long-term academic career, but we should also encourage them to always have a career Plan B mapped out. We need to get them to think of themselves as pioneers – which they are, in a very real sense – and to embrace their demographic identity and do everything they can to advance their career and that of others around them. And perhaps most importantly, we should ensure that they don’t take things too seriously and see all these ups and downs as small bumps in a long road that they are travelling.

As I said, I think all the points you raised are incredibly important and I would be more than happy to continue discussing this. I would also be really interested to hear more about the experiences of your students in the US system, and more than happy to write to any of them if they need more convincing that science is amazing and that academia can be too. 

Does all that sound reasonable? I hope so. 

Your friend,


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