The Academic Pipeline Is a Choice, Not an Obligation

We've all heard about the "leaky pipeline" for women in science. Some of the challenges and proposed solutions to this issue have been outlined in recent Next Wave articles (see sidebar). At issue is the alarming observation that as women move up the science career ladder, their numbers decrease dramatically. In the life sciences, women and men show near parity in undergraduate and graduate programs, but a significant number of women drop out during their postdoc years. Similar disparities are recorded in other science fields: in chemistry, the drop out occurs during graduate school; in engineering and physics, attention is focused on recruiting women into undergraduate programs.

But we women are hardly passive molecules dropping out of this leaky academic pipeline. What can we do to help ourselves and the women around us? This question was the focus of the panel "Plugging the Pipeline" at the 2002 Postdoc Network meeting. Organized by Elizabeth Haswell and myself--both postdocs from Caltech--the panel included Mary Kirckhoff of the American Chemical Society, Barbara Lazarus of Carnegie Mellon University, Marilyn Suiter of the National Science Foundation, Catherine Didion of the Association for Women in Science (AWIS), and Zena Werb of the University of California, San Francisco.

The message of the panelists was clear: Make informed career decisions. Don't limit yourself to a career path that mirrors that of your adviser. Measure success on your own terms.

Making Informed Decisions

Mentoring is a prerequisite for informed decision-making. Without an informal mentoring network, women are at a disadvantage especially during graduate school and the postdoc period. This phenomenon is documented in Athena Unbound: The Advancement of Women in Science and Technology (Etzkowitz et al., Cambridge University Press, 2000). Didion stressed that women need to work to build a network--with or without male peers. She cited one success story: the NASA-funded EPSCoR program that provides formal mentoring for graduate students and junior faculty in a consortium of Kansas universities.

The first step in developing a network is establishing mentoring relationships. Most people are flattered when asked to be a mentor and are happy to help. Mentors don't necessarily have to be female or even faculty. Postdoc peers provide a tremendous resource. Didion presented the mentoring resources developed by AWIS for both mentors and mentees. She explained that a mentor can be anyone we respect who has information that could help us make decisions regarding a particular aspect of our career and/or life. In some cases mentoring can be obtained through Web sites that offer advice on career issues such as negotiation strategies and goal setting, such as What You Need to Know About and Science's Next Wave.

Mentors can significantly assist with: recommendations for meetings, funding sources, paper reviews, tenure guidance, negotiation advice, departmental politics, and numerous other details critical to success in any field of science. Mentors can also help us with important personal decisions. And sometimes mentors remind us that we are truly gifted scientists.

Goals Are Not Set in Stone

Using mentoring to help set goals is critical, but we have to plan for the reality that goals will change over time. As Suiter stated, "You pace things, and you decide what you want and when." Shifting priorities often influence our goals. One of the many career-altering decisions faced by women is whether and when to start a family. While balancing the dual priorities of career and family is a challenge faced by women in every profession, the balance appears particularly precarious for women in academia.

Can women create this balance? Kirckhoff recommended that women take charge and be proactive about the positions we accept. If family life is a priority, she recommends seeking a position at an institution that is family-friendly. This may translate to accepting a position at a university not in the top research tier. As Kirckhoff stated, "If it works for you then that is the only satisfaction and the only measure of success that you should use."

Negotiation Is Necessary

Let?s assume that we?ve made an informed decision about our career path that matches well with our goals. How do we make sure that we obtain a position and package that reflects our value? Negotiate! As Lazarus put it, "Negotiation is never a win/lose situation." One key to successful negotiating is to keep in mind that the person across the table is not the enemy, merely someone who must understand what we need to become part of the team.

A mentor can help prepare negotiation strategies and counsel on the flexibility of issues. Suiter made it clear that negotiating does not stop when we obtain the job. It happens all along the way. "Negotiation is really a balancing process where you examine opportunities." Start honing negotiation skills during the postdoc years. Practice with a mentor. We will be negotiating with ourselves, our families, our peers, and our bosses in whatever career we choose.

A continuing issue is how to reach the next level of success, ultimately achieving a position of power in our field. Werb recommended working on self-image and confidence. She emphasized that we must believe in our ability to handle a powerful position before others can believe in us. Gender is no justification for failure; gender is just an excuse.

Taking Responsibility--and Credit--for Success

It was the message of the panel that we need to take it upon ourselves to determine our goals and make informed decisions to reach them. Countless women have already proven gender is not an issue when it comes to excellence in science. Whatever our career choice, whether in academia or outside it, the point is that we make that decision.

It is my hope that those attending this panel will actively implement some of these strategies to guide their success along very different career paths. I decided to build a mentoring program pairing female graduate students with postdoc mentors. Liz Haswell is coordinating a Distinguished Women Lecture Series. What will you do to take charge of your career and help those women around you?

Helen McBride is a postdoctoral scholar in the biology division at the California Institute of Technology. You can reach her at

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