Where have all the women gone?!?


Where have all the women gone? Long time passing… where have all the women gone, long time ago?

Perhaps this version of Peter Paul and Mary’s song “Where have all the flowers gone?” should become the anthem of women in science.

This morning I stumbled across this interesting article in the Harvard Business Review.  It draws attention to the fact that after obtaining a PhD women in science tend to simply disappear from academia.  So why is this???

Interestingly they found that women are actually significantly MORE LIKELY to get first author publications (albeit in slightly lower impact journals), but are LESS LIKELY to obtain the last author publications which are essential for career advancement.  This is reflected in the lower rates of R01 grants obtained by women (R01 grants are provided by the NIH and reflect the growth from a junior scientist to a principle investigator). However, I think the most striking finding was that women seem to receive less credit for their work, as explained here:

“For example, while doubling the number of citations per paper reduced the transition time from postdoc grant to R01 by about 20% for men, the same increase in citations per paper only reduced the time to R01 by roughly 13% for women. Even after controlling for a large number of other attributes, such as the journals they published in and whether they specialized in particular areas, a woman will take about one year longer to receive an R01 grant than a man with the same number of citations.”

This is somewhat reminiscent of the good old male/female resume study demonstrating the systemic bias still present in the STEM fields (along with most other fields to a certain extent).

It will be interesting to see the results of the authors’ future study looking at women’s access to mentors and organizational support, perhaps this will shed some light on where the women are going.  As a young woman in a STEM field I for one certainly do notice the lack of female mentors.  This also extends to the culture of “talking science over a beer” at the local pub, something which I’ve noticed male professors are much more likely to do with male junior scientists than female junior scientists.  I doubt this is intentional, however regardless of intent these  habits certainly add to the barriers faced by women trying to work their way up the academic ladder.

Hopefully one day there will be true equality in STEM fields.  We have certainly come a long way, but there is still so much work to be done.



Approaching the end of the tracks

Sometimes a PhD feels like being stuck on a train with faulty brakes, parked on a steep slope.  Initially there is no movement, then gradually the train starts inching forwards, so slowly, leaving you wishing it would just hurry up and get you through this degree.  After a painfully long  time things are moving at a nice speed and progress is good.  This period of bliss lasts about 3 seconds.  Then suddenly things are moving too fast, hurtling out of control towards a completely unknown future.  Perhaps there will be beautiful scenery at the bottom, or an uphill to catch you… or perhaps there will be a dead-end, or worse a cliff launching you into a void.

DSC01953At my most recent committee meeting my supervisor sprung the question on me.  “So, what do you want to do once you finish?”  

Quick, think on your feet.  I have no idea.  But you must say something intelligent and thoughtful sounding, your committee members are watching closely.  Gulp.

I decided this moment was as good as any to tell him that I’m done with academia.

Now I’m not one of those disgruntled, bitter grad students who feels like they were tricked into a degree with the promise of being a fancy professor, relaxing into the safety of a comfy tenure position.  I simply am no longer interested in participating in the struggle simply for the “greater good” of scientific progress at my own expense.  Does that make me selfish?  Maybe.

I still love science.  Nothing compares to the thrill of finding some (little) piece of information in an experiment and realizing you’re probably the only person in the world who knows this.  Nothing compares.  However, I believe I can still have this and contribute towards the “greater good” without sacrificing my own life and personal happiness.

What does this job look like you may ask? I don’t know. But I do know it doesn’t look like academia.

In the meanwhile the end is still hurtling towards me, with only a few more experiments standing between myself and writing up.  It’s a very funny predicament where one minute I can’t wait for those experiments to be out of the way and forever gone from my life, while the next I desperately hope there will be technical delays or further experiments required to slow my launch into the foreign post-graduation world.

Sure, I’ve gone to all sorts of career preparation events.  I have a nice professionally prepared CV, packed with extracurriculars and accomplishments.  I’ve taken a look at various job postings.  I’ve talked to people in various fields.  But I still can’t put a finger on exactly what I want to do.  Or if it will even require a PhD.

So, for now I will just have to content myself with the unknown and have faith that if I do hit the end of the track I will somehow catch myself.  Until now I’ve always landed on my feet, hopefully that won’t change.

And just remember, you’re never alone on the train.

Gender biases in science and a Mrs Trump

As my PhD starts to wind up I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about future career options.  The career route which is most obvious, and certainly encouraged as a PhD, is to pursue a career in academia as a professor.  However, despite this being 2016, and despite a 50:50 male female split amongst PhD graduates, being a female is still a huge disadvantage in academia.  In my department there are just over 130 professors, and only 24 of those are female.  That means women make up only 18%.

Now granted historically science has been heavily male dominated, and it does take time to change the demographics.  Knowing that enrolment in our PhD program (and graduates) has been gender balanced for quite some time, my classmates and I named every recent hire we could think of in the past 3-4 years in our department.  We came up with 10 new hires.

The demographics?  100% white males.

So why is this?  Both males and females are graduating at equal rates, presumably with similar qualifications and publication records.  Yet only males are continuing in academia. Is this due to females preferring other more “family friendly” career paths, or is it due to their being viewed as lesser candidates?

Recently I’ve noticed several news articles discussing the double standards for how men and women are perceived.  Take, for instance, this BBC article which debates how a “Mrs Trump” candidate would fair in the US election:

Could a Mrs Trump get away with this?

Probably not, according to linguistics professor Deborah Tannen, who explains the double-bind facing women who run for office:

“If a candidate – or manager – talks or acts in ways expected of women, she risks being seen as under-confident or even incompetent,” she wrote in the Washington Post.

“But if she talks or acts in ways expected of leaders, she is likely to be seen as too aggressive and will be subject to innumerable other negative judgments – and epithets – that apply only to women.”

Interestingly, this article was published in the National Post a few days ago highlighting the differences in men’s and women’s speech patterns and how they are perceived:

A 2015 experiment showed that when men spoke in angry tones, they came across as more credible and more persuasive. But when women spoke forcefully, they were less likely to change people’s minds. Subjects perceived the angry women as emotional and untrustworthy.

“When a woman speaks in a professional setting, she walks a tightrope,” Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg and University of Pennsylvania professor Adam Grant wrote in an op-ed last year. “Either she’s barely heard or she’s judged as too aggressive.”

When it comes to science (and many professions), your credibility and persuasiveness are critical to your advancement.  Without these skills it would be impossible to gain funding, collaborations, or publications.  So it’s no wonder that women being perceived as less credible and persuasive has an impact on their career development.

But now the tough question: How do we change this????



Why I’m Leaving Academia

An excellent read for all those PhDs who are thinking of leaving mainstream academia! No we aren’t “quitting” or “giving up” on academia, we’re just looking for the spark and excitement of our dream job!

Susan Zakaib

Don’t worry: this isn’t yet another rant about why academia is horrible and no one should ever go to graduate school. Yes, the ivory tower has its problems. But that’s not why I’m leaving.

Speaking openly, frankly and with optimism about “alt-ac” or “post-ac” careers is becoming increasingly common. But, with some notable exceptions, the conversation still seems focused primarily on how to use these careers as a back-up option when the academic track turns out to be terrible–the thing we do when we’re exhausted, buried under debt, and can’t get a good tenure track job. The thing we do only when Plan A goes horribly awry and gets too awful to deal with.

Even Karen Kelsky–who chose to leave her great tenured position because it wasn’t what she wanted–frames the decision to leave in this light:

It’s OK to quit. It’s OK to decide to move on and…

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What to do next?

“If all goes well you could finish your PhD in as little as a year.”


I had always thought this would be received as excellent news, a light at the end of the tunnel.  Let the countdown begin!

But for me it instantly induced pure panic.  Cold sweats and trembling panic.

What to do next??????????

Like many graduate students, a PhD seemed so endless that my only focus in life became finishing my degree.  Whenever the inevitable question “Where do you see yourself after graduation?” came up I would shrug it off with “That’s still so far away, I’ve got plenty of time to figure it out!”

Until suddenly time was running out.

Somewhere along the way I forgot that a PhD is simply meant to be a stepping stone, a way up the employment ladder.  Despite what I liked to believe as a student, a PhD is not a career in and of itself.

Unfortunately in our modern society a PhD is becoming increasingly common, such that when I graduate I will simply be one of more than 4,000 PhDs graduating each year in Canada.  As is the case with over 80% of Canadian PhD graduates, I no longer wish to remain in academia.

The jump into industry or non-academia is difficult in that success and potential are measured differently.  Instead of publications and academic awards being the main factors, recruiters want to see concrete skills that will be useful in the job.  My transferable skills revolve around research: experiment design, molecular biology techniques, academic writing, and critical thinking.

In other words, I more or less have the same skills as the other 1,000 PhD students graduating in biological sciences each year.

Thus, the panic.  How to set myself apart?

Sure, I’ll be graduating with a PhD from one of the top research institutes in the world, with many awards and an impressive list of publications.  And yes I have a packed extracurricular resume attesting to excellent leadership, teamwork, and time management skills.  But it’s still not enough.

After a few weeks of uncertainty and brainstorming, I arrived at a solution: Get another qualification designed for industry.  Recalling a few nutrition courses I had thoroughly enjoyed during my undergrad, I enrolled in an online certificate in Food Sciences at the University of Guelph (a leader in the field).  While it may seem silly to get a certificate when you have a PhD, my reasoning is that the certificate will give me the basic industry skills and qualifications that will enable me to transfer my PhD skills into the food industry.  Furthermore, this will expand my professional network which certainly never hurts when job hunting.  And lastly, the combined degrees will give me a somewhat unique qualification and perspective.

So now I am concurrently working on a PhD and a certificate, with the hopes that when I graduate I won’t be just one of the many biological sciences PhD graduates!


PhD mistakes

Found this interesting article – it’s very relevant (and incredibly accurate) for all PhD students!

5 Moronic Mistakes That Keep PhDs Stuck In Academia

In addition to be generally informative, the author touched on a very interesting point.  As a graduate student, your publications and general research accomplishments do very little for advancing your post-graduate school career.  In contrast, it does wonders for your supervisors career!  So why is it that a grad student spends hours and hours (often unpaid) in the lab, while the supervisor reaps all the credit? Obviously the supervisory has “put in their time” as a graduate student, but does that justify it?

This article instead argues that those extra research hours (going above and beyond in search of that golden paper) would instead be better put to use developing interpersonal skills such as resume writing and networking.

Every position I have ever gotten came about as a result of networking, not publications, so I couldn’t agree more!

Traveling as a grad student – good or bad?

Traveling while in graduate school (at least in the STEM fields) is often viewed as a waste of time and a serious lack of commitment.  However, I believe traveling is an invaluable learning experience far superior to anything you’ll learn from a book.  Learning about other cultures and philosophies by actually experiencing it can drastically change one’s perspective and perception.  Needless to say, it can also assist in thinking outside of the box.

The amount you learn while immersed in a foreign country with a foreign language is immense.  Not only do you learn a ton about the culture, traditions, and customs, but perhaps even more valuably you learn about yourself.  How do you respond to stress? To not knowing the answer? To solving problems with limited resources? How well do you think on your feet?

These are all invaluable skills to survive and succeed in graduate school, and beyond.

This spring my boyfriend and I decided to undergo our first major relationship test – three weeks of traveling together in France and Switzerland.  Luckily despite a few bumps it was a huge success and we both couldn’t stop talking about it for months!

So, being a grad student the first step towards this trip involved informing my supervisor that I would be MIA for 3 whole weeks.  This went surprisingly well given that grad students don’t typically take much vacation other than a quick trip home for the holidays.  I think in my case though I got lucky as my supervisor has always been relatively lenient with vacation time.

Having that out of the way, the next step was figuring out what exactly three weeks in France and Switzerland would involve  I began conducting some background research into the local cultures, geography, and tourism.  Even simply choosing what parts of the countries to visit, and in which order, was a huge challenge!  But with a bit of perseverance we settled on a route starting in Paris, working our way through the north of France, then down to the south, followed by a few days in the Swiss Alps.  For those who are interested, I’ve included our itinerary (and suggested modifications) at the bottom of this post.

A few things we learned:

  • We can survive a couple of weeks together without killing each other
  • French cuisine is just as amazing as we’d heard.  Expensive yes, but totally worth it!
  • Planning as we went allowed us to use our B&B hosts’ recommendations and alter our plans accordingly
  • Staying at least a couple of days in a place lets you start to understand the local culture and appreciate the area so much more than a one-night/city “bus tour” style trip
  • Not only are B&Bs often cheaper they also offer the huge benefit of immersing yourself with locals
  • “Je suis excité” does not mean what google translate says…
  • Having a conversational level of the language gives a much richer cultural experience
  • Renting bicycles is a great way to get around while still giving you the freedom to stop and explore the culture
  • Switzerland is indeed VERY VERY expensive
  • Restaurants in France open for only a couple hours right at lunch time and dinner time, so don’t miss lunch or you will be very hungry!

We both found it to be an extremely educational trip, and are very excited to go back and continue exploring the rest of France and its diverse cultures!  I think next time we’ll skip Switzerland due to the cost.


Our itinerary:

Day 1: Arrive in Paris!  Train straight to Rennes, explore Rennes and the local cuisine.DSC01535

Day 2: Day trip on local transit to Mont St Michel.  This day trip is well worth it and very easy to get to from Rennes.

Day 3: Explore Rennes.

Day 4: Train to Tours, drop off our bags at a B&B where we will stay in a few days.  Then train to Angers.

Day 5: Pick up rented bicycles in Angers, then cycle along the Loire river to Saumur. (see future blog post about this)DSC01561

Day 6: Explore Saumur, L’abbaye de Fontevraud (a hidden gem!).DSC01653

Day 7: Continue along the Loire river back to Tours (we cheated and took a train the last little bit)

Day 8: Train to Montpellier and explore.  The old part of Montpellier is quite historical and the newer part has fascinating architecture.

Day 9: Explore Montpellier.  We had hoped to do a wine tasting but everything was all booked up… c’est la vie!

Day 10: More exploring Montpellier, getting laundry done etc.

Day 11: Train to Marseille!  Marseille was fascinating culturally, could have spent more time here.

Day 12: Organized day tour to Avignon, Pont Du Garde.  Made for a bit of a long day and was rather touristy.  But interesting.

Day 13: Did a local hike to Calanque de Sugiton.  We took the back trails which was fantastic! Breathtaking mediteranean views.DSC01831

Day 14: Train to Nice and explore.

Day 15: Took local transit to Cap Ferat and hiked around the cape.  Was gorgeous and much less touristy than the rest of Nice.DSC01852

Day 16: Flight to Zurich, train to Spetz.  Spetz is a gorgous town located on Lake Thun, only 30 mins from Interlaken.  The views from our B&B balcony were stunning!

Day 17: Train to Interlaken, then the Berner Oberland train to Wengen.  We then took the scenic hiking trail from Wengen to Wengenschalp. It was absolutely stunning, the highlight of our time in Switerland!DSC01921

Day 18: Train to the base of Mt. Niesen, Funicular to the top. Then train to Thun and a historical steamboat back to Spetz.

Day 19: Spent the morning in Interlaken (would skip, was extremely touristy) then the afternoon exploring Bern.

Day 20: Early flight to Paris, rest of day exploring Paris.

Day 21: Sadly, all good things must come to an end 😦



Quality vs Quantity… where does the balance lie?

Recently it was reported that Sweden is moving towards a six hour work day.  Now this isn’t entirely a new idea, in fact many companies in Sweden (and even entire cities) have played around with the concept since the 1990’s. However, it would seem the six hour workday is experiencing a bit of a second wind in the era of small entrepreneurial startups looking to boast about employee quality of life.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, many employers have noted following the shift to a six hour day their staff were much more relaxed, sick less often, and overall more focused while at work. I’m sure I’m not the only one guilty of taking a personal call while at work, or quickly running off to do some banking since the banks will be long closed by the time I’m off.  Or sitting at my desk discretely checking Facebook, waiting for the clock to read an “acceptable” time to head out.

However, if six hours was an acceptable work day there would be plenty of time after work to go to the bank and complete other personal errands.  Furthermore that afternoon lull wouldn’t occur.  Really how productive are most of us after 8 or 10 hours at work anyways?  For that matter, how many of us can truly remain focused and completely on task for that length of time?  I don’t doubt for the majority of us it would be much more beneficial to simply check out and unwind, then approach the next day refreshed and focused.

While the workday hours don’t technically apply to graduate students (we don’t have a minimum set number of hours) the concept of working shorter hours and more efficiently is often entirely overlooked in graduate school.  There is a common perception in graduate school that if you are practically living in the lab, you’re doing it right.  In contrast, show up at 8am and leave at 5pm and you will forever be labelled a slacker.

I am a “slacker”, and proud of it.

Maybe after graduating I should look for a job in Sweden…




The hidden costs of a PhD degree

Recently a friend of mine shared this interesting article on facebook which really struck a chord with me:

There’s an awful cost to getting a PhD that no one talks about

Essentially the author discusses the psychological/emotional cost of a PhD, with some scary statistics to back up the claims. This paragraph in particular opened my eyes to just how common this issue is in graduate school:

I might not have felt so alone had I known how many people struggle with mental health issues in academia. A 2015 study at the University of California Berkeley found that 47% of graduate students suffer from depression, following a previous 2005 study that showed 10% had contemplated suicide. A 2003 Australian study found that that the rate of mental illness in academic staff was three to four times higher than in the general population, according to a New Scientist article. The same article notes that the percentage of academics with mental illness in the United Kingdom has been estimated at 53%.

The fact that I am a graduate student and had previously never heard any mention of mental health issues in the field is scary.  It also embodies the author’s discussion of how graduate students often ignore or downplay mental health symptoms in order to avoid appearing weak or incapable.

Graduate student… and high performance athlete?!?

Choose. One or the other.  Student OR Athlete.

Sadly, this is still all too common in academia. As a student athlete, my fellow students and colleagues are often shocked and impressed to find out I manage to train twice a day.  Meanwhile, my supervisors ask how much longer I intend to “play” sports, and when I am going to get serious about science. Or I am instructed to completely remove my athletic achievements from my CV for fear that I will be seen as less focused.

All of this is despite the fact that many awards actually encourage and reward extracurricular activities and leadership.

Yet for some reason many mainstream academics seem to have this view that any time spent outside of the lab is time wasted.

There are numerous benefits to being a student athlete.  Student athletes tend to perform better in their careers.  There is also a known correlation between physical fitness and mental fitness. Sports encourage the development of leadership and teamwork skills.  The time spent talking to teammates who are not involved in science, or even just taking a break from thinking science increases your ability to think outside the box.  I could go on and on, but that is not the purpose of this post.

Getting back to science…

8+ hours a day in the lab running experiments (or in the library researching the literature etc),  two practices per day, 6 days a week, plus classes, conferences, and sports competitions.  Needless to say, to successfully manage this sort of schedule without having a nervous breakdown necessitates supreme time management skills.  Plus an understanding of working efficiently.  Without these skills a complete meltdown is certainly imminent!  Important though is the realization that breaks and fun time are essential for mental health and well being.

These same life skills are also invaluable in the workforce.

So why isn’t this further encouraged in graduate school???

Now I’m not saying being a high performance athlete is a good choice for everyone.  Obviously there are drawbacks, such as not being able to go to parties during your competition season, nor having time for 12 hour Netflix marathon.  But employability or productivity certainly aren’t drawbacks.