It's me. Actually, it's the research.
I have known I would leave academia since Monday, February 25, 2013. It was my first year of grad school. A professor in my department’s wife had had a baby the day before, on Sunday. On Monday he came into work like it was a normal day.
I can’t claim to know anywhere near enough about this man’s personal or work life to pass any judgement at all. I don’t know my university’s paternal leave policies. I don’t know anything about what was going on with him that day. I still cried in the bathroom, horrified of the perceived value mismatch between myself and the world I had signed up for. Thus began my misguided journey as a #neveracademia spokeswoman. Oh, the horror that is academia!
But I’m not here to tell you the “typical” I’m-leaving-academia-because-I-want-a-family story. In fact, I’m super sick of the fact that this continues to be a main reason given to explain unequal representation of women in the sciences*. It sells women short. It makes it sound like women think they can’t be successful academics and have a family, so they quit. Pardon my French, but that’s bullshit.
I have been incredibly fortunate to work in a university setting where I am surrounded by female faculty, all of whom are incredibly successful, seem to work reasonable hours, and have families that they care deeply about. Maybe there was once a time where this balance was much harder, but right now having a family and academic success seems very achievable to me. So why the academia repulsion?
When I found out that that professor didn’t take a day off to spend with his newborn, that a friend was sleeping in his office, that another friend skipped Thanksgiving with her family because she had too much work to do, that five more picked lab work over happy hour… it felt so wrong to me. Who are these people? And why did I not feel compelled to live like them? I always thought this was a problem with academia and its unending struggle with work-life balance. These people clearly “had to” work against their will and it was all academia’s fault.
But there are a lot of people in a lot of fields who work long hours, aren’t there? Why did this feel so uniquely icky to me when it was my own friends and colleagues?
I recently attended a special luncheon with a professor visiting from another university. She was granted a Women in Science Distinguished Professorship at her institution and is a known advocate for women in the sciences, work-life balance, and increasing diversity in STEM fields. She’s also a killer chemist.
At the luncheon I heard the same messages I’ve heard countless times throughout grad school. Having kids is never easy, but I powered through it. I was so lucky to have this female role model and that female role model. I am so lucky to have a supportive partner. My kids are my life. Speak up for other women. Nominate women for awards. Invite women to be keynote speakers. Great. I agree with all those sentiments.
But there was one unique emphasis that I hadn’t heard before. Ms. Dr. Distinguished explained,
“If you’re passionate about what you do, the long hours are okay. Doing work after dinner while your kids are asleep is okay.”
“Just ask yourself, are you doing something you enjoy, that you love doing, do you love going to work every day? Absolutely!”
“I love science. I love discovering new things. I love learning about nature.”
As I thought, wow, this lady is super passionate about her work… I figured out my problem with academia.
No, Ms. Dr. Distinguished Professor, I do not love going to work every day. I can barely get out of bed in the morning, and it’s because I am not excited about research. This is why I feel icky about other people’s long hours. This is why I can’t believe someone would skip a holiday, life event, or even casual hangout time to do extra research. I’m sorry to admit that I’ve been judging tons of people for not caring enough about their personal lives. Why aren’t these people taking time off to do what they really love? They don’t need to. They’re already doing what they love: scientific research.
My unhappiness as a graduate student was never academia’s fault. There’s not something uniquely horrible about doing research at a university, and I wonder if it’s time we (i.e. me and my #neveracademia friends) cut academia some slack.
We give so much air time to non-academic research jobs because we assume that all the people leaving academia want to avoid the long hours and keep doing what they’ve been doing in a 9 to 5. Industry. Government. Research at a non-academic institution. But I recently saw a “careers outside academia” talk given by a USGS staff ecologist, and although she’s not teaching undergrads, her life sounds pretty darn similar to the academic ecologists I know (long hours included). So, unless teaching is the part you hate, leaving academia isn’t going to fix much. It won’t guarantee a 9 to 5, and it definitely won’t change how you feel about research.
So, my dear Research, this is it. We’re over. It’s not you, it’s me. I’m leaving academia, and it’s not because of my nonexistent future children. It’s not because of the long hours at all. It’s because I’ve finally realized the reason why I’m so repulsed by the long hours is because I’m not that into it. In fact, I don’t think I like it at all.
As for the other women jumping ship, I don't know their motivation. Perhaps I am the odd one out, and the other women really are clearing their future schedules for family life. But I think we need to look into this further if we want to keep women in the sciences. Can we keep assuming that baby mania is what drives every woman away? Do we really know what leads to the gender inequality we see among post-grad school scientists?
Academics, I’m sorry I judged you. I’m so glad you’ve found your passion in research. The world needs it. Please keep doing the science. I’m going to try to find a different way to help.
I have no doubt I’ll be able to find a job that’s worth the hours. I have some ideas in mind, but for now, I need to quit packing my bags and finish writing my dissertation.
*Countless women in history have been told they couldn't be scientists due to actual suppression, harassment, etc.; countless more have had their work go unrecognized or credited to men. This world is, thankfully, well on its way out (especially in ecology) and is not meant to be addressed in this post. The message I often hear is that women now leave academia because they want to have a family.
A version of this article was originally published here and was reprinted with permission.
Anna Groves recently graduated with her Ph.D. from Michigan State University where she studied the restoration of native prairie landscapes. She will continue to pursue her interest in science journalism as a recipient of the 2018 American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Mass Media Science & Engineering Fellowship. She loves telling anyone who will listen about science, nature, and her experiences in this weird place we call grad school. She procrastinates by looking for jobs in science communication and science policy, singing soprano in the Lansing Women's Chorus, playing Dungeons and Dragons, and planning to go running tomorrow.