Life as a Leak, Part 1

This post has gotten so long I'm going to have to break it into pieces. Here's the first installment.

You've read a million stories about the leaky pipeline. They all start out more or less like this:

It is no secret that women are under-represented at every level of the science and technology (S&T) system. Statistics clearly show that, much like a 'leaky pipeline', women steadily drop out all along the system.

Nor is it difficult to identify the causes of the leaks. They range from gender-based biases in hiring, evaluation, and promotion; to inadequate institutional support for women seeking to balance their work and personal lives; and a shortage of encouraging female mentors at the higher levels of academia.

Then they go on, as this one does, to identify factors that promote retention of women. This one is based on interviews with over 50 women in science in Europe, and it contains some heartbreaking anecdotes. There's also a link to a (rather large) report on "Women in Science and Technology - the Business Perspective". There are the usual calls to fix the leaky pipeline.

Leaking has the whiff of failure about it, and even though the leaky pipeline represents a system that is not working, a system that is failing women, somehow the stigma of the failure attaches to the women who leak, not to the faulty science pipeline. No matter the reason for a leak, it's always the woman's fault. She left because she just couldn't make it. Absent some incredibly obvious and totally egregious, well-documented specific incident of bias and discrimination, if she had been able to succeed, she would have - but she didn't, so it's proof she just wasn't good enough. In some cases, an individual woman is so talented you can't ignore it, and she appears to have chosen the leaky path of her own free will. However, this just proves that she didn't have a strong enough desire and will to succeed in academia, and therefore she wasn't worthy of becoming a professor. She may have had the smarts, but she didn't have the devotion, so in that sense she just wasn't good enough.

To sum up: either she stinks, or she's unworthy. Academic science remains desirable and good. Make no mistake about it, keeping a focus on each individual woman as a special case that is not illustrative of any larger issue is an important tactic in maintaining the status quo and avoiding engagement with gender politics in any substantive fashion.

Pipeline discussions generally seem to revolve around the pipe - what's wrong with it, how can it be fixed, where are the breaks, etc. I'd like to think for awhile about the leaks. What does it mean to be a leak? What's the experience of dripping out of the pipeline like? Who are the leaks, and what happens to these women outside the pipe? What's the meaning of the leak once you're outside the pipeline? How does a "leaker" come to understand her experience and her identity in science, in relation to science?

When you are inside academia, it's clear you can claim the label of "scientist". But once you're on the outside, do you still get to call yourself a scientist? In the interview I did for Scienceblogs, one of the questions I had to answer was "Do you consider yourself to be a working scientist?" I answered

Well, first we'd have to agree on what "working scientist" means. I used to joke with my friends that according to the standard prejudice about what it meant to be a "real" scientist, the only real scientists in the U.S. were postdocs and post-third year grad students. They were the ones doing actual lab work, collecting and analyzing data, keeping up with the literature, etc. The professors had all, as far as we could tell, been gradually transformed into proposal-writing and grant-maintaining machines. Also, postdoc and grad-student slave drivers. And people in industry didn't seem to count at all. Let alone anyone doing something so garish as public policy or administrative work - those were "used-to-be" scientists. My opinion: if you work in any capacity in which you draw upon your science/engineering education to perform your work, you are a working scientist/engineer.

Graduate school is the time when you are being initiated into the discipline and learning to take on the identity of your profession, learning to identify with your tribe. Who are you? I am a biologist, I am a chemist, a physicist, etc. And to some extent that identity formation is wrapped up in the expectation that you will become a professor someday. Others around you have that expectation, and you internalize to some degree, whether or not you actually want to become a professor yourself. It is the marker of success in your tribe, even if it's not your personal marker of success, even if you know quite well there are a dozen other careers a highly educated technical/scientific person is qualified to do.

So, what does it mean to be a leak in the pipeline? To step off the path to the Holy Grail, professorhood? Maybe, like X-Gal Jana Kincaid, you redirect your scientific aspirations from research into administration, because life circumstances don't allow you to commit the amount of time that the "greedy institution" of academic research demands. Maybe, like X-Gal Meg Murray, you accepted a lectureship instead of a tenure-track offer because the tenure-track offer didn't work with your marriage. Is Jana still a scientist? Is Meg headed for failure? Who gets to decide these things?


More like this

Zuska -

I am also a leak. I left academia and now work in 'industry'. Am I a scientist? I like to think so, but I definitely do not meet the standard definition of 'academic researcher' or even 'national lab researcher'. I don't have any good answers, but I wanted to drop a note and let you know that I love that you are addressing this issue -- what happens to the leaks? And how do the leaks feel?

I'm so not gonna make the nursing related joke I was thinking of making...

Hang in there, sciencewoman!

I chose not to go into the pipeline as a young adult - mostly for practical family reasons. I am very ambivalent over whether this was the right decision. I am approaching financial independence at 53 and I am wondering if I can make my own pipeline at this point. Is it possible to become a true scientist now at my age - if I am free of concerns about career and money? Or will the tribe not allow it?

Thanks, Zuska, for such a thoughtful post.

By Jamais Vu (not verified) on 22 Mar 2007 #permalink

I'm a leaker (and actually, Dr. Free-Ride, in the nursing sense of the word as well!). I married a Ph.D. and have an M.S. myself, but I don't want to work full-time since I have two small kids. So, I teach one class a term as an adjunct at a nearby college which gets me out of the house and talking to adults sometimes, but I still get to focus on keeping the house a happy place for everyone who lives in it without going crazy. I've talked about going back to get a Ph.D. to get a full-time teaching position, but now I'm not so sure that's ever going to happen.

i'm currently in my fifth year of grad school in biophysics. i have another year (approximate...) to go and then i too will become a leak. i'm hoping to get into policy.

what i feel right now as my advisor and other people find out about my desire to leave academia is that they are profoundly me. why would i want to leave?! things are so GREAT! here and life in academia is so GREAT! and i'm a "good" scientist and so...what's wrong? again, with me. why don't i think i "could make it"?

whereas for me, the prospect of leaving all this is so wonderful, so encouraging a thought, such a light at the end of the tunnel.

I find that essay rather appalling, najja. I believe Im going to write something snarky on it later.

Though Im not currently planning on leaking, I dont know what the big deal is for leaks, male or female. Theyre always frowned upon, but Ill be damned if you dont hear anyone complaining when you need help with your new instrument and you have a competent PhD on the other end of the phone helping you trouble-shoot.

So other people have other goals, whats the big deal?

I did a survey in 2004 asking women physicists who had left academia (or those who were thinking of leaving) their reasons for leaking, and asked them to rate their happiness with their life pre- and post- leak. The survey only looked at women at the graduate level and higher.

You can find the results of the survey at

Overall, women who left for the private sector right after graduation were the most happy pre-leakers. Their comments indicated that they left because they saw better money in the private sector, and/or because they noticed that senior female physicists appeared almost universally unhappy. These young physicists rarely felt they had been discriminated against (but often would cite anecdotes about themselves that described obvious discriminatory situations)

The further along in her academic career path a woman was before leaking, the more unhappy she was pre-leak. This is perhaps not surprising since such women have obviously "made a go" at a career in academia, but have been frustrated by the system somehow, or downright openly discriminated against. The older women also seemed better at perceiving discrimination.

I leaked a couple of years ago, and the reasons for my leak are obvious to anyone who has read my blog. I underwent a severe identity crisis for the first year...I had never wanted to be anything *but* an academic physicist. Then my health blew a gasket (almost certainly because of the incredible stress I had been under for three years previous to that). Since then I've been on medical leave, and don't work (for pay anyway) or study. But do I still consider myself a scientist? Absolutely. I spend a good 20+ hours each week doing statistical studies into gender inequities in particle physics, along with collecting data for those studies in my own inimitable Absinthe way (FOIA requests, phoning various gov't agencies, etc, etc, etc). I also volunteer my time to the local school board as a statistician.

I don't know where I will end up in five years. I don't even worry about it anymore. I figure if I just keep doing what I like to do best, things will work out eventually. In the meantime, I'm reaching a point where I am healthier than I have probably been in years, and live the most stress free life I've ever experienced. I have also reached a point where I am true to myself, and refuse to let anyone or any system demand that I be otherwise. I spent many years in physics academia hiding half my personality, and looking back on it, it just seems so wrong that such a thing had to be done because academic physics couldn't handle a woman who was a great physicist, but was also a vocal advocate for social justice in her community, a mother, an avid knitter, etc, etc, etc.

To sum up; being forced to leak devastated me, likely contributed to a serious health crisis, but in the end re-shaped me into something fantastically better than I was. My contributions to society as I am now are certainly far greater than they ever would have been if I had gotten my original wish and climbed the academic career ladder.

And thanks Zuska...your blog certainly made a big impression on me in my first formative year post-academia. Parts of what I am now have been shaped by your writing, and you certainly taught me how to use my voice as a warrior princess of the planet Zorn.

This post got me thinking about the "leak" terminology and it really is bad. It supposes that there is one optimal path. Perhaps this was from a time where following through on a career in academia was the path of least resistance, but perhaps such a time never existed.

The real issue isn't that people leave academia. It's a shock to some myopic academics, but some people enter PhD programs with no plans to become an academic.
The real issue is that people who want a specific career path choose a different path based on elements not related to their desire and intellectual ability to succeed at the job.

This reframes the question as, "Are there people who want to work in profession X and will enrich the profession, but choose profession Y because of changable negative aspects of profession X?"

(I was trying to think of a nice analogy like the pipe leaks, but working off of blood systems, parallel circuits, and watersheds all got a bit unwieldy)

I entered my PhD program with one desire - to become an academic chemist. My PhD program ruined that chance, largely because no one is willing to lay it out on the table how it is (UK perspective). No one was prepared to tell the 21 year old version of me that to succeed in UK academia, I'd have to quit the PhD I was doing and find a better lab with more prestige. No one told me how hard the road was going to be because of the path I took. By the standards of the people that graduated with their PhD, I was one of the top in terms of publications and the like but now I realize that was all just false hope because the system wasn't set up for people like me to go to a good university and be good. I had to go to a great university and be fantastic.
Somehow my desire to be an academic survived the PhD hell (which I cant blog about for a couple of reasons), and now I'm a postdoc which is simply a series of soul destroying failures. I can't stand the thought of battling with the current British academic system for perhaps the next 5 years of my life. I've lost my 20s to science and learning, should my 30s be next? I had some hope in the system that offered fellowships to young academics, but it turns out they all go to people with semi-permanant academic positions. The other fellowships aimed specifically at women are for women returning to science after having children. At this point it looks like I would be better taking 2 years out to have kids, than trying to battle the current system. I would physically have more opportunities to stay in the pipeline.

The system is broken. I am not. I am a capable scientist who is able, like so many other women, to run a research group, be competative for grants and do research well. I will most likely not get that chance because the system is broken. It is impossible to rationalise that last statement in my head. I know I can do the job, I just don't think that I will get a chance with out major personal sacrifices. I will not become an academic because I'm unwilling to work temporary contracts and do more postdocs, temporary lectureships, teaching positions, move frequently, write 5 fellowship and many job applications per year and generally live in complete uncertainty for the next 7 years of my life. Thats the system. The system sucks.

I just wanted to say thanks to everyone for contributing to this discussion. This topic has been really difficult for me to write about because it feels so very personal, even though it is also a much larger issue. I appreciate what you are bringing here to expand the conversation.

Najja, that essay gets filed under the "burns my shorts" category. I find the "there are so few women in science because they are too smart to go into it" argument really annoying. It's a really nice way of saying "we don't have to do anything about this issue; there's no problem, what looks like oppression is actually an advantage! You women are much better off not having access to these prestigious, good-paying jobs that fuel the economy and shape our society. Really, trust me, only us idiot men are stupid enough to do science. Now run along little girls, and be grateful we men are here to save you from these hideous jobs in science." Arrggh. I suppose I could spend some time doing a more detailed critique of this idiot, pointing out the racism embedded in with his sexism, but he is really tiresome. And my life is short.

Absinthe: aw, shucks. You rock, girl!

BSCI, there's an article in a back issue of PRISM that talks about trashing the pipeline metaphor and suggests something to replace it; I have it around here somewhere and will look for it; if I find it I'll post something about it.

Natalie and Catswym, what makes you happy is what is right to do. Carrie, you ARE a scientist, and I hope you enjoy Part 2. You too, Sciencewoman, and I am bummed to know you feel headed for leakdom...especially if that's not what you want.

Jamais Vu, if you are free of concerns for career and money, can't you do pretty much whatever you want? I know some people who have gone back to school when they were much older and they really enjoyed more out of it than they did when they were younger. Or are you not thinking of school, but of some other route? I say go for it, whatever it is.

ERV, I loved your comment. Hee! Well, if it were only that simple, though...there's a lot of complex expectations and feelings and identity issues tied up in all these choices. Maybe it's simpler for some people but a lot of women really struggle with this...maybe even more than men because women have to struggle with the whole legitimacy issue in the first place, knowing that "women scientists" are always under scrutiny for competency.

Propter Doc, what can I say. It sucks, sucks, sucks. In part 2 I talk a little about the consequences for me of having landed in the wrong lab, not having been mentored earlier in my career so that I wouldn't have landed up in such a dysfunctional place. It hurts to love research so much and feel so stymied in your career path.

Great post, Zuska. I particularly like this "It is the marker of success in your tribe, even if it's not your personal marker of success, even if you know quite well there are a dozen other careers a highly educated technical/scientific person is qualified to do." I didn't realize how much I had absorbed that attitude, DESPITE knowing that it was completely wrong-headed, until I began searching for a job last fall. It took a lot of stress, poverty, and my husband (a semi-voluntary SAHD) suffering from serious depression before I could really admit to myself that my postdoc was going nowhere and that I really didn't want to live like the "young" assistant professors that I knew.

I'm so not gonna make the nursing related joke I was thinking of making

Having nothing substantive to add to this excellent conversation, I will simply observe that I'm relieved (heh) to know that someone else had that thought!

ERV, I loved your comment. Hee! Well, if it were only that simple, though...

Admittedly Im in biology, a less hostile environment than engineering or physics, the leaking thing is that simple for me. Academic PhDs rely on Leaker PhDs, on multiple levels. Support for instruments/reagents, support for women in science programs, nurturing students in science-related courses (like Dr. F-R)-- Ive totally seen the leaker disdain myself, but I dont 'get it'.

Look there are very few things that are going to get me to turn on another female in science-- and thats using your degree to support anti-science. Cranky old men blubbering about Creationism, I can deal with that. But things like this send me into an inconsolable rage. There are good reasons to be disappointed in other scientists. Being 'disappointed' in a leaker is stupid and self defeating.

I'm leaving/leaking, and I'm damn happy about it. I actually identified with the essay. I think science as it is now is a crappy job, and I cannot encourage anyone, particularly young women or minorities, who have historically had lower wages and fewer opportunities, to go into it. The only advice I can give to young aspirants is to look around and think hard about your life goals. I realize that there are things one values when one is older that one does not at a young age, and then there's always the "I'm special" bias. So it's probably hopeless to give anyone advice.

But life is really good on the outside!

I "leaked" from physics, like Absinthe. Anecdotally, I would agree with her data that it's better to leave physics sooner rather than later. I left right after my Ph.D. because my graduate school experience brought many of the flaws of academia into immediate view for me (and if I was really smart, I'd have jumped ship pre-Ph.D. to join the then-rising Internet boom, but I'd drunk enough of the Kool-Aid to want to finish my degree). I have a friend who was essentially pushed out of physics in a passive-aggressive fashion ten years later. Officially, she resigned from her job, but the fact is she had been marginalized at her industrial lab position for a few years before.

I felt kind of ashamed for having leaked for a long time. I think it's part of the brainwashing of being in a department which when I entered fifteen years ago had very few links to industry and was very old-school. There was always the undercurrent of feeling that maybe I leaked because I wasn't good enough. But there are so many other factors that are outside of one's control, and you just can't know everything that's going to be a problem going into graduate school. (I did knowingly flout the advice not to be anyone's first graduate student--and I can say, I should have followed that advice.)

If I still wanted to work in a lab, which I have no desire to do, these days I'd be getting an education in mechanical engineering to work in medical devices--my friend is the only Ph.D. at her company, and most people just have master's degrees. Much less time spent inside the ivory towers, and more time spent actually making things work in a way that is rewarded. There's more women at her company, too.

I took time off between my undergrad/MS and applying to PhD programs to work as a technician. After a year of that (with one more to go) I'm looking into PhD programs, but I've pretty much already decided that I don't want to stay in academia. I feel that being a grad student rather than a technician/lab manager will at least improve the tediousness of my day to some degree (I like science classes, and I'd get to go to more of those, plus presumably I'd get to work on projects in addition to tailing endless numbers of mice). However, spending every day around postdocs and PIs, watching them do their jobs, has taught me that I don't want to do their jobs. I'd like to take my PhD and go into science publishing, maybe -- I already proofread every grant our lab writes, and my favorite part of college involved reading, reviewing, and critiquing journal articles. I'd also like a job where I get a real desk, or even an office, where I don't have to expose myself to toxic chemicals and animal bites, where I'm not expected to work 10+ hour days at a salary that barely pays my rent.

As someone whose career plan involves 'Graduate, then run away from academia at speed' I have completely been where you (Zuska) and all the other other-than-academics. It took me years to stop being angry with myself for planning a career where I can have a life and hopefully deal with a lower quotient of sexist nonsense. Especially at large schools, and R1s, and the Ivies, there is definitely an enormous (and unrealistic) expectation that everyone wants to grow up and be a professor just like their advisor, and if you don't, it's because you can't cut it.

What I tell people when they ask why I DON'T want to be an academic is that one, I don't want it TWICE as much as the man standing next to me, and two, I have other interests that are much more, well, interesting.

It is a curious circumstance to label grant-writers as the only true 'scientists.' My advisor hasn't touched an experiment in 20 years.

Who are you calling a leak? I admit to have leaked out of Physics b/c I started doing engineering. But I am an engineer! I do technical work! I find it a little offensive that my work is disparaged to the point that I am called a leak b/c I am not in academia. There are more scientists out of academia than in, all you leak-accusers. We can take you!

By Frumious B (not verified) on 28 Mar 2007 #permalink