What careers do women in the natural sciences choose?

Jessica Hartshorn and her advisor Fred Stephen celebrate her graduation. Jessica received her Ph.D. in Forest Entomology in 2016, and is currently a Forest Health Specialist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Image credit: Jeremy Rathje.

My recent, and personally relevant, interest in transitions tied to scientific careers developed into two avenues of thought: introspection and external analysis. My first and most recent blog posts both address introspection. In the form of a survey, I looked outside myself to the scientific community to understand more about how others navigate scientific careers. In the coming blog posts I plan to relate the results of this survey, pause on the apparently meaningful patterns, and ponder how we as science professionals can be a better community.

First, I asked respondents to identify the field and career in which they landed.

The response to my survey was overwhelmingly – and perhaps unsurprisingly (I titled it “The role of support systems on success and retention in science”) – female (785 out of 1156 respondents). Below, I show only the results for women, because of the large bias in their sample size. Participants were mostly from the natural sciences of biology, ecology, entomology, and forest entomology. This probably reflected the identity of my professional network, and where the survey was circulated (Entomology Today, the Entomological Society of Canada, my personal Facebook page). There were many student and postdoc participants (386 of 1156 respondents), although because of the transitional nature of these roles, I chose not to include them in the results below.

Of 504 female respondents with graduate degrees (M.S. or Ph.D.), those in the fields of (a) biology, (b) ecology, (c) entomology, and (d) forest entomology (sample sizes in parentheses), categorized by type of career.

Percentage of graduates in the different careers was generally similar among the four scientific fields, with only a few notable differences. Between one-third and one-half of female respondents were in academia (teaching- or research-intensive), often more in research-intensive (20–30%) than in teaching-intensive (10–25%) positions. This is a larger amount than reported by other studies, which have found that 10–26% of graduates remain in academia following graduation (see this article and that article for more). If my results reflect reality, I find it heartening that these life sciences offer more academic opportunities for women (and probably men as well) than other scientific fields. However, the voluntary nature of my survey may have biased this finding. Maybe academics were more likely to notice or more compelled to complete the survey than others.

Less cheerful was that 7–12% of women were no longer in science, which is probably an underestimate, as many in this category may have been unaware of the survey, having lost touch with scientific circles that circulated it. Among the 256 men with graduate degrees, 6% were no longer in science. I hope to follow up with these groups to find out why they left science and what types of jobs they currently occupy. In a broader context, and much more alarming, is this article that reported 32–46% of US doctoral recipients in 2014 had not secured a job upon graduation.

Career choices of forest entomology graduates were most similar to those in the sister field, entomology, and least similar to those in biology and ecology, especially regarding government positions. Women choosing government jobs ranged from 11% in biology to 40% in forest entomology. I suspect that this reflects a greater availability of government jobs in forest entomology. Government agencies that employ forest entomologists include the USDA Forest Service, APHIS, and state Departments of Natural Resources or Agriculture. There are more women in senior research positions in the USDA Forest Service than in comparable positions in academia (Kern et al 2015, BioScience). Kern et al concluded that maybe the hierarchical structure of government promotes diversification more than academia, which operates under considerably less structure. It’s also possible that government positions are more favorable because they offer more work-life balance than academic positions.

From my results, it’s not possible to ascertain whether the relative percentages of women in different careers reflects the availability of those careers for students and postdocs on the job market. Many studies (this one, that one, and another one) have found that the availability of jobs (especially academic jobs) for people with graduate degrees has not kept pace with the increasing rate at which graduate degrees are being awarded. This has naturally resulted in a competitive job market.

I advocate that those of us with secure careers do more to help students and postdocs prepare for and secure science and science-related careers. These people represent the future of our fields. Take an interest in their professional development. Establish collaborative relationships that include them. Expose them to other aspects of your career that may not be apparent from their academic vantage point. Actively make connections with them at meetings, even if it’s only to ask how they are doing or how their project is coming along. People have done these things for me, and it has made all the difference.