Monday, May 07, 2007

Throwing away your degree

I spoke with a D., a grad school friend, the other day. Currently at home full time with her two small children, D. wants to make a career change and is trying to decide what to do. She has a M.Sc. and has worked for several years as a technician in a university biomedical research lab. D. is smart, hard-working, and knows both the techniques and the underlying theory cold. Despite this, she feels that her scientific career has hit a dead end – without a Ph.D., there is nowhere for her to advance in the university system, she has no interest in teaching at a community college or high school, and there is no local biomedical industry. Over the last couple of years, D. has considered a few different careers that she could move into, the latest of which is “green” interior decorating. As she explained it to me, this emphasizes the use of environmentally-friendly materials and sustainable building and design practices. I think this may be quite a good fit with D.’s talents and with local circumstances. She has always had more developed artistic interests and pastimes than many of my science friends. She lives in a region where the environmental movement is just starting to get more mainstream support, so this particular niche is still open.

Unfortunately, D.’s mother hasn’t been able to hide her disappointment at the way that D. is “throwing away her degree” and her scientific training. D. and I then spent the next few minutes listing the ways in which that isn’t really true, and how important it is to have people with scientific knowledge and experience in other fields. After all, isn’t it important for people in the environmental movement to understand basic chemistry and ecology? Aren’t there too many people who simplistically think that natural is good and chemicals are bad? However, I later began to wonder some more about the source of both her mother’s disappointment and our defensiveness. Why is it such a bad thing to move into a completely different field? Why should we feel like we had to justify her decision with some rationale about how she really is benefiting from her science degree, no matter how tenuous the connection?
I suspect some of this stems from a lingering uncertainty about women’s access to both university education and to our position in scientific research. Let’s look at the phrase “throwing away your degree”. What, exactly, has been thrown away? If you have learned something, no one can make you forget it. If you have completed and published a research project, no one can take that away from you. What about your place in the world of scientific research? Ahh, now that’s a different matter. You can’t be a women in science or engineering for long before hearing about the “leaky pipeline”. For those that haven’t heard about it, this is a metaphor to describe how even though a sizeable number of women start to study science, they drop out/are pushed out disproportionately at every stage of this career. How many of us have sworn that we would not be one of those statistics? Check out Thus Spake Zuska (Parts I, II, and III) for some excellent posts on this topic. The culture of academic research is notorious for seeing anything other than an assistant professor-ship at a research university as a lesser choice. All of this can add up to real feelings of guilt and failure upon choosing a different path.

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