Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Summit on Gender and the Postdoctorate: vol. 1

Last week, I attended the National Postdoctoral Association's Summit on Gender and the Postdoctorate, which was held in Philadelphia last week, on March 11-12. I started writing up my thoughts about the meeting, and it started to get really long, so I've decided to break it up into a series of posts. The presentations will all be made available on the web eventually, but I'll present some highlights (and my own personal take on things) here.

Since my last post on employment sparked a bunch of discussion, I thought I would start by discussing the postdoc in terms of career trajectories. The upshot of the comments on my previous post is that there are plenty of valid career options for PhDs in astronomy, and that both early career astronomers (i.e. grad students and postdocs) and those training them need to be aware of the options, and to not view a research faculty positions as the be-all and end-all of a successful career.

The thing is, the postdoc is fundamentally a transitional period. It is a phase of training that helps newly-minted PhD acquire and polish skills they need to become successful independent researchers, but also a holding pattern of temporary employment while waiting for a permanent position to open up. So why have a meeting on gender and the postdoctorate?

First, the length of the postdoctoral period is lengthening across all disciplines. Second, in comparing different disciplines, the longer the postdoctoral period, the fewer women make it to the tenure track. Given spending six years as a postdoc in astronomy is pretty common, this is a cause for concern. While this meeting emphasized the academic career path, to be fair, it's hard to get statistics on other sectors. Also, there are good reasons to consider academia as a measure for how well women (and minorities for that matter) are being retained: because diversity in the teaching faculty boosts diversity in the student body, and because if there's a gender disparity at that level, that indicates that there is a problem in the system as a whole.

Presenting early-career scientists non-academic career choices is a great idea. However, I worry a little that this always comes up when discussing women in science. Encouraging non-tenure track options for all scientists is great, but encouraging only women (and minorities for that matter) to consider alternative career options only exacerbates the problem.