Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Why We Leave

Reaching to the stars
by Ares Nguyen via flickr
The charge of the Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy is to recommend to the AAS Board of Trustees practical measures that the AAS can take to improve the status of women in astronomy and encourage their entry into this field. We define women to include people who identify as female, including trans women, genderqueer women, and non-binary people who are significantly female-identified. As an organization, the AAS supports and promotes increased participation of historically underrepresented groups in astronomy.

The CSWA has existed for almost 42 years. In that time we have seen a growth in women in the field (although the number of men has also increased alongside this). The linked AIP report found that there was no significant attrition of women between career stages in astronomy. However, attrition does occur for people of all identities, especially those who are underrepresented. We all know someone who left the field at some point.

Researchers followed a large group of graduate students in astronomy for eight years (2007-2015) through the Longitudinal Study of Astronomy Graduate Students (LSAGS) to try to uncover some of the reasons people leave the field. They identified three major factors: imposter syndrome, advising, and the two-body problem that contribute to attrition in astronomy and that these factors significantly impact women.

The CSWA, in some sense, has been conducting its own survey of astronomers over the last 8 years. In order to celebrate and share the diverse career opportunities available to astronomers, the Women in Astronomy Blog began a Career Profile series around 2013. For respondents who left the field, we asked them: What were the most important factors that led you to leave astronomy and/or academia? At the end of this post, are selections I pulled from interviews with the tags ‘career profiles’, ‘career profile’, and ‘Career Profile Interview Project’ over the past eight years. The respondents’ identity groups are diverse.

There are a lot of consistent themes below such as salary, work-life balance, and job security that continue to drive people out of the field and many of the respondents mention the same three factors found by the LSAGS. But truly addressing imposter syndrome, advising (or mentoring), the two-body problem, work-life balance, and job security require a dramatic shift or a complete upheaval of the culture and structures of academia.

For instance, if senior astronomers were more accepting and supportive of the varied educational and personal backgrounds of junior astronomers, fewer people would feel like they shouldn’t be there or don’t belong. If junior astronomers could have more than one adviser or mentor, their future in the field wouldn’t be dependent on a single person. If universities hired more full-time faculty instead of part-time adjuncts and lecturers, they would create job security and reduce the workloads of all department members so they could actually obtain fulfilling work and personal lives. If the AAS and academic institutions lobbied for universal health care, universal daycare and adult care, forgiving student loan debt, universal housing, and a strong public transportation system, they could alleviate some of the daily personal stressors that people experience. The effects of these stressors, such as student loan debt or access to childcare, on underrepresented groups have been shown to be higher in study after study, and addressing these topics would make it easier for more people to join and remain in the field.

The CSWA Strategic Plan aims to address other factors that will improve the status of women in astronomy and encourage their entry (and retention) in this field such as creating inclusive environments and eliminating bias and harassment. But these efforts will only be effective if more astronomers are ready and willing to expend the extra effort it will take to make the field more accepting and supportive. Individual actions from departments and astronomers are getting us there but change also has to come from the systems and policies that govern our institutions and society.

Below are some of the personal narratives from the Career Profiles series that highlight why people have left the field of astronomy:

“My daily routine was becoming monotonous and I wasn’t feeling challenged anymore. Furthermore, I didn’t feel supported in my career growth or appreciated by the administration.”
“There were two factors that were equally important. The first, after I earned my PhD I had very little support for finding academic work or publishing my results. My original thesis project ended up not working out as expected, so I had to redesign and finish up in a little under 3 years. Then I got pregnant shortly after and there didn't seem to be a lot of enthusiasm for me to continue on in astronomy (from myself or senior members of the community). The second, my adjunct position was only part-time so it was difficult to afford daycare for my children.”
“I came to astronomy because I grew up benefiting from amazing science communication and public outreach. I studied the human spaceflight program, went to science museums on family vacations, read and watched everything about astronomy I could get my hands on, and even went to Space Camp. During my PhD, I realized that I loved astronomy and loved working with astronomers, but conducting original research wasn’t working for me. I found myself spending a lot of time working on education and outreach projects like the ones I loved as a kid, and thinking that was why I ended up here in the first place. I was fortunate to be in a program, and a wonderful research group with two very supportive advisors, so that I could start to build experience in education and outreach while I was still in grad school.”
“I love working with people and explaining astronomy in accessible terms. Academia was very narrow in focus.”
“I think that the standard complaints that everyone in the field has (lack of permanent jobs, little choice in where to live, relatively low salary, and poor work-life balance) got me to entertain the idea of leaving since getting my PhD. But the real drivers for me were 1) I do not feel like I fit well in an academic environment; 2) I lost interest in my research and did not feel excited about anything going on in astronomy; and 3) I do not enjoy teaching, which is a natural next step in advancement for this career path.”
“I was bored with my research subfield and wanted a change. Also, I wanted to choose where I lived rather than moving frequently to wherever I got the best job.”
“Funding and politics, interest in my project, and my relationship with my advisor, but really it was a desire to get out of College Park for a bit.”
“After spending years working on the same project for my dissertation, I wanted to explore many wide-ranging projects on scientific subjects beyond astronomy.“
“I was not interested in moving every 2-3 years for a new postdoc position, and the permanent job market in academia looked bleak.”
“I discovered how much I loved teaching while in grad school and thought I had a gift for communicating complex concepts to people with little to no background. I was frustrated with the leaky pipeline of women in STEM and thought I could have the most impact if I helped inspire young women before they reached college. Also, I decided that independent research wasn't quite for me.”
“Didn’t feel the joy in doing it anymore and started thinking about a different approach to my career. I became very interested in science education and realized I cared deeply enough about the issue that I could work on it professionally.”
“Location, salary, and work environment.”
“I left astronomy because I didn't quite have the passion I saw in others. Also, I didn't want to leave Australia at that time and I didn't see a future in it.”
“There were several factors contributing. First, I was not encouraged by my chances of getting a permanent position in astronomy, especially since both me and my wife worked in astronomy and we had decided that we had restrictions on where we wanted to live. Second, I was also quite disillusioned with theoretical astrophysics, in the sense that the incentives are such that it's more important to crank out papers than to worry much about them actually being correct. (The world doesn't need more papers, it needs better ones!) Finally, my undergraduate degree is in engineering and I was missing working on something real and tangible, where rewards for success or penalties for failure are more obvious. I had contemplated leaving astronomy many times during my Ph.D. and afterwards, partly for this reason, and even applied for a few jobs previously, but for various reasons I never followed through until now.”
“I discovered while I was in grad school that I enjoyed teaching (I supported myself with a teaching fellowship for 2 years) and writing more than I enjoyed doing research. I also thought I was better at teaching and writing than I was at doing research. So, after I finished my PhD, I looked for opportunities to get into teaching or writing full time. I became aware of an opportunity to join the staff of Sky & Telescope magazine, pursued it successfully, and the rest, as they say, is history.”
“Work/life balance, geographic stability, variety of work, pay, proximity to a major city.”
“1) Location - I wanted to stay in the Bay Area where my family lives.
2) Flexibility - There were more jobs outside of academia, and thus it was easier to find one that was interesting to me and in the location I wanted.
3) Finances - My initial salary offers from industry were 2-3 times more than my initial salary offers from academic positions.
4) Lifestyle - I was tired of working evenings / weekends and feeling like my job was never done as a researcher. I wanted a job that was challenging and fulfilling, but also would allow me more work-life balance.
5) State of the field - Because data science is a newer field than astronomy I have the opportunity to make a bigger impact and do more innovative work.
6) Work environment - I wanted to work in an environment that was more collaborative and team based. I found that research work was very isolating and solitary.
7) Pace - I found the pace of research to be too slow. I wanted to work on projects that had a faster turn and shorter timelines.”
“The main reason I moved out of the traditional academic path was because I was not successful in getting the usual post-doc or fellowship positions required for that path. I also tried to find teaching or tutoring positions, but they didn't work out either. When I was offered a job in industry that was a good opportunity even though it wasn't my original field, I took it. The fact that I was unemployed, and had been since graduation, also played a role -- I needed a job, and was willing to compromise (e.g., move out of my original field of astronomy) to get one.”
“Wanting a better work-life balance. Lack of flexibility in location of jobs. Wanting more stability in life. Hostile work environments.”
“My job is outside both astronomy and academia. I decided to leave academia because of my family. Given the terrible job market, I was likely to have to take at least one more postdoc before finding a permanent position. I was already 28 years old and experiencing fertility issues, so we needed to start seriously focusing on having children. Additionally, my husband wanted to stay home with the kids, and I couldn't afford that on a postdoc salary. I did look for permanent jobs in astronomy, but my branch of astronomy (solar radiation physics) was a natural fit for the defense industry, so I began looking there in addition to the astronomy community. Ultimately, I received a good offer from my current employer, where the work is not astronomy related.”
“I left academia because I wanted the flexibility of a non-academic job and did not want to worry about needing to find postdoc after postdoc, tenure, or funding sources. Another important factor was my desire to have an even more "hands on laboratory" type job than I believed I would eventually have in academia.”
“Location and opportunity to found the business “
“Dwindling availability of funding, such that I could not foresee surviving a complete career as an astronomer either as a Fed or in an academic position, so it was time to take the leap to a new path, while the opportunity was there, and when my current pay was still low enough that it wasn't too much of a pay cut to "start over".”
“During graduate school, I discovered two things about myself: 1) my favorite part of doing science was programming, and 2) most of the daily activities of a faculty member (writing grants, managing students and postdocs, serving on committees, teaching classes, coming up with a fountain of research ideas) were really not appealing to me. In addition, I was just starting a family, I loved the city I was living in, and I was ready to settle down. I did not want to move every few years, with very limited (and potentially undesirable) location choice, and be constantly worried about applying for my next job.”
“The most important factor was simply that I loved teaching and wanted that to be my primary job. I also wanted a career path which would allow me to settle down earlier and give me more time at home with my family.”
“This is really a complicated question. There were a lot of factors that played *some* role - for example, I hated the prospect of moving from city to city every couple of years. I also didn't like the many-hour workweeks, although I'm now in a position where I do appreciate the flexibility that even those long weeks offered me. However, I think I would have ultimately dealt with those downsides if I had the passion for research that others around me had.
At the end of every day, I never really felt complete unless I wrote in my blog or edited an article. So in other words, there were many days I felt incomplete. Research was fun at times, but it never produced that same feeling of fulfillment.”
“I left the field of astronomy primarily because I found, after doing it for a few years, that I didn't enjoy research enough to want to make a career of it. I also wasn't thrilled about reading and writing peer-reviewed journal articles, writing grant proposals, and other administrative tasks.

Secondary, yet still important factors, were:
~ amount of hours you're expected to work (especially for postdocs and young faculty)
~ amount of research you're expected to produce (especially for postdocs and young faculty)
~ little to no say in where you live
~ low pay
~ having to put your life on hold until you have a secure, tenure-track faculty position.”


Anonymous said...

My first thoughts: 1) do men who leave academia have the same responses? A lot of the responses are not gender-specific. 2) As an academic (assistant prof) I am very interested in having more women in academia, at all levels. At the same time, it sometimes seems like leaving academia is viewed as a failure, when perhaps it is a success.... more pay, more flexibility? I think one big problem in academia is conveying to students that being an academic is the most successful path and that anyone who has left has failed or leaked out of the pipeline... when in fact they may have jumped into a much better pipeline.

Fran Bagenal said...

Academia is not for everyone. But faculty tend to suggest that it's the only "valid" career pathway. Students - undergraduate and graduate - need non-academic career advice. And they need the advice to come from people outside academia. It is good to see our professional organizations such as AAS, APS, AGU stepping up to provide such advice.