The current graduate education system that requires long hours over many uninterrupted years works well for some students (and their advisors), but it is perhaps not the best system in some? many? cases, and it is not 'family-friendly' in a systematic way for those students who are not the stereotypical unmarried monomaniacal types.
There has been discussion about how the (for some people) unappealing aspects of this system might be one reason for the lack of diversity in science. Let's assume for the following discussion that diversity is a desirable thing and that we want to find effective ways to encourage more people to become involved in, and stay in, scientific and related careers.
Efforts to date to encourage women and others to become (and stay) scientists, engineers, and mathematicians have had some success, in some fields more than others. I don't need to look at the numbers to know this. Early in my career it was not unusual for me to be the only -- or one of very few -- women at a conference session (or a faculty meeting). Now I see more women in my professional life, though most of them are students and postdocs, and it is rare for me to be the only woman in a room of scientists though it still does happen.
But progress has been slow and insufficient. The efforts to date have focused on such things as eliminating the worst, most evil and overt forms of discrimination and harassment, and on encouraging -- rather than actively discouraging -- women and members of other underrepresented groups from being scientists.
Can we conclude that this isn't going to be enough, or has there not yet been enough time? Perhaps I am impatient, but I think it isn't going to be enough.
That brings us to the issue of whether/how the academic system can change -- perhaps in dramatic ways -- to make it a truly diverse, representative environment.
So now let's assume for the sake of further discussion that one way to encourage a broader representation in the sciences is to make the system more flexible. From what I have seen in recent years, my male grad students and postdocs are just as interested in having a 'life' as my female students and postdocs, so people of all sorts may well be interested in changes to the system.
Even in the best of circumstances, a graduate student's academic program takes time and involves a lot of hard work. Most students need time to learn how to do research, many take classes, and some teach. Research is not a linear activity. And then there are the writing issues..
As a result, the typical time for a science Ph.D. is in many cases already longer than the average grant or guaranteed support from a department, so advisors and students already need to put together various sources of funding to keep the student supported (and eligible for healthcare benefits) for the duration of a Ph.D. program. Adding to the time-to-Ph.D., for however good a reason, can be difficult for all concerned.
Despite these difficulties in the current system, I have seen successful situations in which graduate students (male and female) with families have managed to balance life and academics without going (too) insane. In some cases, an agreeable situation is worked out between the student and the advisor and/or department in terms of how the student will manage their academic program. If these arrangements involve reduced work hours and prolonged time to degree, it's easiest if the student is in a well established or large research group. It can be more difficult for all concerned if the advisor is a tenure-track faculty member and/or has a small group.
I've mostly been talking about graduate students, but of course postdocs and tenure-track faculty face similar challenges. For example, I was able to work something out with my department chair re. teaching load when my pre-tenure daughter was born (I didn't take any maternity leave), and that turned out to be all I needed. Even so, I think it would be better for all concerned if faculty felt free to take parental leaves and/or stop the tenure clock, without concern that this would in fact have a negative impact on the tenure decision.
Maybe the current system does allow most people with families to manage somehow, but even if it does, word doesn't seem to be 'out' that it's possible to have a family and an academic life at any phase, from student years to faculty position. And even though it is possible, it can be very difficult and perhaps it doesn't need to be quite so difficult.
So, can Academia change to make Science more appealing to more people, and if so, how?
First, a selfish answer: In the sciences, one of the main issues is how the funding system would have to change. Without changes in the funding system, I don't think much else can or will change. That is, if I am still expected to write annual reports on my grants and be extremely productive in order to get new grants to support new students, it would help me, as a PI, if the funding agency and my department/university were prepared to help me help a student or postdoc who needed time and/or support for important non-academic life events and activities.
That's my point of view as a senior person with a kid whose age finally has two digits in it. When I was younger and had a baby/toddler, I was often tempted to write in my annual and final grant reports that I did such-and-such research and I took care of a very young child. I never did, but if there had been a separate box at the time for "Other information that may be relevant to the evaluation of your research activities", I would have included this very relevant information.
And if there had been supplementary funds that people with families could apply to for help with family situations (e.g. childcare) during the summer, when we are not paid by our universities, I would have definitely applied. The amount of summer salary I could raise from grants in rare cases approached but never exceeded the amount I spent on childcare so that I could do the research I was funded to do.
Another part of the solution has to be increased access to high-quality affordable childcare centers that employ well trained, sufficiently compensated care-givers. Such centers are expensive -- more expensive than can reasonably be supported by the fees parents pay. And if it's difficult for faculty parents to afford these places (assuming their kids even get in), it may be difficult or impossible for student parents, even with a sliding scale fee structure.
These places also need to be more flexible to accommodate different preferences and needs in terms of amount and timing of childcare. At some centers, even if your kid gets in before they start college themselves, you typically have to send them full-time, with no interruptions or you lose your spot. But some families would prefer part-time, and some would prefer summers only, and various other combinations. It's not currently feasible for the centers to be this flexible.
Would it be worth it to a university or state or country to help people get the childcare they want and need when they need it and to make other changes necessary to make the family/career balance more possible for more people?
It wouldn't be economic if you just crunch the numbers, so it would have to be worth it in terms of the benefits to the community and society to increase the ability of people -- whatever their personal situation -- to acquire degrees and manage their careers. It would have to be worth it, despite the 'upfront costs', to increase diversity and to encourage more people to pursue careers -- such as those involving science, engineering, and math -- that benefit society.
6 months ago