Leaving the lab

At the age of eight, Farrah Bhatti would take the contents of her parents’ fruit bowl to school to test its acidity. Fast forward 15 years and, to no one’s surprise, she had started a PhD in organic chemistry.

A career as a university scientist was just around the corner, she hoped. But by the end of the second year things looked somewhat different.
“I felt my research would never end,” she says.

It is now a month since Bhatti, 27, took her PhD viva and turned her back on lab work. She has moved into science policy and spends her days meeting with politicians and scientists and drafting submissions.

Recent research shows that Bhatti is one of many women who, after a PhD, jettison a potential career as a university scientist for work in a different field. A study for the United Kingdom’s Royal Society of Chemistry has found that although 72% of the women surveyed intended to pursue a university career in the first year, by their third year this had slumped to 37%.

This was not the case for their male peers. The study found 61% of them wanted to pursue a university research career in their first year; this fell to 59% by their third year.

“These are potentially high-achieving female academics,” says Annette Williams, director of the UK Research Centre for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology. “It’s a huge waste of talent, productivity and innovation at a time when more money is being invested in science and technology.”

Two recently published studies investigate why these women are leaving. About 450 molecular bioscientists (all female) and 610 chemists (male and female) took part. All were either studying for PhDs or had just finished.

More women than men had come to view academic careers as too solitary and the fight for permanent posts too competitive. One in 10 of the men felt “powerless to resolve significant issues” with their supervisors, whereas this was the case for 17% of the women.

More women than men felt isolated or excluded from, and sometimes even bullied by, their research group. When their experiments went wrong, the women were more likely to “internalise failure”. And more women than men were discouraged by the “all-consuming nature of science”.

Women were also more likely to find their research repetitive and frustrating—57% did, compared to 43% of the men. This finding, in particular, baffles Dr Shara Cohen, a former senior scientist who quit nine years ago.

“Having children is also repetitive and has its disappointments,” she says. “They’re saying they don’t like these things, but it is what they are used to doing with children. You’d think they would be good at this.”

Cohen, 45, whose firm organises scientists’ conferences, says she has no regrets.

It was the insecurity that also put off Elizabeth Milsom, 26. In the first year of her electrochemistry PhD, Milsom wanted to continue her research. By the end, she craved more contact “with the outside world”. But it was the lack of job security that worried her most.

“If you aren’t tough enough to take it early on, you might not be suited for the knocks that a science career will inevitably deliver,” says Jenny Rohn, 41, a post-doctoral cell biologist.

“You work hard, but can juggle it in your own way,” says Rivka Isaacson, 33, a biophysics postdoc. “You have more autonomy than you might in other jobs. It’s constantly stimulating and you meet and work with interesting people.”

Rohn says, when she was studying, women were told: “Don’t worry, when the old guys retire, women will get the professorships.” But, she says: “The reality seems to have been that the old guys are replaced with younger guys.”

Williams insists all the right policies are in place for women to stay on after their PhDs and pursue university research careers.

But why see this all so negatively, asks Rohn. “I don’t see women leaving academia as a defect or as cowardice. I see it as wisdom. With a science PhD, it’s possible to do a host of other rewarding and important jobs. Women now feel they can give up gracefully and go on to do something more fun.”—

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