Why Graduate Students Reject the Fast Track

A study of thousands of doctoral students shows that they want balanced lives.
By Mary Ann Mason, Marc Goulden, and Karie Frasch

I could not have come in to graduate school more motivated to be a research-oriented professor. Now I feel that can only be a career possibility if I am willing to sacrifice having children.
—Female Respondent, University of California Doctoral Student Career and Life Survey

We recently completed an unparalleled survey, with more than eight thousand doctoral student respondents across the University of California system, and what we heard is worrisome: major research universities may be losing some of the most talented tenure-track academics before they even arrive. In the eyes of many doctoral students, the academic fast track has a bad reputation—one of unrelenting work hours that allow little or no room for a satisfying family life. If this sentiment is broadly shared among current and future student cohorts, the future life-blood of academia may be at stake, as promising young scholars seek alternative career paths with better work-life balance. Today’s doctoral students are different in many ways from those of just thirty or forty years ago. Academia was once composed largely of men who, for most of their careers, were in traditional single-earner families. Today, men and women fill the doctoral student ranks in nearly equal numbers, and most will experience both the benefits and challenges of living in dual-earner households during their careers. This generation of doctoral students also has different expectations and values from previous ones, primary among them the desire for flexibility and balance between career and other life goals. But changes to the structure and culture of academia have not kept pace with these major shifts; assumptions about the notion of the “ideal worker” prevail, including a de facto requirement for inflexible, full-time devotion to education and employment and a linear, lockstep career trajectory.

A Bad Reputation

To understand better the current generation of doctoral students, we surveyed more than nineteen thousand doctoral students from nine of the ten University of California campuses (with an overall response rate of 43 percent and 8,373 respondents). Fifty-one percent of women and 45 percent of men were married or partnered at the time of the survey, and 14 percent of women and 12 percent of men were parents (women were on average one year older than men—thirty-one years of age compared to thirty). We found that, when thinking about future career plans, nearly all doctoral students are somewhat or very concerned about the family friendliness of their choices (see figure 1), with even more women than men expressing the sentiment (84 percent of women are either somewhat or very concerned, compared to 74 percent of men). Only 4 percent of women and 7 percent of men are not at all concerned about these issues.

The academic fast track—which we define as tenure-track faculty positions in research-intensive universities—has a bad reputation in this regard. Neither men nor women consider tenure-track faculty positions in research-intensive universities to be family-friendly career choices. Less than half of men (46 percent) and a only third of women (29 percent) imagine jobs in these settings to be somewhat or very family friendly. Among new parents supported by federal grants (from agencies such as the National Science Foundation or the National Institutes of Health) at the time of the birth or adoption of a child, the perception is even stronger—only 35 percent of men and 16 percent of women think that tenure-track faculty careers at research-intensive universities are family friendly. Although men are more optimistic about most possible career tracks than are women, both men and women (82 percent and 73 percent, respectively) rate faculty careers at teaching-intensive colleges as the most family friendly. All other career choices, including policy or managerial careers, research careers outside academia, and non-tenuretrack faculty positions, are more likely to be considered family friendly than careers at research-intensive universities.

In response to open-ended questions on our survey, many respondents said that they did not want lifestyles like those of their advisers or other faculty in their departments. Women doctoral students in particular seem not to see enough role models of women faculty who successfully combine work and family, and they rate the family friendliness of research-intensive universities based on this fact. The fewer women faculty with children they see or know in their departments or units, the less likely women doctoral students are to feel that tenure-track faculty careers at research-intensive universities are family friendly—only 12 percent of women doctoral students who reported that it is not at all common for women faculty in their departments or units to have children said that they viewed research-intensive universities as somewhat or very family friendly. In contrast, 46 percent of women doctoral students who said that it is very common for women faculty in their departments or units to have children rated careers at research-intensive universities as family friendly.

Changing Direction

The negative reputation of fast-track faculty careers appears to be serious enough to cause many doctoral students to shift their career goals (see figure 2). Forty-five percent of the men and 39 percent of the women we surveyed indicated that they wanted to pursue careers as professors with research emphasis when they started their PhD programs, but only 36 percent of men and 27 percent of women stated that this was their career goal at the time of the survey (between one and seven or more years later). In aggregate, a substantial proportion of doctoral students redirect their sights to positions outside of academia altogether—careers in business, government, or industry. The total percentage of doctoral students who want careers as professors with teaching emphasis remains fairly stable.

In the sciences the shift is more dramatic. Fewer doctoral students in the fields of physical science, technology, engineering, and mathematics state that they intended to pursue careers in academia when they began their PhD programs (40 percent of men and 31 percent of women), and proportionally more shift their plans away from careers in academia, including professorial careers with teaching emphasis. At the time of the survey, only 28 percent of men and 20 percent of women in these fields were still pursuing careers as professors with research emphasis. This finding is particularly troubling given the low numbers of women in doctoral programs in physical  science,technology, engineering, and mathematics. Women receive about one-third of the doctorates awarded to American students in these fields, and the reported shift away from research careers suggests an unfortunate loss in the number of women ultimately continuing in the academic pipeline.

Balancing Work and Life

Among the many reasons that men and women could cite for changing their career goal away from becoming a professor with research emphasis, issues related to balancing work and life top the list (see table 1). For women, the most common reasons are “other life interests,” “issues related to children,” and “negative experience as a PhD student.” Women also rate highly geographical location and issues involving spouses or partners as reasons (40 percent and 35 percent, respectively), particularly compared to men, who are less likely to cite these concerns. This finding is significant because we know from our analyses of the Survey of Doctorate Recipients (a biennial weighted, longitudinal study sponsored by the National Science Foundation and other government agencies that includes more than 160,000 PhD recipients in the sciences, social sciences, and humanities) that women are more likely than men to defer to their partners when there is a “two body” problem—that is, when both partners are attempting to find academic jobs.1 For men, the most common reasons given for shifting their career goals are “negative experience as a PhD student,” “other life interests,” and “professional activity too time-consuming.” Men also place more emphasis than women on career advancement and monetary compensation.

Given that many doctoral students report changing their minds about their future careers because they think careers as professors with research emphasis will not support work-life balance, it is no surprise that respondents to our survey reported a number of work-life challenges they face as doctoral students. In particular, about half are least satisfied with two main aspects of their doctoral student experience—departmental support for career-life balance and time for themselves (for example, for recreation, relaxation, and health). Women are more likely than men to be less satisfied in these areas. By contrast, the vast majority of both men and women are satisfied with the quality of their degree programs, interactions with their primary faculty advisers, and their fellow PhD students.

Most doctoral students also do not feel that they can have and raise children while pursuing PhDs, although most expect to have children in the future (64 percent of men and 65 percent of women plan to have or adopt children, whether or not they ere already a parent at the time of the survey—and another 21 percent of men and 20 percent of women indicate they do not know whether they will have children in the future). Those planning to have children in the future cite many factors contributing to their uncertainty about having children as doctoral students, including the time demands of PhD programs; current household income level; the perceived stress of raising a child while a student; and concerns about the availability of affordable child care, housing, and health insurance. Additionally, women more than men feel that PhD programs and caregiving are incompatible (54 percent of women compared to 36 percent of men), that if they have children they will not progress adequately toward their degrees (51 percent of women and 34 percent of men), and that pregnancy leave will not be available. According to our data on respondents who are currently parents, these fears are not unfounded: while women and men without children spend approximately seventy-five hours a week combined on PhD work, employment, housework, and caregiving, mothers log a crushing hundred-plus hours a week in these activities (and fathers ninety hours). Many mothers and fathers also report a great deal of stress in parenting as a result of specific educational and career requirements of their PhD programs, and most have slowed down or made sacrifices in their educational careers to be good parents.

Postponing Is Problematic

For individuals pursuing fast-track professional careers, the doctoral student years typically fall during prime family formation and childbearing years; the postdoctoral and pretenure years do as well.

Balancing work and family life during this period can be tricky at best. As we know from our “Do Babies Matter?” research on the effects of academic careers on family formation, postponing pregnancy and childbirth until the receipt of a tenure-track job often results in women having fewer children than they want and causes a great deal of stress for those who have them. Postponing pregnancy and childbirth until the receipt of tenure, a common strategy employed by women faculty, is biologically problematic for most women and will likely become even more common in the coming decade. Based on our analysis of data from the Survey of Doctorate Recipients, the average age of attaining tenure in the sciences and social sciences in the United States has advanced from a little over thirty-six in 1985 to greater than thirty-nine in 1999. Most women faculty, therefore, will be at or near the end of their childbearing years by the time they achieve tenure. The graduate population is aging as well; the average age of a PhD recipient is now nearly thirty-three compared to thirty-one two decades ago. If this pattern holds or intensifies, the problematic nature of the timing of faculty careers and family formation may greatly affect future generations of doctoral students.

Reenvisioning Academia

We need new thinking and a new model to attract and retain the next generation in academia. If research universities want to attract and retain the best and brightest PhDs and encourage them to stay on the academic track, the administrative hierarchy (the president or chancellor), through the administration and faculty ranks, needs to take urgent notice of the ways in which the structure of academia at all levels is turning people away from the profession. Challenging some of the more common prevailing assumptions can be a way to start. These assumptions, and their possible antidotes, include the following.

  • Assumption: Fast-track academia is typically either a fulltime or a no-time pursuit, particularly for those on fellowships or grants. Antidote: Men and women can shift to part-time status or temporarily elongate timelines over their academic lives without suffering career penalties.
  • Assumption: The appropriate career trajectory for successful academics is linear and without breaks—from the doctoral years to postdoctoral experience to pretenure years to the attainment of the rank of full professor. Antidote: Many men and women will want or need to take time out temporarily from their academic lives for caregiving, and universities will support their reentry.
  • Assumption: Academic “stars” are those who move through the ranks very quickly. Antidote: Academic “stars” are those who produce the most important or relevant work—faster is not necessarily better.
  • Assumption: There is no good time to have children. Antidote: It is fine to have children at any point in the career path because a full array of resources exists to support academic parents.
  • Assumption: Having children, particularly for women, is often equated with less seriousness and drive. Antidote: There is no stigma associated with having children, nor are there negative career consequences, and the culture is broadly supportive of academics who do have children.
  • Assumption: All talented doctoral students should want to become professors on the academic fast track. Antidote: Venues exist to evaluate objectively and discuss different career and life paths in and outside academia—all are accepted.
  • Assumption: Work-life balance and family friendliness are not typically promoted as important values by academic administrators and faculty. Antidote: Family-friendly policies are promoted, campuswide conferences are held to support work-life balance for all academics, department chairs are trained on the issues, and faculty mentor doctoral students.

Baby boomers will retire in record numbers in the coming decade, and institutions that are willing to change their policies and culture to meet the needs of the next generation stand to gain the most.

Note

1. The use of National Science Foundation data does not imply the endorsement of research methods or conclusions contained in this report. This study was made possible by the generous support of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Return to text

Mary Ann Mason is a professor in the Graduate School of Social Welfare at the University of California, Berkeley, and co-director of the Berkeley Law Center for Health, Economic, and Family Security. She is also the author, with her daughter, Eve Ekman, of Mothers on the Fast Track. Marc Goulden is a researcher who studies the diversity and life course of academics in college and university settings. He is best known for his work on the Do Babies Matter? and UC Faculty Family Friendly Edge projects. Karie Frasch is an academic researcher and policy analyst who focuses on career and life issues in higher education. She is currently the manager of the UC Faculty Family Friendly Edge project.

 


Comments

I found the report most interesting. A more complete assessment of equal interest to me would be to tease out to provide a more extensive account on the barriers faced by graduate students having children from an account of non-children-related barriers.  Decades ago as a graduate student, I was known in the department as the student with “many children”, viz., four.  Thus, I can relate to what is cited in the survey regarding the associated obstacles.  The obstacles cited in the survey are not inconsistent with our experience.  Then, I accepted the barriers and worked around them.  A fellow chemistry graduate student also a parent of four worked in a similar fashion to obtain his Ph.D. where upon he signed up with the corporate sector.  I went on to conduct post doctorate research. 

In my career as a federal research program manager for nearly three decades, I have become aware of non-children-related accounts.  For example, a wife declined an invitation to join the astronomy faculty at an Ivy League university because her husband, also a Ph.D. In physics was not offered a similar position, i.e., the “two body problem.”  

My assessment is that the competitive nature in the science academic enterprise must be examined to extract valuable solutions to remedy the situation cited in the survey.  This will no doubt include the role of the university management (administration and faculty) mindset and the role of research funding sources.   It would do well to cite which Tier I research universities have proceeded to effect corrective measures and how those measures can be viewed as advisory to other research universities.  Might these comments pose an acceptable challenge for a subsequent survey?

J. V.


To whom it may concern,

What your article has failed to mention is that institutions often put significant pressures on scientists.  We are required in most cases to produce 65% of more of our salary and benefits from research grants. In addition, we often also pay anywhere from 50-90% institutional overhead from our research grants. In order to do this successfully, we must on the average have at least two active research grants every year.   The success Rate of a grant application at the NIH is now about 10%.   This coupled with the fact that one needs at least 2-3 publications per year to be competitive for a grant and graduate students typically take 4 years to produce one publication, combines for a stressful situation. Lastly, scientists are also required to pay 100% of salary and benefits for technical staff, students and postdocs.

There is no such thing as a fast track in science.   There is just one track. Nontenure track scientists by the way are responsible for even more of their salary ie 100%.  This is probably the least secure job a scientist could have in the academia.  It is far from family friendly.  Unless institutions shift the responsibility of the cost of doing science away from scientists- nothing will change.

Graduate students are often unaware of these details.   So, choosing to do science is definitely not for a person who does not want to bear the responsibility of paying their own salary and that of their employees.

I take issue with the idea that scientists lead unbalanced lives. Many of my female colleagues have children and are successful. They love science and their children, they found a way to do both. Families always require some time management - regardless of what kind of jobs the parent has.

The notion of the ideal worker is just plain nonsense.   Doing good science is all about careful planning and precise execution of the experiment and Good instincts about what to do next.   I know many scientists who Work an "average" day   9-6 and are terrific scientists.   If someone has the perception that they are not the ideal worker, I suspect it has nothing to do with the length of their workday - but rather with a percieved lack of Productivity. 

As for role models, there are thousands out there.    Women are now chairs of scientific departments- all one has to do is use the internet to learn about these people.

By the way , part time scientists need someone to pay their salary. Institutions don't want the financial burden of supporting this type of Scientist.  Thus this type of position is rare because the benefit to the employer may not be worth the investment.

Maybe you should next do as survey to find out just how much graduate Students know about the financial responsiblities of their advisors jobs. Then redo the current survey.  I suspect your results would impel you to change the perspectives and solutions discussed in this article.

Sincerely,

I. S.


This was an interesting article. The most important point it seems to me is that graduate school stop being mostly a recruiting pool for the "top" universities, and instead become a place where a range of possible career paths are truly available. The article mentions this near the end, but more analysis of how this could be done would be very useful. It would mean a huge change in the culture of academia--one that would challenge the assumptions and identities of many established academics in research institutions.

One topic that could be addressed is the value in trying to recruit older grad students. I began my position at age 40 at a teaching institution and I believe this has a great deal to do with my high level of job satisfaction. If a person spends 25 of their first 30 years in school, it seems unsurprising that she might start to question whether she wants to spend another 40 in the same environment. Given the changing natures of professions more broadly, perhaps the old model of a 40+ year career in  academia should also be rethought.

M.B.


 [To a previous comment.]  While it is heroic that grad and faculty parents "find a way" to make it all work, I have to wonder at what cost to their mental, emotional and physical well-being are they "finding a way" to do so?
 
I'm curious, how do faculty mama/grad mama scientists combine doing "good science" with breastfeeding for 6-12 months?
 
C. B.
Mother, Doctoral Student


Role models and mentoring is very important.

I am an electrical engineering professor at a university in the Midwest.  I selected the graduate school I attended (a top 10 institution) because the person who would be my major advisor was a woman with small children.  During my Ph.D. program, she was my mentor, my inspiration, and my friend.  I am successful today because I knew it could be done.

Today I hold an endowed professorship, am happily married, and have two children.  At the time I had my children, my university did not have a faculty parental leave policy.  I was back in the classroom two weeks after the birth of my first child (sixteen years ago).  Fortunately, the university has since adopted a generous family leave policy, so new assistant professors do not have to endure what I did.

Universities *are* becoming more family friendly – there are good universities out there leading the pack (U. Michigan, Georgia Tech) and the rest of us will follow.

I hope that I can serve as a role model for my students.  I enjoy my job (most days anyway) and I hope my enthusiasm is what they see.

M. C.


As someone who spent his career at a teaching-intensive college, I am a little perplexed by the tone of the article.  It seems to suggest that if you don't follow a career at a research-intensive university, you have copped-out or failed.  However, consider the mathematics of the situation.  The average professor at a research-intensive university trains many graduate students during his or her career.  The total number of faculty positions at research-intensive universities is increasing slowly, at best.  It is therefore a matter of mathematical necessity that a majority of those earning a Ph.D. will not find positions at research-intensive universities.  Anyone undertaking a Ph.D. should do so with open eyes, and be open to career choices other than a research-intensive university.  The good news is that other careers can be intensely satisfying.

R. M.


To Whom It May Concern
 
I believe this is a very important research effort and needs attention by more people. Maybe others will comment as time goes by.  Hopefully from my comments, and those of others, the authors will see the problems they have identified are not very different for men vs women.
 
I write as a male retiree who received my BS and MBA in 5 years in 1961 in one state. I worked full-time while attending college and finished these degrees with no debt.  I was also able to pay for a ten week summer grand tour of Europe during these 5 years.
 
I then attended a Big Ten University in a different state as a doctoral student and left ABD in 1964.  I left because I married and we had a daughter in 1963; we needed income.  Upon leaving, I was able to get a teaching position as an Assistant Professor at a major university on a tenure track in contemplation of completing my dissertation.  I expect this is much more rare today.
 
The combined workload at the new university (teaching, research, dissertation writing)  and the distance from the "old" university, as well as my own lack of appreciation for the task ahead without close academic supervision, caused me to accept a sales position at IBM in 1967.   Time was running out on completing the PH.D., and a career with IBM was something many college grads would have gladly accepted, and I was sought by IBM -- a most pleasant feeling at the time.
 
IBM gave me training beyond that which was then available at many universities.  I had a successful sales career, attaining membership in their 100% club and other accolades.  By now my wife and I had three children.  She was a "stay-at-home" mom.
 
My income was three times that which it had been while teaching at the major university.
My account base, as you might expect, was the college/university market.  Three years later, this led to an offer from one such client-college to me to return to college (not university) teaching.  I was assured that a lack of the PH.D. would not impact my career in this small local college.
 
I was able to teach there for about 25 years (and promoted to full professor) until the then current president abolished my department and let those of us without the PH.D. degree go.  In the meantime I had published extensively, unusual (being modest) for anyone at that college.  Fortunately, I had also developed a business "on the side" that, when I left, was providing me a greater income than I was receiving for teaching.
 
That business and its later sale has allowed me a very comfortable retirement.
 
Now for the "rest of the story" as the radio program goes -- and my link to your research.
 
Oddly, or naturally, you can decide, my three children each benefited from my life experience which they observed.  The oldest, a daughter, born in the state where I was a graduate assistant, completed college and entered the sales profession and is extremely successful.  She and her husband have two children.  Her husband has a successful career as an entrepreneur.  My second, a son, completed college and is now a successful manufacturing manager at a good company. He and his wife have four children. His wife is a "stay-at-home" mom.
 
My third, also a son, graduated from one college, went to a university where he received his masters degree, and continued to a major state university where he completed his PH.D. at about age 32.   He is now a community college professor and department head.
 
The rest of the story, yes, a long introduction, he has not married.  The lives of both males and females are influenced by the demands of the Ph.D. degree.
 
All three children completed their educations without any substantial money from my wife and me.  Even more surprising, the two sons left college without any loans.  All three worked while in college and my second son worked outside the university while completing his PH.D. 
 
I wrote all this because I believe your research has substantiated my life experience and that of my three children.  The PH.D. degree requires more dedication and support than typically offered. If we, as a society, expect the participants to have a better chance of leading a balanced life  -- however that is defined -- we need to find a way to provide them more support and assurance of the long-run benefits of the research professor lifestyle.            
 
My Ph.D. son has had three opportunities to move to three different major state universities as a professor on a tenure track.  He has examined each opportunity in detail and refused  each opportunity.  He has chosen to teach community college students vs more academically prepared adult learners; he has chosen an emphasis on "teaching" vs an emphasis on assisting graduate and Ph.D. students with their research.  Both the overall workload and the remuneration are higher at the community college (for many reasons).
He has tenure now and would have had to gain tenure again at the major state universities.
 
I suspect the housing market may have also been an influence as he has a super house at present and would likely lose money selling and might possibly be able to buy elsewhere at a reasonable price, but the tenure uncertainty makes a change a more risky decision.
 
Interestingly, one of the three major universities that offered him a position was the same school from which my wife received her masters degree.  She also started a Ph.D. program after our children were adults and left to start teaching as an adjunct at another community college.  Thanks to the union contract that covered her as an adjunct she and I now receive full medical, dental and eye care insurance coverage. She also receives a small pension.
 
Yes, college/university teaching have been good to our family.  From  my biased view we all were/are good teachers and contributed our share to the educational community. 
 
As a society we all suffer when good, capable students abandon their education at any level.  While both my wife and I succeeded after dropping out, and while we can all recall certain computer industry drop-outs achieving significant success, that is likely not the case for most drop-outs, at any level. 
 
Please continue your research and disseminate it as widely as possible.
 
E.M.


I can tell you exactly how a someone balances lab work with care for  a breast-milk fed infant (although I find it interesting that  breastfeeding is considered an absolutely necessary part of being a  good mother). I had a child as a post doc. I took six weeks off and  then (eagerly) returned to the bench. I breast fed in the morning,  then pumped milk twice a day in a lactation facility provided by NIH,  then breast  fed again when I got home and again at bed time. I did  this for about twelve months. No problem. I also took five trips that  year, during which I used a portable pump. I even brought the pump  with me when I went for an interview for the tenure-track position  that I now hold. Try doing that at a business interview.

Being an academic scientist is hard. It takes a lot of work, but it  is actually more flexible than many other jobs. For example, my kid  is sick today, so I was able to stay home with her and work on grants  and papers. I can now go into the lab tonight when my husband gets home. That's more flexibility than my husband's biotech offers. If he  stays home with our kid, he has to take a sick/personal day  regardless of whether he goes back in the evening.

I have students who miss so much work that they would be fired from a  job at the Gap (nearly six weeks last year, even without kids), and  they still complain about having to work too hard. I don't know what  job will offer the kind of "flexibility" they are looking for.

My lab is now all women. One had a child last year (I lent her my breast pump), and the other two are having children this year. I  expect no more from them than I would from myself, and if they can't  do that, they really should find another career path.

I am a tenure-track R01-funded faculty member and mother. My initials are J.M.J.


Various friends went to non research institutions on the theory that these would be more family friendly and found the opposite. Heavy teaching, service, and social schedules can be more rigid and less family friendly than heavy research schedules. You have to also consider that the larger the university, the more likely it is to have daycare on campus. The more progressive and better funded the state, the more likely there are to be subsidies for the cost of this. You also have to look at the cost of health insurance, which varies greatly and makes a real difference in budgets. You have to consider the kinds of cultural and recreational programs for children that are often available at and around larger universities. And it can be more family friendly to have a good library and/or an independent bookstore in your own town than a day's drive away.

L.B.


I've found that one source of pressure to advance quickly in academia is the relatively low salaries. In my experience (as a molecular biologist), I have figured that I sacrifice $20-30 thousand dollars a year in income so that I can have the pleasure of working in academia.

Being substantially less wealthy than my non-academic peers, I want to move up to the next step as quickly as possible. Add on the fact that neither graduate school nor postdoc can be permanent jobs, there really isn't much opportunity to take one's time. And then there's the tenure clock, which is an all or none decision within that institution. We are constantly on the job market, constantly trying to convince strangers that our work in interesting, and at risk of being unemployed. Academic research careers expose people to very little job security as they get established (see I.S.'s great comment above), then rewards them with the ultimate job security (tenure) once they have reached middle age. I can't imagine that much can be done to improve work-life balance in academia unless institutions eliminate these constant deadlines in our careers and provide a reasonable salary for young researchers.

A.R.

 

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