Another conventional wisdom of science that is designed to keep women out of science

Nov 23 2011 Published by under Careerism, Diversity in Science

Science Professor muses on Stay or Go?, the well known conventional wisdom that any serious scientist will inhabit different Universities for undergraduate, postgraduate, postdoctoral and professorial career stages. If you stay at one location for two consecutive stages then you must be a crappy scientist.

The true reality is that geographical limits in a training history are imperfect predictors of scientific quality. There are negative factors to remaining in the same environment, mostly having to do with being steeped in one narrow scientific perspective. Variously defined, you realize.

The appearance, however, does not always reflect reality. I know of many people who trained in disparate locations as grad students and postdocs...but the labs were near clones of each other. I also know of a rare few who stayed at one University across *multiple* transitions yet received greater diversity of perspective than the prior examples.

In short, it depends.

Given this, and given that anyone with a brain more advanced than a carrot realizes this, we must ask ourselves why such a seemingly hard and fast career rule persists.

I submit to you that women in science are disproportionately, for better or for worse, likely to be geographically anchored. Deployment of the "rule", in lieu of considering individual merits/limitations, therefore contributes to the persisting sex disparity in science career success.

Is there any useful purpose for the "rule" that I am missing, Dear Reader?

31 responses so far

  • Grumble says:

    "The rule" is just another mechanism that enables grant reviewers to piss on applications, especially fellowship and K applications.

    The more stupid rules like this one, the easier it is for grant reviewers to do their jobs. So it's very useful; please keep it.

  • Dr Becca says:

    Though clearly misguided, I think the subtext in the attitude that one must change institutions is that someone who doesn't is "lazy," or has achieved their position through something other than the utmost of meritocratic means.

  • It's impossible to generalize. There are people who stay in one place for very sound intellectual reasons. There are people who do it for completely understandable practical reasons. But there are a also lot of people who stay at one place because they don't want to challenge themselves with something unfamiliar, and that is, obviously, a bad trait in science.

    The trick, obviously, is to try and figure out which one somebody is. I agree with Grumble that reviewers often use this to lazily dismiss applicants for jobs/grants. So I always advice my students/postdocs who have this kind of feature in their pedigree to address it head on in their applications.

  • becca says:

    "Given this, and given that anyone with a brain more advanced than a carrot realizes this, we must ask ourselves why such a seemingly hard and fast career rule persists."
    mmmmmnomnomnom classic drugmonkey there.

  • geeka says:

    I think that the idea that one must move it ridiculous. For instance: you get your grad degree at a massive institute and end up doing a post-doc somewhere else in the same place. In this instance 'same place' might be a building 3 miles away in a totally different school or department. It's ridiculous.

    On a similar note, I've known 3-4 ppl that have done post-docs with their PhD advisor. I think that's nuts (and I'm not talking about sticking around an extra 6 months to finish stuff or find a job, I'm talking a couple of years). On one hand, they are ahead of research but who the hell wants to stay with their PhD PI for a post doc.

  • gerty-z says:

    The logic behind the rule that I have always heard is that if you stay in the same place then you will miss out on being exposed to different academic cultures and attitudes. Also, I get the sense that some of the reason behind this "rule" is to try to subvert academic inbreeding that can take over at some places. It is hard to know if the "inbreeding"/"old boys network" effect is actually any less with the semi-forced moving around. But I have also heard of folks getting dinged on F32 applications for not having moved.

  • Morgan Price says:

    It's not just women; family-oriented men tend not to go to grad school and this might be one of the reasons.

  • Experiencing different procedures and cultures at various institutions can help you bring a fresh perspective to your job. Several of my faculty colleagues here have NEVER been anywhere else and their refusal to consider that some things could be improved or done a different way is astounding.

  • GMP says:

    This conventional wisdom is not unlike the one that candidates with PhDs/postdocs from top 10 institutions (where the top 10 vary among disciplines) are vastly superior and thus have a much easier time landing faculty job interview than candidates from all other institutions. Of course there are stellar candidates at all R1s, but people on hiring committees routinely assume (in order to parse through hundreds of applications) that the chances of screwing up are lowest if they go with someone who's been vetted by an elite institution and trained in a famous group.

    The same with people who move vs don't move. Others assume chances are highest to get a candidate who is independent and has a broad perspective if the candidate has moved among several (preferably all top 10) institutions.

    Both these conventional wisdoms have statistical bases, but they indeed keep a lot of candidates out, not just women. They are designed to select those who have been hyperdedicated to their career all along and have built it up by the book; this is no surprise, science is competitive, CPP's No Care Bears Tea Party and all. All the people who have made accommodations for a significant other, or the quality of life in general, or simply made career choices that may well make them better scientists but on paper they look outside the norm as a result -- all these people take a penalty for their choices. Which isn't to say these choices should not be made, but yes, the penalties are real.

  • Dr. O says:

    I agree with Eisen on this one, that sometimes staying where you are is due to a fear of the unknown rather than practicality. I actually had a very hard time moving to postdoc town from graduate city, but I knew I needed to move outside of my comfort zone. Not just for my career, but for myself. At the time I was single, and I could do it. Now, of course, moving across the country for a job is quite a bit more complicated.

    Bottom line, I don't think this should be seen as a hard and fast rule. But I do think insisting on examples from job candidates that they are willing to take measured risks in their career is a good thing. Whether you move into a new area of science, or pick up to move across the country for a great opportunity, you do need to show evidence of stepping out of your comfort zone.

  • PQA says:

    I think this idea disproportionately effects working parents, not just women. While I appreciate the sentiment and the logical argument Drug Monkey presents I would like to see the 'women' tag removed from this. People who have children or spouses have a harder time moving around the world. It is not just women who care and contribute to childcare and child rearing. When we frame the conversation as a 'women's issue' we perpetuate the stereotype that child rearing is women's work, whether we mean to or not.

  • Alex says:

    I think gerty-z makes an important point: If people don't have exposure to a variety of environments, they will get stuck in fixed ways of doing things, and will resist new ideas. Changing projects, and even changing advisors/supervisors, isn't enough. If you move down the hall but you're still interacting with the same people at seminars, at water cooler chats, at shared user facilities, there's a whole bunch of assumptions that you're still getting.

    But geeka is also right: You can get that variety without loading a UHaul. Switching departments or colleges can (at least in some cases) broaden your horizons.

    Don't underestimate the power of an environment: There are a lot of things that I never worked on in grad school, but people in the building did, and I chatted with them, went to their talks, absorbed things via osmosis by walking past their posters every single day, and now I draw on these things as examples in my teaching, or even as inspiration for some of my current research. Similarly, there are things that I never worked on as a postdoc, but I saw the posters in the hall, chatted with the people, etc. and now these things get used as examples in my teaching. If I hadn't switched environments, I'd have only half as many examples in my bag of tricks. If you can get that change by moving to a different building on the same campus, great, but at least do that much.

  • Yael says:

    PQA: I am moving to another state from my husband for a wonderful postdoc opportunity in a top notch environment (basically, to a department that made this particular model system a big deal). The flak that I (the wife) get from this is tremendous. Basically, everyone is telling me "you suck for moving away from your husband"--nobody is asking "why isn't your husband moving with you". So while the ideal is "egalitarian spousehood" or parenting, the reality is that it's NOT, and that is why this is disproportionately affecting women (as DM aptly points out).

    People have pointed out that if it were my husband getting this super fancy postdoc, people would just assume that I would move with him and give me flak for staying. You could say, "stop caring" but the fact is, many people doing the criticizing (close friends, relatives) also form a crucial part of one's support system so it is very difficult for women to ignore it.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Nobody is grooving on my example of those that move, but to clone labs that render essentially one of the supposed advantages? Is this just in my subfields?

  • DJMH says:

    Have trained with multiple people who stay in same subfield, eg. going from one PI to the lab of someone who did their postdoc with that PI. In my experience these people generate data and ideas a lot faster, and they have correspondingly successful postdoc experiences. N = 3 says they are still very good scientists, so I guess I am not sure if this is really as big a problem as it could be. But I would agree with the general principle that this type of move ought to be viewed similarly to staying at the same as one of a lot of imperfect heuristics.

  • I did not move from PhD to post-doc, but I did move into a different field and mode of questioning. I learned some new techniques that now put me in a very competitive position grant-wise. I also brought a perspective that my PD advisor wanted in his lab -- so it was mutually beneficial. I do know that some places discounted me on the job market because of this decision to stay in the same institution, and I agree, this requirement is another type of bias against women and/or people with families. If I could have moved I likely would have -- although I come from a big uni that has immense research diversity, and strength in both areas of my training, all of my data about how departments work comes from this one place. Not necessarily great.

  • Have trained with multiple people who stay in same subfield, eg. going from one PI to the lab of someone who did their postdoc with that PI. In my experience these people generate data and ideas a lot faster, and they have correspondingly successful postdoc experiences.

    I would be interested to find out how these people are doing post-tenure, ten years after taking their first independent faculty position. My hypothesis is that they might have difficulty changing systems, approaches, questions or any of the other things that make it a lot easier to keep publishing high-impact work and keep getting grants funded.

  • I really like where I live. Is that such a bad thing? My husband has a job here. We have friends and family. I've done lab work at 3 different institutions now, 2 at graduate level. If Dream Job came up somewhere else, that would be one thing, but I don't want to have to move just because of some baseless, abstract notion that it's the "right" thing to do.

    Don't get me wrong; I'm resigned to the reality (especially since this will be my PhD). But I think it sucks.

  • One of my first rotations in grad school was with someone who had done their post-doc with some of the same people I'd done my undergraduate work with. I knew exactly what to do and was integral in getting some instrumentation made and set up. It was an amazingly productive couple of months, I was doing work I really enjoyed and I seriously considered joining the lab. I ultimately didn't because even though the system was quite different, the approach was the same and, for me, felt sort of - less exciting? redundant? derivative? This was, without a doubt, one of the best intellectual and career decisions I made.

    I was told in no uncertain terms to switch field and move to a different university for my post-doc. I did, with excitement. I totally underestimated the effect the social and financial devastation of moving with a baby to an expensive city with only a post-doc salary would have. You're not out making friends or discovering cool new restaurants with an infant. No one is going to watch your kid for free so you can have a night out. Doing science in a brand new field with post-doc level expectations for output while making the required newby mistakes and dealing with the afore mentioned social isolation and financial strain...

    I was trapped, determined and masochistic enough to stick it out. Also, since I'm a lady with a wife, the social pressures of motherhood were more confused/diffuse. We have finally re-built our social networks, my mother-in-law moved to be nearby and I've retrained enough to be at the top of my game again, but it's taken time. If I had a time-machine, I'm not sure I'd make the same choice. A requirement for geographic mobility disproportionally disadvantages people with families and especially women.

  • Physician Scientist says:

    I think its much more important to change fields than to change locations. My most successful post-doc stayed at the same institution where (s)he did their PhD, but I do much different think than their PhD advisor did. (S)He has been very successful with me and is well-poised to take the next step.

  • the Viking Diva says:

    Is it a functional rule ? Sometimes. Some departments are just plain provincial, and I'd look harder at the independence and ideas of someone who never got out of one of those.

    Is it discriminatory against women, parents, mature candidates who already have a life? Yep, a lot of times it is.

    Why does it happen? Because the exotic unknown (that might be fantastic but probably isn't) is always more shiny than the known (however competent). Same reason visiting faculty hardly ever get hired for the TT position. Strengths become taken for granted, while the flaws are magnified. Yet somehow the unknown is assumed to have no flaws at all. Reality is always less interesting than hypothetical perfection.

  • Juniper Shoemaker says:

    A well-liked and talented instructor in my program did his undergrad, PhD and first professorship at my current institution. He just left us for an endowed chair at Duke. Clearly, Duke does not think the aforementioned "rule" applies to him.

    Additionally, I notice that MIT doesn't accept anyone into their biological engineering MS program except for MIT undergrads. Granted, they may not expect master's degree students to become professors. . .

    P.S. Speaking of attitudes that welcome women into science: Today, I overheard two male students, possibly undergraduates, talking like fraternity meatheads on a campus shuttle (reserved exclusively for student, staff and faculty use) about how hot all the bitches girls women in a certain master's degree program in my department are today. (All of these young women are tall, white and slim, with round, blue Caucasian eyes, thin pointy noses, fashionable clothing and straight blonde hair.) However, I was no more than mildly, contemptuously irritated at their language until one of them revealed that his father is one of their professors. He said his father, their professor, enthusiastically described them as the hottest girls he'd ever taught, and that he'd shown pictures of some of them to his son: "Did I ever show you the picture he showed of one girl? That one girl's a calendar model! I am so marrying into that shit, bitch!" I found this utterly unprofessional and creeptastic-- how old is his father, anyway? because these women are, like, twenty-five. I'll bet this creep is every day of fifty-- and now I have been fuming over it all day.*

    I mean, I ain't gonna let shit like this stop me from being the best scientist that I can be, or nuthin', but I sure get sick of these attitudes toward women. I get sick of biting my tongue.

    *And, yes, yes, Internet Trolls, it would have been every bit as creepy and unprofessional if a straight woman, a gay man or a lesbian woman had talked this way about their male and female students, respectively, to loud-mouthed and crass offspring eager to divulge the details at the top of their lungs to members of this university's community. The funny thing is that I have yet to experience these last scenarios, but let's just do our best to head you off at the pass nevertheless.

  • Alex says:

    Devil's Advocate: Before you assume the worst of the father, who said that fraternity meatheads always tell the truth? I consider it a coin-toss on whether the father actually did it or not. I don't underestimate the ability of men to be creeps, but I also don't underestimate the propensity of fraternity meatheads to lie.

  • Canadian_Brain says:

    I agree with DM's original point that this 'rule' is obviously to the detriment of women... since they are (as examples above attest) under enormous pressure to not move away from their 'home' environment.

    Until now, I'd always agreed with the 'rule', because i'd met lots of 'inbred' (mainly undergraduate -> grad school) trainees who did fit the stereotype (scared of change, uncreative, have their projects spoon fed by their PI).

    I'm gonna have to reconsider my judgements on some CVs that have passed my way... Can we make a new rule that unmarried men who stay put are terrible/uncreative/boring prospects? I'm still tempted to think there is a kernel of truth to this 🙂

  • drugmonkey says:

    This last comment reminds me- It is always a good idea to start keeping track of all the scientists you know and respect who have violated the rule. Once you start paying attention to CVs you find it is way more common than conventional wisdom would seem to suggest.

    Of course it is most powerful when you find geographical stickiness in one for whom you've already formed an opinion. Blinding and all...

  • Eli Rabett says:

    The rule is not so important wrt scientific perspective, as administrative hoops. Stay at one place and you believe there is only one correct (or absolutely idiotic YMMV) way of doing stuff.

  • Juniper Shoemaker says:

    Alex, that didn't occur to me. I hope you're right. I hope this student was just lying to impress his friend. Straight white male professors pining after nubile, usually white female students 15-25 years their junior strike a deep, deep nerve with me. Especially when they're already married to women of their own age, and especially when they are too clueless to realize that everyone else can tell when they've got a giddy, brotastic crush that will inevitably cloud their professional judgment. Why isn't there a "rule" about this instead of about some dumb shit like whether or not a scientist sucks because he hung out at one institution?

    tl;dr: I hope that you're right and this is just my issue and no one else's. Back to the topic: I agree with DM that it's silly to assume that someone sucks as a scientist solely because they went through multiple career phases at one institution/in one city.

  • Alex says:

    First, let me say that there is (sadly) a very real chance that you're right in your interpretation. That said, at the risk of mansplaining...

    When one guy tells an outrageous story to another guy, and the result of telling this story is that the other guy says "Dude, that's so awesome!" there's a very high probability that the story is either false or highly exaggerated. This story may involve sexual exploits, financial exploits, online hacking adventures, sports, "this one time that these dudes wanted to start something and then we said shit and they said shit and they like ran off because we were going to mess them up", anything about how awesome they were back in high school, their friend who is TOTALLY in Special Forces, their own military career in which they were in Special Forces*, martial arts, this one time they got to meet a celebrity, their friend who works in Hollywood and TOTALLY knows ALL the celebrities, or even (at nerd schools) science experiments (as in "Yeah, dude, I just started working in the lab and they've already got me doing cloning and shit!").

    *A friend who used to work at a bar near a Navy base informs me that every single one of her customers was apparently either a SEAL or a fighter pilot.

  • biochembelle says:

    There are certain institutions where it does not appear all that uncommon for one to spend an entire academic career, the underlying implication that the place is so good you couldn't possibly go anywhere better so why bother leaving. There are individuals who have made this work, people who have been at the same institution from undergrad through tenure. Of course now that you bring it up, DM, all the examples I'm aware of are male. Then again the departments are heavily male-weighted, so interpretation is tough.

  • Joe says:

    At a recent fellowship study section I found that applications were much more likely to get dinged for people staying in the same general field than for people staying at the same univ. It was an issue that was discussed, but it did not seems to be a score-driving factor at this study section.

  • Science 12/16/2011 says:

    Interesting article on Science 'Career Profiles'

    "Translating Scientific Expertise into Publishing Success"

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