What Is Turning Off Women To Academia?

The Guardian reports on high rates of disenchantment with academia among PhD students (and women PhD students in particular) by the time they are several years into their programs:

Men and women show radically different developments regarding their intended future careers. At the beginning of their studies, 72% of women express an intention to pursue careers as researchers, either in industry or academia. Among men, 61% express the same intention.

By the third year, the proportion of men planning careers in research had dropped from 61% to 59%. But for the women, the number had plummeted from 72% in the first year to 37% as they finish their studies.

If we tease apart those who want to work as researchers in industry from those who want to work as researchers in academia, the third year numbers are alarming: 12% of the women and 21% of the men see academia as their preferred choice.

This is not the number of PhD students who in fact do go to academia; it’s the number who want to. 88% of the women don’t even want academic careers, nor do 79% of the men! How can it be this bad? Why are universities such unattractive workplaces?

Reasons why.

Personally, I mostly hated graduate school and found it a soul sucking experience in many ways. If I was not so stubborn about finishing what I started, or did not have my identity so tightly wrapped up in being a philosopher, or did not love teaching so much, or was not able to ignore dire warnings about the state of the job market or the standards academia was going to judge me by, then I probably would have wanted out too. But I never did.

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • C.C.Fuss

    This is striking a very loud chord with me.
    I’m just as stubborn as you are. In fact I stuck it out for seven years in a philosophy faculty before deciding to leave. I’m now midway through a transition out of academia – I left my tenured position for a part-time contract in a different faculty, and am retraining to get a private sector job.

    At the point that I decided to leave, I had a lot invested in an academic career, which made it almost impossible to admit I’d made a terrible choice. But all of the factors mentioned in the link were still there: the isolation, lack of collegiality, overly aggressive competitive environment, the casual and oblivious sexism, the unmanageable (and ever increasing) workloads coupled with ever more unrealistic expectations, the constant reminder that you were considered a failure if you weren’t bringing in external funding and putting out paper after paper after paper. Never mind the effort you put in trying to teach well, or supervise and mentor graduate students, or do community outreach and committee work.

    (The factors mentioned the Susan Haack interview were also a big problem: in order to publish in philosophy, you have to adopt this very insular and narrow view, and I felt there was just no point to all the work I was doing).

    After my third nervous breakdown (something I’d never experienced before I took this job) I had to admit that things weren’t ever going to get better, and took steps to try to rebuild the mess I’d made of my life. I really do wish I’d never done the philosophy PhD, and I much more wish I’d never gotten, or taken, a faculty job. I’m working very hard to extricate myself, and I’m just glad that I still have a chance to do this.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      I completely understand how you feel, C.C. Thanks for sharing your experience. I want to make clear that the factors that kept me in academia when I was a graduate student are not necessarily all there anymore and at this point I am no longer invested entirely in the academy emotionally and identity-wise. I am still attached to being a philosopher but if staying in the academy means not doing the philosophy I find edifying and meaningful and relevant and effectual, then I don’t see why I need to stay in the academy. This is all to say, I didn’t mean at all to negatively judge those who lose the stubbornness I credited(?) myself with (whether they lose it while graduate students or afterwards).

    • C.C.Fuss

      Hi Daniel,

      Thanks. I didn’t perceive any negative judgement, so no worries!
      In any case, I still have all that stubbornness, I’ve just managed to redirect it to acquiring some new, more practical, training. :-)

      And yes, I think that the big question is whether the things for which you came into academia – e.g., to think about interesting and important questions, and to teach other people how to do this – can still be done in academia.

      For me at least, that wasn’t the case. (At least, not in the philosophy department – I’m actually getting more philosophy done in my new faculty!). The pressure to publish a high quantity of papers means being forced to spend a lot of time churning out trivial little arguments, mostly negative, rather than really thinking your ideas through and developing a positive position. Needing to meet citation metrics means engaging with whatever everyone else is nattering on about, whether or not it’s interesting or important. And you can’t really educate your students when your class load is too high, and the only thing that’s really valued is publication, so that you’re actually punished for taking time to educate students instead of holing yourself up in your office writing papers.

      In the end, I realised that to get anywhere, I would have to turn myself into someone that I didn’t want to be; i.e., a selfish asshole who didn’t care about her students and who worked obsessively all the time simply getting a large volume of pointless papers into journals. Add to this the fact that banging my head against this brick wall for seven years has possibly permanently broken my brain, and it became a lot easier to consider leaving!

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Exactly. I’ve refused to write the trivial papers for the sake of quantity, etc. I’ve just decided to blog instead. And I taught 17 classes this school year so depth of scholarship is just impossible. But I have my summer off to try to write a book that will be meaningful to me and to people mostly outside academia but hopefully within too. But for the time being, I’m not worrying about the tenure track and figure that if academia does not want me doing the kind of work I’ve been committed to this whole time (stuff that means something to me and to larger issues outside niche specializations in philosophy), then I’m not going to compromise and fit that mold. It’s just not that worth it to me to get into the establishment. And, quite honestly, I don’t think I could do it if I tried. I’m just not the kind of philosopher the profession is looking for.

  • watry

    I’m an undergrad. There are only three things I’ve ever felt that I was decent at: music, teaching, and academic pursuits. (I’d originally planned a music education degree, but it fell through.) So yes, I’m looking at grad programs now and planning on a PhD.

    I’m afraid.

    In a number of ways, I’m very lucky. Anthropology makes for less overt bias (I’m female and a variety of other non-racial minorities), and my subfield is less glutted than others.

    But I’m already seeing things that make an academic career look less attractive. One of our adjuncts was making minimum wage. The college refuses to let the department hire another full-timer to make up for bureaucratic weirdness. And that’s just economic things.

    All this mostly to say that if this comes as a surprise to universities, they’ve been willfully blind.

  • http://realitybasedbrainponies.wordpress.com/ Brony

    In my case I chose to leave. Finding out you still had ADHD as an adult really sucks. I loved science, but I could not compete.

    Forget ADA claims too. That would just rub EVERYONE the wrong way. Forget the purpose of the act. In an environment that competitive you are a drag, period.

    I would have hated the human that I would have been forced to become to do what I loved.

  • Crip Dyke, MQ, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden

    I’ve done quite a lot of academic work. I have my publishing credits. I didn’t take advice and didn’t record all the talks and lectures that I give, so my CV is only about 8 pages, which is 4 pages long than a tenure-track professor that I greatly respect at the institution I’m leaving.

    I’ve taught courses. I’ve published. I’ve made substantial contributions. I’ve been cited. I’ve keynoted one international and several national conferences.

    And I can’t stand the leadership in my chosen field. I have plenty of colleagues whom I respect and with whom I get along quite well. I’ve had tea with them, had them over to my house, and done pretty well at making friends. But despite [great?] respect among my peers, I am not welcome in the offices that would make it possible for me to teach full time – something at which I consistently excel, if student reviews count as evidence.

    I’m moving on to get a law degree. I love teaching. I would be happy to teach law and ethics to students either at the graduate or undergraduate levels. But by making this shift, I not only have to wait until I have a law degree, but no lawyer is allowed to teach without making a substantial contribution after joining the bar. What I’m quite good at – teaching – is exactly what I won’t be able to do for another 8 years, at least.

    Why this? Well, there are in fact quite a number of reasons, not least the fact that I’ve always loved questions of ethics and while I haven’t always loved the law, I’ve always been very interested in it as an arena of applied ethics.

    But more than anything, the past few years have convinced me that in the larger world of feminism and gender studies, good specialized knowledge appears to trump poor basic knowledge. In other words: we allow people to teach gender related ethics, history, psychology, etc. without being consistent about what, in fact, is meant by gender. We introduce standard definitions but then do not use those definitions in lecture. Rather, we use sex or gender or gender identity and even other terms quite interchangeably after telling students that these concepts are distinct. We assert that such a thing as “female pronouns” exist despite, in my experience, pronouns being quite without genitals altogether.

    In other words, like too many other disciplines, we have no discipline in our discipline. And those who want to improve the discipline are hedged out.

    This happens in other fields as well: psychology teachers that use “defense mechanism” as a colloquial rather than Freudian expression (and specific defense mechanisms like projection likewise) are a good example. The harder the science, however, the less latitude there is to get the basics wrong. In a field as socially based as ethics or gender (or ethics in gender, to be more precise about my own position in the intersection), there is great room for instructors to be so imprecise as to be just plain wrong…and never, ever, be called on it.

    In fact, I’ve seen many, many examples of workshop leaders or instructors asking for a go-round of preferred pronouns and never once seen any one other than myself call out the fact that using fe/male in relation to pronouns is an act of conflating sex and gender. This is particularly bizarre since all of feminism and all of gender studies relies on this ability to distinguish sex from gender. The confusion is so great that people have begun using “biological gender” for sex because they realize that they say gender out of habit, and instead of training themselves out of it, just start appending a word meant to make sense out of something entirely non-sensical.

    I critique this. I dissent. It clearly does a disservice to the overall field to allow the people who train students to identify the difference between naturally developing bodily characteristics and social choices to be completely incompetent at distinguishing the word for the first, sex, from the word for the second, gender, and in the process reconfuse those students. Yet how can you say that the field to which one belongs is so complacent as to fail to consistently employ its own definitions without getting push back? You can’t. I’ve made critiques gently and they have been ignored. I’ve made critiques privately and they have been embraced privately…without changing public behavior.

    The long and short of it is that the academe – at least in my field – does not value accountability to its educational trust. The fact that students are being miseducated is explained away as an effect of greater society: this greater effect explains why professors “make mistakes” and why students are confused. However, it doesn’t explain why a discipline whose self-appointed task is to correct those mistakes would neglect them when made by its own members.

    I can’t remain in the narrow field I occupy – even with more education or more publishing – and gain respect at the level necessary to institute needed changes. In fact, it drives me nuts that I would need to gain any respect in order to spark needed changes. The ideas should speak for themselves.

    But they don’t. In academia, ideas, arguments, research doesn’t speak for itself. This is the unfulfilled promise and gender discrimination is only one aspect of how it manifests.

    I can’t stay on my original path because I cannot ethically refrain from speaking out about the hypocrisy of gender studies…and if I speak out, even in the attempt to better the field, I am branded (I have been branded!) a traitor to it.

    There are other issues, but it comes down to this: work is not good or ill because it is good work or bad work. Who produces it matters even when it shouldn’t. Moreover, the discipline that asserts that it matters when we conflate sex and gender simultaneously asserts that it isn’t a problem that we hire professors who conflate sex and gender in the classroom. Either this is important or it isn’t. it shouldn’t magically cease to matter because the person conflating sex and gender helped pass an ordinance or a statute, or won a case, or did interesting research on gender and violence in West Africa, or has been a respected local activist, or has simply been on faculty for some longish time.

    It matters or it doesn’t. The ideas are successful or they aren’t.

    I’m tired, I’m bone tired of being told that I’m right in private and being told nothing is going to change and that I’m rocking the boat when I speak in public. If I’m wrong refute me, (and certainly don’t tell me I’m right when in private!) but don’t shout the ideas down because they imply that actual professors, even ones with tenure, might, in fact, actually have to do *ongoing work to improve the way that ideas are presented to students*.

    Asking those with tenure to do work is not tantamount to denying tenure.


    Obviously I have some feelings about this. Anyway, I’m moving on. I may work entirely outside of academia after getting my law degree. I may litigate or work within government or even run for office. I may never teach a single course again. I may never lecture for a single class again.

    I wouldn’t want it that way, but academia in the fields most directly related to my work (in increasing order: psychology, sociology, political science, philosophy, and gender studies) are all closed to me, at least in the immediate future. We’ll see if that changes in 3 or 5 or 8 years, but I’m not hopeful. An institution that is resistant to accountability is unlikely to change in single-digit years.

  • iknklast

    I am a Ph.D., and a woman in academia. I can testify that I actually wanted to go into academia when I got out of school, but a couple of years in, I realized that the field was draining all my energy, sapping all my vitality, and leaving me disillusioned permanently. Unfortunately, if you put in enough years, you get to a point where leaving will so stunt your ability to retire that you just stick it out. I’m stuck, because my age prevents a change at this time.

    The hours are worse than impossible. The administration treats us as though we’re assembly line workers or fry cooks without a brain cell between us. Decisions about things like curriculum and software which affect our everyday life are handed down from on high by people who have never taught and have no idea how it will impact our classes, nor do they care. From below us, we encounter the scorn, the sneers, and the total disinterest of undergrads who are in school for the purpose of getting a diploma, not an education, and who are unprepared even for high school, let alone for college.

    It is a world that is often perceived by those on the outside as being full of privelege and high reward; in reality, it lacks prestige, it lacks financial rewards (unless you’re at a truly prestigious university), and it lacks true intellectual stimulation. It becomes a mindless drudgery, where you move through every day just praying (pardon the religious imagery) for it to be over.

    I used to wonder why instructors seemed so uninterested in their classes, and why they rarely updated their lectures. Now I understand, and I have to fight the urge to do the same myself, just so I can have a life of my own, and complete my interesting research without dying of overwork.

    • iknklast

      Oh, and the double whammy – as a woman, I have to stand in front of a classroom full of young males who have been brought up to believe that I am less than they are, no matter how much I have managed to accomplish. My accomplishments fade into dust the minute they see I am female.

      The subtle sexism at the top is also disheartening. I’m reasonably sure my associate dean has never taken it upon himself to instruct one of my male colleagues how to rewrite an assignment (I ignore him; he has no knowledge in my field). I co-teach a class with a male instructor, and I have witnessed first hand how much more deference he gives to the male instructor, who is in a more traditionally female field, and urges me to bend my class to that of the other instructor (I am in a traditionally “male” field). It makes everything that much more difficult, because he can’t even see that he’s doing it. It just comes naturally to him, and none of the males are able to recognize the different messages they give the female faculty.

    • C.C.Fuss


      A big yes to everything you say! (Except: it may be more possible than you think to get out – I thought it was too late for me, too, but on investigating was pleasantly surprised).

      The administrative interference in our teaching is truly infuriating; at the moment I’m a one-woman crusade against it. (Since I’m not intending to stay in academia I don’t have anything to lose by it, and I am well and truly angry about it). But all my efforts to get my philosophy colleagues to fight the latest addlebrained directive were useless: they all agreed it was stupid and counterproductive, they just didn’t care, because teaching was unimportant to them.

      And agreed on the lack of intellectual stimulation. Since starting a new degree in a completely unrelated field, I’ve remembered how rewarding it is to be challenged and extended, and this made me realize how much I was missing it.

      (Unfortunately, also agreed on the gender difference in treatment, by people who will not see that that’s exactly what they’re doing.)

  • pipenta

    Subtle sexism at the top? Subtle?

    It is worse than in the private sector, which surprised me. There are fewer checks on the system. And if the institution in question is public, well however good the laws are to prevent unfair practices in the rest of society, government institutions are notoriously bad at policing themselves. In some places, publish or perish only works to a point. The institution exists, in the eyes of those in power, to provide a big fat sinecure once they are at the top, even if hard work and scrambling was required to get them there in the first place.

    And if they didn’t value the workers at the bottom to begin with, now? With the economy the way it is? They can dump your ass for no reason at all, no matter how well you do your job, if you aren’t kissing their ass with all your might. It is insanely demoralizing.

    • pipenta

      I meant it is worse than in business. And then it is amplified even more when we are talking about state schools and institutions.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1468751142 Kevin

    You act as if it’s a bad thing.

    The answer as to why PhDs would leave academia for the private sector is exactly the same answer Willie Sutton gave when asked why he robbed banks.

    “Because that’s where the money is.”

  • okstop

    I guess I’m a weirdo – I actually like academia. I did the private sector thing, first with a long string of miscellaneous jobs and then with a real, grown-up career in computers, and I hated it. Academia has it’s headaches, but I’d take it any day of the week and twice on Sundays over the private sector. Mind you, as a white male I realize that I am lucky enough to avoid a lot of the things that make academia inhospitable for others, and I’m doing my damndest to fix what I can, where I can, in that regard. But it just keeps coming back to one thing for me – at least in academia, my colleagues think that knowing things, that learning, and that education are actually worth something. I can’t tell you how often – even in my rather technical field! – genuine expertise and the value of scholarship was derided in favor of the latest business-speak gibberish. I couldn’t take it.

  • Arkady

    “Because that’s where the money is”

    And the reasonable hours, and the HR attitude that normal employment laws apply…

    My sister is also in academia (humanities postdoc), and had some trouble with the HR department at her uni when she wanted to go back part-time after major surgery. They kicked up a fuss despite the fact that her boss was perfectly happy with it and she was entitled to do so under UK employment law.

    Sigh, I’m in the final stages of my PhD and looking to get out of academia as soon as I can. Went into virology, which had plenty of industrial options when i started the PhD… not so much now, with many big pharma labs in the UK shut down. Current plan is to go for NHS, repetitive work with 3 years more training but a more permanent job at the end of it. Not the only one thinking of it though so might be very competitive…

  • ischemgeek

    Speaking as a grad student planning to leave academia in a few months, here’s why:

    I am expected to be a full time student, full time research assistant and full time teaching assistant. I’m paid, however, as if my two jobs are part time. The tuition that comes out of my pay, on the other hand, is removed as if I’m full-time. So on paper I get 16,000/yr to live on with my funding. In reality, I get more like $9,000 to live on (and out of that also has to come supplies like books, pens, etc). I wouldn’t care much, except that I was told my tuition would be taken care of when I enrolled, that I would have enough to make ends meet, and that the hours I’m allowed to work outside of my graduate studies are severely limited (100 hours a year – which works out to about two hours a week). Further, in my city, food and rent have since I started my studies more than doubled and increased by 50%, respectively. So to make ends meet, I tutor under the table with the knowledge that if my school knew how much time I spend tutoring, I could have my pay docked or disciplinary action taken. But it’s tutor or eat only once a day. I’ll tutor.

    By my former supervisor (and current supervisor to a lesser degree), I am expected to have positive results, all the time. Even when my experiments don’t work. If the direction given by my supervisor leads to negative results, this is seen as a personal failing on my part. If I ignore direction and get positive results, I am upbraided for ignoring my supervisor, and then told to go back to doing the thing that hasn’t been working for the past six months. When I finally manage to convince my supervisor that it’s not going to work (by ignoring direction again and spending a month at calculations and dodging him at every turn so he can’t order me back to trying to drive a nail with a screwdriver), I am chastised for wasting time, being lazy, and not having done it sooner. When it comes to writing: If I ask for direction, I’m not thinking it through, but if I write it myself and then show a completed rough draft, I’m critized for not seeking earlier input. In other words, I’m damned if I do, damned if I don’t, and damned if it just doesn’t work.

    On the topic of stuff not working, student success seems far more related to their luck in being given a good project than actual ability. I see people who show up twenty hours a week and who don’t have a clue about their material being basically spoonfed their PhD – when people like I and a few friends of mine are constantly threatened with having our funding cut off if we don’t magic up some positive results.

    “Subtle” sexism? If it was only the subtle, the other female grad students and I wouldn’t be so damned bitter. Blatent stuff still is rampant in my experience. If, in the 21st century, a woman can be told, with a straight face, that she’s expected to be lab group housekeeper in addition to her normal duties as a grad student (not in those words, but, yes, this happened to a collegue of mine. I was there when her supervisor told her this), and not a single action is taken by high-ranking members of the administration when they’re informed of it, and further, we here through the grapevine that this is the rule rather than the exception if you’re working under someone of that supervisor’s level of prestige, women aren’t gonna wanna stay in that field. And it’s everywhere, including stupid places that you wouldn’t think about unless pointed out.

    Case in point: My department by population is 49% women (though a disproportionate number of the tenured professors and titled position holders are male). If you add undergrads, the number rises to 57% women. There are twelve bathrooms in the building. Eight of them are for men only. The remaining four are for women. This makes sense, how? When it was pointed out that maybe some of the bathrooms should be converted to reflect the demographics of the department, we were told no. Why? It would be “too inconvenient to change.” Well, how inconvenient do you think it is to be a woman who has to use the bathroom at the start of lunch break when all the bathrooms have lineups out the door, while the mens bathrooms are empty because there are more than enough for them?

    Add in the endless power games, department politics, and mean-spirited gossip, and I will not weep for academia when I leave. And I’m not likely to return any time soon, either.

    And here’s the hell of it: I like teaching. I like writing. I like doing research. When I started, I wanted to be a professor some day – low pay and all. If academia weren’t such an energy-draining, soul-sucking, hostile environment, I still would.