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Physics Women in Physics

  1. Jan 6, 2013 #1
    Any women out there with a PhD in physics?
    I was wondering, do any of you have families? When did you start?
    I'm a woman myself majoring in physics. With all the time needed for people in general to receive their PhD... then go through post docs for a few years... then finally, hopefully, settle into some decent paying job... I'd imagine a woman would then like to date, few years later get married, then even more years later would like to have children. But that's A LOT of years for your eggs to go through, I'm assuming. I mean, by the time your 40, your chances of getting pregnant are slim and if you do, your baby's chances of having problems (autism is a big one) soar... I think it's like 1 out of 18, then 1 out of 5 when your 45?
    Anyways. Any women out there to answer this one? Or I guess any men who know of women with PhDs and can give their 2 cents.

    I figured to post In carerr guIdance because this question is revolved around the career choice of the woman with a physics PhD, and thus quiet possibly her career decisions would alter her life's wishes. And more, my career decisions if I'd like children some day.
    Last edited: Jan 6, 2013
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  3. Jan 6, 2013 #2
    I left physics post-phd in order to build some income and (more importantly) add stability to my life so I can afford a family. Its also important to realize that no matter how hard you work, etc, you run a big risk of not being able to get a long-term career in physics. The overwhelming majority of my phd cohort left STEM all together after maybe a postdoc or two- there just aren't that many science jobs.

    Mentors I had met through SWE advised me to look into freezing my eggs while in graduate school because they wished they had. This might be a bit extreme, but maybe not. A phd + two postdocs is more than a decade after college to be making little money. I'd recommend finding a local chapter of SWE, or other group where you can meet women faculty at your institution and get advice. Having face-to-face mentoring is invaluable for these sorts of discussions.
  4. Jan 6, 2013 #3
    I can agree to you about the academIa jobs. But I had a post last month about physics jobs outside the academia, because I was curious what kind of jobs were out there, if any. The reaponses about such jobs weren't I guess the best, but they weren't bad either. I had quite a few examples of jobs that were available outside of academia and a few real-life responses. But what's more interesting is that you're a woman and I heard the field was looking for more women. So in your opinion, is this just a myth?
    And then with the family question. What's your status on the family situation? Are you still deciding to have one, do you have one, decided against, still looking for the right person to have a family with, etc.?
  5. Jan 6, 2013 #4
    Most of the phds I know work in finance, insurance,IT,programming etc. Not traditional science fields. We also finished our phds during the worst economic crises of the last few decades, so your situation might be very different. I do data mining/analytics work, first at an insurance company and now at a consulting company.

    I'm not sure what a field "looking for more women" would look like. Looking for postdocs, I had little trouble, but neither did anyone else from my group (all male). Certainly, as a physics phd applying for engineering/science type work I rarely got interviews. I don't think this is because of gender, just because engineering companies don't really want physicists if they can get traditionally trained engineers.

    Once I self-studied some statistics and had some experience (I landed my first job informally), the job offers in insurance and statistical work came flying in, and the field is also less heavily male (or at least my group is- we are about 1/4 women, and so was the group at the insurance company I worked in). On paper, I still think I'd be a better fit for an engineering type company (and I'd still prefer that work), but you have to go where the work is. But I think this isn't about a bias for or against women, I think insurance companies are willing to train physicists and engineering companies are not.

    I will say that in physics situations I HAVE encountered some blatant sexism, mostly things like PIs saying "if you are planning to have children don't waste my time by taking this job." You don't see this in the private sector, probably because HR departments are better at explaining what you can and can't do in interviews in the private sector.

    I turned down a postdoc in order to avoid a long distance relationship with my then boyfriend, now husband (we dated in late college, and through my graduate school). We've paid off our student debt, and we are planning for children soon (looking to actually buy a home, etc). If I had taken the postdoc, I'd almost certainly have broken up with my significant other (3+ year trans-Atlantic long distance relationships don't work), I'd have moved again (across the world probably) recently, and I'd have made <1/2 of the money I've made in the intervening time period. I wouldn't have the financial stability to have children, and I wouldn't have a partner either.
    Last edited: Jan 6, 2013
  6. Jan 6, 2013 #5
    I'm glad to hear you're happily married then. Your sItuatIon does make sense why you would turn down the oppurtunIty. To further explain "looking for more women", I was told that this field is heavily dominated by males. Women (including minorities) are being strongly encouraged to apply, as I have been told. Even more, to join in more of the sciences. I hope that makes more sense .
  7. Jan 6, 2013 #6
    I think if a field were ACTUALLY trying to attract women, you'd see it as higher salaries for women (as positions compete for them), etc. I've seen a tiny bit of that at the undergrad level, but very little at the postdoc/faculty level. As far as I know, at postdoc level having a kid as a woman is probably a career killer.
  8. Jan 6, 2013 #7
    Wow. Why is that? The long hours? Terrible salary to be supporting a child?
    And I can't say what kind of salaries people are proposing - I never thought to ask, but I also didn't know people would propose higher salaries if they were specifically looking for a particular sex (or race for that matter).
  9. Jan 6, 2013 #8
    It can be very hard to keep productivity up while being pregnant, delivering a kid,etc. If you take maternity leave, even harder.

    Women phds in science are rare, relative to their male counterparts. If every school is actively seeking a woman, then the salaries of women will get bid-up (don't go to school X, we at school Y will offer you this better package...). This doesn't appear to be the case.

    Also: Please don't take too much advice off a web forum. There are groups like Society for Women Engineers that will help connect you with mentoring from people who have gone through everything. This is a tremendously important resource that you really should utilize.
    Last edited: Jan 6, 2013
  10. Jan 6, 2013 #9

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    Comparing salaries is hard, as each researcher's profile is unique. When I was a grad student, the university paper published two stories: one stated that on average, female professors get paid less than male professors, and the other stated that rank-by-rank, female professors get paid more.

    There are some highly-sought after "stars", and while I expect this drives up the salary a bit, the thing it really drives up is the university's contribution to the research program. This can be well over a million dollars, a factor of several above what their male colleagues of similar caliber would get. This doesn't seem to percolate down to even the near-stars, though.

    As far as postdocs, let me give you a scenario: in 2009, Prof. A and Prof. B were ranked similarly - say the 4th quintile of faculty. Each had similar research proposals, and each was funded for a postdoc and a student. In 2012, when the grant renewal was due, Prof. A had made a lot of progress, and Prof. B didn't. It wouldn't be wrong to say that Prof. A ate Prof. B's lunch. And, in 2012, there's not enough money to fund them both. Who should get it?

    Does this change if I tell you that Prof. B's postdoc was female, and in that 3 years had a couple of kids, some difficult pregnancies, and maybe some child care difficulties? And if so, how should this get taken into account in funding decisions: should mail-in reviewers weigh in on this? The panel? The funding agency?
  11. Jan 6, 2013 #10
    I think you're assuming that I'm taking that advice from a web forum.
    I shadowed two women physics women graduate students when I was a junior in high school at the University of Michigan. I now currently attend the school, and was thinking of asking some faculty members about this situation after asking this web forum, because you're right... don't take too much advice from a web forum (I wasn't thinking about kids when I was 16, haha).
    Thank you for the advice about SWE. I'll look into them.
    Last edited: Jan 6, 2013
  12. Jan 6, 2013 #11
    That's a very good question... a tricky one. Three kids would be tough on any job, at the same time nobody told B to have three kids!

    If that example is a real life example, I'm curious to know what the decision was made on Prof. B if you know what happened. I would assume they had let her go though... unfortunately, I can't feel too sorry for her if she knew what kind of work she would be going through while deciding that she could do it with three kids, and realizing what the consequences may be...

    Excuse me: You said in 3 YEARS she had a couple of kids, not in a couple of years had 3 kids. :rofl:
    Last edited: Jan 6, 2013
  13. Jan 6, 2013 #12


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    I heard a couple of interesting interviews of Jocelyn Bell and Mildred Dresselhaus. Both made their careers in physics some time ago, so perhaps what they say isn't relevant any more. But Dresselhaus does comment very briefly on women in physics, and their family lives at 36:00.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b016812j (Jocelyn Bell)
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p012bp6b (Mildred Dresselhaus)
  14. Jan 6, 2013 #13

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    After three years the typical postdoc is over. The thornier question is whether Prof. A or Prof. B should be the one to get the grant renewed.
  15. Jan 6, 2013 #14
    I think its obvious who is going to get the grant renew. The question is should the university (who should be familiar with their faculty member's situation) step in to support a woman who has had a difficult pregnancy,etc and misses time from work, or will the failure to renew the grant end a research career?

    Heck, if a postdoc has a sudden medical problem (a young employee at my previous employer missed nearly a year of work dealing with stomach cancer, which I think would be career ending for an early-career scientist), should they be supported or dropped as soon as the contract ends?
  16. Jan 6, 2013 #15

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    Ah, but it's not Prof. B who was pregnant. It was Prof. B's postdoc.
  17. Jan 6, 2013 #16
    Ah, I misread. I think my recasting of the question still applies.

    In these sorts of instances the question should be a matter of what is the university responsibility (if any) in these situations. Do we support sick or injured (considering a difficult pregnancy a medical condition) postdocs and the professors that they work for? Should untenured professors who have difficult pregnancies, cancer diagnoses, or strokes, etc be supported? Or should that kill a career?
  18. Jan 6, 2013 #17
    If someone were to drop their postdoc to fight cancer, nobody would consider that fact when they get cured and want another position years later? "Oh you had cancer? Sorry, you've been out too long. I hear McDonald's is hiring though"
  19. Jan 7, 2013 #18
    This is a bit more of a general question I think - the difficulties posed by having a career alongside a family. I don't think there's a single answer that suits everybody. It certainly seems that getting a science job is difficult for most people in most areas and the work is hard, but I think from my experience that is probably true of any professional job. I'm not sure a career in physics specifically is any different. Personally I decided not to have children, but did for a while consider egg freezing as a 'just in case' option. Other post-doc friends of mine (in their mid thirties now) in other fields have had busy careers, but still managed to start families from their late 20's onwards. Yes, the risks to mum and babe are usually greater with increasing age but there are other arguments for being an older mum too - greater experience, financial stability etc etc. Its not an easy decision to make, I know, good luck with the decision!
  20. Jan 7, 2013 #19


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    It depends. In order to get funding you need to have a good track-record in terms of publishing. You also need to have a good network of potential collaborators (since most "serious funding" tends to go to collaborations, not a single individual).
    Both of these, publising papers and networking, is difficult if you can't work, regardless of the circumstances or the reason.
    Whether or not the funding agency takes into acount personal circumstances that might explain a "bad" track record varies, but I think the general answer (at least in Europe) is that they don't since proposals are mainly ranked based on grades from referees which (at least in theory) won't have any information about your personal life.

    Things get a bit easier once you have a permanent position. However, unless you manage to bring in external money you could still end up in a situation where you don't have enough resources to do research (experimental work in particular is expensive) and the university/institute tells you that you now have to spend almost all your time teaching or doing admin, which is in effect a career killer if your goal is to do research.

    And yes, academia is quite ruthless.
  21. Jan 7, 2013 #20
    Thanks Rooted :)
  22. Jan 7, 2013 #21
    Everyone would be very sympathetic. But whether we are discussing academia or industry, no one really cares about difficulties in your private life... the only concern is what have you done and what are you likely to do if you get hired. Results are all that matter. No one hires anyone because the person had some bad breaks and deserves a second chance.
  23. Jan 7, 2013 #22
    You make an excellent point. People don't get hired for personal reasons. But does that also mean their career is forever destroyed? For athletes, this may be the case. We've seen it happen when soneone breaks a leg or had a serious concussion. But athletes and physicists.... their work is so different. Where's the fine line drawn for physicists, I guess?
  24. Jan 7, 2013 #23
    I appreciate everyone's time to make a feedback.
  25. Jan 7, 2013 #24


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    But there are many similarities. At least you get a long career if you actually manage to get a permanent job as a physicist:approve:

    I have a couple of friends who are professional dancers/choreographers and their lives are not THAT different from that of a scientist from a career point of view.
  26. Jan 7, 2013 #25
    Really...? I have a friend who's an excellent breakdancer for many years now. Sure it's not her career, but I can't see the similarities that an expert breakdancer has with a physicist.
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