wrote a thoughtful post titled : "Why today’s long STEM postdoc positions are effectively anti-mother". She's on a search committee that has gotten applications showing that many applicants received their PhD more than five years ago, and some a lot more. Her central point is that the long time between degree and tenure track job impacts women disproportionately, for reasons that have been talked about at length: the ticking biological clock, the costs of postponing reproduction, the costs of daycare, the value of a stay-at-home partner, etc. These things are problems (and some are also problems for men who are involved in raising their families, not to mention gay male couples). I do not think, however, that some of her suggestions make sense.
Her first suggestion:
Award several thousand dollars to female postdocs with children when they go on the academic job market. This can cover high-quality childcare, travel with children or living costs for family caretakers.
First off, who is awarding this money? The PI paying the salary? Maybe some of the BSD labs have this kind of cash sitting around. I sure don't. The universities hiring the postdoc? Lots of luck with that one, when they are busy cutting essential fringes to postdocs, when we are arguing about what salary PDs should be making. Another several thousand dollars? The question now arises, who else should have a couple of thousand dollars to go on the job market? People from disadvantaged backgrounds? But then, should women from the owning class get this anyway?
But being realistic is not necessarily the same thing as being right or wrong. Noted.
Create competitive internal scholarships to fund a research technician for a year, when a female postdoctoral fellow is pregnant, or with infant. The technician would carry on the fellow’s experiments during the time she must be away from the bench.
Again, there is a problem with funding. Right now, at my almost-MRU, we are having trouble covering some of the lab teaching. Arguments about even hiring a postdoc to half-teach, half-research (not a bad position for someone who wants to go into teaching) are met with financial arguments. Competitive? who pays? The university? They're not even willing to hire to cover the teaching, I judge it highly unlikely that they would consider this.
Another problem, from a social justice perspective, is that the "hire a tech" solution just kicks the can down the road. Who are these "one year technicians"? People who will have to leave their job after a year? Countries with maternity replacements have a new class of under-employed, transient, insecure young people who will take a job for a year. In America, these people are often called "adjuncts". It has been argued that there are lots of young people who want a job for a year, before med school, to get experience. I would argue they make lousy techs. I'd also argue that if you believe this, you've not talked to young people who are insecure about the future.
Kozorovitskiy's argument that
"The cost of some of these programs would be pennies in the budget of our great research institutions"
is, at best, naïve. Do the math: a technician is anywhere from $30 to 80K, plus fringes, depending on location, skill and what's needed. And if you're at a uni where the budget is in 100's of millions, yes, that can be "pennies". But these costs get pushed down to the department or division level. I know, and have known, what the budget looks like at that level, in medical schools, but even more so in A&S departments (like Chemistry & Physics). That kind of money just doesn't exist. If it does, its the start-up package for the next hire. It's bridge money for the almost-tenure assistant prof who didn't get funded, but needs to run more experiments for the pubs that will make or break them. It's money to hire (ugh) an adjunct to cover teaching so that the newly-tenured associate professor can take a sabbatical and ... well, recover, renew, refresh their mind. A department never has enough money. The decisions as to what to cover are, in right-thinking departments, painful, and in others, brutal.
But that doesn't mean this isn't the right thing to do. Hard verging on impossible is not the same as right. We'll come back to this.
She also says:
Moreover, such programs are likely to have immediate measurable impact on the success of women postdocs transitioning to independence in academia.
No, I don't think so. I suspect it will help the few women who have access to such programs. But immediate? Success is more than the transition to a job (although that is a measurable problem and a measurable outcome of change). Again, is this the success that is important and immediate to a department?
The institutions that take the lead will attract the top STEM postdocs.
This is even dreadfully more naïve. Yes, a great program like this would attract great, if not top, postdocs. But if these are already the BSD [aka top] institutions, they don't have trouble attracting the best right now. If the institutions are not top tier, and already having trouble attracting "top postdocs", would such a program make more or less difference than giving this money to their brightest young POC, URM or female faculty and telling them to hire an extra postdoc or tech?
Which brings us back to the problem of what is right or good or in the best interest of a department that is committed to diversity, supporting women (and URM, POC and others that are not part of the academic milieu in proportional numbers). From the perspective of a department that is interested in promoting women, and increasing women's presence in STEM, supporting postdocs is just not going to be the most effective and measurable way to so. Measurable counts here. It really does. If you want a program that costs money, you have to show that it works. Gone are the days when money is just strewn about the landscape. Accountability and results are part of T32's and they are part of internal initiatives. Successful postdocs won't get counted in the accountability numbers. Faculty getting tenure, publications and grants are. Hiring female faculty, supporting those faculty, and providing them with the resources for success is always going to be higher priority that supporting postdocs who are going to be perceived as transient.
Her article concludes with an important and heartfelt plea:
We should ensure that the odds in academia, however low overall, aren’t stacked against female aspiring scientists who hope to have families.
Yes, yes, a thousand times yes.
The world is not a fair place. When I was starting grad school (having worked through college), there was a guy my age, Howard, but already a couple years ahead of me. He was rich. He wanted to do ecology. He had spent his teen years scuba diving in the Caribbean, and doing what is now called "unpaid internships". He did lots of research through college, when I was working in the library, and life-guarding at the pool, and coding social science studies by hand for mainframe analysis. No question Howard was Good, capital G. He was, is, bright creative and has totally changed his subdiscipline. He has trained generations of men, women, URM, POC and just about anyone who was interested in his work. But he never worried for one moment about what he would do or having kids with a nanny. Do we tax Howard to the hilt? (go read Kurt Vonnegut's short story Harrison Bergeron).
The world is not a fair place. Things need to change, and even change faster than they have been. But putting forward unrealistic suggestions isn't going to change anything. I can easily imagine that The Boys In Charge at my new almost-MRU would look at these suggestions, make some grumbly noises and say "wouldn't it be wonderful, but...". And then throw the baby out with the bathwater, as it were, and loose the whole point about needing to reform postdoctoral programs.
The world is not a fair place. The problem here is not even so much that long postdocs hurt women who want families. Long postdocs are a problem that hurts everyone who wants to have a more secure job, a "real" job and move on. The question becomes why are there long postdocs and what can we do about them? And I come back to the "too many mouths at the trough" problem, which leads to the idea that the whole concept of postdoc needs to be rethought, reworked and reimagined.
Finally, I thank my Very Wise Postdoc, who read this, offered good suggestions and disagreed with me over and over. Everyone needs a postdoc like this.