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Careers after PhD in Academia – A Woman’s Perspective

Rakhi AcharyyaHear hear, men have 10% more grey brain matter than women, they have better spatial, math and logical abilities, nurture prefers boys to be pro-math/science, girls are usually about 4 years behind boys in logical understanding, and that aunt next door is always telling all moms, “What’s the point of sending her to get a higher degree?”

So these are the odds against women in academia, even more so in the scientific community. But despite the odds, when I was doing my BS in Physics in Delhi University, my class had nearly 15 girls and 2 guys. When I went on to do my MS at IIT, a significant number of high scorers in my class were girls. Oh no! not me. I pretty much survived with an abundance of C’s and D’s.

When I got accepted at Michigan State University in USA for my PhD, one of my aunts called my mom with a marriage alliance. “Not advisable to send your daughter abroad without a man by her side”, she said. My mom, the champ she is, very politely said, “But the whole purpose of letting her pursue a PhD is so she doesn’t need anyone by her side.” My mom, of course as you can see, is my biggest fan. If only she knew that if one is looking to escape society to pursue the bigger degrees in academia, one should be prepared for a somewhat prejudiced world of academia in itself.

Growing up, my world had only distractions. I loved to read, listen to heartbreak radio, hang out with a few chosen friends, and a cunning ability to perform well with minimal effort. All that made me complacent, of course. So when I flunked one of the many many pre-board exams, I got my reality check.

I took to studying, for real, lest I repeat my unfortunate performance at the most defining event of my career (wink wink). The reason I am sharing this embarrassing detail of my life is that’s how I started realizing my aptitude for the subject. I realized I rather enjoyed doing Physics (a feeling that I have had an on again-off again relationship with).

Realizing what subject you follow for a higher degree is probably the most difficult decision one has to make. Preparing yourself for a decade long degree is no cake walk but given enough passion for the subject you can still look forward to a productive learning experience. After all a PhD is the beginning of a fairly independent career in academia.

I mean you are going to get paid, so let’s just call it ‘beginning of your career’ and not just ‘being in school’.

Now how is the experience different for women? Anecdotal at best, I am going to try and paint a picture here.

‘Sheetal’ (name changed) had recently got married and was hoping to start working under a new and upcoming faculty, in experimental Physics. While meeting with the potential adviser, she was asked if she was planning to have any kids. If so, it wouldn’t be safe to have a student who would have to divide her time between her child’s demands and his.

Then there were the times when, while getting hands on training on a scientific equipment, the trainer would always pick out the guys in the group to get the first try. Or the first day of class when you would put on some nice clothes and make up and everyone would assume that you just wandered in from that flower show across the street.

These instances have the tendency to leave a similar bad after-taste like the phone call where my aunt thought it wise to express her lack of trust in me, to my mother. In other words, all a product of prejudice against women.

To a large extent, there is, unfortunately, an undercurrent of feeling of unreliability towards women in science. It could arise from the inability to set aside the belief that men are smarter in logical understanding or that women may not be able to punch in long hours due to family demands.

Not to mention the proverbial biological clock tick. When the rest of the 20 somethings are graduating, getting jobs and then starting families, PhD students are usually preparing for comprehensive exams, seminars, committee meetings and defense.

Graduating between the wrong side of 20s to the dawn of their 30s usually leaves women with only a few years to get that Post Doc, that grant, that permanent faculty position and that lab set up, all while getting that right guy, have and then take care of any child.

Academia moves at a pretty fast pace, so sometimes those few months in maternity leave can be enough for any male counterpart to write a paper or two.

But despair not…not yet that is. India offers many options to write research proposals for both Post Doc positions (while remembering to daily stalk webpages of prospective Post Doc Advisers) and/or starter grants for faculty positions.

Unique for women, among these, are the Government grants for women who have had career breaks (Women of Science grant from Department of Science and Technology), Women Scientists Program and many more for Science and other fields. The grant money is not great but it helps to land jobs. You have an idea, rub it, polish it and send it to the Government genie.

Most Associate or Assistant Professor positions in Universities have an age cap of 35, which maybe relaxed for women. For private institutes, the age rules might be even more relaxed.

And starting salaries can be as high as about 8-10 lakh Rupees per annum. No, no, don’t compare it to your IT friend. Remember the poverty oath that you had taken at the beginning of your PhD.

But academia jobs, once permanent, can pay back in kind. The hours, the flexibility, and the readily available student minions are what any IT slave, at a 24/7 and then some job, can only only drool for.

If you decide to go to Industry instead, you might get luckier with money. Keep an eye out for what are the hot job requirements. If it is ‘skilled in three-legged race’, get your lazy PhD roommate out of bed and spend your Sundays hopping around the parking area. More articulately said, be vigilant. And give yourself time to apply.

Jobs are hard to come by and no-one out there is just letting other candidates go, waiting for your CV. Circulate it among employed friends, get on LinkedIn and join groups that match your interest, and just get those accounts set up for Naukri, Monster, SarkariNaukri and so on. A PhD degree gets noticed.

Since I had jumped right ahead to getting jobs and making babies, I will take a few very long steps back to see what to do to get a PhD. Will it be in India, or abroad?

In India, you have to qualify either one of JEST, JAM, GATE or NET(with JRF) and sometimes individual interviews based on which institute or university you are interested in. Sometimes, you can qualify only the individual institute entrances without having to appear for the above mentioned English alphabet.

For the US, you will need some kind of a spoken English test with a GRE score, sometimes an AGRE (subject based test) score, some recommendations, transcripts and the all insightful piece of document called the Statement of Purpose, to apply. The application process can be grueling and somewhat heavy on the pocket.

Of course, while applying to Universities in the US, if you are completely unable to handle their application fees (~$50), you can request a waiver, which they sometimes comply with.

Life, in a research environment is not flashy and certainly not exciting and rewarding all the time. But it has its moments, and when, after spending a few years researching a topic, you find yourself explaining it to the grocery guy, you know you are ready to graduate.

In conclusion, women have, and-will continue to face, an added challenge of establishing their successful career and the story in academia is not different. However, what is different is the presence of an educated, and sometimes even enlightened, community in academia that works in favor of reason.

And then the day comes when you go to work, just like everyday, after a trying night with a crying kid, and notice the signal that LIGO picked up, and you have just become the team who detected Gravitational Waves.

And maybe then you can tell that aunt next door “the point was to have the chance to become a part of something big”!

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Rakhi Acharyya
About Rakhi Acharyya
Rakhi is a freelance writer, a Physics PhD from Michigan State University, an ex-teacher and a former employee of Corporate America. Follow her on Twitter.

16 thoughts on “Careers after PhD in Academia – A Woman’s Perspective”

  1. People don’t confuse English with PhD happiness shown in this article. It’s not rosy and it’s very general notion in all fields that women are not worth it. why speak about PhD only

  2. Jaya, it may be true for a lot of fields. I can only speak for the field I am a part of. It is most likely an even worse situation in many areas that I am not aware of. What and how women are treated is a much more serious and involved topic that I haven’t even begun to explore here.

  3. On a side track, I would like to comment on how STEM subjects were taught a decade back in India. I would like to believe it’s different now, but talking from my personal experience, it was not geared to evoke interest. ‘A boy is better in maths’ hypothesis was true in my case for the last 34 years. I realise now that I have some form of minor dyscalculia that came in the way in figuring out figures in a conventional science or maths class. It had nothing to do with my gender or level of initial interest. If the same subjects were taught differently than just numbers swimming on the black board with a monotone ‘explaining’ their existence there, I probably would’ve been able to synthesise numerical data better. It was assumed that I’m a girl and I’m not good in maths or physics. The bias strengthened my inability to question the form of teaching. So while I continued to scrape through in Maths class, I scored exponentially well in Biology. While I was thoroughly interested in Physics, I just couldn’t make sense of the numbers. Then slowly the interest died…. or maybe its just dormant.

  4. Its a good perspective to have for any future hopefuls who would like to enter the field of academia, but as you aptly mentioned in your comment – the same challenges are present almost in any field. Having said that, I would have been more interested to read about your perspective on how to be successful in spite of these challenges.. or the ‘lessons learned’ from your life. What would you do differently if you had to do it again?

  5. :):) Great article. But a point to note, academic jobs these days does not let us enjoy those flexible hours and relaxation any more. With flip-book concepts and i-pad teaching, life has become even difficult. And yes, with women in position challenges remain same but pay always reduces as they feel we may anytime declare a career break and hence not serious.

  6. I am in no position to comment on the content of this article. I will leave it to our women friends. I found the sentence “In conclusion, women have, and-will continue to face, an added challenge of establishing their successful career and the story in academia is not different.” telling. It sounded like an accepted wisdom to me. My question however is does it have to? Can we both men and women do something differently to face and challenge our own intrinsic bias? Blatant misogyny though ubiquitous will wane out over time I believe. It is the intrinsic bias that lingers on. How do you think we should move forward and make work places more hospitable for women?

  7. If men were better in terms of being pro-logic and pro-analytic, then why none other than AGATHA CHRISTIE still outsmarts the sales figure of the creations of SIR ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE……:-)

    I think you must try your hand writing a book(non-fiction) on this topic siting both historical and present case studies of your field where women have excelled in past and still has been doing so. Like ur style of wit.Carry on…..expect more inspiring blog posts onward…..

    LIGO full form??…..plz clarify 4 the non-physics people like me….:-)

  8. Great comments and I would probably need to write another article on how to deal with bias against women, at workplace. But to keep the discussion going, I can just respond to a couple of good points made here. Changing someone else’s bias is an impossible task so I am not going to go there. In my experience, I have always had better luck in making myself heard. I would take my grievances to either the individual concerned, or if that didn’t work, then to some authority. But all this is true for blatant misogyny, as Sayak mentioned. When biased behavior is more subtle, it is trickier to handle. My mantra has been to keep things professional.

    The resources, a lot of women in such situations, can make use of are the support groups in almost all Universities/Institutes, such as Women in Science, Women in Academia, Women Professionals, etc. Any wide scale attempt at a change in attitude will take time and will need resources of such organizations. As always, laws are there, but implementation is lacking. So a gross injustice, like reduced pay as the one Moumita mentioned, should be brought to attention to authorities. Proofs may be hard to find but patterns are easily noticeable. You’d be surprised to know that even patterns of injustice can be used in legal measures, not just blatant proofs.

    And Debashish, LIGO-Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory. I am sorry, I should have made it clear for non physicists. Success is not just accounted for by grey brain matter and one sex’s proclivity to a certain field. It is a cumulative effect of nurture, interest, passion, circumstances, resources and luck. The point being, if everything else is there women will excel if the circumstances are right. Unfortunately there are many who don’t have that available. If there was one Christie, there were probably a hundred more who didn’t get that chance.

    That’s the intention. To probably be able to reach out to women and make them realize that there are other’s like them who have tried it. Maybe it will be an inspiration, who knows.

  9. Great read, Rakhi! It is hard to keep the spirit up like you. We miss you here. Congratulations on being a part of something big. Wish you all the best!

  10. Firstly, a composed and lucid article, then stimulated some thoughts.

    Growing up in India, while I had interests in STEM-subjects in general, Literature and Arts had a greater appeal to me. I did ok with Science subjects, and they were and still are remarkably poorly taught in the formative years of one’s intellectual life (e.g. Arunima’s comment), for a while I did mull over taking up English literature for higher studies and as a possible profession. Oddly enough, this very contemplation lead me to softly confront the undertone towards women.

    Soon it became clear, being a man, “feminine dispositions” aren’t expected of me; Arts and Literature are certainly those. Not from any particular person, but there was a social vibe too arresting to miss: The goal of a man is to provide, and what better to indulge in than that promises in salary. This mirrors the connotation of the “aunt next door”, in a somewhat indirect and perhaps less invasive way.

    • It is true. There is a reverse bias as well. The gender roles are so wired in our brains that we don’t even realize how a seemingly benign children’s rhyme also perpetrates the bias. “Mummy ke roti gol gol, Papa ka paisa gol gol”. For non-Hindi speakers, it is a rhyme teaching kids the circular shape with comparing it to the round Indian bread, Mom is cooking, and the round pennies Dad is earning.
      Why not start early?

  11. Good writing. Looking forward for articles from rich experience abroad during your research, your time spent in the ‘best place to work’ corporation and now back into research at home.

  12. Very well written Rakhi. Gives a perspective in a light which can be taken to the direction where the reader wants to go. I appreciate that you are working towards bringing about a change by being there and not just talking about the change.
    Keep up the good work and good luck


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