Monday, March 14, 2011

Why bother educating girls?

My first PhD research adviser dumped me as a student when I told him I had became engaged (to my current and only husband). He said that I showed a lack of commitment to science by deciding to get married. At the time, he was married but in the middle of a nasty divorce.

Instead of asking him to clarify his position on the commitment of men who marry, I set out to find a better thesis adviser.

Years later, I took my daughter to an educational psychologist/consultant.

"What do families in our situation usually do?" I asked her.

She replied that one parent, usually the mother, quits work immediately to manage the complex educational needs of the child.

That's not going to happen. I am not going to give any more ammunition to guys like that. I owe it to my daughter, and all the women who come after me, not to give up. I also owe it to society for their considerable investment in my education.

I read about 15 years ago that our nation invested over $1M in each military pilot and roughly $0.5M in each physics PhD. It is no coincidence that, during the dot-com boom era, the Air Force stop-loss policy applied mainly to pilots and meteorologists. It takes a long time and a barrel of money to train both.

This is a long introduction to the implications of marriage between two scientists, what physicists call the two-body problem. (The results of the McNeil and Sher survey quoted below were collected in 1998 and were likely skewed by the type of people who chose to respond. I am among the respondents. This is mandatory reading if you want to understand the problem.)
The difficulty of finding two scientific jobs in one place extends beyond physics, of course, and over 68% of married female physicists are married to scientists (compared to only 17% of male physicists). Women constitute only 6% of U.S. physicists overall, but 35% of all female physicists 31 years old or younger, and women represent 14% of that age group. 44% of these women are married (vs. 36% of the men)[1]. This means that, although the number of women who are (or are about to be) at the point of seeking a permanent career position is increasing, almost one third of them will do so with the complication of a spouse who is also seeking scientific employment. Though statistics on this point are difficult to obtain, anecdotal evidence (including the results of our survey) indicate that dual-career employment difficulties lead in many cases to women leaving physics altogether because they cannot find satisfactory employment. This means that institutions' lack of attention to dual-career employment issues contributes to the "leaky pipeline" of women in physics, and thus to the loss of the talents of a large pool of scientists.
How do we can get the most value from our investment in every physicist?

For starters, stop using the tired analogy of the "leaky pipeline". (What am I, crude oil?)

The small number of jobs for physicists makes the job search very stressful, even without the complications of the two-body problem. I am sorry to report that the scenarios described in the "Captive spouses and insulting offers" section is still true today. The scenario that I described in Who's your city? recurred in almost the same way to a friend only a couple of years ago.

In the absence of Sylvia's "love cop", who breaks up incompatible couples, we can learn some lessons from other fields. Medical students can tie their residency applications to another's application on match day. Couples will only be "matched" if both parties are accepted in programs in the same city. Moreover there are also over 660,000 working physicians in this country versus 17,000 physicists. Thus, physicians are more able to select their home cities.

The military also aims (but does not guarantee) to relocate married couples together. The military will offer retraining, if necessary, to keep families intact. Why can't academia and industry show the same concern for families?

Think of ways to connect smart people with positions that need smart people in the same locales as their spouses. With a year or so of retraining, many former physicists are working (and making contributions to) other fields. I am a beneficiary of such a program.

(I was once nearly rejected by an employer for a computer modeling job because my degree was not in engineering. Only after lobbying by a fellow math major contributing to the project was I considered for an internship.)

Physicists move to their jobs rather than select a city and then find a job. Most physicists will end up living far from their family support network. That makes the transition to motherhood particularly perilous.

Even if families do live nearby, they are more likely than average to lack anyone out of the paid labor force who can help. Delayed childbearing means that the health of grandparents may be too frail for the demands of taking care of a newborn.

Women in medicine have a significant advantage as noted in the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook for physicians and surgeons.
Earnings of physicians and surgeons are among the highest of any occupation. According to the Medical Group Management Association's Physician Compensation and Production Survey, median total compensation for physicians varied by their type of practice. In 2008, physicians practicing primary care had total median annual compensation of $186,044, and physicians practicing in medical specialties earned total median annual compensation of $339,738.
Compare and contrast that with the outlook for physicists and astronomers.
Median annual wages of physicists were $102,890 in May 2008. The middle 50 percent earned between $80,040 and $130,980. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $57,160, and the highest 10 percent earned more than 159,400. Median annual wages of astronomers were $101,300 in May 2008. The middle 50 percent earned between $63,610 and $133,630, the lowest 10 percent less than $45,330, and the highest 10 percent more than $156,720.
People working as physicists and astronomers need to have a PhD and, usually, 1-3 postdocs under their belt. Their level of training makes them comparable to a medical specialist earning three times as much. (In the 1960s, when AIP first began salary surveys of physicists, the ratio of MD to physics PhD salaries was 1.1.) Even taking into account higher student loan balances of physicians, the wage differential buys a lot of "back stage support".

So what should I tell my daughter?


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I almost didn't read this post because the answer to the question posed seems so obvious. Great to read such a thoughtful detailed analysis that reminds us all that feminism is still needed.

    On a slightly lighter note, another blog I read also posted today about education vs. marriage, but from a kid's perspective:

  3. Tell her to marry a computer programmer. They are exceedingly portable. ;)

    Seriously, I don't know. It is complex, isn't it? I look at my two girls and hope that they won't have to put up with the same crap I do, but then, I'm not finding the time to really advocate for change, so why do I think it is just magically going to happen?

  4. I'm almost scared to ask, but does this mean that universities don't have spousal employment policies in the US? I know that if you're both looking for tenure-track jobs you're still up the creek, but at least you can take turns or something... I wonder if this is why the local university helps start-ups so much. It must be a lot easier to recruit a professor if, instead of "oh, and we'll find a job for your spouse" there are a lot of jobs that said spouse might be eyeing on their own.

  5. @Christine It means that most US universities do NOTHING to help the spouse find a job in the local market. Absolutely nothing.

  6. My son and his wife live and work in Vienna, Austria. He works for CTBTO and she works for OSCE. When my DIL was expecting, she was granted 12-months maternity leave. With the second child, my son was granted leave to take care of the first child during mother-child hospital stay and recovery.