The female brain drain in science

This is the post I’ve been dreading to write, because it hits me so deeply in the heart. But I need to address it because I’ve been wrestling for it for a few days recently (and it crops up from time to time).

I had opted out of the science field to raise my children myself. I worked in the biosciences – working in 3 different specialties (microbiology, forensics, and medical genetics). I worked up until the time my 2 older girls were 2.5 and 9 months in April of 2004. The way things were supposed to work, was that I would start taking classes in the fall. What actually happened was that I got pregnant quite accidentally 3 months after I quit my job and going back to school got tabled. I gave birth to another girl in April of 2005. She is my most content and happy child and loves to make people laugh. Even though she wasn’t supposed to be here (my husband had a vasectomy scheduled the day we conceived her – there was a mix-up in scheduling and it got canceled) and while she seriously put a damper on my well-laid plans, I’m grateful for her presence.

But at the same time, I had a really hard time of raising 3 closely spaced children, one of whom had a lot of emotional regulation difficulties and who turned out to be selectively mute. Being at home gave me the chance to work through a lot of her issues, to learn all about her difficulties and help her improve her coping skills. I’m glad I had the time to do that.

Now that she’s better, and life has started to become peaceful around here, I have time to take stock of what I have lost in terms of professional and personal development. In the quiet moments, I realize that 5 years time is a lot of lost ground. I feel like I’ve painted myself into a corner, first of all by choosing a field (biotechnology) where jobs really are hard to find close enough to home to make work and raising a family a viable option, and second of all by avoiding coming up with a plan sooner to figure out how to get back into the science field.

I know I’m in good company as I’ve read in these reports:

Women Dropping Out of Science Careers

Why Women Leave Science

There’s even a book written about the attrition of women in the scientific field called Leaving Science: Occupational Exit from Scientific Careers by Anne E. Preston.

The sad reality for women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields is that when you have a family there is a huge choice to be made – do I sacrifice my hard-earned career, or do I sacrifice my family? Until our policies reflect more part-time options, job re-training programs and longer leaves of absence for parents, we will continue to have to sacrifice something in order to make room for a family.

For me, for two and a half years, I tried to balance work and family. I didn’t have a choice – my husband was laid off at the time, and my income helped to keep us afloat. Early on after my first daughter was born, it was exciting to feel like I had it all: my career and a family. Initially, I felt very fortunate that my children never had to spend a day in daycare.

It didn’t take too long before that excitement turned to exhaustion when I became pregnant again when my first daughter was 11 months, and my husband found a job where he worked the evenings every other week. Even though my mother in law watched my children, I had to come home and work the second shift. After two and a half years, I had enough. I was chronically late to work because I just couldn’t wake up on time in the mornings (and understandably, that was not looked upon well since I was the senior lab analyst/acting lab supervisor). Soon after I resumed work after my second daughter was born, it became really clear that I lost my passion for what I was doing. My career became just a job, and I longed to be home, at least for a little while.

I was only supposed to be home temporarily. It was supposed to be a sabbatical of sorts, since I really never had any break between college and career (I worked in a microbiology lab from my junior year of college and two years after that), and I had at the most 1 week between job changes.

Now, almost five years of being away from my career, having three beautiful and smart girls, I feel a little restless. I’m grateful to be home, but I want to do something related to what I love – science. I’m a bit uncertain about how much has drained out of my brain since I left work. As pathetic as it sounds, I’m going back to my college textbooks to start reviewing material. I’ve started with a basic chemistry textbook because it contains quite a bit of math, so I can brush up on my calculations as well.

I’ve come to the conclusion that I can’t see myself doing anything else. It has to be something related to science. Whether that’s resuming a laboratory career, or teaching science, I’m not sure. I loved working on technical laboratory equipment like ABI 3100 Genetic Analyzer, troubleshooting and solving technical problems, but I also loved training others and giving tours of the laboratories to students eager to learn about what we did in the laboratory. I had quite the knack for explaining scientific concepts in layman’s terms.

Is there a way to get back into the science field? At this point, I really don’t know. I know it’s not going to be easy. I know I still have to make accommodations for my children and make sure they don’t get neglected while I’m pursuing my next path. The only good news is that we’re not having any more unexpected pregnancies, and for that I’m really grateful.

I’m not going to spend too much time reading depressing articles like this.

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This entry was posted in career, combining science and motherhood, introspection, personal growth and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The female brain drain in science

  1. Lori says:

    I saw your post over at Mothering.com and had to stop by and read your article. I have my degree in geology and worked for a couple years as an Environmental Scientist before shifting gears to high school science teaching. I can completely relate with your article and fears.

    I think for those of us who left science careers in particular to stay home with our children, it becomes even more difficult to re-enter the field because of the rapidly changing nature of science. A few years out of the field is a lot of catching up to do! All I can say is keep your foot in the door, which you are doing by having a blog and networking with others. Have you looked into freelancing at all? Although it can be a juggle while staying at home with your children, the odd science based freelance project keeps your resume up to date and brain in action! For example, I have worked on projects that are related to creating science education materials.

    Good luck, keep your chin up, and like my mom always tells me, this too shall pass!

  2. raisingsmartgirls says:

    Thanks Laurie. I know this comment is over a year old. Apparently it’s one of those I didn’t get the chance to reply to, even though I read it.

    I thought I’d update.

    Now that my last daughter will be attending all day kindergarten in the fall, it will be time for me to work on what I will be wanting to achieve in the future – whether it is part time work or going back for that master’s degree I’ve always wanted. We’ll see.

    I’m looking forward to starting a new chapter, whatever that turns out to be.

  3. Paul Strobl says:

    Great post! Thank you for writing an article on such an important (and relatively unknown outside the industry) topic.

    My wife is a Biologist from South America and I’m an entrepreneur. We’ve been thinking for years of ways to help this problem. Most of the solutions look like they would have to be political in nature (i.e.-if the NIH grantees incentives to hire stay at home moms part time to consult on laboratory experiments and help write papers to be included as authors for their part while they raise their kids). While we’ve hit a lot of big walls and still have some ongoing ideas to see if they would be feasible (like the possibility of having an affiliation virtually), we opened a small virtual company in the meantime that can at least help fill the resume gap and keep stay-at-home scientists in the loop by editing papers. Biologypaperediting.com will launch soon and we’re hoping to build a network of native English-speaking bioscience researchers who are at home raising families to help fill the much needed gap of editing papers for non-English natives who need to publish from overseas…and of course, help these scientists earn some cash in the meantime.

  4. raisingsmartgirls says:

    Paul,

    It’s funny I should be checking my blog today to read your response. I’m currently renewing the effort to re-establish a career. I’ve got some new ideas I hadn’t tried before, and I’m realizing I have to take a very creative approach. I’ve been keeping up with my journal article reading and writing skills for a couple of years. Editing has been one of the ideas I’ve been considering…so, I’m very interested in your company’s service.

    I’m just about to go out to dinner to celebrate my husband’s completion of his massage therapy degree (something he’s wanted to do forever after being a mechanical engineer for 15 years). I’d like to learn more about your company, and I’ll be coming back to find out more about it.

    Thanks so much for replying.

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