Scientists pick career over kids

RICE (US) — Long hours and academic pressures keep scientists at the nation’s top research universities from having as many children as they would like.

Published in the journal PLoS One and drawing data from more than 30 research universities and 2,500 scientists, the study shows that twice as many women (45.4 percent) as men (24.5 percent) report they have had fewer children than they wanted as a result of having a career in science.

“In short, academic science careers are tough on family life because of the long hours and the pressure of publishing and grant-getting needed to get tenure,” says Elaine Howard Ecklund,  assistant professor of sociology at Rice University.


In contrast to earlier research the study found that men are just as bothered, if not more so, by the impact of science on family life.

“The fact that having fewer children than desired has a greater impact on men’s life satisfaction is an important finding because most research on the relationship between family life and pursuing a career in science has focused almost exclusively on the lives of women,” Ecklund says.

The study provides insight into the impact of family factors on the projected career track for those just entering the profession.

Among junior scientists (graduate students and postdoctoral fellows), a greater proportion of women than men worry that a science career will prevent them from having a family. Among graduate students, 29 percent of women and 7 percent of men worry that a science career will keep them from having a family.

“It is not surprising that by the time scientists reach the postdoctoral level, women are much less likely than men to report considering a tenure-track academic job at a research university,” says co-author Anne Lincoln of Southern Methodist University.

The study also found that in contrast to men (11.5 percent), a greater proportion of women (15 percent) were dissatisfied with their roles as faculty members. Both men and women with children work fewer hours than those without children.

But the researchers were surprised to find that women with children do not work fewer hours than men with children (54.5 hours for women vs. 53.9 hours for men).

The study also shows that about 25 percent of both men and women are likely to consider a career outside of science entirely due to what is perceived as constraints on their family lives because of their science careers.

“Graduate students who have had fewer children than desired are 21 percent more likely to report considering a career outside science, and postdoctoral fellows are 29 percent more likely to report the same interest,” Lincoln says. “Having had fewer children than desired due to a science career is the only factor that predicts seeking a career outside science.”

Universities should re-evaluate how family-friendly their policies are, Ecklund says. For example, they might leverage additional resources to help foster scientists’ work-family balance, such as providing on-site day care.

“Mentoring programs—for both men and women—may need to focus more on how to balance academic science work with family life.”

The work is supported by the National Science Foundation.

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