A reflection on retaining talent in academia

February 07, 2022

Over a year ago, I participated in a discussion panel for faculty to share insights on what it’s like to be in academia. As a newly minted tenure-track junior faculty, I was eager to share my thoughts and my personal experiences in case they would be of relevance or use to anyone in the audience. The attendees were mostly PhD students as well as some post-doctoral fellows who were interested in the academic trajectory. A senior male faculty member on the panel noticed and remarked on how there were so many young women in the audience. The lack of women in academia, particularly the in the STEM fields, remains readily apparent when you look around. It was even apparent on this faculty panel where I was the only woman. So the senior male faculty member sought to encourage these young women in the audience by telling them: “Don’t give up.” “Don’t give up?,” I thought to myself before getting mad. In response to this platitude, I gave semi-coherent tirade that I have since composed into a more eloquent response. This is what I had wanted to say. This is what I will strive to say next time.

When I hear you tell these aspiring young scientists “don’t give up” I am reminded of my friends.

So many of them started their journeys because they too loved science and research. They too wanted to pursue their intellectual curiosities, contribute fundamental scientific discoveries and innovations to the broader community, and mentor the next generation. So they too pursued their internships, PhDs, and postdoctoral trainings with this goal in mind to perhaps one day become an independent investigator or professor. Just like us.

But one by one, I’ve watched my friends leave academia to pursue new paths in industry, often abandoning science and research altogether. And I’m sure they too have been told many times: “Don’t give up.” As if only they didn’t give up so easily! As if only they had bigger dreams!

But the reality is, for my friends who left, they didn’t give up. They didn’t need to dream big. They had big dreams. But those big dreams were deterred. Those big dreams were deterred by bullies who consistently undervalued and refused to acknowledge their merit, expertise, and contributions. Those big dreams were deterred by toxic work cultures that forced them to choose between their careers, their families, and their mental health. Those big dreams were deterred by institutions that protected individuals with influence and money rather than the victims of their harassment. And so, under these external pressures, those big dreams evolved and gave way for new dreams.

So my friends chose to pursue these new dreams and new careers outside of academia. And when I look at their lives now, they are still doing challenging and fulfilling work. All in all, they are perfectly fine. And when I reflect on their journeys, I think: Wow what a shame that academia did not do all that we could do to retain these talented scientists. If only we could have been so lucky for them to stay.

So please. Stop telling these aspiring young scientists “don’t give up.” And start telling yourself to work harder to retain them. I know I will.