A New York Times Upshot article has been making its way around my Facebook and Twitter feeds recently: “So Many Research Scientists, So Few Openings as Professors.” The U.S. is overproducing Ph.D.s in STEM fields, the story goes, and we need to talk about the fact that not all science, technology, engineering, and mathematics graduates end up as tenured professors at research universities.
That message certainly seems to ring true for me. The academic job market for mathematicians has been pretty grim the past few years: I went through two unsuccessful rounds of applications before getting a postdoc, and I know a lot of good mathematicians who had to leave academia because the jobs just aren’t there. I wish—and I think I’m not alone in this wish—I had known more about career options outside of academia when I was in graduate school and considering my next move. (I eventually left academia to pursue writing full time.)
The article offers a solution:
For those thinking of science as a career, said P. Kay Lund, director of the division of biomedical research workers at the National Institutes of Health, perhaps the best thing would be for a mentor to sit down with them and have a heart-to-heart talk, preferably when they’re still undergraduates.
That sounds OK on paper. One solution to the problem of too many applicants for too few jobs is to lower the number of applicants, and lowering that number from the get-go by decreasing the number of STEM graduate students would be one way to do it. But this suggestion could have some serious unintended consequences. Advisers who initiate these conversations with their undergraduate students are most likely doing it with only their students’ best interests at heart. But the people most likely to listen to those conversations and heed them? They are likely to be the people we really need to encourage to go into this field: women, people with disabilities, blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans. These are the people who already don’t see themselves at the table and are therefore most likely to deal with stereotyping and subtle discouragement.
I suspect this because within my own social network, the article was being shared mostly by women. My social network is certainly not a representative sample of the U.S. at large—as a woman in math myself, I happen to meet a lot of other women mathematicians—so I am not claiming it was shared more among women in general. But it made me wonder who gets what messages about becoming a mathematician.
People who are traditionally underrepresented in STEM fields will take the message of how difficult this career path is more literally. Those from underrepresented groups already have to fight against stereotype threat and impostor syndrome: They’re more likely to interpret an assessment of job prospects as do you think you’re really good enough, or should you quit before you even start? A recent study of college calculus students published in Plos One and reported by Science found that women are more likely to leave STEM majors after taking calculus than men are, even after controlling for factors including academic preparedness and career plans.*
Mathematics can’t afford to lose more women and minorities. Or to put it another way, mathematics can’t afford to not recruit more women and minorities. In 2014, the most recent year for which data is available, the annual survey of new doctoral recipients in the mathematical sciences reported that a little under one-third of newly minted math Ph.D.s are women; only 2.5 percent are black, 3.5 percent are Hispanic or Latino, and less than 1 percent are Native American. The numbers get worse as we move up the career ladder. According to the most recent report by the Conference Board for the Mathematical Sciences, 23 percent of tenured or tenure-track faculty are women. The numbers for other underrepresented groups are mostly too low to register as percentages. Mathematics suffers from its lack of diversity. In a 2014 interview with the World Academy of Sciences, Ingrid Daubechies, past president of the International Mathematical Union, said: “Many mathematicians believe that mathematical talent is distributed more or less uniformly around the globe.” When we don’t include all of that talent, math suffers.
Young people from marginalized groups don’t need more realism, they need to know it’s OK to dream. In 2013, I interviewed mathematicians Laura DeMarco and Amie Wilkinson as part of a series for the Association for Women in Mathematics. They talked about their career paths, struggles they had faced as women in the field, and advice for young people who think they might want to be mathematicians. Both of them mentioned their lack of confidence as undergraduates and how important it was for people to encourage them at that time. Wilkinson ended the interview by urging people just to go for it if they might be interested in pursuing mathematics at a more advanced level. “If it doesn’t work out, big deal, it’s a year of your life. I just think more people should try,” she said.
I have to say I am somewhere between annoyed and disturbed by how completely encouraging and positive the published interview was. ... I don’t want someone going to graduate school picturing he or she will become the next Laura or Amie when such an outcome is only a somewhat unlikely possibility.
The ensuing discussion got passionate and occasionally heated. Some people, including Wilkinson, wondered if an interview with two men would have received the same criticism. In general, do we expect successful people to go around telling everyone else they probably won’t be as successful? Ellenberg asked whether interviews with, say, NBA players should also follow this advice. Should LeBron James tell kids how few of them will grow up to be in the NBA? Arguably, his duty to do that should be even greater than DeMarco’s and Wilkinson’s, as the NBA employs far fewer athletes than the nation’s math departments do mathematicians. Should Hillary Clinton not tell little girls they could be president someday? Should her speeches emphasize the fact that only five of the 320 million people in this country are current or former presidents, so little girls, or any children for that matter, who look up to her should not even dream about seeing themselves in the White House?
Being a math professor is not nearly as remote a possibility as being a professional athlete or president of the United States, but nonetheless not everyone who wants to be will end up tenured at a prestigious research university. The odds are long, but there’s a reason we read profiles and interviews of the people who beat them: We want to see how the few who make it get there, and we want to dream about how we might make it, too.
I think Wilkinson said it perfectly in a comment on Ellenberg’s blog: “[T]he world is filed with gifted women. Just as many as gifted men. They do not go into math. Math suffers for it. I’m not going to be the one to tell them not to try. I’m going to be the one to say, go for it. You belong. Period.” That discussion was specifically about women in math, but the sentiment applies to other underrepresented groups as well and other STEM fields.
Our dreams are not going to magically land us tenure-track jobs at top research institutions: The job crisis is real. But there are other things to resolve before we resort to limiting our applicant pool. We need to address funding problems and the fact that we rely on underpaid adjuncts and graduate students to teach large numbers of classes. We need to address other barriers to graduate school, too: the lack of financial security; the cruel way academic and biological clocks often interfere with each other for people who want to have children; and racist and sexist admissions and hiring committees, whether that racism is conscious or unconscious. But these are problems for the larger community to address, not to throw at the feet of undergraduates before they’ve even decided where to apply for grad school.
So what should advisers discuss with their students who are thinking about graduate school? By all means, they should encourage students to think about their future careers and the realities of the job market, but they should also remind them that people like them have successful careers both in and out of academia. If all prospective grad students received more information about more prospective careers, perhaps there would be less pressure to succeed in academia alone—which would help everyone.
People from underrepresented groups already get plenty of messages telling them that maybe they’re not really good enough, maybe they don’t really belong. They need to know there is a place for them. Talk to them about finding role models and mentors. Talk to them about programs like Enhancing Diversity in Graduate Education that will give them a leg up, as well as the beginnings of a professional and social support network when they enter graduate school. Talk to them about professional organizations that support students. Tell them you will be there to listen to and believe in and support them if they are faced with harassment, sexism, racism, or other prejudice. Tell them it’s OK to try, even if they aren’t sure they’re the best. That there’s no shame in trying, failing, and learning from the experience, or in trying, succeeding, and finding out you’d rather do something else with your life.
Everybody should be allowed to explore and find themselves, not just the privileged. It’s OK if they don’t all end up as professors—but we’d be better off if more of them did.
Correction, Aug. 8, 2016: Due to a production error, an earlier version of this article misstated that a study on college calculus students had been published in Science. It was published in Plos One and reported on in Science. (Return.)