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Spotlight on Tomorrow’s Leaders: Equal Opportunity in Academia

March 27, 2018
Spotlight on Tomorrow’s Leaders is a series of guest blogs from young science professionals attending the BIO International Convention in Boston, MA. Today's guest is Erin Conn, PhD candidate, Georgetown University.

Equal Opportunity in Academia

As a PhD student in Cell Biology at Georgetown University, I’m constantly asked “what’s next” in terms of my career path in STEM. If you asked me that question as I was entering my program, I would have told you that I couldn’t wait to become a tenure-track faculty member of a reputable academic institution and continue my work studying pediatric cancers. However, over my four years in academic research, I’ve learned the reality that new PhDs face upon graduating: jobs in academia are not readily available for new PhDs and, for the few that do exist, they are not equally accessible to everyone.

One thing I wish I could change about the field of science is the culture of academia and the attitudes surrounding graduate students who make the decision to leave academia to pursue a career in science elsewhere. Many training programs encourage students to follow the traditional academic pipeline of scientific careers—graduate school, to postdoc, to tenure-track faculty—without mention of other potential career paths, even though there are not enough tenure-track positions to support all PhDs. The lack of available positions is causing PhDs to leave academia at higher rates than ever, yet training opportunities somehow remain tailored for academia. Rather than adapt to the shift in order to better prepare trainees for a variety of career options, many programs and faculty continue to push the traditional career path onto their students. The discordance between what is encouraged and what is realistic has led many students to feel like they are not cut out to be scientists, and may eventually lead to them leaving the field altogether. This means that we as a society could potentially be missing out on important contributions from great scientists.

I strongly believe that the field of science must be inclusive and foster the ability to be creative in our work, but because the current academic job market is so competitive, promotion of inclusive practices is limited and job opportunities are not equally accessible to all. Women in particular face an additional set of challenges when pursuing a career in academic science. Data from several studies show that women are less likely to be perceived as competent, less likely to receive federally funded grants, and less likely to achieve positions of leadership within academia. What’s even more distressing is that men are less likely to acknowledge the gender bias and discrimination that does exist. The odds are already stacked against newly-minted PhDs, and they are stacked even higher against women. As I near graduation, I have made the decision to leave academia due to the lack of prospective job opportunities and the volume of gender-based discrimination that I have experienced and witnessed in the academic community at large.

After a series of alarming gender-bias related incidents at my university, I realized that advocating for women in STEM is a passion I need to pursue. I founded Georgetown University Women in Science and Education (WISE) with the goals of starting the discussion on how we can address the issues women face and elevating and empowering women scientists so they can achieve their full potential. In our first six months, we’ve raised funds from the American Association of University Women (AAUW) and obtained matched funding from the Georgetown University administration. This semester, we are hosting a series of events that connect students across disciplines with one another to create an extended network of support and awareness of gender-bias on campus. We’ve also launched a new campaign to ensure that every graduate program includes information on the university’s Title IX policies as a part of new student orientation. We provide students with workshops to develop the skills and access resources they need in order to be successful in any career they choose, not just a career in academic science. We are measuring our impact on campus culture at every stage and plan to report our approach and results upon the completion of our AAUW grant.

I am thrilled to have this opportunity to share my perspective on the struggles of up-and-coming women scientists with the biotechnology community. One of my goals in attending the BIO International Convention is to get a first-hand look at the opportunities that are available for soon-to-be PhDs such as myself. I am looking forward to learning more about how we can better inform graduate students of all of their career options in science–not just in academia. I’m also excited to learn more about the culture of the biotechnology industry and how it compares to academia in terms of diversity and inclusion, particularly in regard to women in STEM.

Attending the BIO International Convention will be such a unique opportunity for me as a graduate student, and I’m certain that my experience will help shape my career trajectory and enable me to communicate back to my peers about the options available after graduation. While finishing my degree, I am doing what I can through WISE to bring about positive change to my institution and make academia less discriminatory towards women. I’m hopeful that I can use my experience and skills to make science across academia and other sectors more accessible and inclusive for future generations of scientists.


About the author: Erin Conn attends Georgetown University as a PhD Candidate, studying Cell Biology with a focus on Ewing Sarcoma. She is also the founder of Women in Science and Education (WISE) at Georgetown, a group formed to start the discussion on addressing the issues women face and elevating and empowering women scientists so they can achieve their full potential.

Follow Erin on Social!
Twitter: @erinjconn (personal)
@georgetownWISE (Women in Science and Education)
Instagram: @notthattypeofdoctor


The future of biotechnology rests squarely on the shoulders of today’s students. To foster an interest in life sciences and to encourage students who are pursuing related careers, the BIO International Convention will be hosting Free Student Day on Wed, June 6 offering complimentary registration to students seeking careers in biotechnology and pharma.