Investigating the leaky pipeline

Why do we struggle to hold on to underrepresented talent in academia?
06 February 2020

Interview with 

Marcus Lambert & Linnie Golightly, Stanford


Under-represented groups may struggle to find mentorship


Frequently here on the eLife Podcast we touch on topics that concern scientific careers, or what life is like for the present generation of researchers. Last month we looked at how well supported early career scientists are in terms of their mental health. This time we’re considering why, despite the fact that we’re actually pretty good at recruiting into science individuals from backgrounds regarded presently as “underrepresented”, but we don’t seem to be very good at hanging on to them once we’ve got them, as Chris Smith hears from Marcus Lambert and Linnie Golightly…

Marcus - My name is Marcus Lambert. I'm an assistant Dean for diversity and student life at Weill Cornell medicine and an assistant professor in our department of medicine.

Linnie - I'm Lynnie Golightly. I'm an associate Dean of diversity and inclusion at Weill medical college and associate professor of medicine. We really are interested in diversity because that means excellence. And we were trying to understand why after people having invested in our society, having invested in people going through undergraduate, graduate school and then entering a postdoctoral fellowship, we then choose to go into an alternate caree,r because they're very valuable and we want them to be part of our research community.

Chris - But implicit, Linnie, to the point you just made is that that is a fact - that people are not doing that. So what's the evidence that that's true?

Linnie - Well, we have very low numbers historically in the Academy of people of colour, and women, for a number of reasons. Actually anyone who we lose is important because our numbers are very low. So it's trying to understand what factors might cause anyone not to continue.

Chris - And, Marcus, how did you approach this?

Marcus - Our approach here to really develop our own unique survey to really understand the factors that contribute to people's career choice. Specifically scientists in their postdoctoral research phase. We also looked at things like self efficacy and outcome expectations; things that might not be so evident, but could be playing a big role in how people make their career choices.

Chris - And who answered the survey?

Marcus - We distributed this to postdoctoral listservs across the United States. So it was mostly post docs.

Chris - And what sort of reply rate did you get though Marcus? Because obviously one always worries, when you send out a survey, that only people with a particular axe to grind or people who are particularly successful bother to fill it in?

Marcus - We didn't exactly measure our response rate. We got about 1,284 responses, which we felt was pretty representative of the pool. Uh, and with good geographical diversity as well.

Chris - And Linny what were the questions that were on that survey and what results did they elicit?

Linnie - Well, we had a number of questions trying to understand better how they felt about themselves, how they felt about the likelihood that they would succeed. We looked at the number of papers they had, what kind of impact the papers were, the types of institutions that they were at; their mentorship; their lifestyles; financial security; those sorts of questions to try to get a full picture of their ideas towards themselves, towards the places that they were working and the impact it might have on their family and their, uh, futures.

Marcus - And Chris, we also ask questions related to things like, can I publish in top scientific journals? I am confident that a, I can secure grants in my field. And this led us to some clue about their level of self efficacy compared to other postdoc respondents.

Chris - And broadly, Linnie, what trends emerged? What did you find?

Linnie - Well, we found that the first two years of the postdoctoral training was really critical. That was a period of time during which people might change their minds, both women and underrepresented minorities in terms of leaving the academic research pipeline. We also found that financial security was very important; that mentorship from their PI was very important; and that their sense of self worth was very important.

Chris - So at the end of that two years, is that a make your mind up point then if people have made it past two years, they tend to then go the course?

Linnie - After those two years, people really have made a decision to go one way or the other. So I think that what we would think and what we would say would be when someone first enters their postdoc, you really need to address the things that we've found would emerge later in order to try to encourage them and have them stay the course. So for example, one of the main things that we found was that underrepresented minority post docs unlike their peers felt that they were not meeting people within the Academy who they really wanted to be associated with. And so that's sort of an understanding that, if you continue on this career, you'll have people that have different values than you is really something that should be addressed early on so that people don't leave.

Chris - Indeed so, Marcus, that must be your target point: you've got to focus your attention on those first two years in order to make sure that people make their mind up to stay?

Marcus - Yes, I would agree. You know, one of the two biggest points where we see the largest drop-off for postdoctoral fellows are really at the end of year two and at the end of year five. And it was particularly at the end of year two that we noticed that there was this difference between women and underrepresented postdocs and their well-represented counterparts for well-represented males specifically. You don't see that drop off at year two. You really start to see the dropoff after year five.

Linnie - One of the other things to raise is that female postdocs were a little bit different than their male counterparts in that there's this issue of self efficacy: that is, a belief in one's own research abilities was lower and that they had lower outcome expectations that the belief in the outcome of their research efforts than men. And so this is also something that we need to address in terms of empowering women to understand that they are just as capable and to believe in themselves as much. And so one of the questions is what happens, and again, these are historical reasons, but for someone to come all this way and get all these degrees and be in their postdoc and yet not feel that sense of yes, they can do it, it means that we're not really doing our full jobs in the Academy.

Chris - When you look at what you have found here, does it give us almost a wishlist of things that we could do - we could implement - in order to address the problems that have been highlighted? Or are we just left with a bunch of questions?

Marcus - I would really argue that institutions hold a lot of power and being able to change the sort of dynamic here, and making sure that people feel empowered to choose the sort of career paths that they want to choose. And I would argue that we have a lot of ability to provide the level of support to postdoctoral fellows that we do to undergraduates that we do to graduate students. And I think postdocs are often sometimes overlooked in this path.

Linnie - Yeah. And I think that we definitely have, not a wishlist and not just a bunch of different things that we might do, but we really have a clear path. I think that support systems need to be multifactorial and look at the many different dimensions of the person you're talking about. It's not just the number of papers, it's not just that you're at a wonderful institution, it's who are your peers. It's what are your supports. It's is somebody talking to you about financial security? Is someone talking to you about how do you balance your research and your teaching about, yes, you can reach out to your community yet still do suburb research. If you look at the person as a total, I think we can do a lot better. And we'll where we forward these people staying in the Academy.


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