Many people consider the field of academia to operate under a pure meritocracy – that is, your accomplishments and qualifications are the only factors that dictate your eventual success. This is best reflected in the famous motto of “publish or perish” that many associate with academic progress. While there are some elements of truth in this harsh statement, unfortunately the real truth is harsher still – there are also many non-meritocratic factors, such as race and gender, that can negatively impact or slow down a scientific career. This is especially relevant to PhD students and post-docs, as some may wish to eventually manage their own lab as a principal investigator (PI). However, these non-meritocratic factors can be responsible for denying these deserving researchers a PI position, or an opportunity that may improve their likelihood of becoming a PI, such as an award or post-doctoral position. Furthermore, these challenges can remain prevalent even upon becoming a PI. As such, it is important for these barriers to become recognized in order to remove them, and assist both prospective and new PI’s in succeeding during their scientific career.

Factors that Impact Likelihood of Becoming a PI

In 2014, using a machine learning approach, van Dijk et al. conducted a study in order to predict how various credentials and factors impacted the likelihood of becoming a PI. What they found, which was later mentioned by van Dijk in an interview, was that, “With equal credentials, women’s probability trails that of men – always”. This is similarly supported in one large-scale study involving 251 biology and physics professors from eight US universities. Here, professors were presented with a hypothetical doctoral graduate applying for a post-doctoral position, and were asked to rate the graduate based on competence, likeability, and how hireable they were. Behind the scenes however, the graduate’s gender was manipulated on the CV alongside their name (to manipulate race), with all other qualifications being held constant when presented to the professors. As a result, it was revealed that women were considered more likeable than men across all departments, yet were deemed less competent and hireable. Additionally, professors rated Asian and Caucasian graduates as more competent, whilst Black and Latino candidates were rated more poorly. These results demonstrate several disturbing implicit biases and unreasonable barriers set for racial and sexual minorities, which can hugely impact scientific careers as post-doc positions are critically considered when evaluating prospective PIs.

woman holding test tube

Interestingly, even after obtaining a PI position, researchers still face these challenges throughout their careers. Two separate studies looking at successful grant applications to various funding agencies found that women researchers were less likely to be awarded grants and awards than men who applied to the same funding agencies. Furthermore, these funding advantages, while appearing small, can add up in the long run as well. Jennifer Raymond, a neuroscientist at Stanford University, responded to these studies, saying “Small advantages over time can become big advantages. Getting funding can lead to more publications which can make it easier to attract good scientists… which in turn can help you do more good science and get more funding”. These differences indicate a potential bias against women PIs and also a need for re-evaluating selection criteria within award agencies and academia.

While becoming a PI and working in academia is an extremely deep, interesting, and rich field, it unfortunately faces many of the unnecessary social biases that plague other fields and industries. It is valuable to note that many universities and institutions are making progress towards levelling the playing field for these minorities – for example, some award and scholarship applications may also include a diversity section for students who identify with a sexual or racialized minority, and various institutions such as L’Oréal also have programs and awards to support postdoctoral women scientists within the field of academia. However, these changes will likely need to be a long term effort, and ultimately, scientific progress will benefit greatly from the improvement of diversity and inclusion.

Dr. Olga Rojas’s Story

Dr. Olga Rojas, a scientist at the Krembil Research Institute and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Immunology here at the University of Toronto, discusses how she faced similar challenges during her journey. In the interview, Dr. Rojas recounts how her enthusiasm for science and research was held back by the lack of opportunities that were available for scientists in her home country of Colombia, and that “it was not easy to publish in high impact journals”, a metric that many people use to evaluate potential scientists and PIs. This lack of opportunities also extended to awards and scholarships, as well as lack of top notch technology and grant funding opportunities, of which there were very few in Colombia. Taking these differences into account, Dr. Rojas points out, “When someone lacks a strong publication record, awards, and language skills… it’s difficult to tell them to just apply and expect them to succeed”. As such, these differences clearly demonstrate how non-meritocratic factors can negatively impact one’s potential scientific career and success, and how even beginning a scientific career is beset with barriers.

Dr. Rojas also details how completing a PhD in Colombia presents with many additional difficulties. For example, many PhD programs in Colombia do not provide a stipend, and this causes a significant financial strain on students both during and after completion of the program. As such, many students need to dedicate time and resources to overcoming this financial obstacle, which may temporarily put research on hold and negatively impact the advancement of their scientific career. This complication is further compounded by the fact that some post-doc scholarships and awards noted by Dr. Rojas have eligibility criteria that prevent students who take time off after their PhD from applying. “These kinds of criteria are not good for students who follow a non-traditional pathway… it’s clear that they are good for students applying from the US or Europe, but these simply remove options from people coming from other countries” comments Dr. Rojas. Furthermore, after overcoming these barriers and completing her PhD, when arriving in Canada for her post-doc, Dr. Rojas also describes how she felt that she “had to show people she was capable” simply because she did not follow this traditional pathway and her CV did not stand out as a strong one. At that point, she recounts how having good, open and supporting mentors at University of Toronto were key for her to grow and succeed, and she is thankful for that. Although Dr. Rojas recognizes herself as a minority in the scientific field, she is positive about the fact of being able to grow and change the system to support and enrich science within the difference.

white microscope on top of black table

Unfortunately, Dr. Rojas’s story is one of many that shows how the road to becoming a PI contains many barriers and challenges. The difficulty of students from racial and sexual minorities succeeding is still a major issue that needs to be addressed, evidenced by a survey conducted by The Council of Canadian Academies, revealing that only 23.4% of Life Science professors were women, with that number dropping to 9% in engineering and mathematics. Furthermore, taking survey data from 88 universities in 2019 revealed that only 20.9% of full-time faculty members identify as a racialized minority. Thus, it is clear that universities should be offering more initiatives to assist sexual and racial minorities, such that all deserving researchers have an equal opportunity to achieve academic success.


References:

  1. van Dijk, D., Manor, O. & Carey, L. Publication metrics and success on the academic job market. Current Biology24, R516-R517 (2014).
  2. Bohannon, J. Want to Be a PI? What Are the Odds? Science(2014). doi:10.1126/science.caredit.a1400136
  3. Eaton, A., Saunders, J., Jacobson, R. & West, K. How Gender and Race Stereotypes Impact the Advancement of Scholars in STEM: Professors’ Biased Evaluations of Physics and Biology Post-Doctoral Candidates. Sex Roles82, 127-141 (2019).
  4. Council of Canadian Academies. Strengthening Canada’s Research Capacity: The Gender Dimension. (2012).
  5. Universities Canada. Equity, diversity and inclusion at Canadian universities. (2019)
  6. Burns, K., Straus, S., Liu, K., Rizvi, L. & Guyatt, G. Gender differences in grant and personnel award funding rates at the Canadian Institutes of Health Research based on research content area: A retrospective analysis. PLOS Medicine16, e1002935 (2019).
  7. Witteman, H., Hendricks, M., Straus, S. & Tannenbaum, C. Are gender gaps due to evaluations of the applicant or the science? A natural experiment at a national funding agency. The Lancet 393, 531-540 (2019).
  8. Adhopia, V. Bias against female scientists revealed in study of Canadian grants program | CBC News. CBC(2019). at <https://www.cbc.ca/news/health/cihr-gender-bias-1.5009611>
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