how to ruin a brilliant scientific career

Get married!

This article describes a study that found that scientific productivity decreases with age, but less severely in never-married men.

“The productivity of male scientists tends to drop right after marriage,” says Kanazawa in an e-mail interview from his current office at the London School of Economics and Political Science in the United Kingdom. “Scientists tend to ‘desist’ from scientific research upon marriage, just like criminals desist from crime upon marriage.”

Kanazawa’s perhaps controversial perspective is that of an evolutionary psychologist. “Men conduct scientific research (or do anything else) in order to attract women and get married (albeit unconsciously),” he says. “What’s the point of doing science (or anything else) if one is already married? Marriage (or, more accurately reproductive success, which men can usually attain only through marriage) is the goal; science or anything else men do is but a means.”

Huh. Interesting. So being a scientist is like buying that red hot Ferrari? It’s all in the name of nabbing a mate? And here I had always thought that being a nerd wasn’t exactly the way to get women. But then again, maybe being a nerd is the way to a brainy woman’s heart, because of course, if you’re nerdy, you really have no need or desire for a hot not-so-brainy wife…

So what about women? Yep, we’re not immune to this decline either. And we actually have it even worse since there is never a good time to take time off to have and raise children without significantly setting back our careers. I myself have noticed that I’ve become more mediocre/sand-people-like in my academics ever since getting married—not so much numbers-wise since I still have that 4.0, but in that I don’t devote as much time to my professional development (attending seminars, studying, lab) as I did when I was single/in a not-so-good-would-rather-avoid-it-by-staying-at-lab relationship. All of a sudden, I’ve decided that pursuing my career and being the best aren’t nearly as important as being married and spending time with my husband. But I still have that drive inside of me that surfaces from time to time (more often now that I’ve been so rudely knocked out of that whole blissful newlywed thing by my in-laws) that reminds me that I will never be able to live with myself if I just half-ass my way through my career. It’s my ego telling me that I can’t possibly be okay with not being the best at what I do. Two years ago, I was willing to stay forever single and childless to achieve my career goals. Now I’m married and willing to give the whole having kids thing a chance (if only so that I pass on my highly-evolved-super-smart-yet-still-good-looking genes). I just don’t know when. And I still don’t really know if I ever will even have kids because of the blow it would deal to my career—not only due to the fact that I’ll have to take time off but also because my priorities just might change and I won’t be so intent on being the best anymore. Which I suppose isn’t so bad, but try telling that to someone who’s spent her whole entire life being (or at least trying to be) the best. I don’t know if I can make that sacrifice for little rugrats who just might ultimately hate me anyway. So all I can do is find some sort of balance for now and eventually decide (sometime before my biological clock stops ticking) whether or not I want to torture myself some more by procreating.

But of course, some say that marriage just might be good for a scientific career. In my case, marriage sure helps with financial stability. Not in that I needed someone else to pay my bills or to eat well since my stipends cover them quite well (one of the few perks of being in an MD/PhD program) but for my frivolous purchases—like this blog and my binge-shopping adventures among other things.

However, I have to disagree with this argument for how marriage is good for a career:

He was sitting against his pillow in bed with his laptop in hand. His busy, multitasking wife (a management consultant and mother of twin toddlers) was also working on a laptop, seated right beside him. The two were tending electronically to their demanding jobs, but they were also instant messaging each other, obviously on the same emotional “bandwidth” in their devotion to both career and marriage.

Uh. You’re sitting next to each other and you’re instant messaging each other?! How is that any different from sitting in your respective offices and instant messaging each other? Why can’t you just speak? Is speaking really that much more distracting than instant messaging?! So do you do instant messaging foreplay too? And those laptops must really get in the way during sex—not to mention dirty… Okay, I’ll stop there.

Then there are the marriages that don’t survive a scientific career. No big surprise there. Can I add medical career too? Lawyer? Any highly specialized field that requires long hours and lots of work? The big issue here is having a spouse who is not in the same field as you. I always thought that I would end up with another doctor or at least someone in the sciences (Oh who am I kidding? A dentist is not a doctor…and neither is an optometrist or pharmacist—it was physician or bust.) because of the difficulties in talking meaningfully with someone not in the same field about my experiences. And I’ve been in a (obviously failed) relationship with a fellow med student and found that it was really much easier to talk to him since we were going through and learning the same things. But it still didn’t work out. Enter my future husband whose career has absolutely nothing to do with medicine or research. I never thought that it would work because he knew absolutely nothing about my life or my career. But I was wrong. All that really matters is that he is intelligent enough to follow my crazy INTP rants—understanding the substance of the rants down to the atomic level is not necessary as long as he gets the general idea. But I can see how this difference in careers can backfire on other couples. It is frustrating sometimes to explain things that we take for granted as obvious, which in fact are not. And I guess that the patience (on both sides) eventually wears thin when steps are not taken to better the situation.

And finally, there’s the issue of not being able to meet someone to marry in the first place. Being in lab all day and studying all night isn’t really conducive to meeting potential mates. And besides, there’s the bigger issue of whether someone is willing to commit to someone who may move across the country in a few months/years and who may very well spend a large part of their life moving as they are recruited to different positions. Who will actually put up with having to uproot their family every so many years? Or with delaying (or never) starting a family to wait for you to establish your career? These are issues that any potential mate needs to be made well aware of before things get serious. And even so, it will still be hard for your mate to come to terms with moving to Middle of Nowhere, USA when the time comes.

Ah…the life of a scientist—a complex-not-so-fun-at-times balancing act. So I guess we are human after all.

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  1. who said that science isn’t for women?I keep reading and hearing all this crap about how women lag behind in math and science. They try to point the finger at our education system and/or attitudes at home, etc. I'm sure some of it is true to some extent, but I just don't really see what they're freaking out about. Maybe I'm spoiled, but everyday, I see plenty of women around me engaged in scientific research. In fact, 61% of our current MD/PhD students are female. Yes, that's right, women outnumber men in our program. Of course that's just our program, but I wouldn't be surprised if other programs have similar compositions. Maybe I'm too unsympathetic, but I just don't believe in this whole women don't pursue careers in math and science because people-made-girls-think-they-weren't-good-at-it-and-they-believed-it crap. I never encountered any of that at all during my formative years. I had nothing but support from my teachers and my parents and I didn't attend fancy-shmancy private schools either. Besides, if someone tried to feed that crap to me, I would never have believed it in the first place and would have set out to prove them wrong. Nor do I believe in the whole women-are-intimidated-by-the-male-predominance-in- the-science-world crap. It's 2007, people. There are plenty of women in high places. Look at Hillary Clinton. What about all those doctors on TV? There are plenty of "strong women" on Grey's Anatomy and House. It is more accepted than ever for women to pursue once-typically-male-dominated professions. I won't lie to you and tell...
  2. do you have what it takes?Really? Do you have what it takes to be an MD/PhD? Before you rattle off your sky high GPA and MCAT scores at me, let me tell you about the requirements they don't tell you about or sugarcoat because they know you'll go running for your life. 1. Have an inquisitive mind. Sounds like a good skill to have, right? Something that's really indispensable if you're planning to pursue research? Well, yeah, it is. But what they neglect to tell you is that no one is going to listen to your ideas. No one at all. You might even get yelled at. Because you're just a peon and how dare you think you have anything new to add that some seasoned PI hasn't already thought of. 2. Work well with others. Research is all about collaboration. Nobody gets anything done by doing everything themselves. You just can't possibly know everything there is to know about everything. What they don't tell you is that collaboration as a grad student means checking your ego at the door and groveling at the feet of collaborators who hold your already tenuous fate in their hands. Oh, so sorry, I'm not available the entire month of April for your studies. 3. Be able to think on your feet. A good skill to have that applies to many aspects in life in general besides research. But when it comes to research, this skill takes on a whole new level. You need to be able to think...
  3. how to really quickly irreversibly ruin your experimentIt’s quite simple really. All you have to do is inject 3 cc of air directly into the right atrium of your unsuspecting experimental animal. Yep. It’s as simple as that. And how to do that short of wielding an air-filled syringe and stabbing it directly into the sweet spot? The handy-dandy device pictured here is a stopcock. It’s used as a valve to allow one catheter to be connected to more than one thing. We use many stopcocks in my study—on the arterial line to allow connection to the blood-pressure-heart-rate-machine-thing with an extra port for blood draws, on the venous line to allow connection to the central-venous-pressure-machine-thing with an extra port for infusion of valium for sedation, and another stopcock on the same venous line to allow saline injection for measurement of cardiac output with the other port used for blood draws. And that’s not even the half of them apparently. We measure cardiac output using the thermodilution method in which cold saline is injected into the right atrium and the change in temperature measured. I’ve run this measurement many times before in all of my previous failed (for other reasons) experiments. I always double and triple check all of the stopcocks before injecting saline. And I did no different today before starting my measurements. Here’s what I was thinking as I was taking my readings: Okay. First reading: 1322 ml/min. That’s a little high (but in the realm of normal for this animal). Let’s run another one… Uh....

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2 Responses to “how to ruin a brilliant scientific career”


  • Nice summary, mlmp. For us it has always been about finding the right balance. You can be very dedicated and work hard, but it is the rare person who can find fulfillment from their work alone. I also find that the study clearly has a sampling bias, having chosen only the top scientists and not necessarily a “representative” sample of scientists. Could it be that scientists with fulfilling marriages and social lives are more productive than they would be without that support?

    I also find this quote interesting (from the article): “In a perfect world, you could have it all, never sacrificing anything for either marriage or career,” Yeah, and in a perfect world all chocolate would be calorie free. The thing about marriage is that it is hard work. There are numerous and constant compromises, but the gains from the relationship are what make it worthwhile.

    BTW, mlmp, you must not be living in a large met city, or else have a particularly generous MD/PhD program, because my wife’s stipend was never enough to quite get by when we were in school! Oh, and as to the IM communication – I can totally see how that would happen. This year in particular my wife has had truly hellish working hours (the 80-hour work week doesn’t seem to apply to fellows) and it is many a night that I have been working on the computer, next to my love, and wished for a well-received way to share the small niceties that allow you to reconnect at the end of a hard day. Talking is great, but it really interrupts your workflow, and we’re getting by on dangerously low hours of sleep as it is. IM at least you can get you when you finish a thought, without as significant an interruption in workflow. We used to do post-it communication earlier this year, when I really didn’t see her for long stretches of time. We already to text-paging throughout the day, which is doubly good: you get to say I love you, and you get to give her a page that she doesn’t have to respond to! Maybe I’ll bring up the IM idea…

  • I guess I wouldn’t really call where I live a large metropolitan city. :P I doubt my program is any more generous than others… So maybe the stipend was enough for me because I just didn’t eat quite as much (or well) as I do now. ;)

    As for my comment on IMing–that was just my take on it. I’m sure it works just fine for some people, but it’s just not for me (or my husband). My husband and I IM each other all day while I’m at lab and he’s at work, which is great because we’re able to talk to each other throughout the day. But we can’t imagine sitting right next to each other and IMing instead of talking, especially after having already spent the whole day IMing. I also don’t find talking to be any more disruptive to my workflow than IMing, which is probably another reason why I find the whole IMing each other while sitting next to each other thing so weird. But, hey, whatever works! :)

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