Philip Greenspun, an entrepreneur who became successful at software development after completing a PhD in EE, has a popular essay on careers in science. I tend to agree with his pessimistic viewpoint, but I do think that things are a little different in medical research than physics. I think jobs are a little easier to come by, for one. I think it’s also important to keep in mind that his perspective is based on the extremely competitive east coast academic environment, and that he actually has been successful in the non-academic route.
The main point he seems to be making is that there are less women than men in academic science careers, not because women are less capable or more concerned with family life or anything, but rather that there are more men simply because men are the only ones stupid enough to let their ego influence their career choice.
A lot more men than women choose to do seemingly irrational things such as become petty criminals, fly homebuilt helicopters, play video games, and keep tropical fish as pets (98 percent of the attendees at the American Cichlid Association convention that I last attended were male). Should we be surprised that it is mostly men who spend 10 years banging their heads against an equation-filled blackboard in hopes of landing a $35,000/year post-doc job?
I know that my sense of identity and self-worth is tied very closely to my career. When things are going well, I feel like I’m doing the right thing, but when I can’t get anything to happen, I get depressed. I can certainly understand that women, who tend to experience assaults upon their self-worth from all directions from an early age, are a little better at eventually choosing more appropriate things to base their self-esteem upon.