The Promises and Perils of Academic Life: Perspectives of Women in Science

by Joan M. Eckerson, PhD, CSCS, FNSCA
Career Series May 2013


This article provides guidance for women on the steps involved in an academic career, including earning graduate and terminal degrees and obtaining tenure and promotions at universities.

A career in academia can be extremely rewarding, but it is not for the faint of heart, particularly if you are a woman. Although the number of women entering science-related disciplines has increased significantly over the past 30 years, compared to men, relatively few pursue a PhD or post-doctoral work to obtain a tenure-track teaching/research position. For example, in 1978, women accounted for approximately 10% of tenure-track positions at four-year universities in the United States, compared to 31% in 2006 (1). Therefore, although progress is being made, women are still largely under-represented in science-related academic positions. The primary purposes of this editorial are to provide some guidelines to help you find a graduate school that is right for you, shed some light on the reasons why few women pursue and/or retain science-related academic positions, and provide some perspectives from current women in science to help you understand what you can expect and increase your odds for success.

Finding a Graduate Program

Speaking from my own personal experience, I was not sure what I wanted to do coming out of undergraduate school. At that time, the commercial fitness boom of the mid-to-late 1980s was in full swing and I had planned to work in that industry because of my interest in fitness and the human body. I also knew I did not want a desk job. In preparation for that line of work, I received a Bachelor of Science degree in Fitness and Leisure Management and a Minor in Business Administration from the University of Nebraska at Kearney. However, while completing an internship at a Young Men’s Christian Assocation (YMCA) during the summer of my junior year, I soon found that this was not the right path for me.

Still unsure of what I was going to do during the spring semester of my senior year, I attended the national meeting of the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance (AAHPERD) in Las Vegas, NV with résumé in hand, ready to apply for all jobs and graduate programs for which I felt was well-qualified. I ended up receiving a graduate assistantship in the Masters program in the Kinesiology Department at California State University, Fresno (CSUF).

I accepted the position after AAHPERD meeting via a phone interview and, to be honest, at the age of 21 years, I believe that I was more enamored with the thought of moving to California to attend graduate school than I was with the program itself; but I enjoyed learning and figured that this was a great way to advance my education and improve my marketability while I figured out what I wanted to do. I accepted the position sight unseen and, although it all worked out well for me, this is not what I would recommend when selecting a graduate degree program. It was while I was a student at CSUF that I realized that a career in academia was what I really wanted to pursue—I enjoyed the autonomy that the job offered and the fact that I would continue to be a life-long learner. I was lucky at the time to have an excellent mentor by the name of Dr. Tim Anderson, and it was his teaching style and excitement for exercise science, as well as his lifestyle, that drew me to the profession.

Because tenure-track faculty positions require a terminal degree (i.e., a doctoral degree), I started looking for PhD programs. I really liked living in California, but I ended up back home at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) largely because of a chance meeting with Dr. Craig Cisar, a professor at San Jose State University, who was presenting a poster at the Southwest Regional Meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) in Las Vegas. We struck up a conversation because I saw that one of the co-authors was at UNL and I mentioned that I was from Nebraska. Dr. Cisar told me that Dr. Terry Housh had an open spot for a graduate assistant in the doctoral program and that I should consider contacting him, so I did. I interviewed at UNL and met with his other graduate students over my spring break and started the PhD program the next fall, thinking I could always move back to California.

In the end, I went straight through school (Baccalaureate to Masters to Doctoral) and was 28 years old when I accepted my first position at Eastern Michigan University in 1993. The average age for obtaining a PhD is about 33 years, so I was not much older than many of my students during the early stages of my career. There are pros and cons to going straight through—I was used to not having any money and living on a tight budget, but having some real-world experience before entering graduate school has its benefits too, since you can relay those experiences back to the classroom.

Based upon my story, you can see that attending both regional and national professional meetings can be an excellent avenue for finding a graduate program, and that networking and professional relationships are equally important. Everybody has their own story, so ask your professors and mentors what path they took toward their career, and get their advice and insights. The following also represent some guidelines for finding and applying to a graduate program.

Timing – Graduate school requires a large investment of your time and money, and is not a decision to make lightly; therefore, you need to do your homework to determine if graduate school is really what you want to do. Wait to make a decision to apply to a Master’s program after you have finished the majority of the upper division courses in your major, but before you graduate. This way you will have ample time to research your options, talk to professionals in your field of interest, and set up a time for a campus visit, since that is where you will be spending the next few years of your life and can give you a chance to check out the facilities and the culture of the university. Starting early will also give you enough time to take prerequisite or supporting coursework that you may be lacking and save you from playing catch-up after entering graduate school. Although there is no rule of thumb, give yourself at least six months for the process.

Conduct a Broad Search – Do not limit yourself when it comes to finding a graduate school and even consider looking overseas. Start with a large range of options and narrow it down from there. Although university rankings can be useful, it should not serve as the primary factor when selecting a school, since most employers are more interested in the fact that you completed a graduate degree versus where you received it. Ask your current professors about schools with solid graduate programs and who they know would be strong mentors in your area of interest.

In fact, because mentoring is so crucial for success in graduate school, it may make more sense in some cases to search for a strong mentor versus searching for a program. The career center on your campus is also a good resource to help find a graduate program, as well as assist you with the application process. When using a search engine on the web to look for a program, start with broad terms and follow up by visiting the websites of the schools that interest you the most for more in-depth research. For example, typing in “graduate programs in exercise science” on Google® recently resulted in over 3.6 million hits and led to the following link that listed graduate programs in Kinesiology and Exercise Science in the US:

Grades and the GRE – Admission into a graduate program can be competitive; therefore, grades are important, but are not necessarily the end-all, be-all. If you like what you are studying as an undergraduate, you are probably maintaining a high GPA in your major. However, admission committees do not just consider your grades—they also take into account the courses you took, internships, research experience, work/life experience, a solid personal statement, and letters of recommendation.

Ideally, letters of recommendation should come from tenured faculty with a strong reputation in the field. It is also never too late to go back to school; in fact, most graduate students are in their late 20s to mid-to-late 30s. The older you are when you start, the less important your previous grades may be, since you can pull from life/work experience and make meaningful contributions to class discussions. Most universities also require that you take the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) and perform at the 50th percentile in the Verbal and Quantitative sections as a minimum prior to admission. For more prestigious universities, the bar may be set much higher.

Apply for Scholarships, Fellowships, and Graduate Assistantships – Graduate school is expensive, but there are a lot of options available that will help defray the cost and keep your debt and expenses to a minimum. Apply for graduate assistantships and fellowships if they are available and understand that this application process is separate from applying for admission into the graduate school of your choice. Assistantships and fellowships from universities typically include tuition waiver and a moderate salary and, in return, usually require that you teach introductory courses and laboratory sections and/or assist with research.

However, funding in the form of scholarships and fellowships is also available from other entities, such as the United States Department of Education, as well as civic and religious organizations in your area. The National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) Foundation also offers several scholarships that can be earned more than once and is a great resource to help fund your graduate education. For more information about the scholarships available and the application process, visit the NSCA Foundation online.

How Long Can You Expect to be in Graduate School?

The length of time you spend in graduate school depends upon your career goals and the necessary skills for your particular program of study. Most master level programs take two years to complete and offer a thesis and non-thesis option. If you think that there is even the slightest chance that you may go on for a Doctorate degree at some point in the future, choose the thesis option, since the completion of a thesis will be required to enter a doctoral program.

A thesis is essentially a “research paper” completed toward the end of a Master’s degree that demonstrates your level of critical and analytical thinking. It usually consists of an introduction, comprehensive literature review, main body, conclusion, and bibliography. A Master’s degree increases your marketability for employment in careers related to strength and conditioning and qualifies you teach at two-year colleges that offer Associate degrees, and as full-time or part-time adjuncts at four-year universities and colleges.

As described above, I took the fast-track approach and completed both my Master’s and PhD programs in five years, with the Master’s degree taking two years, and my PhD taking an additional three years. However, the number of years it takes to obtain a Doctoral degree may be as many as four or five years (or more) depending upon the discipline (and the student). Some Doctoral programs only accept applicants with Master’s degrees; however, others accept students right out of undergraduate school, and they earn a Master’s degree as they progress through the PhD program. All PhD degrees require the completion of coursework, comprehensive exams, and a dissertation. The structure of a dissertation and thesis is similar, but the primary difference is that the dissertation is much more in-depth and represents original work that contributes new knowledge in a given subject area.

I earned my two graduate degrees at different universities, but I have many colleagues who earned both of their graduate degrees at the same university. It just depends upon your interests, timing, and who you want to work under. Perhaps one advantage to attending more than one university is that it gives you more than one perspective.

To gain tenure, a guaranteed lifetime position, at a four year university, you must complete a terminal degree. Although many of us in exercise science worked toward a PhD, there are other types of terminal degrees. The PhD degree stands for Doctorate of Philosophy and is a bit misleading, since only PhDs in philosophy are true philosophers. However, PhDs in Exercise Science-related disciplines receive a considerable amount of training in statistical analysis and are well prepared to conduct experiments to answer research questions. Another common doctoral degree is the EdD, or Doctorate of Education. It is similar to the PhD in that it requires the completion of coursework, comprehensive exams, and a dissertation; however, the EdD is usually considered a specialized degree in education and is focused more on applied and/or professional practice compared to the PhD, which is more analytical in nature.

Differences between Institutions of Higher Education for Tenure and Promotion 
To continue my story, I left my position as an Assistant Professor at Eastern Michigan in the spring of 1995 and accepted a position at the same level at Creighton University, where I remain today, and received promotion to the rank of Professor in the Department of Exercise Science in 2007. Creighton is a private, Catholic Jesuit university that provides students with a strong liberal arts background. We offer graduate programs, especially in the biomedical sciences, but our student population of about 8,000 primarily consists of undergraduate students and students enrolled in our professional programs of study including medicine, dentistry, pharmacy, physical therapy, and occupational therapy.

The three primary responsibilities of most university professors are teaching, scholarship (i.e., conducting research), and service, and the amount of time devoted to each area largely depends upon the type of institution in which you are employed. Creighton University is considered a comprehensive “masters level” university because, while we do offer a considerable number of Master’s and clinical Doctorate degrees, few programs confer the PhD degree. At a university like Creighton, the typical teaching load is three courses per semester, and the tenure and promotion criteria emphasize distinction in all three areas (teaching, research, and service).

However, large public universities, such as state-run universities, are highly committed to graduate education through the doctoral degree, have a large range of undergraduate degree offerings, give a high priority to research, and receive a large amount of federal support. Doctoral granting universities place a much higher emphasis on research and obtaining external funding in the form of grants, which are used to support research laboratories and fund graduate assistantships. As such, the expectations for publishing and grantsmanship are very high for faculty working in universities that emphasize research and graduate education, and teaching loads are usually low (1 – 2 courses per semester). In line with this type of academic position, tenure and promotion are largely dependent upon research accomplishments versus teaching or service.

Tenure is essentially a professor’s permanent job contract that is usually applied for after a probationary period of six or seven years. If a professor does not earn tenure in the last year of their probationary period, they are usually allowed one more year to address the weak area(s) and reapply; however, if tenure is not granted in that following year, they are “fired” from the university and must seek a different position. Therefore, earning tenure is a critical stage in the life of an academic. Usually when a faculty member is tenured they are also promoted to Associate Professor. Several years later, after they have earned a national and/or international reputation in their area of expertise, they become eligible to apply for the rank of Professor, which is the highest rank of promotion.

Why Women in Science are Under-Represented in Academia

Regardless of the type of institution described above, expectations for tenure requires an unlimited commitment of time, which can be especially difficult for married women with children, since they tend to bear more of the responsibilities at home compared to men. Whether the job responsibilities are primarily teaching, research, or both, a full-time faculty position requires much more than a typical 40 hour work week. In fact, it is not uncommon to work more than 60 hours per week during the academic year, which means spending time on weeknights and weekends to get everything done.

One of the reasons I was first attracted to academia was because most positions are nine-month renewable contracts, which I presumed meant that I could have my summers off. What I soon found out, however, is that while the load is usually lighter during the summer, it is essentially a 12-month position, since I typically elect to teach a summer course, work on course preparations for the following academic year, write up data for publication, apply for grants, and attend professional meetings—all things I needed to do for tenure and promotion. In my current position, I often use my winter and spring breaks to catch up on work versus traveling somewhere warm and exotic (although I make time to do that too).

A sobering statistic with regard to tenure is that unmarried women and women without children are much more likely to achieve tenure and be promoted at research intensive and comprehensive master level universities compared to married women with children (1). Remember that the average age for receiving a PhD is 33 years and most faculty do not acquire tenure before the age of 40. Therefore, the time in which a woman is working toward tenure often coincides with the same time that they are getting married and starting families. I happen to fall in the former category, in that I am an unmarried woman with no children, and how much of that is due to circumstance or by choice—I am sometimes unsure. In more than one instance I chose my career over developing relationships because I needed to move in order to advance.

What I do know is that, even as a graduate student pursuing my PhD, I could not comprehend how my married peers with children were keeping up because I knew how much time I was spending studying and collecting data for my dissertation. Same for my married peers with children at both Eastern Michigan and Creighton who were working toward tenure—I figured they must not sleep. What is important for you to understand is that having a child during graduate school, getting married when seeking a job, and having children prior to tenure are the major factors that work against tenure and promotion for women (1). It is also important to consider that the “science model” is largely a male career model that has not deviated much since the early 19th century and does not support work and family. Therefore, it has been argued that institutional changes need to occur to better synchronize biological and tenure clocks by allowing more time for tenure and reducing teaching loads during the period of maternity (2).

So does the above conversation mean you should not get married or have children if you want a career in academia? Of course not, but after speaking with some of my married colleagues with children and reading the literature it requires a great deal of sacrifice, and may mean that you have fewer children than you initially desired (1,2,3). There will also be times that you “miss out” while your kids are growing up. If you are married, it is important that you have a supportive spouse who understands the demands of your job and is willing to do their share of the work around the house and with the family.

In fact, it may be that a role reversal is what makes things work best in that, while you are working toward tenure and promotion, your spouse stays home and takes care of the kids and runs the household. It is also not that uncommon for men and women in the same graduate program to marry, or for a woman in academia to marry another academic. It makes sense, when you consider that is where you are spending most of your time.

Other factors reported in the literature that prevent women from advancing in academia include isolation, marginalization, and subtle biases (1,2,3). In addition, the inability to move after a PhD, post-doctoral program, or for a first academic position because of family constraints significantly reduces opportunities for advancement and professional growth.

Because there are relatively few women in science compared to men, many of the advisors and mentors for women during graduate school are men. Having a strong mentor in graduate school is critical for building a successful career in academia. I was fortunate to have two excellent male mentors during my graduate education, but there are cases in which women drop out of graduate school because of poor mentoring, hostile work environments, and sexual harassment (2). I believe that it is safe to say that the women who are most successful in science, started out with strong, supportive mentors who taught them the tricks-of-the-trade and provided strategies for advancing their academic careers even after they left their graduate program.

What is important to remember too, is that men and women have different socialization patterns and are often treated differently while growing up. And let’s face it; women are just different than men in what is valued and how success is defined. According to Ghandi, most men are taught to be competitive, self-confident, and assertive at an early age, while women are typically more modest and are encouraged to be help-givers and nurturers (2).

Given that the fields of exercise science and strength and conditioning are still dominated by men, it is important for women to develop personality traits that build self-confidence and the ability to defend one’s self. Another difference between men and women is that women tend to internalize criticism and negative-feedback much more than men, who are much more apt to let it go. Therefore, learning to take criticism in stride and not let it demoralize or depress you is an important trait to acquire if you want to be successful.

The Promises and Rewards

After reading through this piece, you may be asking yourself, “Why would any woman choose this career path?” Frankly, I have asked myself the same question on occasion over my career, but then I remember the rewards I have been given, the friends I have made, and the satisfaction of knowing that I am positively affecting the lives of a large number of students by serving as a role model and difference-maker. Academia, and teaching in general, is often a thankless job, and many times it is not until years later when you hear from a former student about how much you impacted both their professional and personal development.

Teaching brings me joy, particularly when I see how much my students have learned, not only about the subject matter, but about themselves, as well. I include my undergraduate students in research and it is also very gratifying for me to mentor students and begin training them for graduate or professional school, as well as include them on presentations and publications. Conducting research and keeping up with the literature also allows me to bring cutting-edge information into the classroom.

I also have a true vocation versus a job. For a lot of people, work is just a means for a paycheck to cover the rent and pay utilities. I look forward to going to work every day because of the people I work with and knowing that each day is going to be different. Variety is never an issue when it comes to academia. For example, every semester I get to work with a new group of students with different personalities and experiences, and I can change up my courses any time I wish to keep things new and exciting not only for them, but for me as well.

A career in academia also means that you are a life-long learner. Students ask very thought-provoking questions, which may require me to go more in-depth on a particular subject than I normally would. Therefore, not only do my students learn from me, I learn from them. In addition, my students keep me young and make me laugh. Because of them, I know the latest trends in fashion, cool slang terms, what music I should be listening to, and the hottest trends in technology.

Finally, although a career in academia requires great sacrifice, it also offers a great deal of autonomy. I have the freedom to come and go as I please, I get to develop my own curriculum, teach what I love, conduct research that interests me, and can work from home on occasion. And yes, having a considerable number of scheduled breaks during the academic year, as well as the summer to recharge, has its appeal as well.

Final Tips for Success

The following represents tips for success based upon my own personal experience, as well as the opinions from other successful women in science.

• Love what you do and do not be afraid to move on if you are not happy
• Find someone who can mentor you – learn from people who are in advanced positions and do not be afraid to ask questions or ask for help
• Take risks and stretch yourself – remember everybody fails at times, and you actually learn more from failure than you do from success
• Do not neglect relationships or building new ones and make sure you have balance in your life between work and family
• Learn to say “no”
• Attend and participate at regional and national professional meetings; network with other women and support each other
• Do not internalize criticism and negative feedback – let it go
• Stay current in your field, learn new techniques, and always continue to develop as a professional 
• Take advantage of policies that allow you to extend your probationary period for tenure, including maternity leave
• Do not worry about what other people think about you; do what you love and do not subscribe to other people’s definition of success or what they think you should be doing to be successful

Special thanks to Tammy Evetovich, PhD, CSCS, Interim Dean of Natural and Social Sciences, Wayne State College, Wayne, NE and Abbie Smith-Ryan, PhD, CSCS,*D, Assistant Professor, Department of Exercise Science and Sports Science, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for their insights



1. Clark, CD, and Hill, JM. Reconciling the tension between the tenure and biological clocks to increase the recruitment of women in academia. Forum on Public Policy, Vol. 2010, Special Section 1-8, 2010.
2. Ghandi, S. Women and academics: Breaking the glass ceiling. Proceedings of the Regional Conference of the International Network of Women Engineers & Scientists, New Delhi, India, October 2012.
3. Jones, SJ, and Palmer, EM. Glass ceilings and catfights: Career barriers for professional women in academia. Advancing Women in Leadership 31:189-198, 2011.

About the author

Joan M. Eckerson, PhD, CSCS

Creighton University

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