So, teaching is for people who have imposter syndrome?


Isn’t it a bummer when your research is founded on an invalid premise? This can’t be a good moment for a researcher whose work was featured in Science online. This article would be just silly, if it didn’t take itself so seriously while also being offensive.

As represented in this Science “careers” article, the project was designed to understand what might cause scientists to change their professional ambitions from a tenure-track position at a major research university to, well, something other than a tenure-track position at a major university.

Apparently, that change in career ambition is some kind of flaw in performance, as the study reported these students as “downshifters.”

Apparently, a tenure-track position at a research university is “faster” than other jobs that doctoral students take. According to the study — or at least interpreted by the author of the Science article — a teaching position or policy job is is slower than a running a research lab. Maybe that’s what some tenure-track faculty at R1 institutions might think, but that doesn’t make it true.

Is it just me, or is the notion that deciding against a tenure-track position at research institution is a “downshift” is a load of crap? If you’re designing a study with this as a presumption, then isn’t that going to result in confirmation bias?

If we decide to choose an equally ambitious path in a different direction than the PI of the study, then why is it that we are labeled as having downshifted our expectations of ourselves?

In grad school, at some point, I decided that I didn’t want a job at a research institution. The job that I ended up taking, at a primarily teaching institution, is not any easier and not any slower than running an R1 lab. It’s not easier, it’s just different. There’s a good argument to be made that, after I chose against an R1 job, that I’m running harder and faster than a PI at an R1 institution.

According to this study, I’d be a downshifter. That judgment of me gives me some indigestion.

Moving into a tenure-track position at a research institution is often considered the default route for doctoral students, even if the bulk do not end up in such a position. If a doctoral student decides in the middle of grad school that she wants to pursue a different path, how is this shifting down one’s expectations? How is it that downgrading one’s expectations?

Here’s how the study identified what a “downshifter” is and what she found, as I read the article in Science careers:

The authors interviewed a whole bunch of doctoral students at one university. Only about 25% 33% had a goal of working in a tenure-track position at a major research university. (I found this rather surprising, and a form of good news, actually. Do their advisors know this?!) Of the entire pool, less than ten percent initially had an ambition to become a professor in a tenure-track position, but then changed their minds.  These were the “downshifters.” (There were gender disparities, with fewer women wanting the R1 jobs and more women who chose to against the more-exalted path.)

So, here’s what I see in these data: 75% 66% of grad students don’t want to become R1 professors. During grad school, 10% change their mind and don’t want to become R1 professors. These “downshifters” are more likely to be suffering from imposter syndrome, as it was measured in the study, and the gender disparity results in more women changing their minds about their career goals.

Note: Before going to press with this piece, I corresponded with the PI of the study. She didn’t want to write a response to be included in the original post, but she did clarify some numbers. She wrote:

As far as the numbers go – currently 22.5% of the women in my sample and 27% of men aspire to tenure-track professorships with an emphasis on research. 40% of the students have either changed or seriously considered changing career goals while in graduate school, but only 23% have actually changed. 11% of women and 6% of men were classified as “downshifters” because they shifted from professor with an emphasis on research to one of the 11 other categories. That means that *more* than that 22.5 and 27% originally aspired to the TT – about 1/3.

The take-home message is, then, that if imposter syndrome is causing a leak in the so-called pipeline, where the small fraction of Ph.D. students who want a so-called “fast” job decreases even more when they have imposter syndrome, which disproportionately affects women.

Maybe if we stopped portraying the tenure-track positions at research institutions as the idealized goal of grad school, then perhaps we wouldn’t be so worried about driving people away from academia and research? These gender disparities are real, and very concerning, and by continuing to up the stakes about how special and important R1 faculty jobs are, we’re not helping the problem.

This was not a brief rant, but it was summed up by a colleague of mine in just a few, less testy, words:

In all fairness to the PI of the study, she told me that she had no editorial power over what was published in Science careers. I’m sure the author didn’t do the PI any favors in how he represented her work, and that’s why I offered her the opportunity to clarify and rebut before going to press. She declined to offer a specific rebuttal, but did indicate that both the Science piece and this post itself were not fairly representative of her work or her views.

She did send me a link that represents her views and reassured me that the use of the term downshifter “is not meant normatively in any way and instead to capture the issue as it has been addressed in previous literature.”

Is using the term downshifter acceptable as long as it’s used only because other people have in the literature? Doesn’t the apparently broad use of this term in the literature suggest that this entire line of investigation has some messed-up assumptions built into the hypotheses being tested? If all of the research on women leaking out of the pipeline originates with these kinds of value judgements, are the conclusions trustworthy?

20 thoughts on “So, teaching is for people who have imposter syndrome?

  1. The vocabulary about choosing career paths other than R1 is deeply ingrained in the academic culture. Even our ‘supportive’ language is a little biased: alternate careers implies there is a main or expected path. when everyone uses certain language, it becomes easy to use it without thinking (im just as guilty of this as anyone else). However, as you point out, it can bias how we study the choices people are making. I suspect that the imposter syndrome is a complex response to the real and perceived pressures of the research path, the conscious and subconscious message of an expected career path, and the cognitive dissonance that occurs when with a track history of meeting expecations in academic success realizes they want something different. But really understanding why people are feeling this way about their choices requires us to be honest about the message we are communicating to our students.

    • I’ll offer a couple of thoughts, as editor of Science Careers.

      Science Careers has been promoting alternatives to tenure-track research careers since 1995. (We we called Science’s Next Wave back then.) I’m comfortable saying that there are no longer term, more ardent, or more effective advocates for changing the way people think about science careers than us. We are the furthest thing from being a mouthpiece for the establishment. I, personally, have been promoting such careers for more than 12 years, essentially full time, following a research career of my own.

      The “downshifters” language was the researchers’ image–not ours–so I feel no responsibility to defend it. In fact, I’m married to a small-college science professor who manages to maintain an excellent research program while managing a teaching load that would appall a typical R1 faculty member. I know how hard it is.

      But I’m going to defend the term anyway because I think it’s justified.

      First, it’s not a question of reality, but of perception: If these people are frightened away from research careers and think alternatives will be easier, then it doesn’t matter what the reality is. They may not succeed in “downshifting” but that clearly is their goal (in those cases).

      Second, I know a lot of people who have made such choices, for such reasons, and they are not stupid. They are smart and capable, and they carefully consider their choices before they make them. Some may get it wrong, but IF they set out to find a position that’s more consistent with a more balanced lifestyle–by giving up a research career for, say, a specific policy role–usually it’s because they’ve studied the issue and made a well-informed choice. I would not suggest, without evidence, that they made the wrong decision.

      For years, my wife has worked at least as hard as any R1 prof as a faculty member at a PUI. She is an ambitious researcher and has had quite a lot of success. (Not that this is a measure of research accomplishment, but she’s the only scientist I know whose research is funded simultaneously by NSF, NIH, and DoE, each for a different project.) But she has colleagues for whom the term “downshifters” fits well. And while some Senate staffers (policy careers) may work extremely long, stressful hours, I know policy folks at professional societies who manage a much more relaxed pace.

      Sometimes it’s a “downshifting” choice. That doesn’t mean that is true for you, and it doesn’t make your career inferior in any way.


      Jim Austin, Editor
      Science Careers

      • Are you saying, then, that people who don’t work “extremely long, stressful hours” are “downshifting”? That the place of one’s career on the spectrum of careers is determined by hours worked? Because that seems like a problematic attitude – one that privileges the career status of people with no dependents, little or no interest in political and social activity, no health problems that might make very long hours infeasible.

        If what you are trying to say is that the “downshifting” label is not an insult, I can accept that you might not think it is, but I am not sure that most people will see it the same way. It sounds like an insult to me, and judging from the OP it also sounded like one to Prof. McGlynn.

        • As I understand the auto allusion, “downshifting” means going into a lower gear, going slower. It doesn’t mean switching to a cheaper or inferior car, taking the low road, or driving poorly. (It also implies more power, as in, going slower up steep hills, especially when towing. There’s a reason cars have low gears as well as high ones.) Is that the origin of the misunderstanding? Are people assuming that “downshifting” means moving into a less worthy profession? Because if it is, that’s clearly a misunderstanding.

          Yes, absolutely, “downshifting” implies slowing down–a reasonable proxy, I think, for seeking a lifestyle that involves shorter working hours. But–is slow food inferior to fast food? Is the turtle inferior to the hare? I’m just pulling cultural allusions out of a hat here.

          There is no judgment, implied or explicit, that this is in any way an inferior choice.

          Jim Austin, Editor
          Science Careers

        • That’s just it – we don’t go slower just because we’re not at R1 institutions.

          When disagreeing with an offended party about whether or not a term is offensive, you can’t change their mind about whether it not it is offensive. And by definition, it offends. You can only try to justify it by either claiming that we are unreasonable, or that our opinion doesn’t count? I’m guessing you’re arguing the former?

        • >>That’s just it – we don’t go slower just because we’re not at R1 institutions.<>You can only try to justify it by either claiming that we are unreasonable, or that our opinion doesn’t count? I’m guessing you’re arguing the former?<<

          My concern is editorial. I need to decide whether I made a mistake, and if I did, figure out how to avoid it in the future. I also need to protect my publication against unjustified criticisms (although this to me is a much lower priority). So, while I make no judgments about why and whether people are offended, I also cannot run a publication by trying to avoid offending anyone. Such an approach would be completely unworkable. So I explore criticisms and decide whether they call for some editorial action, or a policy change.

          Jim Austin, Editor
          Science Careers

      • As the researcher whose work was covered in the Science article, and who has followed the post-publication dialogue carefully, I don’t see where anyone, anywhere said that working at a teaching institution was slower or somehow required less work. As Terry has said before, it’s just different. In our email correspondence, I did mention that tenure-track positions at research intensive universities has been called “the fast track” in the previous literatures that I’m drawing on in my research, but that’s no measure on the amount of hours put in or how “hard” the job is or how “fast” it moves. It’s mainly based on reputation–particularly among graduate students–of such positions. I think that’s key here and it’s getting overlooked. That’s who I was looking at–graduate students–and their perceptions of various positions (erroneous assumptions in many ways, like Terry also pointed out in the post I like to earlier).

        In addition to the surveys, I sat down with students across disciplines and cohorts and talked with them about their experiences in graduate school, about their career ambitions, about the implicit and explicit messages they heard from students and faculty about what “appropriate” careers would be. Another paper from this project looks directly at how students are short-changed by exactly what this entire thread and related discussions is about–the underlying message that students are getting from academic discourse that R1 positions are the only goal worth having. Many then either give up on grad school, self-sabotage, or hide their true ambitions from colleagues and subsequently end up ill-prepared for the positions they ultimately aspire to. I believe that we can change this by being more open to and about the variety of positions available and by giving graduate students safe places to share their aspirations so that we can refer them to the opportunities that will help them get the career they want in the type of position they want–whether that’s teacher training and experience, or a grant from a specific organization, or more diverse methodological training. They shouldn’t have to go it alone like they so often do.

        In the work discussed in Science, students talked to me about opting out of research intensive, tenure-track positions as a way to enhance their lives. They way that they understood it, this was exchanging status or prestige for quality of life, realizing passions (whether teaching or solving social problems), maintaining relationships, etc. That is entirely consistent with the “downshift” movement popular in today’s culture. Slow-food, like Jim alluded to earlier, is not less intensive. It’s more intensive. It’s not about the speed. Students want slow-food lives, not fast-food lives–and they, whether correct or not, see research-intensive TT careers as a life of fast-food and indigestion. Their own words when they talked about either seriously considering changing or actually doing so illustrate this well (as well as concerns about impostorism, family-friendliness, and the connection between them):

        -“Academics is all consuming. I don’t want to be consumed.”
        -“I have not changed, but I have very seriously considered changing [it]. I hear so much about how very difficult it is for a woman to both achieve tenure and have children….It makes me want sometimes to just get out of this whole thing.”
        -“I’m struggling with finding a career option which I feel will fit well with my personal goal of starting a family, which is most important to me, and also finding a career for which I feel prepared. My main concern at this point is feeling competent in my chosen career.”
        -“I don’t think I’m smart enough to be a successful research professor. After seeing the lifestyle of [my advisor], I don’t think I have the stamina or desire to lead such a frenzied, harried life.”
        – “I worry that I will never be successful in my field and that in spending so many years in my education, I’ve robbed myself of the opportunity for a normal family life.”
        – “I often worry that I’ll never have anything valuable to contribute to [my discipline].”
        – “I am uncertain if I’m resilient enough to make it in academia.”
        – “I am sick of not knowing the answers to questions.”
        – “During a heavy exam year, I struggled so badly that I thought seriously [about] teaching high school [or] community college.”
        – “I worry that I’m maybe I’m just lazy and I don’t like working hard, and I shouldn’t be here because I’m not willing to be in the office 60 or 70 hours a week.”

        It was certainly not my intention to hurt anyone or slight anyone. I wrote the blog post about not using the word normatively before I even knew there was an issue with the reception of the term and have written before about the fast pace of teaching-intensive jobs and the complicated role of family in graduate school and career decisions, including my own. As I said to Terry yesterday, the discussion has been good for me to think of alternative ways to present this. In the same way that I can’t expect people not to be offended just because I didn’t mean it, I would hope that people would not assume that they know my intention (or belief system or character) simply because they were offended. It was not meant in a judgmental light and I take great pride in being in a department that places students in a variety of positions (much less common in the social sciences than in the hard sciences).

        It is a very real fact that women are under-represented in research-intensive, tenure-track careers and that there are students–both men and women–who want those positions and decide not to pursue them because of what they see as insurmountable constraints. One of those constraints is family–and universities, colleges, and other employers are working on this. Impostorism is another one and it is time that someone gave voice to this issue as well and to those who did feel like they gave up on a dream because they aren’t worthy or because it was too damn exhausting to experience the inconsistency between their self view and others, constantly feeling like they were putting up a front. My results don’t suggest that it’s true for everyone who switches gears, it simply means that it is true for a significant number of students. Please remember that these are the students’ voices and not my personal opinions and it’s important that we acknowledge them and their experiences.

  2. This gets a little at something that causes me some angst at times. I like teaching, and I’m potentially interested in a teaching-institution career (though that’s a few years away yet). But I fear being the woman who reinforces stereotypes about women scientists by declining the R1 PI track. I also fear being the woman grad student who gets pigeonholed consciously or subconsciously by faculty as being a nurturing teacher-track prospect rather than an ambitious researcher-track prospect (though less than I would at many other institutions – grad students in my field teach more at my institution than they do at many others, so I don’t stand out so much). Women earn only 18.4% of PhDs in my field, according to our last field-wide survey of programs, so there aren’t so very many of us to provide the samples from which people draw their mental images of women in the field.

    I am a big supporter of career paths other than R1 tenure-track being portrayed as viable options for students (I worked in industry before going for a PhD), but it bothers me a lot that it often falls on women to promote those career paths. The women-in-science group at my institution ran a panel, an all-woman panel, about some of those other career paths last year. And it is great that students get to see role models in those paths and I certainly didn’t want to disrespect those women, who have great careers, but why are we basically portraying not-R1-TT careers as a Thing Women Do? I asked this at the panel and caused…a stir, not in a good way or a way that I was going for, though the indirect result was that I ended up as the departmental rep to the women-in-science group, which is good.

    Anyway, this is tangential to your point, but given the gender numbers in the OP, I think it’s somewhat relevant.

  3. I also cringed at the term “downshift.” The idea that anything other than a TT position at an R1 institution is considered an “alternative” career also irks me. How can it be alternative if >50% of people end up in them?

    • >>How can it be alternative if >50% of people end up in them?<<

      Just a technical answer–I affirm, promote, and evangelize such careers, whatever you call them (and have one myself)–but, it's because, while academic careers are not in the majority, they remain, in most fields, a plurality. No other single category of careers is larger.


  4. So, the use of “downshifting” implies this: (from Wikipedia, citing literature sources) A choice to “reduce stress, overtime, and psychological expense, emphasizing finding an improved balance between leisure and work.”

    If that’s the thought about what describes a change from a Tenure-Track research university career to a tenure-track teaching institution career, then someone is smoking crack or is woefully underinformed. The only person who has remarked on this, who has direct experience with both, is Josh King. Here’s what he said:

    If you can find a person who has worked on the tenure track at an R1, and on the tenure track at a teaching institution, and thinks that the teaching university position has less stress, overtime, and psychological expense over the other one, please share that with us. Otherwise, you might want to reconsider applying “downshifting” to those who choose a teaching university tenure-track career over an R1 tenure-track career.

    • As I said, in both the comment above and on the blog where I generally talk about family and academia, this is not *my* impression of teaching-intensive positions. This is the view of *students* who I interviewed. You bring up confirmation bias in attacking my work, but I’m afraid that you are falling victim to the same process – somehow misinterpreting what I am saying to fit with your idea of what I’m saying (and of my character). I realize that I wrote a lot in the comment, and that can make it difficult to get all of what I’m trying to say, but this is what *many* students think. Is this not what you said that you, yourself, thought as a student?

      • I thought the methodology was to include every single person who shifted from TT-R1 to Any Other Category as a “downshifter.” So, the downshifters were classified on the basis of the explanation of their shift from a TT-R1 ambition to something else, which is only a subset of all of them?

      • As a clarification, I said I didn’t want the grant pressure. I didn’t expect a teaching university position to be less work, or necessarily less stressful, but I didn’t think I was ready for that one kind of stress (the need to land big grants) over other kinds of stress. I wanted to spend my time doing research rather than running a lab – not that running a lab is more stressful or more work, but not the kind that I was seeking. Moreover, I was underinformed at the time. (Perhaps because I was familiar with the misconception, which is promulgated in the literature, that a faculty job outside an R1 is somehow easier.)

        • >>As a clarification, I said I didn’t want the grant pressure.<<
          That, to me, is "downshifting".

        • Because I want an equal amount of pressure teaching, publishing, and doing research instead of writing grants? You are working hard to not understand me, or working hard to justify your point. I just said that I was NOT looking for something less stressful, and by definition “downshifting” is looking for something less stressful.

          Some folks approach a discussion to understand one another, and others approach it to win. I’m in the former category.

        • Yes, students said similar things. They understood that there would be pressure anywhere, but that without grants as a priority, they could spend their energies on things they found worthwhile – science, teaching, and the like. That’s part of “downshifting,” shifting gears so that you give up status or prestige (and even the comments around the paper point to this as a very real phenomenon) in your discipline to pursue something you see as more fulfilling.

          To clarify two things. First, downshift is not my title, it was Science‘s. The title of our project and the paper were presented is “Family Friendliness, Fraudulence, and Gendered Career Ambitions” – and focused on how career ambitions are heavily gendered and tried to address why. We did classify people as downshifters, but I have been through this here and elsewhere and won’t rehash it. Second, the 12 minute presentation that the Science article was written on could not go into all the nuances of the data. I have detailed data on the kinds of shifts that people make and qualitative data that explains those decisions, but that was not what I was presenting about. I classified things that way because 1) my available data with a pilot project were limited, 2) peer reviewers had asked me to do so (and not to use “opting out” of research -intensive TT careers as my terminology), and 3) that’s the way most students talked about any non-R1 TT career and their reasons for not aspiring to them.

      • >>this is not *my* impression of teaching-intensive positions. This is the view of *students* who I interviewed.<<

        A point I made in my first comment on this blog entry. There's some defensiveness here; people don't want to be perceived as in any way inferior; they think it's our obligation to protect them against misreadings. As an editor, I DO have an obligation to make sure things are difficult to misunderstand, but it isn't my job to make sure that no one is ever offended. It's not your obligation as a researcher, either.

        Jim Austin

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