We need to stop calling professional development a “pipeline”


When we talk about increasing the representation of women and ethnic minorities in STEM, the path towards a professional career is often characterized as a “pipeline.”

The pipeline metaphor is so entrenched, it affects how people think about our deep-rooted problems. This metaphor has become counterproductive, because it fails to capture the nature of the problem that we are trying to solve. Even if we were to magically repair all of the so-called “pipeline,” we still would have what some would call “pipeline issues.”

What are the problems with the pipeline metaphor?

-If someone leaves the pipeline, they’re a worthless drip of pollution. (Nobody likes being characterized as a drip, and it’s harder to attract people into the system if they only see a productive way out at the terminus)

-Pipelines have a single and discrete destination. (This devalues the wide range of careers that that STEM professionals can occupy after they receive professional training. We can’t just pretend that the end of the “pipeline” is being the PI of a research lab.)

-Pipelines are filled early on and travel under pressure. (There are many routes into STEM, and quality scientists can be trained from a wide range of backgrounds and experiences. Art majors can become scientists. Community college students can become scientists. New immigrants can become scientists. Your mom can become a scientist, if she isn’t already. The idea that you just need to grab and focus on traditional first-year undergraduate students — or any other demographic stage — and then prepare a single pathway for them — is doomed to failure. When “pipeline” initiatives are planned, they focus on identifying specific places that are thought to be rich in “product” – and these approaches tend focus on identifying “talent” rather than developing the potential of the population at large. A single pipeline can’t work for nontraditional students, students living on reservations, students living in inner cities, students in the exurbs, and so on. To diversify, we need to develop a system that isn’t focused on training a small number of individuals with similar backgrounds. As long as we continue with this approach, there will never be enough “product” to increase representation in a meaningful manner.)

-Once you hit the end of the pipeline, you’re there. (Oftentimes, the “pipeline” is to create PIs who are running their own labs. Women and underrepresented minorities who make it through the entire “pipeline,” still are less likely to advance into leadership roles. Does this “pipeline” go all the way to being a Dean? President of a scientific society? The National Academy? Where does this pipeline end, now?)

-Pipelines are simple, and once built, take little effort. (Diversity and equity does not come cheaply nor does it come without sustained effort. A lot of folks think that if you just identify some smart folks and provide them with opportunities, they’ll magically make a difference and change the composition of our profession. That hasn’t happened, even though we’ve been at this pipeline thing for a long time. Building a diverse and equitable community happens from building a large infrastructure that can support everybody who are working to move into STEM careers.)

Some while ago, I wrote a post about how we need to get rid of the pipeline metaphor and I proposed a substitute: the subway. Pipelines move a product, while subways move people. The subway takes people from one place to another. There’s no set destination, there are many routes, and you can get off at any time to go where you want to go. To get rid of a problematic metaphor, it might be easier to replace it with a less problematic metaphor. I humbly suggest we use the “subway.”

The impetus for this post came from a variety of people who were tweeting about a presentation by a talk by Dr. Enobong (Anna) Branch at the National Academies workshop on sexual misconduct in academia, who explained the problems with the pipeline metaphor. (She suggested a road as an alternative, which also sounds fine. Road, subway, whatever. Let’s just stop saying “pipeline.”)

5 thoughts on “We need to stop calling professional development a “pipeline”

  1. “Pipeline” is just one of many management buzzwords that get picked up by academics trying to look businesslike. Perhaps it’s worse connotation is that whatever is in a pipeline (or on a subway for that matter) just gets carried along with no effort of its own.

    What is wrong with “career path” ?, it has even more routes than the subway, you can slow down, speed up, or stop for a rest anytime you want, walk with others or on your own, help others carry their burdens (or trample them underfoot if you are so inclined !) and stop to smell the roses even on the way to a Nobel in Physics. But you have to go all the way under your own power.

  2. Totally agreed! As a good nerd, I prefer the metaphor of the “scientist’s journey”, inspired by Campbell’s “hero’s journey”.

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