Dismantle the pipeline


The pipeline metaphor has a lot of problems. In STEM careers, people come from a wide range of backgrounds, receive undergraduate and graduate degrees, and are bound for a wide variety of destinations. A path into a STEM career shouldn’t have to be linear, so a pipeline doesn’t make much sense.

However, I get why people like to use the pipeline metaphor. If the goal is to increase representation in the professoriate, then there’s a set of steps that are essentially required to get to that destination. While there are lots of professional roles in STEM, the “pipeline” terminology is typically focused on keeping marginalized people headed towards faculty positions and research careers. Representation there is important for broadening participation throughout STEM, because of the role of higher education in preparing people for STEM careers. If we’re planning an intervention to fix the system, the the pipeline metaphor is tempting, because each intervention is essentially designed to promote retention. But the pipeline metaphor removes the agency of the actors, and doesn’t represent the reality that there are many paths into science, and many paths within science. (I’ve argued that a subway makes more sense than a pipeline.)

But, come to think of it, I think the pipeline metaphor has its use. We’re just looking at it the wrong way.

After all, there are some folks who head cleanly through high school, college, grad school, postdocs, and a faculty job, with complete laminar flow through the pipeline. The smoothest journey usually happens for people who have have a more affluent background, start college well acquainted with how higher education works, and often grew up around people who worked as scientists professionally, perhaps in their own family. Then, when they’re in college, they are well aware of the steps that are necessary to move ahead through the pipeline into grad school. They check off the boxes for research experience, publications, letters of recommendations, and are prepared for the GRE. Then in grad school, they’ve found labs that give them productive collaborations, are well funded, and well connected to land them a quality postdoc in a different prestigious institution. And then they’re highly competitive for faculty jobs. That’s the pipeline to STEM careers, a pathway reinforced with opportunities, funding, cultural knowledge, a well-resourced network, and the names of prestigious institutions.

Okay, so, for the sake of argument, let’s think of it as a pipeline for a moment. Starting from K-12, up to when someone lands a faculty position. Since rates of attrition vary depending on your identity and background, then some kinds of folks “leak” out at higher rates than others. At every junction, there are ethnic, gender, and socioeconomic filters.

For decades, we’ve been trying to repair these “leaks” in the pipeline. But when you study the design of the pipeline itself, it appears that these leaks were built to be more of a feature than a bug.

No matter how many patches we put on this pipeline — now matter how well we construct it — the pipeline is always going to provide the most effective service for the people who designed it. The steps that people have to take to advance in science — the filters that they must be allowed to pass through — aren’t just operated by anybody.

So, yeah, there is a pipeline. We don’t need to fix it. We need to dismantle the pipeline and with the pieces we need to accept people from many origins and prepare them for many destinations. Instead of an intervention to repair the pipeline, then how about an intervention to destroy a segment of the pipeline, allowing greater access and greater freedom

We need to make careers in science more accessible. We need to stop focusing on choosing people who have had the resources to demonstrate talent and instead start providing resources to people who have not yet had the opportunity to demonstrate their talent. We need to radically revise our template of what a successful scientist looks like. We need to intentionally design professional development for grad students to stop ignoring many things that a person with a PhD might do after they graduate. We need to get over the myth of meritocracy that pervades prestigious institutions. We’ve got to develop scientific capacity by asking who we can build up rather than who we can let through. We can stop asking, “Are they good enough,” and instead ask, “Are we doing good enough by them?”

I don’t know what dismantling the pipeline fully looks like. But I know that as long as we’re working to patch a linear pipeline, then we’re just reinforcing the filters that haven’t been serving our community so well.

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