The Diverse Choices of PhDs of Color

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

We previously heard from a black scientist from a working-class family who jumped off the path to a professorship in order to make a lot more money in the private sector, specifically Big Pharma. “Black and Hispanic people are disproportionately from poor families,” he wrote, “so people like me who have the smarts to work at a place like Harvard aren’t all that interested in making $50K a year.”

Another factor that inhibits many non-white and non-Asian postgrads from pursuing a career in academia is the lack of desirable job locations—specifically, as this reader puts it, “locations that are conducive to lives of young people of color”:

I’m a black woman in my early 30s. I just finished my PhD in the past year, and I’m currently in my first academic job. (Please change my name or Jennifer or something; I don’t have tenure yet, lol.) My experience is a little different than the people in Ed Yong’s article, perhaps because I’m not in science. I spend my days thinking, researching, writing, and teaching. I love my job.

But I think about quitting everyday. Unlike the people referenced in the article, I am compensated well. My issue, however, is that most universities (including the one where I work) aren’t in locations that are conducive to lives of young people of color.  

I grew up in a large, metropolitan city with a bustling, black middle class, one of the largest in the country. I also went to a predominately white university, so I know what it’s like to be the only black person in class. That being the case at work is one thing. But I don’t want that to be the case everywhere I go, and I definitely don’t want to raise my future children in an environment like that.

Unlike many academics, I view work as a part of my life and not life itself. There are many things at play when it comes to creating a life, but the academic job market really limits most your options with a lot of those things. Seriously, why would I live in a town of 30,000 and be one of few people of color when I can take my same degree have a full life somewhere else?

This black woman did just that:

Your notes on this subject really struck a nerve with me. My PhD is in the social sciences rather than STEM, but I went along much the same journey as your previous readers. As a kid, my family was lower-middle class in its best years, and it was drilled into me from early on that the path to a solidly middle-class life required higher education.

Like many people who pursue a PhD, I am intrinsically motivated by the desire to explore, learn, and grow. However, I emphatically do not buy into the notion that in order to do this work, I have to sacrifice my financial well-being. Many other professions provide the opportunity to learn and grow in your chosen field while also providing a very nice living (software engineers and physicians, for example).

We live in a society that, in part, signals the value and importance of an occupation (or its workers) by how much organizations are willing to pay to have that work done. When scientists and social scientists willingly forgo appropriate compensation and financial stability for the “privilege” [as a reader put it] of working in their chosen field, as a group, we are saying that our work is not valuable or important. I refuse to go along with that.

Now, six years after getting my PhD, my “luckier” compatriots are working 60+ hour weeks to gain tenure and my less lucky compatriots are weighing another move to another town where they’d rather not live in the hope of joining the tenure track. I, on the other hand, am working at a research consulting firm, in a management position, in my preferred area of research. My research has concrete, positive impacts on people’s lives. I work 100 percent remotely for my company, allowing me to live where I want and still do the work I love. I earn twice as much as newly tenured professors at my alma mater, which affords me the home ownership, annual vacations, and other perks of a middle class life.

Overall, I made the best decision for me, even if it’s not great for minority representation in STEM (or social sciences).