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Dr. Kate O’Brien, University of Queensland – Women and Academic Research

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Kate O’Brien of the University of Queensland uses population models from ecology to explain the challenges faced by women pursuing careers in academic research.

Kate O’Brien is a lecturer in chemical and environmental engineering at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia. Her primary research consists of environmental systems modeling, analysis, and synthesis, a process that involves working in interdisciplinary teams with ecologists, engineers, remote sensing and field scientists to develop and apply models to address important environmental questions. She earned her Ph.D. at the University of Western Australia.

About Dr. O'Brien

Dr. Kate O’Brien – Women and Academic Research

The number of women studying science and engineering at university has increased substantially over the past few decades.   However women leave these professions at a faster rate than men, and perform worse than men in research according to most measures.  

Research is a competitive environment where success breeds success.  Track record is required to attract funding, students and collaborators, which in turn generate further output. This means that a researcher’s performance  typically increases rapidly early in their career, and a minimum output is needed to survive.  This is similar to population dynamics in ecology, where growth rate increases with the size of the population, declining only if the population falls below a critical threshold required for reproduction, or if carrying capacity is exceeded.

Using this analogy, we modified a common ecological model of population dynamics to investigate how working part-time and taking career breaks affects a research career. Working part-time has a non-linear impact on research output according to the model results, which means that researchers working half-time may have less than half the output of their full-time colleagues.  More importantly, if an individual’s research output falls below a critical threshold, it will decline further still due difficulty in attracting resources.  This means that researchers who work part-time or take career breaks before they are established in their field will struggle to exceed the minimum threshold required for a sustainable research career. 

Research performance metrics do not account for these non-linear processes, and so penalise those who follow a non-typical career path. In contrast, teaching is assessed based on current rather than accumulated historical performance. Thus women who have children before establishing their research career can be driven  from research to teaching roles in order to work part-time or take career breaks to care for their families.

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