The past thirty years have witnessed a dramatic decline in the number of U.S. students pursuing advanced degrees in science and an equally dramatic increase in the number of professionals leaving scientific careers. Leaving Science provides the first significant examination of this worrisome new trend. Economist Anne E. Preston examines a wide range of important questions: Why do professionals who have invested extensive time and money on a rigorous scientific education leave the field? Where do these scientists go and what do they do? What policies might aid in retaining and improving the quality of life for science personnel?
Based on data from a large national survey of nearly 1,700 people who received university degrees in the natural sciences or engineering between 1965 and 1990 and a subsequent in-depth follow-up survey, Leaving Science provides a comprehensive portrait of the career trajectories of men and women who have earned science degrees. Alarmingly, by the end of the follow-up survey, only 51 percent of the original respondents were still working in science. During this time, federal funding for scientific research decreased dramatically relative to private funding. Consequently, the direction of scientific research has increasingly been dictated by market forces, and many scientists have left academic research for income and opportunity in business and industry. Preston identifies the main reasons for people leaving scientific careers as dissatisfaction with compensation and career advancement, difficulties balancing family and career responsibilities, and changing professional interests. Highlighting the difference between male and female exit patterns, Preston shows that most men left because they found scientific salaries low relative to perceived alternatives in other fields, while most women left scientific careers in response to feelings of alienation due to lack of career guidance, difficulty relating to their work, and insufficient time for their family obligations.
Leaving Science contains a unique blend of rigorous statistical analysis with voices of individual scientists, ensuring a rich and detailed understanding of an issue with profound consequences for the nation's future. A better understanding of why professionals leave science can help lead to changes in scientific education and occupations and make the scientific workplace more attractive and hospitable to career men and women.
ANNE E. PRESTON is associate professor of economics at Haverford College, Pennsylvania.