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By Julia Gonski
Over 40% of current APS membership is composed of student or early career members. This group encompasses an incredible variety of physicists, from attendees of the Conferences for Undergraduate Women in Physics all the way to junior faculty. As the sole graduate student on the APS Council for the past four years, I have learned that it’s not an easy task to provide tailored and effective support to such a diverse constituency. But it is an important one.
APS considers early career members to be students or scientists within five years of receiving their Ph.D. degrees. These typically young physicists are often drawn to the Society by professional opportunities (think meetings or journals), with perks like travel grants and career resources providing a crucial added value. And it’s a good thing that they do. Not only are our early career members vital to APS at present, but they represent the future leadership of the organization.
So how can we attract even more young scientists to APS? And are we doing all that we can to support them? When I attended my first APS Council meeting in 2016 as the Forum on Graduate Student Affairs (FGSA) Councilor, these were hot discussion topics. Given that I had an ear to the ground of the student community, I was aware of certain problems that keep resurfacing for this group, problems that everyone knows are occurring, but no one knows quite how to solve.
These thorny issues are linked to power dynamics in academia, where those at the top hold immense sway over more junior participants. In this regard, there are strong connections between the experiences of young scientists and those of scientists from underrepresented demographics. For one, young scientists are generally the most diverse group within physics. But even further, in academic power structures both groups are underempowered, in that their outcomes are disproportionately influenced by forces outside of their control.
There’s no shortage of recent literature about the prevalence and effects of sexual harassment in the physics community. But this is just one example in which an improperly wielded power structure can unfairly hinder an individual’s progress in physics. Race-based discrimination, unreasonable work expectations, and ethical violations in research committed by an adviser can all have similarly catastrophic effects. Given the challenges of pushing back against abuses in such a hierarchical structure, APS stepping to the forefront on these issues would truly be a game changer for the early career community.
In bringing these issues to light with APS leadership, I found that a general consenus quickly emerged: something had to be done. We planned to hold an early career session at the November 2018 Council meeting, dedicating four hours for Councilors to learn about the issues affecting students and junior physicists, discuss their impacts, and brainstorm solutions. To provide a comprehensive picture of the climate, several early career scientists were invited to participate, and The Greater Us consultancy was hired to mediate the conversation.
APS early career members were directly surveyed before the session, to motivate topic coverage and amplify the voices of young scientists in the process. Survey questions covered topics such as participant demographics, ethics and harassment in physics, structural support for problem resolution, and the role of APS in the process of career development. Nearly 600 survey responses were recorded, approximately 80% of which came from students or postdocs.
The survey results paint a grave picture. About 70% of female respondents felt “excluded, unsafe, or treated differently because of their gender,” with examples of specific hostile behaviors shown in Figure 1. Over a quarter of respondents reported bystander observations of gender and race-based discrimination. These statistics, while disheartening, are now well-known and essentially consistent with concurrent studies of the field[3,4]. But since our survey was not limited to identity-based harassment, it was able to shed light on even more undiscussed abuses. It’s therefore perhaps even more shocking that substantial fractions of respondents reported general abuse of graduate students or exploitative treatment of subordinates (Figure 2).
The unifying root cause of both identity-based harassment and student exploitation? Power dynamics. Many respondents emphasized in free response sections that accountability was lacking for those in positions of power, often because individual universities simply “protect their own.” The emotion and frustration in these anonymous personal testimonies is striking. It emphasizes the potential for APS, as a national society with influence across university lines, to create top-down change.
With this backdrop, we had our work cut out for us. The early career Council session held in November 2018 was an invaluable opportunity for both large-scale discussion and interpersonal interaction. Participants cited “passionate volunteers” and a culture that values “open expression of opinions” as strengths of APS, which uniquely position it to help mitigate barriers for junior scientists. One invited early career member stated that “I had been pessimistic that these issues would ever be addressed, or that I even fit in and had a place within the physics community. But meeting Council members who seemed to genuinely care about my experiences made me optimistic about the future of APS.”
Following the survey and session, The Greater Us prepared a report to document the results of recent efforts and offer recommendations based on these findings. First and foremost, it was recommended that APS fully commit to the support of all early career physicists, regardless of identity or origin, and to back up this commitment with concrete actions. Examples of such actions include offering workshops or training sessions to APS members, particularly those in mentorship roles, to improve understanding of inclusion, equity, and harassment prevention. Another is to ensure that the ethics policies of APS are robust and consistent with the membership’s expectations , potentially via an organization-wide code of conduct in addition to the current one that covers meetings only. The report also recommended that APS simply give early career members a greater role in the organization’s governing structure, ensuring that students themselves can effect the change they wish to see.
With a session in the books and with the report in hand, the Council was ready and able to act. In April 2019, we revisited the topic of junior member empowerment, incorporating the report recommendations, and passed two critical motions. The first was to mandate an early career member on all APS Unit executive committees, an enormous step for young physicist representation in society leadership. Second, the Council tasked a joint working group of the Committee on the Status of Women in Physics and the Committee on Minorities with exploring an expansion of the popular Climate Site Visit program.
Specifically, the site visit program should incorporate requests from students or junior members of a physics program, rather than solely from the department’s chair. This represents a huge opportunity for students working in harmful university environments and unsure of where to turn for assistance. Though ultimately a site visit cannot proceed without the consent of the department, allowing requests from those in lower positions of power helps APS allocate its resources to the students who need them most. In conjunction with the new standing Ethics Committee (see the Ethics Committee article), this holds promise for a future in which all young physicists are empowered to demand the treatment, environment, and career in physics that they deserve.
On a personal level, I am incredibly excited about the energy I’ve seen for tackling these issues, from all corners of APS, during my term as Councilor. And I can tell that this energy has already made a difference. Between the member survey, Council session, and follow-up report, we learned that our society can be a haven and an impactful resource for young scientists. This especially holds true in an environment where students can be driven from physics for reasons unrelated to their capability. Taking action increases young member recruitment and retention, so it is mutually beneficial for both APS and the broader early career physics community. The past few years have made it all the more clear that this is the right course, and now is the time to step up.
The actions I’ve mentioned here are truly just the tip of the iceberg for addressing equity-related issues and increasing early career scientist representation in APS. The coming years will see an increasing variety of new opportunities for junior members, in both established programs like Congressional Visits Day or the Forum on Early Career Scientists, and novel ones like the Student Ambassadors program. Serving in any of these capacities is a great professional development opportunity, providing a way to gain leadership skills and network with top physicists around the world. So if you’re reading this as an early career member, I highly encourage you to get involved. APS is our society, and together we can make it work for you!
The author is a postdoc at Columbia University, having recently obtained her Ph.D. in high energy experimental physics from Harvard. Her physics interests focus on the search for beyond the Standard Model physics using the ATLAS Experiment at the Large Hadron Collider. Outside of research she is active in science policy and outreach, and she serves on the APS Council as the Councilor for the Forum on Graduate Student Affairs and the Forum on Early Career Scientists.
3. “Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine”, National Academies of Science. 2018.
4. “Yes, Sexual Harassment Still Drives Women Out of Physics”, J. Libarkin, Physics 12, 43 (2019).
5. On April 10, 2019 the APS Council approved a new comprehensive set of ethics guidelines
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