Returning to Science: It Can Be Done

In the late 1970s, the National Science Foundation sponsored a series of career facilitation programs designed to retrain women with scientific degrees who had spent several years out of the laboratory while raising families. I recently 'undertook a follow-up study of 75 women who participated in one of those programs—a year of special intensified course work in chemistry or toxicology at American University. The general conclusion was that the program was very successful in ensuring job p

Jul 27, 1987
Nina Matheny Roscher
In the late 1970s, the National Science Foundation sponsored a series of career facilitation programs designed to retrain women with scientific degrees who had spent several years out of the laboratory while raising families. I recently 'undertook a follow-up study of 75 women who participated in one of those programs—a year of special intensified course work in chemistry or toxicology at American University.

The general conclusion was that the program was very successful in ensuring job placement. That result has obvious implications for retraining scientists at all levels. In particular, it provides hope for men and women who have moved from their original field into sales, marketing or areas of science no longer of interest to their company, and who would like to change their career paths.

A woman who returned to full-time work as a chemist at the Baltimore City Department of Water and Waste after 25 years at home raising nine children indicates the type of individual helped by the project. "When I retired for the first time, the research laboratories for which I worked had just designated one of its physical scientists as the Instrumentation Department, and the only thing resembling an instrument that I had touched was the original Beckman titrator," she recalled. Since starting her new job in 1979, she has assisted her department in making several purchases of major instruments and in doing spectroscopy measurements such as inductively coupled argon plasma determinations.

Another woman who had spent several years out of the workforce was 56 years old when she finished the program. Nevertheless, she obtained a part-time job at the National Heart Institute, putting in 32 hours per week until her recent retirement. She looks back on her ten years of work as productive ones, in which she was a joint author of three research papers.

Not every participant wanted to get back into the lab. One woman who had spent five years working in a laboratory following her graduation in 1952 used the retraining to move into a position as a technical information specialist at the Smithsonian. She works as part of a team converting a bibliographic card file into a computerized data base for museum conservation scientists.

Several women used the program as a way to show that they could do graduate work and went on to earn graduate degrees, including masters' degrees in computer science and nutrition and five doctorates in chemistry, biochemistry and nutritional science. The Ph.D.s are now working primarily in research in the Washington area, in institutions such as the, National Bureau of Standards (NBS) and the National, Institutes of Health. One worked in a cooperative program at NBS while pursuing her doctorate. Since she completed the degree in 1983 she has published nine papers related to her research.

Nine of the participants saw the program as a way of updating their skills and chemical knowledge to prepare them for teaching, primarily at the high school level. Several started on a part-time basis in private schools and then moved to full-time in public schools after completing the necessary education courses. One is now chair of the science department in a local high school. Another, who had worked for two years before staying at home with her four children for ten years, described the effect of the program on her return to the working world: "Although I don't qualify as 'successful' in terms of my present salary, I am very successful in doing exactly what I want to and doing it well and with confidence. This program made it possible."

The program provides more tangible benefits. The federal government, the largest employer in the Washington metropolitan area, requires job classification even for part-time positions that pay hourly wages. The graduate credit that the program guaranteed facilitiated such classification.

Employers have expressed satisfaction with the retrained scientists. In 1977, the Army's Mobilization Equipment Research and Development Command at Fort Belvoir, VA, hired one of the women who completed the program, starting her at the beginning bachelor's degree level (GS-7). Since then, she has steadily progressed to a GS-12 ranking. Meanwhile, the Army was so impressed by her performance that it called the American University program the next time it had an opening—and held the job vacant for three months until the successful candidate completed her program. She also started at the beginning level, and was recently promoted to a GS-13.

With the level of scientific development and publication on the in-crease, the need for retraining programs in science will intensify. The success of this program in returning individuals to chemistry suggests that it can be a useful model for extensive continuing education programs in science in the future.

Roscher is professor of chemistry at The American University, Washington, D.C. 20016.