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How academic departments can support embedded talent

by Laurel L. Schafer
February 23, 2020 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 98, Issue 8


Credit: Courtesy of Laurel Schafer
Schafer with her family during a sabbatical in 2019.

This is a guest editorial by Laurel L. ­Schafer, a professor of chemistry at the University of British Columbia, a Canada Research Chair in Catalyst Development, and an associate editor for “Organometallics.” Are you interested in submitting an essay about your experience as a faculty member? Submit it to

In 2000, I was on a job hunt. That year, departments across Canada were providing a financial incentive to increase gender diversity among their ranks through a targeted hiring initiative, the University Faculty Award. For the first time in my scientific career, I was a highly sought-after applicant, and I quickly secured a position with the University of British Columbia. I set up my lab, recruited my first graduate student, and got to work. Soon thereafter, I had assembled enough preliminary ­results to publish. Things were going well, and I was on a clear path to tenure. Then my husband and I decided to have a child.

After the birth of our daughter, I was exhausted much of the time, but I benefited from the extensive support of my husband, an engineer, who rearranged his calendar so he could accompany me to conferences. The scientific community was generally very supportive of my choice to build a family. Things changed when shortly after I earned tenure, my husband and I chose to have a second child. With a toddler and infant at home, my exhaustion was all-encompassing. While I continued to publish, albeit with a notable dip in productivity, traveling to conferences with two young children became impossible. I didn’t think this would be a problem, as I had established myself in my research community. I was wrong. My community was happy to ask about my growing children, but their interest in discussing science waned. I grew to realize that my life choices had caused my research community to draw conclusions about my career potential: I had taken a nontraditional path.

In academia, we invest significant resources in recruiting top talent from around the globe. These incoming ­colleagues are supported generously to initiate their programs, earning tenure out of the gate by demonstrating explosive growth in their scientific achievements. A few professors ride this exponential curve to scientific stardom. However, because of life situations or career choices, some talented faculty plateau in their career growth, followed by a noticeable change in support from the academic community. These rising stars have slipped off the expected path to excellence.

I know that I am not alone in experiencing this plateau. I have had many conversations with women and men who have experienced similar challenges to their career aspirations because of life or career pressures. These colleagues feel overlooked and unsupported as they strategize about how to realize their full career potential, while resources, including departmental respect, are focused on those with more typical career paths.

What if we are missing out on valuable opportunities to grow top talent buried within our existing departments and cohorts?

Well into my career with two young children, I took my first sabbatical and resolved to “re-earn” tenure, reintegrate myself within my community, and show that a productive career could endure a plateau and experience a resurgence later. Unfortunately, most faculty do not have the support, energy, or appropriate motivators to take on that battle posttenure. I attribute my commitment to re-earning tenure to sheer stubbornness.

It is time to have an open dialogue on ways to support diverse faculty with alternative career trajectories in maintaining their competitive edge. Acknowledging and supporting nontraditional paths needs to be part of the formula for sustained growth of chemistry departments. I propose that modest investments in embedded talent will raise the profile of departments and institutions and ultimately create a more inclusive culture for everyone.

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Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS or C&EN.


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