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She Just Won the Nobel Prize in Physics. Why Is She Still an Associate Professor?

October 2, 2018, 10:43 PM UTC

The glass ceiling is everywhere. And today brought news of a new window into that ceiling—oddly enough, in a place where one might think there were plenty of open doors: academia.

Witness the career status of one of the co-recipients of the just-announced 2018 Nobel Prize in Physics: Dr. Donna Strickland, of the University of Waterloo, in Ontario, Canada.

This year’s prize is being split between Strickland; Arthur Ashkin, a 96-year-old American scientist (now the oldest Nobel laureate in history), who had a long, prestigious career at Bell Labs and other venues; and Frenchman Gérard Mourou, who has a string of awards and lofty academic titles under his name.

But Strickland, who co-developed with Mourou “a method of generating high-intensity, ultra-short optical pulses,” is still an associate professor at her university, a relatively low academic rank—at least as newly minted Nobel laureates go.

Twitter, of course, had a field day with this. Hat tip to Alex Tabbarok, who wrote: “Associate professor wins Nobel! Will look good in her bid for full.”


Academic-minded wags tweeted out reasons why the University of Waterloo had yet to name Strickland—one of only three women recipients of the Nobel Prize for Physics and the first woman to win since 1963—a full professor. One joked that the school’s promotions and tenure committee thought she “didn’t do enough university service.” Another guessed that the scientist had been dinged for canceling “class just to go to some awards show abroad.” A third suggested that she “needed at least one more” publication—preferably, as another tweeter offered, in a top-five journal.

Strickland herself seemed to quell any insinuation of sexism in a BBC interview today, saying that she’d “always been treated like an equal [to male scientists] in her career.” When when asked directly why someone with her achievements and esteemed reputation wasn’t holding a full professorship, she answered simply, “I never applied.”

Correction, Oct. 17, 2018: An earlier version of this article misstated Strickland’s title. We regret the error.