Women in Science
Messages for others thinking about a career in science
The women we talked to had various messages for other people thinking about a career in science. Most had a very positive message, stressing that in spite of hard work and in spite of funding difficulties, it is ‘a great career’, ‘very rewarding’ and ‘incredibly interesting’.
A science career is interesting, fun and flexible
When asked what their message for women considering a career in science might be many women replied enthusiastic encouragement to ‘do it!’ (Tamsin), ‘try it!’ (Eleanor S), and ‘go for it!’ (Helen B).
Some women said that even though science may be a ‘challenging’ career, especially when trying to combine clinical work, teaching and a family, it is ‘great fun’. Alison B said, ‘I think it’s a really interesting career. I think I do it largely because it’s fun. I like solving puzzles.’
Bryony is a post-doc in the MRC Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine. She works long hours and worries about the lack of security due to short term contracts. She also gets frustrated when reviewers reject her papers, but she loves science and thoroughly recommends it as a career.
Be curious and passionate
Molly thinks that people who are successful in science are those who are ‘deeply curious’, who get excited when looking at a data set and who might prefer to see the results of an experiment at 5.00pm on a Friday instead of going to a party.
Several women said that it is important that people choose a subject or a question to answer that inspires them and excites them. Leanne said that people must do what they feel passionate about and that if they are not sure what to study it may be a good thing to take some time away from research, to spend a year working in a pub or some other job, just to have time to meet people and to think about it. She says that, ‘If you really want to do it (science) you’ll always come back and do it and you’ll do it well. Whereas if you’re doing it because you feel you should be it’s going to come to a point where that becomes hard work.’ She concluded that, ‘You are never too old to go into science and learn and inspire people.’
Christine suggested that people should have a range of research interests because, she said, ‘You don’t know what is going to be the next big thing in the future and what’s going to be exciting. You don’t know where your breakthrough will come through. So I have a range of interests and that keeps you fresh as well.’ Marta’s encourages women to consider a career in science very seriously; ‘especially now because in computer science, in particular, we have these very exciting developments happening in robotics where robotics is entering health care, computers are revolutionising wearables and mobile devices are everywhere’.
Seek out opportunities
Maggie advises others to take opportunities when they come. Irene R also said that people must seek out opportunities rather than expect things to be delivered. She urges junior researchers to take the initiative and use the internet, read relevant papers and to talk to people in order to further their careers. She suggests that when young scientists attend meetings and see others doing inspirational work they should ask for advice and information about possible research opportunities.
Irene is adamant that scientists should always be driven by the ‘science itself’ and not by a goal of being ‘chief this or chief that’. She also says that people must take responsibility for their own career.
Jamie is a DPhil student. Her message is that researchers should not feel intimidated by others and that it is helpful to find a good role model or a mentor. Amy says ‘As a fledgling entrepreneur I would say that when specifically speaking to women who are thinking of going down that path, the key is get yourself a great mentor’. Kylie also flagged up the importance of mentors; ‘I think if I hadn’t had someone to give me that push and say “Yes you are capable of this, go for it” then I probably wouldn’t have dared to take the leap in to the academic career’. She also underlines the importance of building up industry connections in order to find out what industry wants.
Alison W said that it is important to have confidence in your own work. Barbara was brought up to expect that she, as a woman, would have a career but perhaps not be the ‘main breadwinner’. She wonders whether this has sometimes made it easier for her to ‘take risks’, and Tao said that scientists need to be open minded and ‘think outside the box’. Kristina, who worked in industry for five years before returning to academia says ‘do try and keep your options open’.
Irene T thinks that young people worry too much about their careers and what might happen in five years’ time. She said that young scientists should live on a day to day basis and enjoy it. Sally, on the other hand, recommends that people plan their careers, and as far as possible have long term goals. She recognises that this may not be possible when children are involved (For more see ‘When is the best time to have children?’). Carolyn thinks that science can be a very good career for those who want children (for more see ‘Child care’). She thinks it is much easier to work flexible hours in academic research than it is in industry.
Carolyn finds research fascinating and enjoys meeting people involved. She also points out that an academic career is more ‘child friendly’ than a career in industry because the hours are more flexible.
Find a work-life balance
Lois suggests that people who want to have children should think about ‘geography’ when planning where they want to work. She said that her life would have been much easier if she had lived nearer to her mother when she had young children. Others also made suggestions about managing a career while having a family.
Alison B said that it is important to ‘focus on what you can do well’ and not worry too much about all the things that you are not so good at. Anna, in similar vein, said that people should learn how to say ‘no’ and how to turn down some opportunities because some things are a huge drain on time. Jane M also stressed the importance of staying true to who you really are and find ways to maintain interests in sport, friendship groups or music. Jane has decided that she wants to be a mother, a clinician, and a teacher. She says that there have to be compromises and she recommends finding a male or female role model and talking to them about how they have managed. Anna also made the point that in science it is very hard to have a distinct boundary between your personal and professional life, and that people who want to be successful scientists should realise that that they can’t just switch off from work (for more see ‘Work-life balance’).
Combine research and clinical work
Some of the women we talked to were clinicians. Irene R said that sometimes younger clinical academics ask her if there is any risk in being away from clinical medicine for some time. She recognises that clinicians need technical skills which get lost if not practiced regularly. Another clinician pointed out that clinical academics are fortunate in that they have ‘two careers to their string’. She said, ‘So when one (career) is drying up you can always depend on the other, and I have certainly done that.’ She went on to say that she wants to keep both research and clinical work going if possible, because her research enriches her clinical life and vice versa.
Irene R also said that clinical academics are often under pressure to return to clinical training as soon as they have finished a research project. She advises those at the start of their careers to make sure they complete that period of research properly, by writing up their thesis and by writing at least one good paper for publication.
There are negative aspects of having a career in science as well as all the positive ones. In particular women wanted others to be aware of the hard work involved, the funding difficulties, and the disappointments when papers are rejected from journals. However, as Jenny said, ‘You will get grants, and you will get your papers published. It’s a question of persistence. So be persistent and don’t be afraid of failure.’ Tamsin similarly said ‘Don’t be afraid and don’t be afraid to get things wrong either’.
Persephone talks to schools about her research but has avoided speaking at career evenings. She worries that there are not enough opportunities for researchers to progress in science and also thinks maternity leave can make the job difficult.
Another essential message for those thinking about a career in science is a point made by Christine about the importance of having other interests apart from work (for more see ‘Work-life balance’).
Anushka says that if you are interested in a career in science you should ‘go for it’ but ‘don’t forget your own personal needs and try to be true to them as well'.
Messages for Managers and Departments
Many of the women recognised the difficulties of running a department, but also saw that there may be times and ways to make departments more open to women scientists. We asked the women we spoke to reflect on their experiences and to make some suggestions of what might support women in science.
Some women said that managers needed to ensure that all groups were actively involved in the running of the department, recognising the strength that diversity brought to doing science. Others similarly noted that changes that brought openness and flattened hierarchies had the potential to benefit everyone in the department.