Women in Science
Careers beyond academic science
While our interviews focussed on women in academia, some of the women spoke of experiences outside of academic science, and we have gathered their comments below. These women’s accounts illustrate that there is broad scope to use a scientific background in today’s society. They also demonstrate that many of our scientists have had varied and non-linear careers.
Work experience and the corporate world
Carolyn left Oxford after she finished her chemistry degree because at that time students needed a first class degree to do a doctorate (DPhil) and she got a second. She worked for a while as an analytical chemist in industry. Later she found she could start a DPhil. When she finished her DPhil she had her first child, and was moving because her husband was in the RAF, so she got a job abstracting patents. She did this for 10 years. It allowed her to keep in touch with science. Tamsin also took a year off after her Masters and taught English in Berlin then worked at the European Commission before starting her PhD in Earth Sciences.
Other women spent a short time in industry or the commercial sector. Fran went with her husband to St Louis, USA, where she finished writing up her PhD. She approached the head of the Immunology Department at Washington University Medical School, and was offered a postdoctoral fellowship. During her final year her supervisor took a job as head of Research and Development for Searle, the pharmaceutical arm of Monsanto, so his lab moved there, Fran went too and was exposed to the way big companies work.
Lois works as a consultant in emergency medicine at the John Radcliffe Hospital, and is Associate Director of Clinical Studies at Oxford University medical School. She also works in The Professional Support Unit for doctors, which covers the Thames Valley area. In 2007 she decided that she wanted to do something different for a while, so left the NHS and did a diploma in nutritional medicine. Then for a while she gave talks about nutrition and healthy living to people in the corporate world. She enjoyed it but found she was enjoying her locum work in the NHS and missed the NHS camaraderie.
Some women were advised against spending a period working in industry, as it may leave a ‘gap’ – in publications and academic career development - on their CV. While the move to industry and back can be difficult, there were things that could be done to make it easier, such as attending academic conferences, maintain connections with academics, and collaborate on publications. Working in industry also allowed some women to develop their translational research and project management skills.
Most of the women we talked to did at least some teaching as well as their research. They taught medical students, other undergraduates, DPhil students, and others. Elspeth, for example, now a Professor of Molecular Biophysics, lectures in mathematics to Biochemists. While researching in nuclear physics she was a physics, and maths for physics tutor. Over the years she has taught on 70 summer schools around the world, teaching people about the techniques of protein crystallography. She has also given talks in schools, and many public engagement talks.
Most women said that they really enjoyed their teaching, though one woman said that after many years teaching undergraduates she has stopped giving tutorials because the work had become monotonous. Marian finds teaching very interesting and enjoys it but sometimes worries that she hasn’t had any formal teacher training.
Teaching can be an alternative career. One woman spent seven years overseas working as a senior lecturer in a medical school, teaching physiology and pharmacology, before starting her PhD. Sally decided to spend some time away from the laboratory bench whilst she had young children. She kept up to date with her subject, teaching Open University courses. She also tutored Oxford students.
Moving on from research
Jennifer did her PhD at Nottingham, and then worked as a postdoc for eight years, first at the Medical Research Council at Harwell and then at Oxford, on a series of short term contracts. She didn't think that her publication record was strong enough to apply for a fellowship and also wanted a bit more stability and long term employment.
Maggie has had a very successful career in science. In 2012 she took up the role of President of St John’s College, Oxford. She is still very involved in research, in collaboration with her husband, who is at UCL.
Some women talked about what they might do if they were unsuccessful in their academic careers. Bryony, a postdoc, realises that academic science is an uncertain career. She appreciates the careers seminars that have been organised by her department.
Bryony says she has found seminars about careers helpful. She has heard about careers that she could follow if she were to leave academia. She thinks that writing articles for newspapers or blogs might be interesting.
When Jennifer was looking for new jobs she also found that the ‘alternative careers seminars’, run by the University, very beneficial. She leant new skills, such as how to write a good CV, and she found it helpful to talk to others in the same situation. She met a woman who had volunteered to help with events apart from her normal research, which had made her CV stand out. After that Jennifer volunteered to help organise events in the Postdoctoral Society, which she thinks improved her CV too (for more see ‘Career development and progression’).