Although prospects are challenging, help is indeed out there for women looking to get back into academia after having a career break.
Guest contributor Sara Burton
As I sat in my PhD viva voce exam in 1994 year I was fighting distraction – I had just found out I was pregnant and was wondering whether I could drink champagne if I passed.
Having worked in university labs before my first degree and in a small biotechnology company for four years before my PhD – it wasn’t difficult to decide this was the time for motherhood.
So I looked after my two sons full time from 1995-98. When my youngest son was two years old I decided that I wanted to return to my academic career. I noticed a newspaper advert for an associate lecturer with the Open University in the UK. The opportunity was perfect: I could teach in the evenings and at weekends while my husband looked after the boys. Indeed, this worked well for us all.
In addition to my OU role during my sons’ early years I was contacted by an academic I knew when I was a PhD student. And thus I was employed to help manage a research group. Once again, flexibility in working hours was key and enabled me to start at just two days a week allowing me to be both a mum and an academic.
Since I came back to academia, I’ve observed two recurring themes about returners to the lab: firstly, a lack of confidence prior to returning and secondly the power of networking. Knowledge and skills in science changes rapidly, and can quickly leave people feeling left behind. 42% of STEM employers find that applicants lack general workplace experience and are also weak in employability skills.
Over a long, five-year phased return, I was able to increase my hours until I eventually became full time. My experience has taught me a few things about returning to work after a career break, and one of them is planning in advance. So, from my experience, I offer points for consideration for those planning a career break:
Start planning early. If you can start planning your return strategy before you have left employment or study, you’ll be at an advantage. This includes thinking about practicalities like childcare, your financial situation on your return, the proximity of schools to home and work, and how to manage absences for work (attending conferences and the like). Speaking to colleagues who had been through similar situations gave me ideas on what to consider, especially strategies for unforeseen situations. Their kindness, whether a listening ear or more practical help, was imperative in the early years for me to keep motivated with my chosen work-life balance.
Network. Actively networking will help you find employment opportunities and reduce the sense of isolation outside of your professional environment. Using social media platforms like LinkedIn or Twitter can help. Keeping up-to-date with your professional/learned society membership can also be very beneficial. Some of these, like the Royal Society of Biology, offer reduced rate for those on career breaks.
Stay in touch. Keep up-to-date with the science through conference attendance and reading the literature.
Find funding. Search out funds set aside to help those on career breaks. The Microbiology Society’s Inclusion Grant, for example, offers funds to contribute to the additional costs of conference attendance. These could be childcare costs for the duration of the conference or costs for nursing or other support for a person if the applicant has carer responsibilities.
The Daphne Jackson Trust is another example of a foundation that supports women returning to work by offering fellowships specifically aimed at returners. The Royal Society of Biology’s Returner’s Resources provide much of this information.
Return the favour. Many women (and men) will be looking for support from their peers. Any information you can offer them can be extremely beneficial. Forming networks and joining forums, for example, through The Royal Society of Biology ‘Returners to Bioscience’ group, returners can examine the experiences of those who face difficulties in returning to a career in the biosciences and how they overcame them.
There are estimates that the UK has an annual shortfall in domestic supply of around 40,000 new science, technology, engineering and maths skilled workers. The community of returners is a pool of talent that employers and higher education institutions need to recognise this. Interestingly a survey from the Institute of Physics showed that women in STEM careers were almost three times as likely to have taken a career break in the last five years as men (14.3% compared to 5%).
I am now a senior lecturer and would certainly make the same career choices again. I am certain that much of what I have to offer is as direct result of the combination of experiences from both parenthood and science. I wish you well in your extraordinary unique journey back to a career in science if that’s your wish.
Sara Burton is a senior lecturer and director of Undergraduate Studies at Exeter University. Her two sons are now all-grown-up and studying at university.