Following the IOP’s “Taking Control of your Career as a Female Physicist” event, Dame Professor Athene Donald and Professor Val Gibson spoke with Helen Cammack about their careers within academia.
Guest contributor Helen Cammack
In my last blog post, I discussed career progression, publishing and gender equality with Professors Donald and Gibson. Here, we continue our conversation.
Did you relocate often as a postdoc?
AD: I moved around – I had a postdoc in the States, then returned to Cambridge. But at that stage I wasn’t really thinking about a career, so I wasn’t that bothered about what happened next. I didn’t intend to be an academic, so the pressure wasn’t on me. Nowadays everyone has to be calculating and publish in the right journals, and the pressure can detract from that freedom.
VG: When I was in my early career, I was just enjoying the moment, and I wasn’t thinking about my future career. The postdocs of today seem to more aware about career opportunities; they know that the majority of them won’t stay in academia; they’re looking around for what they would like to do and they’re picking up the skills they need for the future. It’s not just the academic side, it’s also the personal aspects – they’re concerned about getting on the housing ladder and potentially having families. At that stage those concerns never crossed my mind.
How well do you think academia prepares graduates for careers outside of academia?
VG: Not well enough, although they do obtain quite a few skills that they probably don’t recognise as being very useful, such as communication, writing and computing skills. We cannot train them in all aspects of potential future careers, so it is important that they also engage with suitable training schemes.
AD: You could argue that it’s the role of the careers services within universities rather than that of the PIs to talk about what’s available outside. I’ve been in academia my whole life – what do I know about the outside world? Careers advisors are much better placed to advise graduates about a life outside academia, although we should stress transferable and soft skills where we can so that the graduates appreciate what they’re learning as they do their research.
Which skills tend to be neglected during a PhD in academia?
AD: We don’t do much on project management or interpersonal skills. We do lots of analytical skills, critical thinking, reading and writing.
VG: I would add leadership skills, because working in large collaborations it helps to be able to interact with large numbers of people.
Do you have any advice for a young researcher on a committee who wishes to put an idea forward at a meeting with senior academics?
VG: Don’t be intimidated. If you have an idea that is good, you should share it at an appropriate time and you’ll be heard.
AD: It depends on the type of committee, but sometimes it’s useful to find allies for a certain idea before the meeting. Work out what the counter-arguments will be so that you’re prepared. Be articulate, concise and audible.
VG: A good chair would make sure that everyone in the room has a voice, so if you have something you’d like to say, it’s a good idea to talk to the chair beforehand.
Do you have any tips for PhD students who suffer from imposter syndrome?
AD: It’s valuable to recognise that everyone suffers from this, even professors!
VG: You may learn more physics and research as you go along, but you recognise there’s a lot you don’t know and you feel your inadequacies through that. It’s always there.
AD: Knowing you can cope with it is what changes, and that it’s not the end of the world if you say you don’t know something.
VG: It helps to give yourself a pat on the back every so often, and realise that you can do what you’re planning to.
If a time machine took you to meet yourself at the end of your first degree, what would you say?
VG: I would say that maybe I should have listened more in lectures!
AD: I would tell myself not to compare myself with other people, and to work out who you are.
VG: Take advice, but don’t be influenced by other people or told what to do. You should make the decisions for your future. Do the things you enjoy, and you’ll do well.
Dame Professor Athene Donald is Professor of Experimental Physics at the University of Cambridge and Master of Churchill College. From 2010-14 she was the University’s Gender Equality Champion.
Professor Val Gibson is Professor of High Energy Physics at the University of Cambridge, a Senior Gender Equality Champion, and Fellow and Director of Studies at Trinity College. She is also Chair of the Institute of Physics Juno Panel.
Helen Cammack is a third-year physics PhD student studying Open Quantum Systems at the University of St Andrews and is a member of the Scottish Doctoral Training Centre in Condensed Matter Physics (CM-CDT).