Sarah-Jane Lonsdale speaks to two senior female scientists in industry about their career paths
Guest contributor Sarah-Jane Lonsdale
The Institute of Physics ran an event in November 2015 targeted at PhD students and early career researchers on “Taking Control of your Career as a Female Physicist”. After the event, I spoke with Dr Valerie Berryman-Bousquet, R&D Manager at SHARP Laboratories, and Dr Jenny Wooldridge, Associate Programme Manager at the National Physical Laboratory, about their career paths in industry. After our first discussion, we continued our conversation.
What were the most challenging adjustments for you, when you transitioned from an academic position to industry?
JW: Not much, it’s like university but with a twist – we’re an applied research laboratory. There’s always an end customer, or a reason for doing our work. A lot of time is spent report writing; explaining progress to our external funding bodies. Everything NPL does should have a positive impact, whether a financial benefit to a company or an impact in terms of healthcare, which could mean saving lives.
VBB: The pace of work is very different from academia, where you are given time to explore different avenues. In industry, you have to deliver on time and on target. It can be an adjustment coming from a PhD, because industry is more focused and fast-paced.
Could you describe the working environment in your company?
JW: The Impact team at NPL is a team of around 17, split into distinct roles. There are the programme managers who understand the industry needs and set strategy. I work in a team of five. We look at what people get for their money. I feed my own work back to the group, so it is quite collaborative.
VBB: There is a lot of teamwork, with people working together to achieve similar technical goals. We encourage researchers to do personal development and try to give them the opportunity whenever time is available to research and explore new ideas, but our projects are our main priority.
What would you suggest to someone who would like to enter your line of work?
JW: It makes sense to have people who have experience of working in science leading the policy, so I would encourage people with research training to leave academia if it doesn’t suit them.
VBB: I would suggest networking with colleagues in industry during your PhD. There is often potential for industrial collaboration, so that would be a good route to try.
Have you ever encountered “imposter syndrome” at any point of your career?
JW: Absolutely! We have a very active union at NPL, Prospect, who have done a lot of training courses focusing on confidence for women. One event asked us to brag about something we had done in the last year. None of us could do it – we were all too embarrassed. I think it is a female trait more than a male trait, but not exclusively so, and it does hold people back.
There are many statistics about women not applying for jobs. I’m like that: I’ve had to be asked to apply for things and speak up. I’ve had to work really hard to overcome it. I used to think I was a mediocre scientist, but if you’re a mediocre scientist in a top institution, that makes you a good scientist! I think it can be useful if you have a place where you can own up to that I-don’t-know-anything feeling.
If you have children, do you think there have been any challenges in your career because of this?
JW: It becomes more difficult to travel, especially when you don’t have family around. There are more logistics to juggle with children. At the moment, I have one child in school and one in nursery, so my partner and I have to plan who’ll be doing pick-up.
Do you have any tips for early career researchers dealing trying to combine a career and a family?
JW: I think my experience is slightly different, because I’m in industry and have a permanent job. I personally wouldn’t have felt comfortable having a child with a temporary job contract like many postdocs. It is extremely difficult. Part of the appeal to me of leaving academia was having job security and being able to be free to make my own life choices.
I have heard advice from academics, saying that women should have their children earlier rather than later. If I had stayed in academia, I wouldn’t have had my children until later, because I wouldn’t have had the job security. There are also things you can’t plan – like when you meet your partner. Part of the appeal of leaving academia for me was being free to make those life choices.
VBB: I think it can be difficult; two scientists might not be able to find a position in the same location. I think you’d have to make the best choice for both partners so neither feels left out. On the other hand, I met my husband when we were both settled in our current jobs, so sometimes things do work out well.
Dr Valerie Berryman-Bousquet is the R&D Manager at SHARP Laboratories of Europe Ltd.
Dr Jenny Wooldridge is an Associate Programme Manager within the Policy, Strategy and Impact team at the National Physical Laboratory.
Sarah-Jane Lonsdale is a Principal’s Career Development Scholar at the University of Edinburgh, studying the formation of the nuclei in stars for her PhD. She is passionate about outreach and inspiring the next generation of young scientists.