8 tips for staying in academia: A female perspective

If you’re still looking for inspiration for new year’s resolutions, I’m listing my favourite take-home messages from our November panel discussion about the female perspective on academic life.

1. Try new places whilst you still have the flexibility to

Thinking about your next position? It might not be such a bad idea to look outside of your current city or even abroad whilst you still have the flexibility to move your entire life to somewhere new. All of our panellists agreed that moving abroad is one of the best ways to mature yourself, both personally and professionally. If you’re already in a relationship, it’s natural to worry about the distance, but try to make the best decision for yourself.  Look out for pan-EU funding schemes such as Horizon 2020, and also keep in mind that specific fellowships exist for UK academics who have worked abroad and now wish to return to the UK.

2. Be aware of the international differences in academic systems and visa restrictions

Before you take the plunge, be wary of how different academic systems can be across the continents. As an example, one of our panellists who started her career in Canada, where publishing frequently in smaller journals is advocated, found it relatively difficult to find a position here in the UK because interviewers preferred academics who published less frequently but in journals with higher impact factors. Also find out exactly what teaching and other administrative duties may be implicit in your new position. If you are planning to or already have a family, be aware that visa restrictions may mean that you’re not eligible for schemes such as child benefits or tax rebates, even if your partner is a local citizen.

3. Travel to meet your future employers

If there is a particular academic you would love to work with, get in touch and make the effort to visit them if possible. One of our panellists landed her first postdoc position at the Max Planck Institute because she visited her target research group for a week, under the guise of helping them with experiments, presented her PhD work and impressed them so much that they asked her to stay! Don’t be afraid to create your own employment opportunities.

4. Distinguish between incompatibility and inadequacy

When experiments don’t go to plan, you start to question your ability in the lab. When your whole PhD feels like a losing battle, you start to question your adequacy for scientific research altogether. One of our panellists shared that she certainly considered that she might not be cut out to be an academic as she finished her PhD degree, but she stuck with it and found a postdoc position in a different field of biology. It was only then that she realised she hadn’t lacked ability—she had lacked interest for her PhD topic. When you’re feeling down about your scientific career, try to make the same distinction in your mind: are you truly inadequate, or just incompatible with your current research topic or research group?

5. Establish your independence as a researcher as soon as possible

A good supervisor for your first postdoc position will work with you from day 1 to establish your independence as a researcher. Unfortunately such supervisors are hard to come by, and most likely it will be down to you to start negotiating what you can take away as your own research after you leave the research group; this is something you should always keep in mind. Your postdoc career should be an exploratory period in which you define the research topic that you want to pursue for the rest of life, so don’t let the day-to-day pressures from your supervisor take away your focus on your long-term goals.

6. Know who to take what advice from

Senior academics are often generous with their advice for their younger counterparts, but don’t be pressured into thinking that they know your research better than you. As one of our panellists emphasised that when seeking advice for a grant application, you should certainly let them guide you on how best to present your proposal, but you don’t have to take their recommendations on what science you should do.

7. Don’t worry too much about when you will have children

Both of our panellists with children agreed: there will be a time when you will genuinely want to have a child, and when that time comes, you will try to have a child irrespective of circumstances. It still sounds pretty mystical to me, but I guess their underlying message is not to worry too much. Like any other key life decisions, there will always be doubt and fear, but once the decision is made, things will generally fall into place around it, so stop fretting excessively and let your instincts guide you once in a while. On a practical note, most academic departments have already amazing accommodations in place for new parents, so don’t be disparaged before you check exactly what you can have.

8. Love doing research

Research is at its core a compulsive act of unsatiated curiosity. If you’re driven by such a compulsion, you’ll pull through no matter what, regardless of gender biases, parenting demands and all the other obstacles between you and staying in academia. WISE@QMUL and many other organisations are trying our best to minimise these obstacles. The question is of course: do you want it enough?

Our panellists spoke to a full room of anxious PhD students and early career researchers

Our panellists spoke to a full room of anxious PhD students and early career researchers

To summarise:
  1. Try new things whilst you still have the flexibility to
  2. Be aware of the international differences in academic systems and visa restrictions
  3. Travel to meet your future employers
  4. Distinguish between incompatibility and inadequacy
  5. Establish your independence as a researcher as soon as possible
  6. Know who to take what advice from
  7. Don’t worry too much about when you will have children
  8. Love doing research :)

From everybody in the WISE@QMUL committee, we wish you all the best for 2014 and we look forward to seeing you at our upcoming events.  We will kickstart the new year with a discussion of the Athena SWAN Charter, a scheme launched in 2005 to recognise academic departments committed to advancing women’s careers.

Our four panellists

Our four panellists and our Chair, Joanne, on the far right

Our panellists on 20th November 2013 were (left to right):

20th Nov 2013: I want to be an academic—a female perspective

WISE@QMUL presents a lunchtime panel discussion: “I want to be an academic—a female perspective”.

As a PhD student or postdoc, the pathway to a permanent job can often seem long and very difficult.  This is made more discouraging by the fact that only 26.1% of lecturers in STEM subjects are female.

WISE have organised a discussion with four female QMUL academics to talk about their career paths and hopefully pick up some advice and encouragement along the way.  We’ll also be talking about combining careers with families.  Free lunch & tea/coffee, of course!

When: Wed 20th Nov 2013, 12:30-1:30 pm
Where: Matt Spencer Boardroom, 1/F, Student Union HUB, Mile End Campus
Map: http://www.qmul.ac.uk/docs/about/26065.pdf (Building 34)

Hope to see you there!

6th Dec 2012: Parenting and careers

WISE@QMUL presents our final event of the term a lunchtime panel discussion: “Parenting and Careers”.

Everyone is welcome to this informal networking event exploring how to combine family life with an academic career. There will be plenty of opportunities to question our panel of student and staff parents, as well as short talks from QMUL HR. We’ll finish up with relaxed networking over refreshments.

We welcome men as well as women, and academics from undergraduate level to professors.

When: Thursday 6th December 2012, 12-2 pm
Where: Room UPC (148a), Engineering Building, Mile End Campus
Map: http://www.qmul.ac.uk/docs/about/26065.pdf (Building 15)

To help us get an idea of numbers, please register for this event here (use code: RW204)


12.00 Reception
12.30 Sam Holborn (HR Consultant for Science and Engineering)
12.40 Bertille Calinaud (Diversity Specialist)
12.50 Panel chaired by Marina Resmini with QMUL staff: Jeanne Wilson, Jo Cordy, Lourdes Agapito and QMUL students: Colombine Gardair and Sara Heitlinger
13.40-14.00 Networking

Speakers and panellists:

  • Sam Holborn is the HR Consultant for Science and Engineering.  Her role is to offer support and advice to the faculty on HR matters.
  • Bertille Calinaud is the Diversity Specialist for Queen Mary, she also project managed the Athena SWAN programme, which is a Charter to advance women career in sciences and engineering.
  • Marina Resmini is a Reader in organic chemistry in the School of Biological and Chemical Sciences.  She has been at QMUL since 1999 when she started as a lecturer.  She works full time and has two young children.
  • Jeanne Wilson is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Physics and Astronomy.  She has recently returned from maternity leave after the birth of her second child.
  • Jo Cordy is the Development Adviser for Research Students, based in the Learning Institute.  She runs workshops and events for researchers as well as offering advice and support.  Her son was born at the beginning of March and she has recently returned from maternity leave.
  • Lourdes Agapito is a Reader in Computer Vision at the School of Electronic Engineering and Computer Science and mother of 3 children aged 4, 6 and 8.
  • Columbine Gardair is in the process of finishing her PhD in the School of Electronic Engineering and Computer Science whilst also teaching Design for Human Interaction module this term.  She has a 2 year old daughter who attends QMUL nursery full time.
  • Sara Heitlinger is an award winning artist, writer and currently PhD student in the Media and Arts Technology programme.  Her research looks at how digital technology can support grassroots urban food growing communities.  She has a two-year-old son, who was born in the first year of the four year PhD programme and helps keep things in perspective.

We hope to see you there!

Thinking about having children vs. an academic career?

Prof Dame Athene Donald’s latest blog post “Get a wife!” makes some interesting points about the work-life balance of academic and non-academic couples.

Here at WISE@QMUL we are putting our thinking caps on about the topic of having kids and an academic career… hopefully hosting a ‘Planning Parenthood’ event towards the end of this term.  Ideas? Comments? Post below or use our contact form.

10th Feb 2011: Recent research on work-life balance

The next WISE@QMUL lunchtime seminar will be Thursday, 10th February 2011 from 12:30-1:30 pm in the Informatics Hub. Lunch will be provided, but we ask that you send an e-mail to wise@qmul.ac.uk to book a place as space is limited.

Gendered work-life conflict and the limits to learning in IT (or, why it pays employers to care)

Over the last decade, the desirability and means of successfully integrating paid work with other meaningful parts of life has received widespread attention. As the neoliberal attack on social provisioning has transferred the burden of care down to the ‘natural’ level of home where most women retain the major responsibility for the ‘messy and fleshy’ components of domestic and family life, significant gender variations in work-life stress persist. Studies have highlighted, therefore, the importance of employer provided ‘work-life balance’ (WLB) arrangements as a means for improving gender equity in market employment and household caring, and for combating the increasing work pressures that are destabilising many households and communities. Yet despite the profound moral and social significance of WLB, it is increasingly recognised that employers are unlikely to implement meaningful WLB arrangements unless they can identify ‘bottom-line’ economic advantages that arise from their implementation. However, there remains a paucity of empirical evidence to support the so-called ‘WLB business case’. At the same time, conventional WLB business case analyses often sideline social equity concerns of workers and their families, and say little about the underlying determinants of firms’ competitive performance in the New Economy.

In response, this paper presents new empirical evidence from two high tech regional economies (Dublin and Cambridge) to develop an alternative socioeconomic analysis focused on: (i) gendered experiences of work-life conflict in the IT industry; (ii) the arrangements that different groups of IT workers and their families find most useful in ameliorating those work-life conflicts; and (iii) the mechanisms through which workers’ use of those preferred WLB arrangements helps foster and support routine learning and innovation processes within knowledge-intensive firms. As such, the paper responds to earlier calls by Lewis et al. (2003) to develop a ‘dual agenda’ that moves beyond either/or thinking to consider both business and social imperatives in pursuit of optimal work-life balance outcomes. This research is also particularly timely given the challenges of the recent economic downturn and post-recession recovery: with employers keen to effect cost savings, workplace arrangements designed to assist workers in reconciling competing commitments around work, home and family will not be immune. Accordingly, the social and economic ‘business case’ for WLB becomes even more salient.

Al James is a Lecturer in Economic Geography at Queen Mary University of London, with research interests in high tech regional development; gender, work and employment; and the rise of India’s new service economy. He is keen to extend the recent work-life balance project to a focus on stay-at-home Dads, ‘male returners’, and the ways in which the recession might potentially be fostering a more progressive shift in gendered divisions of care.

19th May 2010: Coffee with Prof Dame Julia Higgins

Tired of marking exam scripts? Writing up getting you down? Summer is finally arriving, but you’re stuck in the lab?

Take a break with WISE@QMUL. We are incredibly proud to announce that Prof Dame Julia Higgins is going to join us for “a coffee and a chat” this Wednesday at 16:30 in the Hub.

Being a very successful scientist and named by the Guardian as a “Grand Dame of Science”, Dame Julia will guide us through what choices determined her career and success. She is a very good speaker and has increasingly rare views on how to succeed in science:

“I’ve made it absolutely clear that I’ve got a personal life, I want to be with my partner, and that’s good for my brain.” – Guardian, April 2009

Prof Dame Julia Higgins was the Principal of the Faculty of Engineering at Imperial College and the Foreign Secretary and Vice President of the Royal Society until 2006/2007. She has been made DBE (Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire) in 2000 and Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur by the Government of France in 2004. Her list of honours and awards is extremely vast and involves positions such as National Gallery (as a trustee), membership of the Chemistry panel for the 2000 Research Assessment Exercise, as well as countless advisory panels and journal editorial boards. She was also chair of the Athena Project and a champion of women in science and engineering. Her research explores boundaries between engineering and materials chemistry and mainly focuses on the study of polymeric mixtures through neutron scattering techniques.

Everyone is welcome. Coffee, tea, and nibbles are on us!

To read more about Dame Julia Higgins, see Ingenia and the Guardian.