Life as a Female Pharmacologist in Academia – Prof. Amrita Ahluwalia

The first WISE@QMUL event of 2016 saw vascular pharmacologist and WISE Award holder, Prof. Amrita Ahluwalia, take to the stage at the Charterhouse Square campus. Well-known as an engaging and entertaining speaker, even the change from the usual location at the Mile End campus didn’t deter the crowd.

The tone of the talk was set early on: although Amrita had no doubt that the enjoyment of science experienced by men and women was the same, women, she said, had a trickier time navigating the career progression than men. Addressing this problem is something she has dedicated a lot of her life to.

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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!

WISE@QMUL video discussion: “A Chemical Imbalance”

WISE@QMUL members and newcomers gathered for a lunchtime discussion following a viewing of A Chemical Imbalance, a documentary made by the University of Edinburgh to “highlight some of the persistent challenges still faced by women, and to contribute to the wider debate about how we can progress towards equality.”

We were glad to meet so many new faces at our first event of the academic year. Everybody remarked how much they enjoyed the video (and the complimentary lunch, of course!)

Many men as well as ladies attended.

Many men as well as ladies attended.

If you’d like to watch the video again, please visit http://chemicalimbalance.co.uk/project/watch-the-film/.

Joanne moderated the discussion session after the viewing, during which the following comments were made:

  • Women may be more reluctant to “show off” their own achievements, possibly due to implicit social standards on which confidence in men is admired but confidence in women is seen as pushy and aggressive.
  • Gender quotas for promotions are not likely to be a fair or even useful way of dealing with gender imbalances in the senior academic circles. A more important priority is to ensure that the decision-makers are not subconsciously biased towards any one gender.
  • As shown in the (in)famous Yale study, women are just as likely to exhibit negative bias towards women, so there is a need for all of us to evaluate our own habits.
  • In fact, female supervisors may be more likely to be undervalued, even by female subordinates. (Note that there is no data to support this hypothesis!)
  • Although there is a significant tailing off of female participation after postdoctoral fellowships, it should be remembered that male researchers also face the same bottleneck for permanent academic positions.
Joanne moderated the discussion after the video.

Joanne moderated the discussion after the video.

It was a fruitful start to the year and we hope to see as many men and women attending our next panel discussion on 20th November to explore how four female academics at QMUL forged their own career paths.

A final note, if you are interested in suggesting or helping to run future events, please email us to join our organising committee. We really need as much help as possible!

WISE@QMUL panel discussion: What are the challenges facing female postdocs in science and engineering?

On 3rd May 2013, we had a very interesting event to discuss and explore the challenges facing female postdocs in STEM subjects. With demands including running experiments and applying for permanent academic positions, as well as juggling relationships and family life, the choice to work as a female postdoc in STEM is not an easy decision, and often leads to sacrifices for many.

This event aimed to assess these challenges and evaluate how female postdocs can make the most of their experiences and develop their career. We had a range of speakers and a subsequent panel discussion involving:

  • Dr Tracy Bussoli, who works with PhD students and postdoctoral researchers, advising them on career strategies. She completed her PhD in Genetics with the Medical Research Council and worked as a postdoctoral researcher at the MRC Institute of Hearing Research, then as a Senior Genetic Counsellor at Guy’s Clinical Genetics Department for 8 years
  • Ros Hannen, who is a current postdoctoral researcher at QMUL
  • Gioia Cherubini, who is a former postdoctoral researcher and is now a Business Development Manager for QMUL

This event proved very interesting for all the attendees, and we extend a big thank you to our guest speakers!

The challenges facing postdocs was of interest to many

Left to right: Ros (speaker), Gioia (speaker), and Joanne (WISE Chair)