Today (8th March) is International Women’s Day. It is a day to celebrate our efforts to forge a better, more inclusive world. In CEEC, we have many successful women scientists working across all levels in our departments. Today we hear from some of them about their experiences in their academic careers, what has helped them get where they are and some of the lessons they have learned along the way.
Katie Stevens – Natural Sciences Masters Student
Since a young age I have been interested in many different aspects of science. Being able to ‘pick and choose’ from a wide range of science modules at degree level was something that really excited me. The thought of not being able to study any of these subjects due to my gender is something that never crossed my mind, and I have always been determined to pursue my own interests. Although at times it has been tough to balance learning different subjects in depth, I have enjoyed every minute. Having both an excellent support network and inspiring people around me has made all the difference. One of the most valuable lessons I have learnt is to not take failures to heart but to learn from them, and to make use of the help that is available. Compared to many women in science, I am still at a very early stage in my career and I am constantly learning from the people around me.
Ellen Bell – PhD Student
My career, to date, has been one that has dipped in and out of academia as the need and opportunity arose and I think it is partly because of this history that I feel immensely privileged to once again be working within the academic world. There are few sectors, I feel, that present such an incredibly diverse, passionate and unconventional group of individuals. Individuals who clearly thrive on their work as others would a hobby and who treat and trade knowledge and thought as veritable units of currency. I truly hope I never stop appreciating how wonderful it is to work in a place where I am surrounded by these qualities.
I am very much at the beginning of my career; I rather think I got this far by bludgeoning my way through with regular doses of manic enthusiasm, opportunism and occasionally sheer bloody mindedness. I also love my work and think the people I work with are fantastic, which helps. However something that regularly gives me cause for reflection, is the ephemeral nature of academic work and the long-term implications of short-term stability. Everyone who works in academia knows how unstable the work can be at least in the early days of a research career. Looking forward into the on-rushing future is rather like looking into an abyss, which in its empty unmarked potential can be a source of great excitement and, at other times, stomach-clenching terror. It is very easy to look at the path ahead and think of all the things that could and probably will go wrong, all of the uncertainty and potentiality for failure on the way to gaining that most elusive and precious of prizes, a secure research position. But that is the nature of the beast; academia is demanding and competitive but it’s also exhilarating and empowering. For me the benefits of academia far outweigh the potential stresses caused by building a career within it, at least for now and perhaps more significantly, while I am as I am now. While I am relatively young and feel relatively strong in myself and have no dependents vying for my time or finances then I can afford to take the risks that come with a future containing a fair degree of uncertainty. It’s not ideal, but for now the present is exactly what I want it to be. Going forward? Well we shall have to see how far manic enthusiasm, opportunism and occasional sheer bloody mindedness will get me.
Catriona Morrison – Senior Research Associate
In the past few years, one of the key things that has helped me to become increasingly confident in my role in academia is the support and example of the people around me; I guess you would call them my role models. These are not just the people I work with but anybody who shares the characteristics to which I aspire, my friends, colleagues and family. Perhaps one of the things many people struggle with in academia is finding the confidence and space to be themselves – sometimes it can feel like the higher up you get, the more you are expected to be a certain way. However, with time and great initiatives like Athena Swan, this is changing.
So what have I learned from these role models about being successful and, more importantly, happy in an academic career? Firstly, I think some of the most productive scientists I know are those that enjoy the success of others as much as they their own. Ultimately this job is about teaching, whether that is in the lecture theatre or through running your own research group, and truly it seems that the more you put in to this, the more you get out. Key to this is being generous, with both your time and ideas. Some of the best scientists I know are the ones that have strong and long lasting collaborations with like-minded people (i.e. find the good people and work with them). Finally, I’ve learned not to take myself and my research too seriously; know when to admit that you have done something wrong, have the confidence to say so and, importantly, allow others to do the same. We spend more time being wrong than right as scientists so we might as well get used to it.
Lynn Dicks – NERC Independent Research Fellow
I had a long break from research immediately after my PhD, looking after children. During that time (7 years), I worked part time, as a self-employed science writer. The experience turned out to be extremely valuable. It was my route back into research (my first post-doc involved literature review), and it has shaped much of what I’ve done since. My PhD was on the structure of pollination networks in hay meadows. Now, I use ecology to inform management of biodiversity and ecosystem services in agriculture, with a focus on wild pollinators. I work a lot at the interface between science, business and policy, using negotiation and communication skills that are increasingly valued in academic institutions. I have four pieces of advice to anyone starting out in academic research.
First, believe in yourself, particularly in the quality of your ideas. Research is a creative process. You need good ideas, and the ability and tenacity to implement them. As you go along, you learn from experience what makes a good idea.
Second, socialise. Science is collaborative and international. To help build a trusted network of collaborators, take every chance you can to relax, have fun and get to know other researchers, from the outset.
Third, success is a balancing act between making the most of every opportunity, and staying focused on your individual goals. To get the balance right, keep your eyes on the big picture, plan carefully, and weigh up each opportunity to see if it will help you get where you’re going.
Finally, when you fail, do so with good grace. Expect to fail a lot of the time, learn lessons from each failure and move on. I have borrowed a mantra from a hugely respected colleague, Josef Settele, who signs all his emails “Never give up :)”.
Jennifer Gill – Professor of Applied Ecology
I love my job and I feel incredibly privileged to live in a time and place when it is possible for me to be an academic – there are too many parts of the world in which it is still not be possible for women to have these roles. What makes my job such a privilege is the students and colleagues with whom I get to work. For me, collaboration is the key to success. Being able to bounce ideas around and hear a wide range of views and perspectives is incredibly exciting, and this needs a working atmosphere in which everyone feels comfortable contributing their ideas. I was extremely fortunate to have two wonderful PhD supervisors who always created just such an atmosphere, never took themselves too seriously and always emphasised the fun in science, and I have always tried to follow their excellent example. I like to think that laughter fuels good science as well as making work fun (maybe I’ll think of a way to test that theory one day).