I’m working on a publication for the Medical Research Council called Suffrage Science – they published a booklet (it’s a slow link) last year for the biological sciences and this year it focusses on the physical sciences. The idea is to celebrate the careers of successful women scientists and record their experiences of gender and equality in the sciences. It’s been a joy to hear these stories, and I’ve been surprised at how empowering it has been on a personal level: it has helped me to understand my own career choices and why I made them, and that actually, people who become successful scientists were helped by other people – mentors, supervisors – who encouraged and guided them along the way.
I left research after my PhD for a number of reasons: I felt my area of research (space plasma physics) wasn’t making enough of a positive difference to society, I wanted a broader view of science (someone recently put it well: you’re working too close to the coal face), and because I couldn’t see a clear career progression ahead of me, not wanting to become a lecturer. If you stay in academia that’s where all positions eventually lead. I never felt like I was particularly good at it, and I spent most of my days in a basement writing computer code. The day-to-day life didn’t suit me. But I think my negative feelings about my own abilities were down to the competitive, almost macho culture that you often encounter at physics conferences and within physics research groups, and perhaps due to a lack of encouragement from my supervisor. I don’t recall he ever asked me about my career plans and whether I’d be suitable for a job in research.
It’s encouraging that a lot of physics departments are working to create a more supportive environment, through small changes like ensuring seminars are during core hours. Schemes like the Athena Swan awards are focussing minds, particularly now that the chief medical officer Sally Davis has stipulated that Biological Research units achieve a silver award to be considered for funding in the future. Everyone’s worried that the other research councils will follow suit, so they are all jumping on board. Perhaps that will go some way to encourage faltering PhD students, as they try to discern their next steps in life.