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Academic Careers

More from the Author of This Week’s In Person Essay

Tracy Ainsworth, who wrote this week’s In Person essay on combining a science career with family in Australia, sent me an e-mail describing her experiences, which I reproduce here with her permission:

Last year I was part of a group of female scientists that spoke with several girls high schools about science as a career. One of the discussion points the students raised was the career not supporting women having families. I came away asking myself, how have we done this? How is it high school students are questioning if the career is possible. Also over the past few years I have seen many graduates leave science at the end of a PhD, not because they don’t enjoy the science but because they don’t like the career. It is a very sad thing, both for the people who are not following their interest into science and for the career to miss out on what they could have contributed.

In the last decade in Australia institutions and the Research Councils have begun to turn things around with a few significant policy shifts. For example, the ROPE system (Research Opportunity and Performance Evidence) allows researches applying for grants to discuss their research outputs as relative to the opportunities they have had to undertake research.  The tide here has also changed on the idea that if you intend to have kids you are not serious about your career. I feel that my work takes me more seriously because I remain actively engaged in contributing. I know that, if I do well, I am part of my group doing well, and I feel they support me 100%. I don’t think I could ask for more. But departments/institutions gain from supporting women in these years – why train someone else to leave when you can have productive people who are good at what they do staying productive.

In between having my 2 children I decided I wanted to stay in a research-only role in the near future. Not because I think tenure and family are prohibitive, but I decided I didn’t want that career just yet (I am a much better researcher than I am an educator). Waiting to start having a family was risky and what I learned from my experiences was that I couldn’t force my life to fit career expectations established by another generation at a time when the career was different. I want my career to fit my expectations and my life. Anything can happen to anyone at anytime, not just kids. I would say to anyone who thinks having a family is bad for their science, to look at their CV and ignore the past year, 2 years or even seven years, and ask themselves if not having that section of their CV means they would no longer be a good scientist or that the science they did before is no longer good. It doesn’t!  I feel it is possible to find another way to achieve a long career in science and academia, and policies here in Australia, do make a difference. Both attitudes and opportunities are changing.

Science Careers is a great resource and place to find inspiration, and does make a difference for many people in the early stages of their career. I wrote the essay late at night (on my iPhone), while up with my 4month old because I was reading the Science Careers app while he as feeding. I was inspired to speak up about my recent post-doctoral experiences and how they have changed how I approach my career in science.