At what point in your career did you decide to take a career break? What were the reasons for this and how did you feel about the decision?
At the end of the post-doc position at Leeds, my husband and I decided it was a good time to start a family. We have no nearby family to help with childcare, so we would have had to use nurseries/childminders for me to return to work. I took a seven-year career break and became a stay-at-home mother to look after my two sons (now seven and five). I have no regrets with the decision. Although I missed science immensely, I loved spending time with my sons and know that it was the right thing to do for our family.
How did you find out about the Daphne Jackson Trust Fellowships and did this influence your decision to return to work?
My PhD supervisor told me about the trust. Once my younger son started preschool, we met for coffee, and she told me I just had to get back to research soon. When I returned home that evening, I found the trust online and couldn’t believe my luck when I saw that there was an advertisement for half-sponsored fellowships, funded by the RSC, looking for returning chemists. I was thrilled; this was too good an opportunity to miss. Although I had hoped to return, I honestly had no idea how I would go about this, and was starting to resign myself to the fact that I would have to try to find any job to fit around family life, and that a career in research was a long-lost hope. I immediately started to look for a group that researched chemometrics – statistics and pattern recognition applied to chemical numerical data. This was an aspect of my previous research that I had found interesting. I was extremely happy to find that Dr Julie Wilson, at the University of York, had such a group. I arranged to go and see her, and was pleased to find that she had projects in mind on which I could collaborate with her.
What was the application process to obtain a fellowship? How did you find this?
I found the whole application process generally straightforward, though not easy and quite challenging, and there was plenty of help throughout. I approached the trust about their advertised fellowships and found my own new supervisor who I wanted to work with. The trust didn’t help with that aspect in finding a position, but they were extremely supportive and encouraging in everything else, and critical of the proposal I submitted. This was definitely constructive and made my application and proposal much better. The whole team were very approachable and helpful, and I cannot thank them enough, along with the RSC and BBSRC for funding. You are assigned a fellowship advisor who helps you with your application and also keeps in touch throughout your fellowship if you are successful. I have had two during my fellowship (Katherine and Julie), and both have been invaluable in advising me and helping me make progress. The biannual Daphne Jackson Trust Research Conference I attended as a potential returner during my application process was a fantastic experience. Not only was the science extremely interesting, but the opening session was inspiring; it gave me confidence and the reassurance that it wasn’t just me wondering if I could return to research, everyone feels the same.
What were the challenges of returning to work? How did you deal with these? How did the DJT Fellowship support you with this?
Other than the obvious changes managing family life and work-life balance, I’d say that the biggest challenge of returning to work is confidence. The differences between the start of my fellowship and now, nearly two years later, are huge. At the start, I was excited but nervous. As the fellowships are for “retraining”, you are encouraged to retrain in a new area, as I have. At the start, I used to feel quite down, as though I was taking too long to grasp things, and equally feeling like I wasn’t doing well at home, and not managing work-life balance very well. But the DJT are extremely supportive throughout, my advisors keep in touch, and the trust provides courses to help with confidence, and other skills such as giving presentations. Chatting to other fellows lets you know that you aren’t being too slow; everyone feels the same challenges. Then after a few months, suddenly things seemed to click! I have changed from someone trained in NMR spectroscopy nearly nine years ago to someone who is now able to apply complex statistical methods, and develop my own scripts to analyse data from various techniques within analytical chemistry. I have presented at several conferences, attended training courses, published research, conducted scientific outreach activities, and helped to organise the 5th RSC Analytical Biosciences Early Career Researchers Meeting in York. The RSC Joliot-Curie Conference for early career researchers was incredibly inspiring and confidence building, and so helpful to me personally. With discussions on imposter syndrome, and 1:1 career advice, I felt much more confident and competitive amongst other early career researchers at the end of it, despite a long career break.
Has there been anything in your return to work that was different to what you expected, or that has surprised you?
I had no idea what to expect at all when I returned to work. What has surprised me is the constant level of support I have received from my supervisor Dr Wilson, the department of chemistry at York and mentorship from other academics, and the trust as a whole. Everyone has been extremely encouraging and understanding of part-time research to fit with family life. They have also pushed me to make my research competitive and high quality, but with patience and understanding of the retraining aspect of the research. I always think how lucky I have been with my experience.
What do you think needs to change in the chemical sciences community to support people taking career breaks and returning to work?
I think that times are changing and more organisations and funders are realising that there is a need for more effort in supporting a return to work for researchers and to stop this ‘leaky pipeline’. Athena SWAN and equality for all has made a huge difference to working life – this is something that chemistry at York has embraced, and is evident in daily life there. I obviously think more funding should be directed to the Daphne Jackson Trust and other similar initiatives, like the Wellcome Trust Research Career Re-entry Fellowship. There is a whole pool of talent and experts in their field wanting to get back to work, but unsure how, and such skills shouldn’t be lost. I’m not sure how, but I think that the STEM community need to think about how to target them and advertise such initiatives better. I have found that not many are familiar with the schemes available and people in the scientific community always know someone who may be interested. Promotion of schemes such as the DJT Fellowships and talking about them (in articles such as this!) as much as possible is key in getting the word out.
I also think that potential supervisors to career-break returners should be prepared to be patient, and not just think of us as ‘usual’ post-docs – the results will be worth it. I have been incredibly lucky in this aspect with plenty of support throughout.
A final message to all potential career-break returners – you can do this, you haven’t forgotten everything. Go for it!
Daphne Jackson Trust Fellowships
The Daphne Jackson Trust provides fellowships for scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians returning to research after a career break of two years or more. The scheme has proven to be extremely effective, with nine out of 10 former fellows remaining in STEM-related careers after their fellowship. We are sponsors of the scheme and provide funding to support fellows returning to careers in the chemical sciences. You can apply for a fellowship through their website.