Navigation of the Early Science Career: Get Support at Every Step!
I have managed to attend most ‘My Life in Science’ talks so far. Taking an hour to listen to someone else’s take on life. The speakers are people who have put a lot of thought into why their life is what it is, and how it got to be like that. Fascinating – and it helps me order my own thoughts. It’s an unusual topic for a scientist to talk about, and the speakers’ choices of what discussion points to include are interesting in themselves.
The seminar series has been running for a few years now, and patterns have begun to emerge. We have heard from some very senior people, especially in the beginning. I loved those talks and felt suitably inspired, like many others in the audience. But the occasional voice confessed that they couldn’t bear another super successful scientist with 15 children and a Nature publication every week, who is currently training for an ultra-marathon, because they realised that time for themselves was important.
We have also heard some great talks from people in non-research roles. Very clever, very inspirational – and certainly got the message across that there is an exciting world out there! But - as part of the LIBRA project - the ‘My Life in Science’ seminar series aims to increase the representation and participation of women in leadership positions in life sciences. We have also heard from young group leaders - passionate and right in the heat of the battle - who were establishing themselves in science and in the gene pool at the same time.
Oh my word can I relate to that ‘juggling-career-and-family thing’. So much so that at one point a tear all but rolled down my cheek; people were actually talking about these challenges to a room full of people! Wow. But again, the occasional non-parental voice in the audience summarised differently: ‘Yeah, yeah, it was all going so well, but then we had a baby and that totally changed my focus. Now everything is a lot more difficult but I’m still managing.’
Was that it? Had we glimpsed the whole spectrum of Lives in Science?
Apparently not, because our May seminar brought another fantastic talk from Michaela Frye, Dept. of Genetics, University of Cambridge. It was a whistle-stop tour through the external and internal challenges of setting up a group. What does it actually entail to write a grant application and to go for your (potentially) first ever real interview? She included likely scenarios, standard questions and gave some very hands-on advice on how to prepare for these. Michaela then focussed on the challenges every young group leader faces and how to avoid temptations and pitfalls, e. g. when hiring people or when balancing how much to take on.
One theme stood out for me: ‘Get support at every step!’ There are plenty of opportunities and you must be proactive in finding and using them. Michaela herself has had several mentors along the way and values their input very highly. Mentoring schemes are becoming increasingly common, and everyone needs to make full use of them. Michaela is part of the interesting ‘Women of Influence’ CRUK programme which matches young group leaders with senior business women. The benefit of this programme is that the mentoring focusses solely on your career without the science interfering. She also spoke about peer mentoring and the huge moral support she gets out of it. It’s my ‘monthly group hug’ she said.
Michaela spent the last part talking about leadership. What attributes we associate with good leadership, why we still choose people to be leaders who lack precisely those attributes, and how difficult it is to be a good leader. It was a wish for a better world and an appeal to make it happen.
Throughout, Michaela left out the usual catchphrases. Her talk was down to earth and to the point, and while acknowledging gender related issues she didn’t dwell on them. She didn’t focus on the fact that she had had a baby as a young group leader, nor that she is in a dual career family. For her, the matter was sufficiently dealt with by stating that, obviously, parents had to share parental duties. And that was that. The prevailing theme through Michaela’s talk was that stage specific challenges dominated over gender specific challenges – which clearly resonated with many people in the room.