Why circular careers in science are great
Career paths are often depicted as a straight line. Academic ones sometimes as a pyramid as we climb the ever-narrowing ladder. Mine is much more of a career ‘patchwork’, and certainly represents a branching path, or even a circle, as I find myself back at the beginning – geographically at least!
I started my PhD at the Babraham Institute in the 1990s, not long after it changed its name from The Institute of Animal Physiology, but before its research remit had entirely moved away from large animals. I studied in Dr Bob Parrott’s MAFF-funded laboratory of Animal Welfare (Ministry of Agriculture, Farming and Fisheries (MAFF), before it became DEFRA – Department for the Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs). Our findings gathered new knowledge about differences in brain and behaviour between individual animals and fed back into animal husbandry, making a real difference to practice. I worked on the intersection between animal behaviour, endocrinology and neuroscience and adored research. I moved onto a postdoctoral research position with Dr Jane Robinson in Neurobiology, translating my experiences to understanding brain neurochemistry in sheep as a model for polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). A topic close to my heart as it affects several family members and friends.
At this point, I stood at a crossroads. I was expecting my first child, my group leader was moving to another institution and my postdoc contract was coming to an end. Parental leave, flexible working and return to work arrangements are far more favourable these days, but even then, it was my decision to take a step back from my career and spend time raising a family.
Life outside the lab
During my undergraduate, postgraduate and postdoctoral career, I had always been involved in outreach and public engagement activities (or ‘public understanding of science’ as it was known then, if it was even given a name), including the now famous Babraham Schools’ Day. While my children were small, I continued these activities as a volunteer, delivering workshops and running STEM clubs in schools and at science festivals. Alongside this, I taught baby and child swimming and was Chair of Governors at my local primary school. I dipped my toe back into the world of work with a part time role in preclinical development and clinical trials at a small pharmaceutical company and then combined my skills, experience and interests in a dream job running an outreach team at a larger pharmaceutical company when my youngest started school. Here I developed project and event management skills as well as a deeper understanding of the primary, secondary and post-16 science curricula. I worked with children and teachers and organised events that linked academia, industry and education. Ever the serial goal seeker, I left this role to train as a teacher and worked in a glorious primary school for a couple of years, before I found that I missed the scientific environment. I missed the curiosity and the excitement of cutting-edge scientific research, the conversations and discussions, and the bubbling melting pot of possibilities.
New opportunities (and lifelong learning?)
Fortunately for me, a short-term contract came up in the Bioinformatics group at the Babraham Institute supporting training. I had teaching, training and event management experience, a background in scientific research and I knew the Institute, how things worked and also many of the researchers, so was able to slot right in. I’ve also had the opportunity to get involved in teaching and developing some of the softer skills courses and to learn lots of bioinformatics and programming. I did this alongside classroom teaching to begin with, but when the training provision grew and my contract was extended at the Babraham Institute, I combined this part-time role with setting up my own business.
Always looking for a challenge
I’m a bit of a serial goal seeker; I’m always on the lookout for the next challenge. I love variety and creativity and setting up as a solopreneur allowed me to combine all of my skills and interests. As Dr Jo Science Solutions, I deliver hands-on workshops, run STEM clubs, create resources, free science activities, write articles and provide professional development for teachers and schools, both as an independent education consultant and with a number of national organisations.
I still get involved with public engagement projects at the Institute whenever I can. This includes being part of the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition team in 2018 with the Race Against the Ageing Clock, European Researchers’ night LifeLab, the annual Schools’ Day and my current project ‘Scientist Stories’ for which I received the Public Engagement Seed Fund to film and produce a series of short careers and day-in-the-life videos showcasing real life scientists. I’m a member of the public engagement committee and bring my education experience to the table.
Juggling two part-time roles can be a logistical challenge mentally at times, but the benefits of this variety really suit the way I work and play to my strengths.
Coming full circle
A non-linear career allows for flexibility, exploring different interests, taking advantage of opportunities as they present themselves, building a career that suits your lifestyle and – as in science – reacting to changing evidence and data, and adapting to those changes.
A circular career does not mean going backwards or returning to the start, but rather revisiting those aspects, which work and are beneficial. In my case, returning to the academic research environment in a different role (and although I also returned to the same Institute and some of the same people are still here, the research focus has changed and there have been organisational and cultural shifts). It feels a little like the comfort of returning home, but with new adventures!
Traditional linear career paths are in the minority these days, with many of us seizing opportunities in sometimes surprising directions – even if that means arriving back where you started, with many more experiences under your belt.
There are definitely skills which overlap in my different jobs – including project and event management, web and social media management, as well as adult training - but the two roles crucially enable me to explore and enjoy the different areas which interest me and I’m passionate about. Surely that’s what a successful career is all about?
When it comes to that career path – remember to look left and right and enjoy the scenery, as well as looking straight ahead!