Could Parental Leave Actually be Good for my Academic Career?

“If universities want more women in science, the way we handle families needs to change – men need to be as “risky” to hire as women”

Source: Could Parental Leave Actually be Good for my Academic Career?

The above article offers a refreshing and interesting take on the issue of parental leave in academic positions.

Although, it must be said, the attitudes towards pregnancy and parental leave in academic institutions in the UK have improved in recent years, there remains a considerable sense of apprehension and impending doom as an academic researcher takes time off to have children. Here, David Kent, from the University of Cambridge, describes how attitudes towards his decision to take 3.5 months off using shared parental leave were initially mixed, but ended with him being praised for going against the norm and taking necessary time off, despite having a new research group to manage.

This is encouraging, of course. The sooner it becomes normalised for men to take a larger portion of the offered shared parental leave the better – for both men and women. If men are just as likely to take time off after a child is born as women, the bias towards women in all workplaces, not just academia, may begin to disappear. It’s particularly important that such occurrences take place within academia. In a career where any time off is deemed risky and colleagues look in horror when you explain you won’t be around for several months. This, of course, makes starting a family incredibly difficult and needlessly stressful, as the environment in which you work pressures you into feeling you can’t take any more time off than is absolutely necessary, and makes you feel like you’re the unreasonable one for wanting your fair share of parental leave.

An important point that David makes is that his partner hasn’t received nearly as much praise as him – despite continuing to carry out her work to a high standard whilst being pregnant, which everyone should no is no easy task. Indeed, many women are made to feel like their career is about to take a serious knock, and may even feel guilty for their choice to have children.

David is absolutely right – the way the issue of families is handled in academia needs to change. Academics need to feel they can start a family and not be judged, or doomed to failure. It’s not healthy to continue this atmosphere of your research being the centre of your entire life. Of course, there are times when work must come first – when a make or break experiment needs completing, or a tight publication or grant proposal deadline is looming – but researchers are people, too, and have a right to a family, without being stigmatised.

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A PhD – the bridge to business?

Whilst one again sampling the Nature Jobs website, I came across an interesting and very relevant article on how a PhD can, surprisingly, be the gateway to a career in business.

As someone who is due to jump ship from academia shortly, and into the world of corporate R&D, I can fully appreciate how a PhD offers you the skills to take a leap into the business world. As the article points out, as PhD students we are analytical, can gain insights from our findings, are resilient to problems and failures, have been part of a research team and most likely taught younger students. You’re constantly involved with new technologies and new ideas, and regularly have to think up new ways of getting results.

Really, and most importantly, a PhD is very much like real work experience, and prepares you very well for the world of business. Although I won’t be going down the academic path I had planned, I do not regret doing my PhD. Around 80-90% of the experiences I discussed during the interviews for the job I start in September were from my PhD, and I’ve gained skills and confidence that I never would have had after my Masters degree. I’m positive I wouldn’t be starting the career I’m on now if I hadn’t gone through the PhD process.

A problem that the article does point out is that there are very few opportunities to learn about business during a PhD. If we were to be offered a small amount of tailored training during our graduate studies, we should be able to walk into business roles and demand the higher salaries that we really deserve. However, the biggest barrier remains with the individual – you need to know that you’re capable of a much greater variety of careers than simply a research chemist, and be confident enough to pursue roles in business.

Here at Nottingham we do have some links with business, as our School of Chemistry has a Business Partnership Unit which is a popular career choice for PhD graduates who still want to work in chemistry, but from the business side, rather in the lab. This is a useful bridge between the two disciplines, and could easily springboard chemists into a business career. There are also courses offered in business-related skills, such as management and negotiation, but these are generally only open to staff, and PhD students need to have access to such resources to really build up their transferable skills and make themselves even more employable.

A PhD isn’t just a ticket into post-doctoral research and academia, it’s an experience which can build you up to be a highly sought after candidate for a vast array of careers and students, universities and the private sector need to realise this.

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Happy Birthday Dmitri Mendeleev!

mendeleev

I’m sure most of you have seen today’s Google Doodle but, if not, today would have been the 182nd birthday of creator of the periodic table, Dmitri Mendeleev.

Mendeleev is most known because he organised the known chemical elements by their properties, which allowed him to predict elements which had not yet been discovered, such as gallium and germanium. In 1869, Mendeleev gave a presentation to the Russian Chemical Society, stating his findings:

  1. The elements, if arranged according to their atomic weight, exhibit an apparent periodicity of properties.
  2. Elements which are similar regarding their chemical properties either have similar atomic weights (e.g., Pt, Ir, Os) or have their atomic weights increasing regularly (e.g., K, Rb, Cs).
  3. The arrangement of the elements in groups of elements in the order of their atomic weights corresponds to their so-called valencies, as well as, to some extent, to their distinctive chemical properties; as is apparent among other series in that of Li, Be, B, C, N, O, and F.
  4. The elements which are the most widely diffused have small atomic weights.
  5. The magnitude of the atomic weight determines the character of the element, just as the magnitude of the molecule determines the character of a compound body.
  6. We must expect the discovery of many yet unknown elements–for example, two elements, analogous to aluminium and silicon, whose atomic weights would be between 65 and 75.
  7. The atomic weight of an element may sometimes be amended by a knowledge of those of its contiguous elements. Thus the atomic weight of tellurium must lie between 123 and 126, and cannot be 128.
  8. Certain characteristic properties of elements can be foretold from their atomic weights.

However, this isn’t Mendeleev’s only achievement. He carried out research in researcher in the fields of hydrodynamics, meteorology, geology, chemical technology and industrial chemistry, and was one of the founders of the Russian Chemical Society. Mendeleev was even celebrated as a master suitcase maker, which were put together with an adhesive he invented himself. He was also very interested in shipbuilding, and wrote over 40 scientific papers on the subject.

To celebrate the main man’s birthday, Compound Interest have made a graphic showing various trends of the periodic table:

periodicity-periodic-table-trends-1024x724

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‘I’m not worthy!’ – Imposter Syndrome in Academia

Source: ‘I’m not worthy!’ – Imposter Syndrome in Academia

The issue of ‘Imposter Syndrome’ is becoming more and more spoken about, and is a condition I’ve seen, and experienced to some extent, myself.

I’m sure you’ll have some experience of someone you know believing they don’t deserve the position they’re in, or the grades they’ve gotten, and they insist they’re somehow fluking their way through life. Such people live their careers terrified that one day they’ll be ‘found out’ for not being as clever or successful as their peers, despite the fact that they’re doing a great job and do in fact deserve what they’ve achieved.

I myself know a female professor of chemistry who, despite rising through the ranks in her academic career, feels that she’s somehow a fraud, and may one day be found out as an imposter.

This way of thinking can start appearing long before an academic career starts – students, particularly female, at undergraduate level often convince themselves they don’t deserve the results that they’re getting, and that they’ve just somehow been incredibly lucky so far.

Unfortunately, these worries don’t always go away, and many scientists’ careers are suffering as they don’t have the confidence in themselves to submit to good journals or go for grant proposals that will no doubt be highly competitive. Indeed, in the world of academia, job positions and funding sources are becoming more and more difficult to get hold of, leading to the successful few often wondering how they could have possibly fluked that result.

The above post looks a little into this, and suggests ways to get yourself out of this way of thinking.

Furthermore, this article on the Nature Jobs website delves a little deeper into Imposter Syndrome, particularly focus on the early careers researchers whose careers are being very badly affected.

The article states that ‘in a profession where sporadic failure — in grants, in jobs, in publications — is the norm, the real failure is unnecessarily giving up on a promising career’, but resilience to failure isn’t something that comes easy to many people, and constantly being knocked back can have a devastating effect on careers.

An interesting point that no doubt many of us have encountered is that, as an undergrad or postgrad, ‘being at the top of your class is just average’. When I first started university, I admit it was difficult suddenly not being one of the smartest in the class, but luckily I channelled this into working as hard as I could, and in the end I received a few university prizes which really helped my confidence. However, the higher up you climb the more ‘normal’ you become, and as you’re exposed more and more to the real world of academia, you realise there are research “royalty” who even your PhD supervisor can only dream of matching in publications and citations, and suddenly you feel inadequate.

It would seem that ‘those who are self-aware enough to realize that they don’t know everything’ are those of us who suffer the most. However, being a good scientist requires knowing the limits of your knowledge, and being intelligent enough to realise that prevents overconfidence and arrogance taking you down a dangerous path.

The article points out that accepting the possibility of failure would help many scientists struggling with their own self-worth, and that ‘the academic environment should be more open to failure stories’. I must admit, you do find yourself sucked into the idea that only certain results and publications count as a success, but even a negative result is a result, and embracing failure and using it as a learning exercise would help many move on with their research, and their career, with a more positive attitude.

An important piece of advice that I am currently living by myself is to stop comparing yourself to others. We have all our own research to carry out and our own careers to forge, and it will do no one any good to expect to mirror those of our apparently more successful peers. Research, careers, and lives in general are not races – we all have our own personal goals and aspirations, and we should seek to fulfill them in our own way. Hopefully, the widening acknowledgement of Imposter Syndrome will let those suffering from self-doubt know that they are not alone, and allow them to realise they do deserve their achievements, and they’re capable of bigger and better things.

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