The Penny Drops – Why Women Leave Academia

Dr_Nikola_Bowden_089copyThis week, emerging cancer researcher Dr Nikola Bowden shares her personal perspective about a recent ‘near-miss’ event in her professional life – the near-end of her research career. Nikola graduated from the University of Newcastle with a B. Biomedical Science (Honours) and a PhD in Medical Genetics in 2006. Since then, Nikola has been a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Newcastle, with training at the National Cancer Institute in Washington DC, USA. She is currently a Cancer Institute NSW Career Development Fellow at the Hunter Medical Research Institute in Newcastle. Nikola leads a team of researchers investigating the repair of DNA damage caused by sunlight and chemotherapy in melanoma. They discovered melanoma cells cannot recognise DNA damage, which results in melanomas developing after sun exposure and why traditional chemotherapy does not work.

The near-miss

On paper, my research career looks productive and successful. I finished my PhD 9 years ago I’ve published my research, held continuous local, state and national Fellowships, been awarded grants, supervised PhD students and been actively and enthusiastically engaged in promoting research to the general public. But the truth is, I faced a career ending ‘near-miss’ last year and I nearly walked away from research altogether. What is a ‘near-miss’ you ask?

On December 31st 2014 my salary and project funding were both due to end. For the vast majority of the year I had no idea if I would have a job in 2015, I had no idea who would supervise and fund my team of students and staff and most distressing of all, I had no idea if I would be around to see my cancer treatment discovery make its way into the clinic for the first time.

Impending doom

It was stressful, depressing and to be honest, too hard to comprehend at times. Having studied for the best part of 10 years to get my undergrad and PhD degrees, I had received over $1 million in funding in my early post-doc years, I had trained at the National Institutes of Health in the USA for 6 months to learn how to translate my research into a real treatment for cancer patients – all of this was going to be wasted.

From a personal perspective, I returned to work when each of my 3 babies was 6 months old, I had worked 20 hour days writing grants, I travelled for work, I missed milestones and major events in my families lives – all for nothing. In practical terms, losing my income would have a devastating effect on my family. We put off renovating our run-down house for years because initially we could not afford it, but after waiting it out and I was promoted, we could not loan additional money when I had no idea if I had a job in the New Year.

The professional and personal ‘waste’ that comes with a research career is never spoken about, but would be stamped out in any other industry. Everyone I spoke to about my future and job insecurity said almost the same thing: “You will be right. Your research is good, someone will fund you”. In the current funding landscape of <20% success rates (16.5% in 2014), how can anyone be certain of getting funded? Was I supposed to feel supported and willing to go on? Was it all worth it?

To put this into context; I am at the transition point of early to mid-career researcher, from a regional, non-‘Group of 8’ University with 3 career breaks under my belt – and I am female. That puts me in one of the lowest funded group of researchers in Australia. “You’ll be right” was not the reassurance or support I needed.

The penny drops

In the years leading up to my ‘near-miss’ I could never understand why anyone, particularly females left research after spending a decade or more establishing their careers. They had ‘made it’, why on earth would they leave?! A female colleague of mine was awarded a prestigious Mid-career Fellowship but less than 12 months in she decided to move into a research service role. Initially, I was shocked she had worked so hard to get to where she was, why would you give it all up? But, that was point. She didn’t want to do it anymore. The competitiveness, rejection, metrics, KPIs (key performance indicators), job insecurity, it all adds up to eventually suck the joy out of why we do research in the first place. Now she gets to help others with their research and to do what she loves without having to compete for her salary too.

I now know why so many promising and established researchers leave Academia. It is hard, sometimes too hard, to face the uncertainty over and over again. The incredible stress of not knowing if you are good enough to be funded eats away at you, even after receiving funding there is little joy or excitement, just relief you have survived another round. Many decide it is just too much to keep going. I get it now. The penny has dropped.

I have spent the best part of the last 12 months reflecting on many questions: do I want to keep going when it is only going to get harder? Do I love my research enough to endure this all again? Is my research good enough to build a career on? Am I really passionate about what I do? Would I be miserable if I left research? Every time I thought about these questions I always came to the same conclusion: Yes, to all of the above. I have to fight, I have to keep going. I could not live with myself knowing that I had got so close to testing a new treatment for cancer, a new treatment that could change people’s lives for the better. How could I walk away?

A close call

Lucky for me, I wasn’t forced to leave. After almost 2 years of rejection, I was funded. My salary and project were funded. My team is now funded. In the space of the 30 seconds it took to read the email notifying me of my successful application, my outlook changed from complete despair to adrenalin-driven euphoria. I would not describe the feeling as excitement, relief or even joy, I just felt an overwhelming sense of acceptance. A committee of people I would never meet had decided to give me a go, to acknowledge that my research was good enough to test out.

Little do they know, I never gave up. I pushed on, collected more data, met with like-minded Oncologists and a clinical trial to test my new treatment is being planned for 2015. I have survived for another 3 years, but to be honest I’m not looking forward to facing this all again in 2017. There are many reasons why women leave academia, but the ‘near-miss’ must be one of the most common, and definitely the hardest, to overcome

15 thoughts on “The Penny Drops – Why Women Leave Academia

  1. Dear Nikola,

    You depicted so well the reality of researchers… I could have written your story. However, in my case, one year and 5 months after losing my funding, I had to close the lab, and I am now wondering what I’ll do next…I still have papers being submitted and in review, and this makes it hard to move forward. What saddens me the most is, as you mention, to abandon the project I worked so hard for, and which was promising. I truly hope that funding rates will increase in the coming years – Canada where I’m from has reached a low ~14%…. I wish you the best for 2017!

  2. I know exactly what you mean here I left after 20+ years of research to provide continuous financial support my young family. I miss the challenges of research but not the enormous funding gaps and moving every 4 years. Australia was brutal.

  3. Thanks for writing this Nikola and bringing the subject to light. I recently ended my highly successful career as a material researcher for a large global company. I was employed in industry but ran into the same problems. Being so specialised meant that i was employed on contracts and was required to move wherever the company required.

    Eventually the stress began seriously effecting my health and took the enjoyment out of my work. During this period of time my husband and I lived in different countries for a year and in the span of 4 years I went through 2 periods of not knowing if I would have a job in 6 months time. I had the added stress of being in a foreign county, without permanent residency, meaning that I would have been forced to leave the county shorty after my employment ceased.

    I miss science, the challenge of research, and the feeling of being at the forefront of technology in my field. I now work in an unskilled field and am paid relatively little but I am happier than I have been in years and am no longer stressed.

    To excel people require some amount of stability, of job security. Without it, many excellent researchers are lost.

  4. If you truly have a passion for your subject and you don’t rely on your occupation to pay your mortgage, then you should stay in academia. Being an academic is like owning your own business, putting all the hard work into it and not reaping the (financial) rewards. The reward is that it is your passion.

  5. I am a man and I am facing the “near miss” as we speak, just like a male colleague of mine who has a wife and kid. I am in a committed relationship. I know enough male researchers who left academia for precisely this reason.

  6. Eloquently stated. Thank goodness that you are so passionate and committed, Nikolai. From an ECR and melanoma survivor…. You rock!

  7. Yup. Been there. And I left. I was bullied out of my role by my manager after working so hard to build a career in science. Was shattered for a long time and it took a long time to recuperate. My career tanked and I didn’t have the heart to pursue it any more. Karma has a way of working things out though: my bully was forced to leave because of a sexual harassment issue, but not before much damage was done.

  8. I was a Lecturer at the University of Newcastle (BIomed sciences), but this applies across academia: Given how much time is wasted in admin, university politics, and how much time is lost to teaching (teaching is great fun, but takes an awful lot of time), you could do what I did: start your own business and generate your own funding for your own research. Yes, it’s hard, but it is more secure, and you are in charge. You do not have to put up with the garbage from your senior (and junior for that matter) male colleagues, or those senior women who don’t like other women.

    You get on, build your business and your research. You have a better grasp on your future, because you make it for yourself.

    Much of your basic research (e.g. sequencing) can be outsourced to others etc.

    I would never go back to academia no matter how much money I got… and I don’t have to!!

    Good luck though – it’s hard yakka and you deserve to do well.

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