Where to from here?

I am a second year PhD student and, naturally, I spend a fair bit of my time wondering whether I should I pursue academic research as a career. For the first time in my life, I am considering my gender in my decision.

Stats don’t lie

In my experience, gender discrimination isn’t rampant at an early career stage. But a glance around any research organisation tells me that along the way, something is happening that discriminates against the progression of women in research careers. In fact I’ve been told that although similar numbers of women and men graduate with PhDs, we fill only 15% of the highest academic ranks. Or if you look at it the other way – from an even starting point, men wind up with 85% of the top positions. I would certainly prefer the male odds! But these numbers only resonate with me so much, they seem as though they could be defied.

“Or if you look at it the other way – from an even starting point, men wind up with 85% of the top positions. I would certainly prefer the male odds!”

Stories are powerful

It is the anecdotes from women in science that really stick with me. Recently at a conference several esteemed researchers talked about their careers- how they have played out, the highs and lows, and what has shaped their success.

The most notable thing I took away from this was that each female researcher remarked on the struggle of balancing a career in research and having a family. You can’t put research on pause. In fact, one of these women was applying for an National Health and Medical Research Council Fellowship six weeks after giving birth!

As I sat there, I started thinking about whether a career in research is an appealing (or wise) option for me. I feel pretty confident that my male peers sitting around me weren’t considering their sex as a factor in their future careers.

“I feel pretty confident that my male peers sitting around me weren’t considering their sex as a factor in their future careers”

Then came another story. A friend told me about his cousin who completed her PhD at Oxford and had a very successful post-doc, before taking three years out to have children. She was unable to get back into the research game and was now re-training in another field. After doing a PhD and post-doc, she was re-training. And the worst thing about this is that she is hardly the exception, she’s the rule.

Success is possible

Obviously, it’s not impossible to succeed as a female researcher. I have a brilliant female supervisor who has children, and there are many other great female researchers in my institute alone that have managed this balance. I take my hat off to them; these are the women that make you want to defy the odds. I certainly hope to glean as much advice from them as I can, because, after all, I have to consider what academia has to offer. It is unrelenting in its demands and all-consuming at times, but it is a truly unique and fulfilling career where people are passionate and dedicated. I know for most people, it is the love of what they do that makes them battle against the odds of success in a research career.

My future starts now

I have a decision to make. But one thing that is making this decision feel less daunting is realising that there are plenty of wonderful career opportunities beyond academia. I recently spent a week at a science communication and public relations agency – a career that demands you keep your finger on the scientific pulse – and it was great.

I also have a wonderful mentor who is opening my eyes to the world of the biotech industry and beyond. I cannot stress how important it is that all PhDs are made aware of the diverse career opportunities that exist; and equally importantly, not be made to feel like they are failing because they choose to take a different career path.

“I cannot stress how important it is that all PhDs are made aware of the diverse career opportunities that exist; and equally importantly, not be made to feel like they are failing because they choose to take a different career path.”

In the end, many of us may not become the leaders of academic research we had once planned or even dreamed about. But that doesn’t mean we can’t still be heavily entrenched in science, research and the things we care about. The gender bias may mean that academia loses out on some bright sparks, but we will find our feet somewhere else.

I am exploring many of the fulfilling and stimulating careers beyond academia, and do you know what? The future isn’t looking too grim after all.

About the author:

RachelRachel Chiaroni-Clarke is a PhD candidate at the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute and the University of Melbourne. Her research focuses on determining the genetic and environmental factors that cause childhood arthritis. Rachel completed her undergraduate degree at the University of Otago in New Zealand, where a real love for genetics was sparked. She then moved to New York and worked as a Research Assistant at the Rockefeller University, which ticked the travel and science boxes simultaneously. Given her appreciation for great coffee (and the world class science that occurs here) the decision to move to Melbourne was an easy one. She is passionate about science and technology, and the unity of these to translate research into meaningful outcomes.


3 thoughts on “Where to from here?

  1. This post makes me feel very sad. We do need more role models if the examples are writing grant applications with a 6 week old (although that might have been what they wanted), or taking 3 years off and not being able to get back in (although you’d have a similar problem to that in most professional roles). I took 10 months off with my son, with no grant writing, and have returned part-time to my normal role (senior postdoc-ish) for the last 2 years.

    If you still love what you do, don’t give up because of something you are worried may happen in the future. Absolutely, always keep your eyes open for interesting challenges, whether in research or not. But please don’t give up unless *you* don’t want to do it any more!

  2. I finished my PhD earlier this year. I have three children and a big mortgage that a PhD scholarship wouldn’t cover. I had a successful clinical career for 15 years prior to starting my PhD. So I dropped hours at work but kept 1-day of clinical role going whilst studying for a PhD full time (but had to apply for a year extension, so finished it in 5 years). I am so glad that I kept my old job going, as no post doc opportunities are available for me where I live. One must bear in mind that it is hard to relocate with a family and if nothing is available locally then PhD graduatdes have to go back to their old jobs, that if its still available. So do all you can BEFORE any children arrive on the scene, prepare to relocate and once established in an academic role, think about children. I took my kids to some of my meetings and presentations. A supportive partner is a key to your success, kids of no kids! Good luck xx

  3. Re the need to balance kids and career – Monash Uni now have a program where a staff member of maternity leave can get funding for a research assistant to keep their research going while they’re on leave. It is a step in the right direction.

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