International Women’s Day: Advice for Women Starting a Career in STEM

So far this week we’ve heard why some of our female Editors chose to pursue a career in science, what the problems the push for gender equality faces in STEM fields  and where things have been improved in recent years. To close International Women’s Day our posts from the Editors we asked: What advice would you give to female students or Early Career Researchers looking to make a career in academia?

SusanJohnston2Susan Johnston: Mentorship schemes: there are many benefits from being able to have transparent, open and reciprocal discussion on career development, as well as the unwritten rules and experiences of academia. In smaller or less diverse departments, supervisors could encourage their female students to contact potential mentors (male or female) from other institutions. A quick Skype conversation every few months can benefit both the mentee and the mentor.

Carolyn KurleCarolyn Kurle: Don’t be daunted by the idea of how challenging a position in academia might be and don’t remove yourself from the path of academia just because you might be afraid of the potential demands. More and more support exists for mixing successful academic lives with also being a present and fulfilled parent and having a full life outside of research. And the more we expect that to be the case, the more it will exist as reality.

Jana VamosiJana Vamosi: From a joy perspective, find a question that truly engages you, first and foremost. From a strategic perspective, publish early and often. For me, I enjoyed writing so I got to combine a sense of joy in science with a good academic strategy. I learned how to read feedback very carefully – there will be some points that are very dismissive in nature and you’ll have to learn how to tease these out and mentally discard them. There will be other comments that are genuinely helpful, even if they’re tough. Learn from these.

Natalie CooperNatalie Cooper: I have a few bits of advice I give to everyone.

  1. Get a mentor, or preferably several. It’s really useful to discuss things with someone other than your supervisor/boss, especially if/when you have problems. If you’re worried about balancing work and family commitments it might be worth getting a mentor who has gone through similar issues so you can get advice.
  2. Talk to people about any problems you’re having. A problem shared really is a problem halved. I’ve also found the best antidote to imposter syndrome is finding out that everyone else has it too!
  3. Have a Plan B (and C and D). Jobs in academia are becoming more scarce, so it’s good to have a Plan B. This is also really helpful when things get stressful because you know that even if it all goes wrong you have an alternative plan. I have a Plan B and it really helps when things get crazy and I’m not sure if I want to stick with academia. Also remember that leaving academia is not failure. If you’re unhappy in academia, don’t be afraid to leave. It can be strange career and it doesn’t suit everyone.
  4. Be nice! Sometimes academia can seem like it favours jerks who only look out for themselves, but it’s a lot more fun if you’re nice. Help your colleagues, review papers, go to seminars etc. Then we can make academia more friendly, supportive and inclusive for everyone!

Anne_ChaoAnne Chao: An oriental saying: doing research is like carving jade, we are never satisfied with what we have until it is perfect. Only diligence, patience and persistence can lead to a perfect state.



Rachel McCrea: Never think you cannot pursue your academic dream because you are a woman.  I, like many other women, juggle motherhood, teaching and research and still look forward to coming into work each day.  Taking a career break to have my daughters was hard – there is never a perfect time in an academic career to take a year off, but universities are understanding of the effect such a break will have.  Initiatives such as Athena SWAN have really helped highlight such issues and they are now spoken openly about within departments.

Tamara Munkemuller2Tamara Münkemüller: If you want children and your partner wants a career as well, I think it is good to start planning your own career early on and to stay focussed. Without children it doesn’t make such a big difference whether one gets the permanent position a bit earlier or later, with children it can make the essential difference. Then I think it is also good to decide carefully who to work with for your PhD and postdocs. It is an unnecessary waste of energy if it does not work out either personally or scientifically. But this is obviously true for both female and male students.

Satu Ramula: Regardless of the gender, I would say that plan your career by setting long-term goals and be active (i.e., start networking with the people around you and attend different events, even those beyond your own field).


Diana FisherDiana Fisher: Many ECR women who have time off to have a family feel discouraged from applying for positions and grants, because they think that their publication record is behind, and they won’t succeed until they have somewhat caught up. I have seen some scepticism that assessors actually do take opportunity into account. In my experience they really do: just one or two good papers can be enough to show your ability to develop and solve original questions. A good strategy if you are expecting to have a family soon after a PhD is to decide which of the papers that you want to finish is the most important question, and focus on that one, even though it is probably the hardest one. Trying to get more, smaller papers out will not help you as much, and they might be nearly as difficult in the end.

Louise JohnsonLouise Johnson: If you’re in a situation where you’re deciding where to work or study next, look specifically at what it’s like there for women. Do women thrive? Are they listened to? Have they been supported and helped on to further success?


janaJana McPherson: Strictly speaking I don’t work in academia. So I guess one advice would be to think outside the box. If you feel overwhelmed by the idea of trying to fight your way to tenure right as you are also thinking about – or in the middle of – starting a family, know that there are places other than university where you can do interesting, meaningful research. And some of these places may make it easier to accommodate the multiple aspirations you may have for your life. Another (untested) thought is that career building has time. We are all likely to work into our 70s, so does it really matter if we take a break or slow down somewhere in our 20s or 30s to make time for family? And finally, I’d simply say go for it. But ideally find a partner who will support you even when that means putting some restraints on their own career.

And Finally…

jessicaJessica Metcalf: Being a women in science, I am constantly being asked to contribute to posts like this, and one of life’s very important lessons is in learning to say ‘no’!




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