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A Cosmologist Resists Academia's Work-Life Norms

Sarah Bridle (Credit: Photo courtesy of Sarah Bridle)

Sarah Bridle is concerned about the low number of women in academia in physics and astronomy beyond the Ph.D. level. The University College London (UCL) cosmologist thinks that part of the problem may be that women are succumbing to fears about not being able to strike a good work-life balance. After all, she nearly succumbed herself: "I decided that if I wasn't a lecturer by the age of 30 that I would quit academia, because I thought it would be too stressful being on a temporary contract when starting a family," Bridle says.

"When I've occasionally worked too late the previous evening, I've found myself mentally slacking off at work, surfing the Web, and making extra cups of tea." -- Sarah Bridle

Fortunately, she was offered a permanent lectureship at the young age of 29. She has since gone on to establish herself in the field of weak gravitational lensing, which involves studying the subtle distortions in images of distant galaxies to probe the nature of mysterious dark matter and dark energy. Her hard work earned her a L'Oreal UK and Ireland Fellowship for Women in Science in 2008, and the Royal Astronomical Society's 2009 Fowler Award for Astronomy "in recognition of her status as a young scientist of proven achievement and great promise."

Throughout her career, Bridle, now 35, has resisted the accepted norms for attaining success in academia: long hours and personal sacrifice. At the same time, she has dedicated herself to answering questions about how astronomers can balance a career in academia with a fulfilling personal life. Last year, she organized a small conference, held in London, to address some of these issues.

"Women are studying astronomy at the Ph.D. level, but most do not stay in academia beyond this point," Bridle says. She points to a paper published last year in the journal Astronomy & Geophysics reporting that 35% of astronomy Ph.D. students in the United Kingdom are female, yet women make up only about 3% of astronomy professors. "That's what motivated me to organize the [workshop] -- to find out why," she says.

Looking up

Bridle's father, a computer scientist who specializes in artificial intelligence, encouraged her interest in science. She opted for astronomy because she has always been fascinated by the night sky. "I think it's so natural for anyone to look up and ask, 'What's out there?' " she says.

Bridle studied natural sciences at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. She excelled, receiving prizes for academic excellence in each of the 4 years of her degree. After graduating, she continued her studies at Cambridge, researching dark matter and dark energy for her Ph.D. thesis. It wasn't until she started thinking about postdoc positions that she began to think about the potential conflicts between an academic career and her personal life.

But Bridle was determined from the outset, she says, to make career decisions based on what worked for her -- not what people told her would lead to a successful career. After completing her Ph.D., her mentors advised her to take a 3-year postdoctoral position in the United States to make important contacts, she says. "I was told that this would be the best move for my career." But Bridle was in a committed relationship with her soon-to-be husband, so she dismissed the idea of working across the Atlantic, instead accepting a 1-year post closer to home, at the Laboratoire d'Astrophysique de Toulouse in France.

Bridle says that decision didn't adversely affect her career, in part because she put effort into making work contacts by other means. "I made a point of attending conferences regularly, typically spending a total of 1 month each year in the U.S.," she says.

Bridle also knew that the culture of academic science dictated working long hours, but she decided she didn't want this lifestyle. She promised herself she wouldn't be in the office late in the evenings or bring her work home on weekends. Contrary to what some people assume, she says, this helps her to get more work done. "I'm much more clear-headed after a break from work and a good night's sleep," she says. "It really makes a difference to how efficiently I work. When I've occasionally worked too late the previous evening, I've found myself mentally slacking off at work, surfing the Web, and making extra cups of tea." Today, she encourages her postdocs and students to ignore the academic tradition of working long hours and to have the confidence to work the hours they feel are appropriate.

Motherly advice

Bridle encountered her first real panic about balancing career and home life while planning to have a baby early last year. "I worried a lot about having a baby and continuing to have an energetic career," she recalls.

Rather than worry alone, Bridle put together a workshop for discussing these issues with peers and the female astronomers who have been her role models. With funding from her L'Oreal Women in Science Fellowship and the support of UCL, she brought leading astronomers Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Janet Drew, and Ruth Gregory for a day of presentations and breakout sessions last September.

Most of the workshop's 40 attendees (including eight men) were Ph.D. students and postdocs worried about how their personal life choices might affect their chances of getting a permanent position in astronomy research, Bridle says. One of the lessons to come out of the workshop was that no single career path defines success, says Karen Masters, a postdoc at the University of Portsmouth in the United Kingdom. "Few astronomers, especially women, follow the traditional path that we're all taught as students: a Ph.D. followed by one or two postdocs in different places, and then a permanent position," she says.

Masters, a mother of two, attended the workshop to look for help with her search for that elusive permanent position. "I was advised by a mentor at the workshop to make sure that my maternity leave periods were very clearly noted on my CV so that the fewer papers that I may have published in my 5 years as a postdoc [compared with someone who has worked without a career break] will be explained," she says. Masters took that advice, amended her CV, and has since been offered a Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellowship.

The workshop brought out concerns that the academic career path itself may be responsible for many women leaving academia. "The extended training in temporary postdoc positions was blamed for so many of the problems we face in attaining a work-life balance," Masters says. This issue also emerged in a questionnaire Bridle sent out before the workshop, which 425 astronomers from university departments around the United Kingdom completed. The questionnaire revealed that the respondents' biggest concern about their careers is whether they will ever have a permanent position, with more than half answering "worried" or "very worried" about this topic.

"The work-life balance issue affects both men and women, but probably women to a greater extent," Bridle says. This was borne out in the questionnaire, which found that although job-location restrictions due to home-life commitments had an important impact on the careers of both male and female astronomers, the issue was of greater concern to women. Furthermore, the study revealed that 30% of female respondents have had career breaks of more than 3 months, compared with only 8% of males.

The career-breaks issue weighed heavy on Bridle's mind at the start of the workshop last September; she was 7 months pregnant and her maternity leave was imminent. "It was reassuring to meet successful academics at the workshop, such as Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who'd had children and come out the other side," she says. "I also picked up one essential piece of advice: to get some paid help at home early on, not just when I planned to return to work." Bridle says this eased the transition back to work after she'd had her son, as she was able to catch up on sleep and have some free time to stay connected to the astronomy community.

Bridle and the co-organizers of the workshop compiled results from the questionnaire and the workshop into a summary report. Bridle hopes the workshop will leave a lasting legacy and that discussions about work-life balance will continue. Indeed, she often raises the issue at the many conferences she is invited to speak at, as she did at the She is an Astronomer conference held in London in April. Some of the workshop attendees have also discussed running follow-ups to the workshop.

Although Bridle remains passionate about the topic, she plans to leave organizing follow-up events to others. After all, juggling a career, caring for a young baby, and running a big event would probably knock her work-life balance off kilter.

Sarah Reed is a news intern in Science's Cambridge, U.K., office.

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