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You can return to research after a career break

Making it in academia is hard for anyone, and even more so for scientists who wish to return to their research careers after spending time away to raise children, care for a relative, or recover from an illness. But with talent, determination, and persistence—and given the right kind of support—resuming a scientific career is possible, even after a prolonged break. This is the message that emerges from a survey report released last Thursday by the Daphne Jackson Trust, which over the last 30 years has helped scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and technologists in the United Kingdom return to research careers.

The Trust—named after the first female physics professor in the United Kingdom, who in 1986 established a pilot program upon which today’s fellowship is modeled—has so far helped 298 researchers return to science after a career break of two or more years due to personal circumstances. The fellowship aims to address the problem that “many people who have trained in [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] and worked for a number of years in research … struggle to return after a career break,” the Trust stated in a press release announcing the report.

[T]he guided, supportive application process is a crucial part of the preparation necessary to re-enter academic research.

—Katie Perry

The fellowships offer researchers the opportunity to balance training programs tailored to their needs with research projects at U.K. host institutions. The fellowships, which since 2003 have been open to both men and women, are flexible, usually part time and lasting for 2 years. The Trust helps fellows find suitable opportunities, with sponsors—including host universities, research councils, and learned societies—providing the funding for the fellows’ salaries and bench fees.

The Trust offers personal support and mentoring right from the application stage. Following preselection based on their CVs and personal statements, prospective applicants are assigned a fellowship adviser, who guides them through the entire application process, which may last up to a year. Fellows’ “confidence, networks, and knowledge of the sector may not be what they once were, but the guided, supportive application process is a crucial part of the preparation necessary to re-enter academic research,” Daphne Jackson Trust Chief Executive Katie Perry writes in an email to Science Careers.

To learn more about how the fellowships are helping returning researchers, the Trust recently ran an online quantitative and qualitative questionnaire among the 227 former fellows it had at the time. A total of 160 former fellows responded to the survey, and the Trust was also able to retrieve demographic information about the remaining 67 former fellows from in-house records and Web searches to include in the survey’s quantitative data set.

The resulting survey report, titled Leading the way for returners: A survey of former Daphne Jackson Fellows 2015, first draws a portrait of the entire cohort of former fellows, which included eight men. More than half of all former fellows took their career breaks early in their careers: In fact, 26% had only 3 years of research experience (the equivalent of a Ph.D. degree in the United Kingdom) when they received their fellowship, and another 26% had between 4 and 6 years of experience. The duration of the career breaks varied widely, ranging from 2 to 21 years, with 30% staying away from research for 2 to 4 years and another 25% for 5 to 6 years.

Of the 160 survey respondents, 80% were currently employed—39% full time, 36% part time, and 10% freelance—and another 10% had retired. Nine out of every 10 respondents reported staying in research or holding another science-related occupation for most of their post-fellowship careers. The longer ago researchers completed their fellowships, however, the more likely they were to have left research for other science-related roles, such as lecturer, outreach coordinator, curator, administrator, technical director, and consultant engineer. Thus, while 71% of respondents were still working in research within the first year following their fellowship, the number dropped to 57% within the first 2 to 5 years, 44% within the first 6 to 10 years, and 35% after 10 years. Meanwhile, the proportion of respondents in science-related occupations increased from 23% to 33%, 49%, and 56%, respectively.

Seventy-nine percent of the respondents who were still working in research at the time of the survey also remained in academia, with just 7% going to a research institute and 6% to industry. Sixty percent of those who reported holding science-related occupations remained in academia, with most of the remainder working for government-funded bodies, learned societies, schools, charities, or nongovernmental organizations. Those who stayed in research could be found on all rungs of the academic career ladder. Seventy-two percent were employed on fixed-term contracts versus 28% on short-term contracts, a ratio that the report says is in line with national data in the higher education sector.

Regardless of their career destinations, 90% of the respondents said that the fellowship helped them get subsequent jobs by increasing their self-confidence; offering personal support; creating opportunities to network, improve one’s skills and knowledge, and retrain; and providing recent evidence of grant success, research achievements, and teaching experiences to add to their CVs, among other benefits. Seventy-two percent affirmed that the fellowships helped them get to their career of choice.

The experiences of former Daphne Jackson Fellows show that “it is possible to take a career break and successfully return to a research career,” Perry writes. “Returners … just need some extra initial support, guidance, or mentoring, and a confidence boost. … Getting over the initial barrier of reduced confidence, and out-of-date skills is crucial, but with just a little effort, we can bring talent back into the workforce.”