Dismantling the barriers: Five things Returners can do

27 September 2022 | Blogs, Dr Andy Clempson blog

In the last blog, I discussed what funders could do to reduce some of the barriers returners face. While it’s tempting to stop there, it is important to ask what returners themselves could do differently. In writing this, I fully understand the ‘system’ needs to change – not the individual, but in this blog, I discuss some suggestions that returners might be able to do to maximise their chances of success and accelerate the changes that are desperately needed.


1. If you feel confident enough, embrace the ‘trailblazer’ role!

Returners are a small but unique cohort of researchers that will become the mentors and role models of the future. Be vocal about this! Share your experiences of returning with your supervisors, peers, across your institutions and externally (e.g. social media). Take part in reverse-mentoring schemes to demonstrate the challenges you face so that future generations of returners may benefit. And be proud of the fact that your career path is different to other people.

In suggesting this, we certainly don’t want you to feel pressure to ‘fly the flag’ for every returner across the land. You can choose more subtle approaches such as joining our networks, attending our events and supporting the Trust to shout loudly on your behalf. Your Fellowship Advisor is always on hand to ask about these opportunities.


2. Be confident in the skills you have that others might not.

The ability to juggle competing demands, communicate effectively and handle stressful situations are vital skills the modern research workforce needs. Many returners have highly developed(!) skills such as these due to experiences in their personal lives – they are a real asset to you.


3. Be specific.

Have a career plan A, B and C. And be agile in terms of career choices. A role in academia may not be immediately available or suitable so consider a role in industry, policy, science communication, advocacy, education, funding management or publishing. Look at job applications and compare the skills requested with what you have. Plan well and as early as possible. Ask to attend training courses to shore up any gaps so you are in the best possible position to secure your future job.


4. Be unapologetically singled minded and professionally ‘selfish’!

(Yes, you read that right – it’s fine to be selfish sometimes!) Promote yourself through all avenues. Ask to be added to grants. If you see a full-time job opportunity, enquire if this is available on a part-time basis. Build as many connections as possible. Offering to host a seminar in your field can help you do this relatively quickly. Use your supervisor(s) to maximal effect. If you feel that having more than one supervisor would benefit you, ask for two! You are the best (and sometimes the only) salesperson for you – so don’t be shy and go for it!


5. Be flexible over your working pattern.

Accept that some compromises are inevitable and that sometimes you will have to say “no”. Some events and conferences may fall outside of your working routines. You do not have to feel guilty for not attending everything. Catching up after by reading conference summaries and following social media channels and hashtags may provide you with insight you might have missed.


Talking of things being missed – what have I missed I this blog?! If you have other suggestions, please contact me (Andy Clempson) via a.clempson@surrey.ac.uk.

In the next blog, I’m going to talk about what Supervisors might do differently to reduce barriers against the returners.

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