“Having a Career Break has made me a better Researcher”

Breaking the myths about research “Career Breaks”, and how alternate paths can hugely benefit the science community, society as well as individuals.

The Daphne Jackson Trust (DJT) and the Alzheimer’s Society talk to former DJT Fellow, Dr Rachel James, about her experience of re-entering the Research field after an 8 year break. She shares why it’s crucial to make people aware of alternative career paths in research, so people know what options are open to them when it comes to family, caring or health reasons.

Dr Rachel James, prior to her research career break was working part-time on her second post-doc. She took an 8 year career break to raise her children, during which time she continued to work in science related areas on a part-time basis, such as editing science manuscripts and teaching. Her Daphne Jackson Trust Fellowship was sponsored by Medical Research Scotland at the University of Edinburgh. Her final Project was entitled “Targeting mitochondria to develop next-generation therapies for the childhood motor neuron disease, spinal muscular atrophy”. She finished her Fellowship in April 2022, and has been granted short-term extensions since, including this year.

What were your thoughts/feelings when returning to your research career?

“Even though I had been working in science related areas, where I didn’t feel as though I was too much out of the loop, when I was back in the lab, I realised how much the research world had moved on. The methods and the ways of working, coupled with a complete lack of confidence in my ability to actually do the research. Despite this, I was very excited to return to my research career.

I was lucky to know ahead of my career break about the types of Fellowships that are offered to research returners. I had come across a publication, “Mothers in Science: 64 Ways to Have it All” (Royal Society, 2011), inspired by two women scientists, Carol Robinson and Helen Arthur, who had already successfully navigated career breaks.

This gave me the confidence that I could put on ‘pause’ my research career without worrying that it was entirely over. These types of funding schemes make a huge difference to science, and to individuals going through life. For me it gave an alternative option for retaining my career and being a mother. The DJT Fellowship is more than a grant, it’s a community full of people who share similar stories. They just get it – they understand that we want to live life without having to sacrifice our careers and are a huge support to research returners.”

How did you find the Fellowship application process?

“The application and interview stages are a long process but seemed to come around quite suddenly. At which time, I was very excited to be going back to the lab. The term “career break” isn’t a term I completely agree with as it isn’t conducive to what people are doing. You are still learning a vast number of new skills which perhaps you wouldn’t be exposed to staying purely in research. Whether that’s working in a related field, running playgroups, being on committees, you are learning a new sub-set of skills. These skills all add towards your career and has definitely made me a better researcher.

That being said, within the first few weeks of my Fellowship it was very clear that the research environment had moved on significantly, and I realised how much I had lost from being out of the research environment. This was of course overwhelming and challenging, and there was a steep learning curve. No matter how much you keep your foot in the door – and are learning new skills whilst not in research – you need support when returning. The Daphne Jackson Trust Fellowships give you the space to learn, and support you to find your feet again. From going through this process, developing my ideas, putting together funding applications, I feel less inhibited and more confident than before.”

Any final thoughts?

“I think there is more of a shift to try and see the value in what everyone does. In speaking about my situation, women only have a limited time to have children and this needs to be considered when designing research careers. Attitudes are changing…there is a shift. You can have a family and a research career. And you can do this in more than one way – you do not need to follow someone else’s career path. If the timing isn’t right, you can step away and there are paths to come back. Across the whole community, funders and learned societies are having a rethink and changing the ways they approach this as they can clearly see the benefits. You should never feel you are coming to the end of a career with having a break to have children.”

Rachel also wrote an excellent article for Nature; “How a part-time fellowship enticed a scientist back to academia”.

Click here to see our open Fellowship Opportunities, including a three-year Daphne Jackson Fellowship sponsored by Alzheimer’s Society. The Fellowship is open to talented dementia researchers with biomedical or care specialisms who wish to return to research within a UK university or research institution. Please share if you know someone who would be interested.

Who are the Daphne Jackson Trust?

Daphne Jackson Fellowships support returners across all areas of research. Providing the retraining and mentorship needed to successfully return to research after a career break of 2 years or more taken for family, caring or health reasons. Our Fellowships offer individuals the opportunity to work on a research project on a part-time, flexible and salaried basis in universities, research institutes and industry across the UK and Republic of Ireland.

Together we can all play a part in championing a better work/life balance for researchers.

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