Why do you think there are fewer women at professorial level in academia?

This is the question posed by a former mentor of mine to alumni of our immunology honours degree. The department is applying for the Athena SWAN award which aims to promote the advancement of women in STEMM careers. He is frustrated that, while there are more women than men at undergraduate, PhD and post-doc level, the numbers start to flip when it comes to fellowship and tenure positions.

I thought I’d share my answer:

It’s no secret that, while there’s a bit of teamwork involved in continuing the human race; in most countries (the UK and the US included) maternity and paternity leave are not equally shared, leaving the woman to take a career hit each time, and employers feeling sorry for themselves when said woman isn’t available for work for a while because she’s busy building a human.

This is, of course, not a condition specific to academia and nor is the male top-heavy workplace. A career in academia can be a lonely and competitive pursuit often with little support and no safety net. I’ve heard many PhD students and post-docs talk about always feeling ‘guilty’ – they’re never doing enough hours, never working hard enough, never producing enough data, despite working more hours for less pay than many (most?!) other jobs. Doesn’t leave much time for a family.

In my previous university, one professor was particularly unimpressed with ‘post-docs these days, thinking they can just run off and have babies’. I’ve seen women have to defend themselves against accusations of being pregnant from their PIs. I’ve had discussions with women in their early twenties trying to work out when, between post-docs, they might be able to have children (never did find a solution). I haven’t had any of these conversations with my male colleagues; it just isn’t an issue for them.

I think the thing that makes academia such a particularly difficult place for women is that each person is individually under so much pressure – publish more, bring in more grants, devote your entire life to your job; when the entire time burden of parental leave is on the woman, how can she choose an all-or-nothing career? The current, unfortunate, reality is that having children requires women to make a decision that men never have to – to put a dent in their career – so women are always on the back foot. Add to that the academic career structure which is verging on insane – PhD student, post-doc, post-doc, post-doc, post-doc, um… getting-a-bit-old-for-post-docs-and-haven’t-had-a-pay-rise-in-a-decade-but-there-are-no-tenure-positions… career change / start again?

When you have the option of decades of 3-year contracts and job insecurity in academia vs. a well-paid job elsewhere that you can pick up after having children without having the guilt and the major set-backs, where’s the incentive??

Definitely interested to hear others’ views on this!




I’m just throwing up a quick post here as an indication that I am indeed still alive. This is an oldie – Guardian Careers posted about awkward interview moments back in October. This may or may not be topical for many, but the absolute inundation I’m currently experiencing from vulturous recruiters (sorry, recruiters) would suggest that perhaps many people are considering a career move at the moment; maybe it’s interview season?

The first tweet they published is me, you may notice. I did in fact go in for a hug with the interviewer. I’m just not naturally a boundaries person. I’m a hugger. It happens. I don’t think it had any effect on the interview. Who doesn’t like a good hug?!

Frustrated to elated: PhD student to medical writer

I haven’t posted on this for such a very long time so I’m doing a bit of an off-the-cuff update here. The airport brings the writing out in me. A cheeky prosecco in the airport bar definitely seems to help. Mainly though, I think it comes down to me feeling like I need to look like I’m doing grown-up things on my iPad with all these business types around. That’s the problem with iPads – everyone can see exactly what you’re doing on this big screen!

So what does happen when you quit (your PhD that is)? Well for me, things have gotten better. A lot better. Obviously, every situation is unique, but it’s been more than 6 months for me and when I think back to the PhD days it’s like looking at one of those pictures where it’s the same place but rainy and grey on one side and all blue skies on the other. Same person, different outlook. So, so different.

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Confessions of a frustrated PhD student


My name is Ana and I love cells. I like them so much that I decided to get a Bachelor in Science, majoring in Cell Biology and Genetics. My favorite types of cells are those of the immune system. For my Masters, I did many experiments to learn from immune cells and got to know a lot of cool people in the process. I also started sketching. The round characters I have sketched represent different types of immune cells. You can see some of these at cell cartoons. These sketches and animations are my own personal way of communicating science, which is something I want to get more involved in. I am currently doing a PhD in Immunology. However, I am having some doubts about the whole PhD thing. So, I am figuring things out as I go, but aren’t we all?
I tweet under @Cellcartoons



When people asked me what I wanted to be? I said a researcher. With time, the idea of doing “research” got more defined: I wanted to be a professor. I saw myself running my own lab doing some really interesting research, mentoring graduate students and teaching in a University. But now, I see myself as… I have no freaking idea! I don’t know what I want to do or what I want to be. The worst of all is that have no idea why the hell I am doing a PhD!

My current situation can be probably traced back to my initial decision to study Biology. I thought, and I still think, that it is really interesting how living organisms function all the way down to the individual cells. When you think about it, cells are so complex and it is amazing to know all they do even though they are so freaking small. Doing a degree in Cell Biology and Genetics was the most logical and natural choice to make. I did enjoy learning all about the wonderful whereabouts of cells and I do not regret the decision of having chosen that career path. I was also really curious about how all that knowledge regarding cells was obtained so I spent three consecutive summers as a research student. Those summers were really insightful and I was always excited about everything I was learning. Now, I find myself wondering what happened to that enthusiasm and excitement.

“The worst of all is that I have no idea why the hell I am doing a PhD”

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Abandoning my PhD and getting a job

It’s been a while (understatement!) since I updated this. The reason being that it’s been an eventful few months. That, and the fact that I keep starting blog posts and then either not finishing them or realising that they say the same thing as another post I’ve done before (I think the latter is impressively absent minded – if I’m being kind to myself – considering that I’ve only ever written a handful of posts).

So what’s been going on? Well, you know, this and that, with a couple of major life decisions thrown in for good measure. I made the decision to quit my PhD. It was in the pipeline for a while really, but it was a bit of a leap from thinking about it to doing it. Especially since no one really takes you seriously when you say you’re going to quit. There’s a lot of, “Oh, don’t worry, I went through that phase in my PhD too. You’ll get past it.” And I kept thinking, I’m not sure i want to get past it. I think I want to get out! So I did!

Looking for a career

I applied for a good few (about 15) jobs over the course of about two months, during which time I was completely out of the lab and un-registered with my Uni. Rejection on some level was always going to be inevitable in this process. One recruiter, after informing me that I hadn’t gotten the job, was kind enough to provide me with some additional information about the person they had chosen, “The candidate who eventually got the position had experience and a PhD.” Oof. Hit me where it hurts why don’t you! (X Factor auditions anyone?! Maybe I just need a sad back-story…).

I have to say, that was a shaky point in my previously-held resolve that I’d made the right decision to quit. The voice of academia was ringing in my ears, “you’ll never have that career you want without a PhD”. I’d been told that outright before and (as with any one ever telling me I can’t do something) it made me absolutely determined to prove otherwise.

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Academia: The RomCom (horror more like)

the-five-year-engagementI love Saturday nights, attached to the sofa, usually accompanied by a friend, a blanket, pizza, some sort of baked goods and maybe a cheeky glass of wine. There’s no science, no work, no stress. After fast forwarding through most of my Sky Plused, inexplicably addictive, Take Me Out (just to get to Take Me Out: The Gossip), we’ll most likely watch an easy going movie with the promise of minimal thinking.

Recently, this Saturday night joy was inadvertently invaded by work through a movie: The Five-Year Engagement. It stars That-Guy-From-How-I-Met-Your-Mother and That-English-Actress-Who’s-Not-Anna-Friel. Sounds like a fairly safe option for a chilled out Saturday night, right? Wrong! 

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Trying out this STEM ambassador shenanigans

Yesterday I participated in my first event as a STEM Ambassador. I actually signed up as an Ambassador over a year ago, but I never got round to getting involved as there was never time; the lab came before all else! An event came up at my high school so it seemed like a sensible enough place to start.

I was oddly nervous when I arrived; I actually queued up shiftily with all the students who were late for school – old habits and all that – until the receptionist noticed me and asked if I needed help. I headed off to the assembly hall (so weird wandering around my old school) and met the people running the event as well as the school’s careers advisor, who had been my form teacher. It amazes me how teachers always seem to recognise past pupils even though thousands of us pass through; I’m fairly sure my memory wouldn’t stand up to that test.

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