This outlook can leave students questioning their future in science. But there is a way to make a successful and rewarding career in science. Our own personal stories demonstrate this.
When Amy Wyatt completed her PhD at the University of Wollongong (UOW), she looked abroad to answer the question of where to next? Amy tested out an alternative career in science communication but returned to academia because the pull of discovery in science was too exciting to ignore.
A fellowship sent Amy to Cambridge, UK, for two years and then back to UOW. With her science communication skills, Amy won the UOW iAccelerate pitch competition in 2015, a small grant competition for innovative ideas, before securing federal funding.
Martina also ventured overseas after her PhD to a complete postdoctoral stint in Germany, and later the United States. She too decided to return to UOW. She felt this was a good environment in which to establish her independence, rather than be in the shadow of more senior, well-established researchers in her field. A key factor was the support she received from her PhD supervisor, who advocated for Martina as she set up her own research group.
Kara worked with researchers in Sweden and Denmark before taking a postdoctoral fellowship at her hometown university, UOW. She chose to further her career alongside neuroscientists, chemists and materials scientists to build new collaborations beyond her realm of cancer biology and expand her program of research in drug targeting and delivery.
As three early-career researchers, we have guided students through their undergraduate and PhD studies, many of whom are promising scientists but they are doubtful that they will find a way to establish themselves as independent researchers.
If you, or someone you know, is considering a career in science, here are some important lessons we have learnt in how to make it work.
Call on support networks
Gender equity is a particularly sticky issue for science. The choice to raise a family may be judged as a disruption to research output when scientists are assessed for funding. This is the point where many women choose to leave academic careers. The global nature of science also necessitates regular long distance travel, which is difficult for those with family responsibilities.
A strong local support network can make the task of balancing young children and the demands of research more manageable. Family networks can offer assistance when travel or extended work hours are called for and a supportive, collegiate ethos between co-workers can encourage and boost young postdocs.