Careers, interrupted

Jan West describes how an organization inspired by the UK's first female physics professor has helped more than 200 people return to working in science after career breaks

Jan West

Miriam Watson's career as a particle physicist began at CERN in 1992, as a research fellow investigating the strong interaction between quarks. Later, she became a staff member at the European particle-physics laboratory, co-ordinating a large working group of up to 60 physicists and studying the physics of the W boson, which had been discovered there in 1983. When her first child was born in 1997, she worked part-time at CERN for a while, but stopped when she moved back to the UK after her husband took a job in Birmingham. Two more children followed and, for 10 years, Watson remained at home to care for her growing family.

By 2008, however, all three of her children were at school, and Watson's thoughts turned to her previous career in particle physics. Might she be able to return to research?

For many scientists who have taken long career breaks, the answer has unfortunately been "no". The fast pace of scientific development means that their technical knowledge and skills soon become outdated; in Watson's case, the accelerator she worked on at CERN had actually been scrapped in 2000 to make way for the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). The "obvious" solution for those in her situation – returning to education to refresh their skills – is often out of reach for financial reasons. As a result, many would-be returners end up in a vicious circle where they are unable to update their skills without earning, and unable to earn without updating their skills.

Technology gaps are not the only potential barrier to returning. There is nothing that knocks an individual's self-assurance quite like taking a career break, and it is easy to lose one's identity and simply become someone else's "carer", "Mummy" or "Daddy". People on a career break are often unaware that the skills they are gaining during their time out – including multitasking, time management and "people skills" – are valuable in the workplace. The result is that for all too many, memories of that interesting job they once held can begin to seem like fiction.

A fellowship – and a lifeline
Watson, however, was determined to avoid this trap. Aware that there had been big changes in particle physics during the time she had been away, she knew she needed to update her skills before applying for university positions or research-council funding. To accomplish this, she turned to a non-profit organization called the Daphne Jackson Trust, which provides a tailored retraining programme for scientists, engineers and technologists who have taken a career break for family, caring or health reasons.

Although open to applicants in all scientific disciplines, the Daphne Jackson Trust has a strong association with physics thanks to its founder and namesake. Jackson was a specialist in nuclear, medical and radiation physics who became the first female professor of physics in the UK, and served as head of the physics department at the University of Surrey from 1971 until her death in 1991. Over the course of her career, she met many clever and highly qualified scientists who were reduced to taking low-level jobs outside their speciality because they had taken a career break. Deciding that this was an appalling waste of talent and investment, in 1985 Jackson began a pilot scheme that enabled women to return to their careers via a part-time research project in a university or industrial laboratory. In bringing the issue of career breaks to national attention, she was years ahead of her time, and the scheme she launched became the Daphne Jackson Trust following her death.

In Watson's case, a fellowship from the trust brought her to the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Birmingham, where her retraining plan focused on learning new programming languages and computing packages. This support enabled her to work on the ATLAS experiment at the LHC, where she studied the top quark in some of the first data recorded at the collider. And, by spreading her half-time hours over four days a week, she was also able to be home with her children at the end of the school day.

"My colleagues were extremely supportive, and I soon felt I had re-established myself in the field of physics research," says Watson. "Being a member of this large experimental collaboration and analysing data from the world's highest energy particle accelerator is an amazing experience. It is a privilege to be involved." After completing her Daphne Jackson Fellowship in 2010, Watson was awarded a Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowship. These fellowships are designed to support excellent early-career scientists in the UK who require a flexible working pattern because of personal circumstances. Watson is using hers to continue her work on ATLAS.

Track record of success
Since it was set up more than 20 years ago, the Daphne Jackson Trust has worked with more than 200 "returners" like Watson. Of these, 96% have returned to employment in science, engineering and technology (SET), with 72% going back into research, 10% to teaching and 15% to careers in SET-based academic administration or management. Four past fellows have been awarded professorships and many others seem well on their way to such accolades. Anecdotally, supervisors of fellows frequently report being thrilled by their ability, dedication and enthusiasm. In many cases, taking a career break seems to have heightened many of the skills needed to succeed in science: time management, flexibility and adaptability, conflict resolution and working under pressure.

Daphne Jackson's original 1985 pilot scheme focused on women returning to the workplace after having children. However, the trust established in her honour now helps both male and female returners, and 12% of the trust's current fellows are men. Many reasons for taking career breaks – including illness, relocating to be with a partner and caring for elderly relatives – are not gender-specific, and as men and women become more equal in terms of their careers, it sometimes makes more sense for a father, rather than a mother, to take a career break to care for children.

But while some things have changed since the foundation of the trust – such as an increase in flexible working and gradual changes in society's view of male and female roles – today's returners face many of the same issues as those who took their career breaks a generation ago. In particular, part-time scientific positions are still uncommon and, if anything, technology is advancing even faster than it once did. The scheme is still necessary and the trust remains focused on its goal of returning increasing numbers of talented scientists to their careers.

Jan West obtained a degree in physics and worked as an analyst in the City of London before taking a career break to raise her family. She is now the public relations manager of the Daphne Jackson Trust, e-mail j.west@surrey.ac.uk


This article appears in the February 2012 issue of Physics World

last edited: March 28, 2014



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