Female physicists hear how they can take control of their careers

23 November 2016

Eminent solar researcher Dr Helen Mason joined women working in many physics-related roles to offer advice to undergraduates, PhD students and people in very early career on “Taking control of your career as a female physicist” at an IOP event on 9 November.

Female physicists hear how they can take take control of their careers

The conference also heard from Professor Lesley Cohen, an IOP trustee and Consul for the Faculty of Natural Sciences and the Education Office at Imperial College London, and Margaret Harris, industry editor at Physics World. Other talks were given by Abi Graham, a consultant at the Technology Partnership, Bethan Halliwell, an associate at the Withers & Rogers LLP law firm, Kirsty Smith, senior physicist at AWE and Louise Dash, a teaching fellow at University College London.

Mason, who is a reader and head of atomic physics at the University of Cambridge, gave a keynote speech in which she described the early steps in her career, from undergraduate studies at Queen Mary College, London to a PhD and then a postdoc at University College London, which she transferred to the University of Cambridge when her husband’s job moved to the city.

Having a supportive supervisor during her PhD was invaluable, she said, as was spending some time working at NASA on the ultraviolet part of the solar spectrum. “If you get the opportunity to work overseas, do take it,” she said. In the 1980s she had an opportunity to work at the Mission Goddard Spaceflight Centre in the US to study the solar maximum, she said. At the time she had two small children, but was able to take up the offer because some family members accompanied her to help with childcare. When her children were born, there was no nursery provision or after-school care at Cambridge, but things had improved since then, she said.

There was a point at which she and her husband had had to make a joint decision about whose career should take priority, she said. Going on to describe her involvement in several international projects including the Solar Heliospheric Observatory, the CHIANTI atomic database and the Hinode satellite, she said: “My advice is be yourself, be true to what matters to you in life and treat failure as an opportunity to move forward. Never be afraid of a new challenge.”

Ellie Davies, an operational research analyst working for the government, weighed up the pros and cons of either being a postdoc or working in the civil service. It can be difficult to get a postdoc position, the hours can be long and job security can be precarious because you are judged on your most recent record, she said. You are often involved in a tiny niche within research and therefore exposed to a limited variety of work, she argued. On the plus side, postdocs can be working at the cutting-edge of science and may have opportunities for international travel, she said.

In the civil service, however, there are flexible working hours and long hours are discouraged, people often move into part-time work simply because they wish to, there is the job satisfaction of doing important work with real-world applications and there are interesting opportunities for problem-solving, she said.

She had applied successfully for the service’s graduate fast-track route and was first posted to the Home Office, where she managed a small team. She then had a post at HMRC but did not feel she was ready for promotion, she said, noting that women tend to wait until they are 100% ready before applying. When she did apply for promotion, to a post with the Committee on Climate Change, she was turned down initially but was later offered a job there, where she is now the senior analyst for surface transport.

Her role is with the Government Operational Research Service, she said, explaining that operational research uses maths and problem-structuring techniques to solve real-world problems and has overlaps with logistics, economics, data science and statistics. Some of its challenges have included ensuring that the supply of donated blood in the NHS meets demand, determining how many prison places will be needed and analysing ambulance response times.

The role includes providing independent advice to the UK government. “Physicists have the right skills for this. We’re very used to breaking down problems to find ways of solving things,” she said.

Marcella Bona, a lecturer in particle physics at Queen Mary University of London, said there was very little to discourage her from studying physics when she was growing up in Italy, and around 30% of her peers at university were female. During her undergraduate studies she had spent some time working on the BaBar experiment in California, in a predominantly male environment but one that she always perceived as fair, she said.

However, moving to a laboratory in a country in mainland Europe for a second postdoc had been a bad experience, she said. The lab was known to have a poor working culture, particularly for women, she noted. “I made the mistake of stopping there for the whole two years [of the postdoc]. What I should have done is to have looked for another job – to leave and go somewhere else. It happened to another person I knew in a lab similar to that one. She moved on after four months.

“I should have been a little more active in this case. I tried to fight from within but I didn’t have enough power. Luckily, people still had faith in me, so I got a research fellowship at CERN.”

She said: “In your career it’s not enough to work hard. You need to work hard on the right things, to ask questions and to interact a lot. In meetings you need to speak up – men will speak up by talking about really obvious things.”