It’s Only Temporary: Panel Discussion Nov 2021

A grid of 3 images showing panel speakers in discussion, and an audience listening.

Our community came together for our first in-person event since the start of the pandemic. Photography: Tatjana Zoller

The Women of the Wohl community came together in November for a panel event: ‘It’s Only Temporary’, a discussion about the uncertainty and precarity of the academic career path post-PhD, how this can particularly affect underrepresented researchers and ways to try and navigate this. This seemed an appropriate topic for our first opportunity to meet in-person since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has done no favours to those in academia trying to climb a ladder that was already precarious and competitive to begin with!

Panellists mid-discussion (left to right: Mary Agyapong, Dr. Annie Walsh & Dr. Deepak Srivastava). Photography: Tatjana Zoller

This was also an opportunity for collaboration, as our team joined forces with Dr. Sarah Jasim and Dr. Shakir Salaam, the brains behind the NIHR-funded ‘Lost Voices’ campaign which was run by the London Postdocs Network in 2021. The campaign focused on collecting stories from early career researchers (ECRs) about experiences of barriers they had faced and are still facing as they navigate a career in academic research. Together, our joint team worked very hard to develop a panel discussion which asked questions and focused on 3 key areas within our theme of uncertainty on the academic career path:
insecurity of short-term contracts post-PhD
– lack of career support post-PhD
– the importance of (good!) mentorship

The Women of the Wohl & London Postdoc Network organising team! (Left to right: Dr. Etta Nettis, Rebecca Casterton, Dr. Shakir Salaam, Laura Sichliner, Anna Carobin, Dr. Sarah Jasim, Annora Thoeng) Photography: Tatjana Zoller

We had a fantastic panel of four speakers to take on these areas, answering audience questions and sharing their own personal experiences:

Mary Agyapong (@_MaryAgyapong), a developmental psychology PhD student at King’s IoPPN, investigating early markers of autism and ADHD. Mary is also co-founder of West African Research Collective, a supportive academic network for West African researchers based in the UK.

Dr. Leigh Wilson (@LeighWi17063105), a developmental biologist by training who developed a passion for public engagement, outreach and designing creative approaches to STEM education over 10 years of post-doc research. This eventually lead her to depart the bench to pursue this full time as public engagement coordinator for the MRC Centre for Neurodevelopmental Disorders and the Centre for Developmental Neurobiology.

Dr. Annie Walsh (@awalsh9890), Senior Postdoctoral Research Project Manager for the Identifying Depression Early in Adolescence (IDEA) Project, with a research background in cognitive neuroscience as well as PRINCE project management accreditation. Annie’s role involves managing finance, contracts and funding reports, as well as being directly involved in research. She is also an advocate for involving individuals with lived experience in mental health research and is a member of several panels herself, including the FAST-R service here at KCL and on specific projects collaborating with the McPin Foundation.

Dr. Deepak Srivastava (@NCNDgroup_KCL), Reader in Molecular Neuroscience and Director of the Wohl Cellular Imaging Centre. Deepak was also an interviewee for the ‘Lost Voices’ campaign, and you can view his conversation as part of the campaign here.

Whilst the in-person event was open to limited places for Wohl Institute staff and students in order to be compliant with COVID safety regulations, our tech team were busy live-tweeting from both @womenofthewohl and @londonpostdocs to share snippets of the discussion more widely (check out both accounts and follow to re-cap on some of the highlights if you missed it!)

Panellists and chairs in discussion (left to right: Dr. Etta Nettis, Mary Agyapong, Dr. Annie Walsh, Dr. Deepak Srivastava, Dr. Leigh Wilson & Dr. Shakir Salaam). Photography: Dr. Sarah Jasim

The discussion, chaired by Dr. Etta Nettis from Women of the Wohl and Dr. Shakir Salaam from the London Postdocs team, provided many insightful reflections on research culture as well as tips from the panel from their own experiences.

First off, we discussed how life as a post-doc in academia usually means hopping between short contracts (each as little as a few months to a couple of years if you’re more lucky). Accepting financial insecurity as well as the expectation to frequently relocate – often internationally – in order to progress in your career, is often not an option for those with caring responsibilities or without the privilege of a financial safety net. Mary got discussion off to a thought-provoking start as she asked the audience: ‘when you got into your PhD, were you informed? Were you aware of the reality and did you know what you were getting into?’ She reflected on the stressful reality many PhD students face when finishing up where ‘your mind will have to be in many places as you have to focus on your project but you’re also faced with the prospect of looking for a new job’ and that ‘there is very little guidance when you’re a PhD student to prepare for this future’.

Annie shared her own career story, and how even on transitioning to her current role as a project manager, there is still uncertainty surrounding job security when your role is attached to a research grant and things can get complicated when grants run out… Leigh added from her perspective that public engagement roles in academia often follow the same pattern with roles tied into research projects only lasting as long as the grant. She also added insight from her perspective of frequently working with students, agreeing that there is not currently enough awareness and practical information given to research students about the reality of working in academia post-PhD.

As our most senior research position panellist, Deepak shared his own stressful story of an overseas post-doc job falling through just as he was about to move. Fortunately, this turned out to be a blessing in disguise as he later found another role that shaped his career path, and Deepak was able to share with us some insight: ‘it’s extremely important to plan ahead and know your options, but to remember at the end of the day that you need to know what your priorities are and make your decisions based on them.’

Photography: Tatjana Zoller

Discussion on the uncertainty of short contracts and particularly how PhDs often initially aren’t aware of what this means practically as a way of life, lead nicely on to our section discussing the lack of formal support post-PhD (both to stay or leave academia!) Our panel brought lots of insight to the table, particularly Annie and Leigh who both come from the perspective of having taken career breaks to start families, as well as transitioning into academic roles that weren’t directly doing research at the bench. Annie answered audience questions about leaving academia and later returning – is there a ‘right time’? She reflected that there are ‘always windows of opportunity’ to be found to return, and particularly that returning to academia after a break can be an opportunity to side-step into ‘a different kind of research’, as she did in her experience where her return to academia led her into qualitative patient focus group work.

Photography: Tatjana Zoller

We finished up this section with some great discussion on how the lack of support and information on options outside academia provided to ECRs is particularly disempowering when coupled with the stigma that still exists in academia for those who choose to leave. To illustrate this disingenuous double-standard the academic research sector has, Deepak asked the audience who knew anyone outside of science who has switched jobs or changed fields (majority of hands went up!), and then whether this had been a problem for those people changing track (very few ‘yeses’!), so we could then reflect on the attitude to this in academia.

Mary shared a practical recommendation to break the academic ‘bubble’ by using social media to follow many different individuals in science sharing their work online to learn about their experiences of academia, including why and how some left. Annie summed things up by sharing some words of validation for those who do not want to pursue research after a PhD: ‘it’s not a failure, it’s not a lack of resilience’. Definitely words we need to hear more often, as we can under-estimate how many transferable skills we gain during a PhD that enable us to make that career change.

Photography: Tatjana Zoller

Finally, our panel had a lot to say on mentoring! Mary shared her perspective of how valuable she has found mentorship as a PhD student, as a means to break through the often murky waters of ‘if you know, you know’ when it comes to understanding what your next steps might be after a PhD. She shared how particularly she was empowered by online communities such as #AcademicTwitter to go out and ask people about their roles and find mentors (plural!), and that having multiple mentors with different perspectives and ‘nuggets’ of knowledge to bring to the table can be an advantage over relying on just one person. On the flip side, Leigh also shared with us her experience of how you can also learn a lot from being a mentor yourself, and as a PhD student you’re probably already doing this as you supervise and support undergraduate or masters project students in the lab! For us, the take home message was to be proactive. While some formal support schemes may exist in some institutions at PhD level, it is rare post-PhD that you will ever be formally ‘allocated’ a mentor, so find people working in roles or areas you aspire to and reach out (the worst they can say is no!)

Overall, we had a fantastic evening and there was a real buzz from being back in a room to share experiences and connect in-person over some of the challenges many of us still face when it comes to working in academic research. There was some great feedback from those that attended, and – COVID permitting – we can’t wait to bring you more discussion opportunities in the near future!  

Photography: Tatjana Zoller

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