Insights from four female scientists caught at the early-career crossroads

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Early-career researchers Cottrell Tamasser (left) and Ifrah Abdullahi discuss their career plans and challenges at the June 2023 Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting on Physiology and Medicine in Germany.Credit: Julia Nimke

Each year hundreds of early-career researchers from dozens of countries attend the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting in Lindau, Germany. The annual event provides opportunities for junior scientists to interact with Nobel laureates within a disciplinary theme — which in 2023 was physiology and medicine. At last year’s meeting, held in June, four female researchers from three countries took time out from lectures, panel discussions and networking opportunities to tell Nature about their career hopes and challenges for the months and years ahead. Some common themes emerged. They include dealing with career uncertainty, battling financial and time pressures and prioritizing mental health.

IFRAH ABDULLAHI: Support women, don’t box them in

Child-development and early-intervention autism research fellow at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia.

My biggest concern is the funding system, particularly where I work in Australia. It’s really turbulent for an early-career researcher. We’re often just bouncing from contract to contract, and the timing can coincide with when we’re making bold adult moves — having children or trying to get a mortgage — and it’s really challenging to do that on a two-year contract.

As a mother, I also think a lot about how we have so many women in PhD programmes, and then it drops off beyond that. When I was doing my PhD, there were about eight women. Now, only myself and one other woman from that group remain in academia. So, at times when people are making crucial plans and decisions, the system is not very supportive.

I had to look for mentors. It was really challenging to find a woman with the same expertise as me, and whose values aligned with mine. And then, obviously, finding a mentor who was also a woman of colour was extremely hard. I looked for people who were willing to not close the door to the next woman but to really open it for her.

With my own research on early intervention and diagnosis in autism, which also looks at the crossroads of autism and cultural diversity, I always try to think about the process from the perspective of parents. How do I help parents, as soon as they have a concern with a child’s development, to get adequate supports in place? Flipping back to myself, I would have loved to be an undergraduate and be told, “These are the steps you need to take to become that professor you want to be,” and also to be told how difficult it’s going to be, and about the challenges I will come across, and how I will need lots of advocacy.

When I had my first child, I was constantly told, “You should go part time.” Being the rebel that I am, I decided to stay full-time, not knowing all the challenges. Nevertheless, people are always boxing women into what they ‘should be doing’. If I decide I don’t want to be in academic research any more, that’s OK, because that’s my choice. But if I want to do it full on, that’s also my choice, so it’s key to make sure there are adequate supports in place.

I would like these to include equal treatment of mothers in science, so we are not seen as a burden and as slowing down project timelines. Also, there need to be structural changes to aid career progression and increase leadership opportunities. We need to build greater awareness of what it will take to balance academia and motherhood in the early career stages. Finally, we need mentors to show us the way. I’m very privileged to have an adviser who guides me on nitty gritty academic things. She’s an amazing mentor, and a mother, and she really understands how hard it is. She’s very supportive, and she’s someone I can bounce wild ideas off.

PIPER RAWDING: Prioritize your mental health (cats help)

Pharmaceutical-sciences PhD candidate working on biomimetic drug-delivery systems at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Portrait of Piper Rawding

Pharmaceutical sciences PhD candidate Piper Rawding says that the atmosphere in science and engineering is cut-throat.Credit: Julia Nimke

We all have a passion for science, but at Lindau I found that many of us are struggling with our well-being and mental health. When we first start our PhD programmes, we have a collective sense of enthusiasm and determination. Many of us think we’re going to be professors one day. But now, out of my cohort of a dozen graduate students, I think I am the only one who still wants to be in academia. I’ve been seeing an exodus from the academic path. When discussing why this is happening, with colleagues, I’ve found that much of it relates to the lack of job security, funding and overall personal well-being. More specifically, a research group at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio reported that grad students in science are six times as likely to experience severe anxiety and depression as the general population (T. Evans et al. Nature Biotechnol. 36, 282–284; 2018).

I have found that the culture surrounding science and engineering is at the core of many students’ and scientists’ mental-health issues. The atmosphere is cut-throat, the path to success is impossibly narrow and it is common to feel alone. It is a situation in which everyone is pursuing a goal that seems almost impossible to reach.

I don’t think that’s something we’re talking about enough. Science is so much a part of our identity. But, at the same time, we don’t want to suffer from burnout. We want to continue, but at what cost? So, it’s been a significant challenge to find a balance between being happy and enjoying research. It sounds silly, but one thing that’s genuinely helped me is caring for and spending time with my two cats. They are a sort of social support and help to overcome feelings of anxiety, depression and loneliness.

It’s important to develop a support network, and work to combat the stigma around mental-health problems. We need to address ongoing difficulties in research, including bullying, discrimination and financial issues, which can negatively affect researchers’ mental health.

If I ask myself what keeps me going when so many of those around me are leaving, the answer sometimes feels like masochism! But seriously, I’ve had a lot of struggles, and normalizing conversations around mental health, and working with mental-health and suicide-prevention initiatives, is extremely important to me. The thing that keeps me going and pushing forwards in academia is truly my love of research and the potential to be the mentor to others that I wish I’d had myself.

COTTRELL TAMESSAR: Address the leaky pipeline and mentorship

Reproductive-biology PhD candidate at the University of Newcastle and the Hunter Medical Research Institute in Newcastle, Australia.

In academia, we have lots of statistics that illustrate what we like to call a leaky pipeline. For example, there’s a graph showing that there are more PhD graduates in Australia than there are academic jobs (see go.nature.com/3h614nj), and I always think: “What are we doing to prepare people for a career that isn’t in academia?” I don’t think we are doing enough. There’s still a stigma associated with not being able to ‘make it’ in academia.

We should be broadening definitions of what it is to be successful beyond a conventional academic path to include career trajectories in industry, government, non-profits and entrepreneurship.

There are all these things stacked against you as a PhD student, such as not finding the right mentor and a lack of advice on how to seek out a broad range of career options. Logically, you could just leave academia at any point, but there is very little guidance about how to translate your high-end skills into other professions.

It’s not that you don’t have those skills. It’s just that it’s unclear how to adapt them to non-academic work environments, whether those be industry research and development, for example, or shaping government policies.

Academic institutions should be making more of an effort to ensure that highly skilled, academically trained people have opportunities to make significant societal contributions in other ways. That’s a need that’s not being met right now.

It would be valuable to have programmes that educate academics on how to do that. Perhaps there could be more conferences that put industry professionals in contact with academics to promote conversation, reveal the options for leaving academia and show academic scientists what industry wants. There could also be more effort made at the undergraduate level to foster an industry skill set. There needs to be more synergy between universities and industry.

Particularly helpful are schemes that enable individuals to re-enter academia and use their experiences to lead projects and provide guidance to foster industry collaborations. Group leaders and senior staff in academia should be encouraged to develop these industry relationships to enlarge the career prospects of graduate students and postdocs.

PRAKRITI GUPTA: Weigh difficult choices to find the right path

Paediatric critical-care specialist studying multi-organ dysfunction at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in Patna, India.

Portrait of Prakriti Gupta

Paediatric specialist Prakriti Gupta finds herself at a crucial juncture — a career at the bench or the bedside or both?Credit: Julia Nimke

As a paediatrician and clinician, I’m considering what the next five years of my career are going to look like. I find the most joy working both bench side and bedside. My patients inspire me to ask questions and find answers.

But there is no formal infrastructure for me to train as a physician-scientist in India. During conversations in Lindau, people told me that the United States is the place to go. Interdisciplinary training is valued there.

I read an article in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine that said there’s a 17-year lag in implementing clinical research (Z. Slote Morris et al. J. R. Soc. Med. 104, 510–520; 2011). So, the guidance that we are coming up with through research takes a long time to actually translate into practice.

So I’m at a crossroads. Being a clinician provides instant gratification. You’re doing good every day, making a difference in real time. It’s tangible. This is especially true in a developing country, where many people don’t have access to quality health care. I feel torn, because I know that as a clinician there’s a lot I can do, from being a kind and empathetic doctor to being a good mentor and a good unit head.

By contrast, as a basic scientist, it’s delayed gratification. Every day in the intensive-care unit, I realize that after a point, my hands are tied; there are limits to the knowledge and skills and technologies that exist. I acutely recognize the need for basic research to determine, for example, what fluid levels are optimal for children. (I led a clinical trial during my paediatrics training that compared various levels of intravenous fluid therapy in critically ill children to try to determine the best approach to support them and avoid organ dysfunction.)

But am I the one who’s going to do this basic research? If so, that probably means leaving my country. The biggest challenge for me right now is trying to find my place in the world. Do I think as a global citizen? Do I think that no matter where I go, people are going to benefit from what I do?

So now, I am working out how to seamlessly combine both the things I love. In the long run, I hope to build a bedside–bench–bedside career and create a team in India that can make a difference. I hope to provide a positive clinical and research environment that helps others down the line who are facing similar career dilemmas.

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