Category Archives: Careers

Challenges and ambitions for career progression that supports diversity.

‘Northern Lights’: Developing a new Aurora alumni network

Jane Richards kicking off the meeting about the new network

This month, we brought together women from across the University who have attended the Aurora programme, a leadership programme to help address the issue of women being less represented in senior roles. There are more than 40 Aurora alumni at Newcastle University, with over half of those coming from our Faculty. Here, Jane Richards, our Deputy Director of Faculty Operations, tells us more about what she got out of Aurora, and why she is taking the lead in setting up a new group at the university for participants and alumni from the programme.

I attended the programme when it was still at the pilot stage in 2013/14. I was asked to participate by our Registrar to help test the water, along with an academic colleague. I presume that I was chosen because I had been identified as having leadership potential, and so was both flattered and enthusiastic about participating.

That pilot year was an interesting one. A particular highlight of the programme was the ‘Learning Set’, which involved a group of us meeting to help each other approach particular problems we had back at work. I was struck by how similar our issues were, in that regardless of our background, discipline or planned career path, we all felt hampered by our environment in achieving what we wanted. And we didn’t all want to be Professors, PVCs or Registrars. Some of us wanted to be the best we could be in a small pond, and it was important to recognise that that’s alright too. Good leaders are essential at all levels in the University.

I remember my action from the Learning Set was to knock on doors and ask for a pay rise… I won’t tell you the result! But my colleagues pointed out that my male colleagues wouldn’t think twice about doing it. “What’s the worst thing that can happen?”, my Learning Set asked me, and it has been my mantra ever since.

I was inspired to get this group together for a number of reasons:

  • To give something back to the University for investing in me
  • To identify a powerful voice for women in leadership at the University
  • To create a community of alumni and potential entrants to Aurora (some of us are from the same Schools and didn’t even know each other, even when we’d been in same Aurora cohort!)
  • To support other women into leadership
  • To celebrate the impact of the Aurora programme

I have been thinking about organising the group for a long time, as I have been a role model and mentor for a few years without sharing my experience with other role models and mentors. We can learn from each other and make a difference if we pool our knowledge: we can be better at what we do.

Our first meeting set the principles and purpose of the group, and I was encouraged that I had done the right thing by getting this group together. As I suffer like many others with “imposter syndrome”, I had worried that others would not share my vision. We all recognised the need to support each other and new participants and applicants. We all also wanted to be part of the community.

We have decided to meet more regularly, to welcome new participants, to encourage alumni to become mentors, to look for funding for our events, to be ambassadors for women into leadership and to make the selection process for applicants more transparent. The University has invested time and money into our development and we feel strongly that re can provide returns on that investment.

Wish us luck!



This week someone told our team about the Facebook group Women in Academia Support Network (#WiASN), and we have found it so enlightening! It’s a group that does what it says on the tag: A network run by women for women where staff in academia can share their thoughts/worries/problems/news and rants to get feedback and support from their peers. And what’s interesting (And in some ways oddly reassuring) is that seniority doesn’t seem to matter when it comes to shared problems. Women at many different levels of their career are all voicing similar issues, meaning that everyone can learn from each other. Now there’s a novel idea!

A snapshot of some of the recurring posts shows that one of the main worries facing women is how to juggle their work commitments with home life. The concerns differ: Am I a bad mother for going back to work so soon? Is it socially acceptable to keep my maiden name for my publication record? Am I a bad academic for wanting to spend time with my child? How can I manage the emotional stress of trying to find a home-work balance? But they all highlight the difficulty of being an ‘Academic mum’.

Another theme seems to be early career researchers (ECRs) trying to establish their own sense of self in their careers, with ‘imposter syndrome’ being a common phrase. One very clear issue for many ECRs seems to be the weight of guilt of holding a prestigious grant or fellowship and constantly feeling that they’re unable to ‘live up to’ the kudos. This is something that we’re very aware of in the faculty at Newcastle, and are hoping to hold workshops to help support ECRs with issues such as these.

Finally, one of the striking threads of conversation comes from the “Should I jump ship and leave academia?” question. The pros of flexible working and clear career pathways are argued against bigger salaries and leaving work firmly in the office drawer. There is a sense of guilt over ‘betraying’ supervisors or ‘wasting’ PhDs offset against accolades of achievement in getting a ‘dream job’ or finally being able to actually apply knowledge into the ‘real world’. It’s a pertinent question that not many ECRs dare ask: Is the grass greener outside of academia? Or does it, at the very least, have a chance to grow better?

If you’re a woman in academia, the group is definitely worth a look…




As a PhD student, how many of us felt immense guilt over taking a day off or, gasp, even a whole holiday? How many of those coveted hours off did we spend thinking about all the work we should be doing, getting in a stress over how much there was to do when we got back? For anyone familiar with that sinking feeling of guilt, the minefield of maternity may not be such a stranger. Because there is a certain guilt, especially reported amongst those in academia, of somehow ‘letting the team down’ or ‘asking too much’ in requesting your entitled time off. In my personal experience, of the handful of academics I know who have taken time out for maternity, not one of them has had the full 52 weeks. Most, in fact, have culled it at 6 months. And then have returned with papers half written through sleepless nights and all emails answered. That’s less maternity ‘leave’ and more some kind of work-baby limbo.

It’s true that some of these academics have chosen        to juggle the nappies with the grant applications. Some women are just so ambitious and driven that they don’t want to step fully away from the work. But there are others, equally ambitious and driven, who would really like to ‘leave’ when it comes to their maternity, but are too worried about the consequences and reputation of doing so. Not to mention the financial costs of taking extended leave, especially for those on fixed-term contracts. One extreme (but sadly not uncommon) example was covered earlier this year by The Guardian of a woman who was made redundant following her retun from maternity leave, despite other similar roles on her project being kept open. You don’t have to do much Googling to find other similar stories of where women across a range of industries have been made to feel ‘punished’ for taking time out for a baby. So what is going on?

The problem with academia is, it’s busy. Grants are competitive, and nobody is going to move a deadline because you have a cute new bundle of joy. Promotions are based on time-limited criteria, such as your publication record for the year. Outlining on your CV how many nappies you changed or all the baby milestones you’ve nurtured unfortunately won’t count. Papers don’t write themselves. Recruitment doesn’t magically happen. Your students don’t stop needing supervision because you’ve got a younger and messier little thing to supervise as well.

Whilst the whole point of maternity leave is that somebody else should be drafted in to cover all of these things for you so that you can smoothly sidle back in and pick up where you left off, it doesn’t in reality work like that. Academia is lonely. And competitive. So there is a certain guilt attached to handing anything over. Which means that you’re not alone if that conversation begining with “I’m pregnant and I’m going to be taking a year off” sticks in your throat just a little bit.

Thankfully, it’s not all doom and gloom. A lot of work is being done, especially with the advent of Athena SWAN, to make maternity leave a much better supported process. Equally as importantly, most HEIs now have initiatives in place to really help new mums return to work, offering flexible working and nursing or childcare facilities. Newcastle Uni still has some way to go in fine-tuning some aspects of these, but over the coming year our faculty E&D team will be running workshops and focus groups to get a real sense of what new parents want, and hopefully put some actions in place to get it. It’s not a short road. But if we take steps the same size as our babies’, we will get there…


Transient States


Today our faculty is promoting the call for applicants to the Sanger Institute’s Janet Thornton Fellowship.This is a fantastic opportunity for anyone who has taken a 12 month break from scientific research to get back into the field, with a competitive salary and excellent training support. Importantly, the fellowship can be taken on a full-time, part-time or flexible working basis, making it accessible to working parents/carers or individuals with other additional needs.

In an academic climate of fixed-term contracts and job insecurity for early career researchers, it perhaps isn’t surprising that intelligent, ambitious, driven individuals are choosing to seek careers outside of the HE research field. But this means that talent nurtured by investment from Universities is migrating to competitors abroad or outside of the HE sector altogether. Fellowships such as the Janet Thornton are designed to support and encourage scientists back into research, and have understood that the terms need to be desirable.

Of course, temporary or zero hours contracts aren’t an evil for everybody. For some people, the opportunity to travel, build up a varied CV and not be ‘tied into’ a longer-term contract suits their needs perfectly. But there are equally a large number of people who find the instability of year-by-year contracts stressful and impractical: It’s very difficult to get a mortgage or plan for a family when you don’t know if your income will stretch beyond the year-end. Things like maternity pay or carer’s leave are difficult to negotiate if your contract barely runs beyond the 9 months of gestation. Plus job applications are time-consuming and stressful,for anybody; for people with additional commitments or disabilities, the difficulty might be exacerbated further.

Funding and the fast-paced nature of research mean that temporary contracts are likely to be on the rise. So the solution needs to be in providing other incentives for early career researchers to stay in research. Fellowships that address some of their needs and accept that not everybody can do a full-time job with the occasional over-seas conference thrown in are a good starting point for supporting the diverse nature of today’s post-docs. But if we want to retain talent, there’s still a lot more work to be done…