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Report reveals issues that might turn women away from academic science

26 September 2013

Female scientist sm
Lack of mentoring and career support along with a low number of female role models have been cited as key factors that may be driving women in science to move away from academic careers earlier than men, according to a qualitative study published by the Wellcome Trust.

The report highlights several interventions that funders and institutions could implement to create an environment that is more supportive of both women and men who would prefer to stay in academia but are put off by misconceptions of what a successful academic career entails. Recommendations include better career support at the PhD stage, developing a flexible approach to careers in academia, and challenging some aspects of academic culture and working practices.

Professor Dame Kay Davies, Deputy Chairman of the Wellcome Trust, said: “For many women who leave science, the decision is a positive choice to move on to a fulfilling career beyond academia. This report suggests, however, that some women of exceptional potential would prefer to continue in research but are leaving because of concerns about their working environment. It’s clear that funders, universities and employers must address this in a coordinated way to ensure that we hold on to the brightest minds in science.”

The study builds on the findings of the Wellcome Trust Basic Science Career Tracker, an annual survey that tracks the career destinations of selected cohorts of Wellcome Trust-funded researchers. The Career Tracker shows that women are leaving academia at a higher rate than men, either immediately or shortly after completing their PhDs.

The qualitative study was carried out in autumn 2012 by Ipsos MORI, who conducted 59 in-depth telephone interviews and two online forums with women and men who had studied for a science PhD through one of the Wellcome Trust’s Four-Year PhD Programmes.

The findings reveal that both men and women found a career in academia to be very rewarding but that there were risks associated with this, particularly during the first few years post-doctorate when researchers are trying to establish their careers. Both highlighted the difficulties of securing funding and the pressure to publish as major challenges to success in the early years of a postdoctoral research career.

Other aspects of academic culture, such as a culture of long working hours and the pressure to move institutions to be successful, seemed to act as a deterrent to both men and women but were seen by both genders to disadvantage women more.

Women also noted that the absence of female role models for aspiring researchers makes it difficult to visualise what a successful career could look like. They also cited a competitive environment and the need for self-promotion, in conflict with a philosophy that success should be based on merit, as significant factors in their decisions to leave.

The qualitative study also looked at participants' motivations for choosing a PhD in the first place. The majority of those interviewed were motivated to start a PhD by their passion for science. A small proportion specifically began a PhD because they wished to pursue an academic research career, and a few said that they started a PhD to facilitate a career outside of science. Most participants reported that at the start of their PhD studies they had a lack of awareness of the range of potential careers options open to them once they completed their training.

Not surprisingly, those who had a positive PhD experience had a greater inclination to pursue a career in academic research. However, pursuit of a career in academia at this early career stage was described as being risky - too risky for some.

The Wellcome Trust Basic Science Career Tracker was launched in 2009, and the results of the fifth wave of the survey are anticipated in November 2013.

Image credit: Sotiris Zafeiris, Wellcome Images.


Jen Middleton
Senior Media Officer, Wellcome Trust
T 020 7611 7262
E j.middleton@wellcome.ac.uk

Notes to editors

Ipsos MORI. Risks and Rewards: How PhD students choose their careers. Wellcome Trust, London 2013.

About the Wellcome Trust Basic Science Career Tracker
The Wellcome Trust Evaluation Team launched the Basic Science Career Tracker (BSCT) in 2009 to track the career destinations of selected cohorts of Wellcome Trust-funded researchers and to provide the Trust with an understanding of the career choices of those we fund. The Tracker is also designed to help inform the Wellcome Trust's provision of research and career support.

About the Ipsos MORI qualitative study and methodology
A qualitative study was commissioned to explore the motivations and attitudes to career choices among former Wellcome Trust-funded Basic Science PhD students. We also investigated the reasons for the marked and different exit points from academic research for women PhD graduates compared to men. The study was conducted by Ipsos MORI in Autumn 2012. The format included individual telephone interviews with 59 participants, 28 men and 31 men. In addition, a further 30 former PhD students were invited to participate in two online forums of 15 participants. One of the forums included both men and women and the other involved only women.

The sample was made of individuals who had studied for a science PhD as recipients of an award through one of the Wellcome Trust’s Four-Year PhD Programmes, who had started their PhD studies in the years 2004-2007. Participants included a mixture of British and non-British awardees, a mix of people still in academia and working outside academia and a mix of those working in the UK and abroad. Nine of the participants from the in depth interviews, a mixture of male and female, had children, but the majority did not.

About the Wellcome Trust
The Wellcome Trust is a global charitable foundation dedicated to achieving extraordinary improvements in human and animal health. It supports the brightest minds in biomedical research and the medical humanities. The Trust’s breadth of support includes public engagement, education and the application of research to improve health. It is independent of both political and commercial interests.

Wellcome Trust, Gibbs Building, 215 Euston Road, London NW1 2BE, UK T:+44 (0)20 7611 8888