Women in physics: personal perspectives

Following the IOP’s “Taking Control of your Career as a Female Physicist” event, I spoke with Dame Professor Athene Donald and Professor Val Gibson about their careers within academia.


Since I entered the third year of my PhD, my future career has been increasingly on my mind. I’ve been to a few careers events with stands full of free USB pens and glossy brochures, but always came away disappointed, unable to see myself in the roles they had advertised. The IOP’s careers event was different; there, people shared my aspirations and were sympathetic to my concerns. The opening talk by Prof Athene Donald was inspirational, and there was a variety of guest speakers who had used their physics training to build successful careers. I came away from the day with a new buzz, excited about my career possibilities.


What has been the most enjoyable part of your career?

AD: My postdoc in the U.S.: postdocs offer a combination of independence and freedom that you don’t often get later on in your career.

VG: Being a postdoc is one of the most exciting times of your life. When I had my CERN Fellowship I was free to do what I liked, and I ended up running my own experiment and working with some fantastic people.


Do you think quality or quantity of papers is most important for a young researcher just starting out?

VG: I think you need absolute enthusiasm for your subject and the quality of your research is key. It’s not about the quantity of publications.

AD: And it’s not impact factor. I’m a signatory for DORA. My postdocs push me about where to publish and I feel that’s the wrong way to go. In my field, people wait until results are absolutely complete rather than putting out results quickly to stimulate further debate.

VG: In my field, the papers we put out now have been internally reviewed by the large collaborations to death, and sometimes you can wait six months to a year for results to come out. It’s highly demoralising for the young researchers – you have to go through so many reviews and editorial procedures that by the time the paper comes out you’re exhausted.


As you progress in academia, you start to pick up other commitments such as teaching, supervising and sitting on committees. Are these unwelcome distractions from research, or a breath of fresh air?

AD: It’s variable. When I was relatively junior, I was put on a grant committee which was a real eye opener. However, you can get stuck on committees that aren’t very interesting but can be time consuming. One of the skills is learning when to say no. When you’re junior, any committee can be eye opening.

VG: Research tends to suffer when you take on other commitments, but as you become more senior in academia, you most likely have a research group working with you. At some point you don’t have time to do the day to day technical aspects of the research, but you can look at the overall picture, and guide your research group towards what you think is worthwhile. I think that’s a very big step for an academic, to stand back and let your research group run, working with them on new ideas.


What’s the aim of gender equality, and do you think this is an achievable goal?

VG: I believe we can ultimately achieve a so-called “horizontal leaky pipeline,” such that the percentage of women in physics remains constant throughout career levels. The trick is to increase the percentage of women who come into physics in the first place, and that requires a major change somewhere in earlier education and within the home environment. In school, boys tend to do science alongside subjects such as computing and engineering, whereas girls who study physics often haven’t acquired those other useful skills.

AD: Undoubtedly the problem starts way before university. But I’m not convinced that 50:50 in every subject is the right place to be; we don’t actually know where the balance lies. Within academia, there are still men and women who think that a women’s primary role is to bring up a family, and it’s those attitudes that will continue to hold women back The view that men are the breadwinners is endemic in our society – there’s the belief that men ‘need to get on’ and that the system should make that possible.


Did you relocate often as a postdoc?

AD: I moved around – I had a postdoc in the States, then returned to Cambridge. But at that stage I wasn’t really thinking about a career, so I wasn’t that bothered about what happened next. I didn’t intend to be an academic, so the pressure wasn’t on me. Nowadays everyone has to be calculating and publish in the right journals, and the pressure can detract from that freedom.

VG: When I was in my early career, I was just enjoying the moment, and I wasn’t thinking about my future career. The postdocs of today seem to more aware about career opportunities; they know that the majority of them won’t stay in academia; they’re looking around for what they would like to do and they’re picking up the skills they need for the future. It’s not just the academic side, it’s also the personal aspects – they’re concerned about getting on the housing ladder and potentially having families. At that stage those concerns never crossed my mind.


How well do you think academia prepares graduates for careers outside of academia?

VG: Not well enough, although they do obtain quite a few skills that they probably don’t recognise as being very useful, such as communication, writing and computing skills. We cannot train them in all aspects of potential future careers, so it is important that they also engage with suitable training schemes.

AD: You could argue that it’s the role of the careers services within universities rather than that of the PIs to talk about what’s available outside. I’ve been in academia my whole life – what do I know about the outside world? Careers advisors are much better placed to advise graduates about a life outside academia, although we should stress transferable and soft skills where we can so that the graduates appreciate what they’re learning as they do their research.


Which skills tend to be neglected during a PhD in academia?

AD: We don’t do much on project management or interpersonal skills. We do lots of analytical skills, critical thinking, reading and writing.

VG: I would add leadership skills, because working in large collaborations it helps to be able to interact with large numbers of people.


Do you have any advice for a young researcher on a committee who wishes to put an idea forward at a meeting with senior academics?

VG: Don’t be intimidated. If you have an idea that is good, you should share it at an appropriate time and you’ll be heard.

AD: It depends on the type of committee, but sometimes it’s useful to find allies for a certain idea before the meeting. Work out what the counter-arguments will be so that you’re prepared. Be articulate, concise and audible.

VG: A good chair would make sure that everyone in the room has a voice, so if you have something you’d like to say, it’s a good idea to talk to the chair beforehand.


Do you have any tips for PhD students who suffer from imposter syndrome?

AD: It’s valuable to recognise that everyone suffers from this, even professors!

VG: You may learn more physics and research as you go along, but you recognise there’s a lot you don’t know and you feel your inadequacies through that. It’s always there.

AD: Knowing you can cope with it is what changes, and that it’s not the end of the world if you say you don’t know something.

VG: It helps to give yourself a pat on the back every so often, and realise that you can do what you’re planning to.


If a time machine took you to meet yourself at the end of your first degree, what would you say?

VG: I would say that maybe I should have listened more in lectures!

AD: I would tell myself not to compare myself with other people, and to work out who you are.

VG: Take advice, but don’t be influenced by other people or told what to do. You should make the decisions for your future. Do the things you enjoy, and you’ll do well.



Dame Professor Athene Donald is Professor of Experimental Physics at the University of Cambridge and Master of Churchill College. From 2010-14 she was the University’s Gender Equality Champion.

Professor Val Gibson is Professor of High Energy Physics at the University of Cambridge, a Senior Gender Equality Champion, and Fellow and Director of Studies at Trinity College. She is also Chair of the Institute of Physics’ Juno Panel.


The original articles can be found here and here.


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