6 Top Tips for a Career in Science — From the Soapbox Science Speakers

Digital Science
Jan 30, 2019 · 5 min read

Guest post by Isla Watton & Dr Nathalie Pettorelli

Soapbox Science is an award-winning public outreach platform for women in science, which over the past eight years has showcased nearly 1,000 speakers on soapboxes in busy public spaces around the world.

Soapbox Science brings science to the streets and helps to challenge stereotypes about who a scientist is and what they do. But engaging people on the streets is only half the story; speakers who volunteer to take part also write blogs detailing their career journeys and share what they have learned along the way. One of the questions posed to the speakers is: ‘What advice would you give to a woman studying for a PhD and considering a career in science?’

We have collected nearly 300 responses to this question from PhD students to Professors and from the full range of Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Medicine subjects. Here, we decided to combine these responses and pull out a few of the key messages our speakers wanted to share with aspiring young scientists. These are the top 6 recommendations below.

Build a support network

One of the most common themes was the importance of building a supportive network and the acknowledgement that the people you work with are one of your most valuable resources. This includes professional connections such as colleagues, supervisors and lab groups, but also fellow students, admin staff, academics outside your field, and friends. Finding a mentor was also highlighted as being key, with many saying this was crucial to their success:

“I always thought mentoring and peer-to-peer mentoring was one of those fad ideas until I got the chance to spend time with a mentor. They don’t have to be in your field, but it’s so incredibly valuable to have someone with which you can float ideas, get constructive feedback, or get a reality check or some mental health advice from.” - Heidi Thiemann

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Photo: Heidi Thiemann, Soapbox Science Milton Keynes

Believe in yourself

Many scientists referred to the importance of staying positive and trusting your own abilities. They openly shared experiences of suffering from imposter syndrome and how often they saw this also affecting their female colleagues. Advice included focusing on and celebrating your own achievements, making time for a life outside of work and putting yourself forward for the opportunities you want.

“Step up, believe in yourself, and never let anyone tell you that you are not good enough.” — Samuela Guida

Persevere and build resilience

Many of our speakers recommended a positive approach, but these scientists also emphasised the role of perseverance in the face of failure. As acknowledged by many, rejection is the norm in STEMM, and being able to manage rejection by building emotional and mental resilience is therefore a key asset for success.

“Build up your resilience, publications will get turned down, research applications will be rejected, but listen to advice and keep trying.”- Gillian Greenway

Lift others as you climb

A recurring piece of advice was that scientists should strive to be role models for others, supporting fellow students and colleagues, encouraging them to apply for jobs and discussing findings, successes and failures.

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Photo: Chioma Vivian Ngonadi, Soapbox Science London

“Try and use your current position to create space for others along the way and build bridges through your subject.” — Chioma Vivian Ngonadi

Find your passion

Being passionate about your research topic was seen as an important driver by many of our scientists. They stressed the fact that working on something that fascinates you will drive you to persevere and direct your career into a place that continues to excite you. They also suggested that only when your topic inspires you, can you share that inspiration with others.

“You need to be passionate about the topic. It is not about being the most intelligent person, you have to be inquisitive.”- Joyce Harper

Expand your horizons

The final piece of advice was to put yourself out there, making the most of the opportunities at hand, trying out public engagement and networking with people even if they might not be in the same field. As pinpointed by many, you simply never know where these opportunities will take you!

“You can be great at what you do and know everything there is about your project, but I think that you always have to keep an open mind and push your limits. Take a training course on a new technique that has no actual application (yet?) to your current project, chat with different people about their work and look at your research through their eyes, try to find the connections in this big science puzzle that we are all part of and, most importantly, step out of your comfort zone, you have no idea how many things you can do until you try.”- Anastasia Aliferi

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Photo: Anastasia Aliferi, Soapbox Science London

What we found interesting here is that almost all pieces of advice published fit into just six categories. Only a very small number gave advice that related to how science outputs are produced or how to build your publication lists; rather, the overarching theme was that the key to success is to build a community and to look out for your own and other people’s wellbeing.

Admittedly, the advice above won’t be applicable to everyone, but it does demonstrate how important it is for institutions to implement policies that support this vision. These can for example include steps to discourage the development of an overly competitive environment; it could be about allowing flexible working hours or providing mental health support; it could also be about encouraging the implementation of a mentoring scheme. These are of course far from being new ideas and this overall approach to the development of a supportive working environment in academia has been promoted by equality initiatives such as the Athena SWAN Charter, which identifies a positive culture as one of the contributing factors to creating an inclusive workplace.

Projects like Soapbox Science do aim to boost women’s careers by supporting some of these ideas. At our events, scientists not only reaffirm their passion for their subject by inspiring the next generation and talking to the public, but also help create a strong community of women scientists. By connecting researchers from different backgrounds, seniorities and disciplines, Soapbox Science hopes to provide avenues for scientists to build their network and find mentors/mentees.

If you would like to get involved with Soapbox Science, the call for speakers for all events is open until 1 March.

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