The fork in the road


Sorry everyone! There has been a gap between posts due to the fact that I had a big decision to make……

It continues on from my earlier post on grieving for your career, and the article in Nature Blogs. I finally found a job, not as a researcher but as a medical writer. A good job utilising my hard-wrought skills from my time as a researcher and PhD.

But even though I was ready for a change and I was excited to start on a new path, I still felt guilt, and shame. Why, you ask? I felt that I was giving up on trying to maintain a research career, that I had failed as a post doc or as a career researcher. This is despite the fact that I have been at the bench for more than 15 years! I felt that people who were still in research, successful researchers and academics, would look down upon me and judge me, or view my change in career as selling out…

To make matters worse, after I had started my new job, I got offered a senior researcher position at a good institute, in a good lab…Now what was I going to do?

I spent more than two weeks agonising over the decision. Do I move back to my country of birth, but to another city? Do I start all over again, setting myself up, making new friends? The project was so appealing, and it would my project, one that I could grow with.

What was the catch, you ask? It came down to the insecurity of funding in research, and the length of the contracts. Faced with the permanent position that I had just accepted, in an industry that also has a lot of potential for growth, a short-term contract paled in comparison. Oh, but it was a tough decision! I love being at the bench, and I love Australia, but I love writing and communication, and I love Paris…Finally, I ended up talking to a therapist to help me work through the decision.

This was actually more beneficial than I thought. The therapist identified patterns in what I said and thought about myself, regarding my identity and where I fit in the world. I have always seen myself as a scientist, and getting the PhD made me feel like I was part of an elite group. Deciding to change careers made me feel like I was losing a part of myself, and that maybe I wasn’t ‘special’ anymore. But, I am and will always be a scientist. The therapist pointed out that the way I think, and the way that I approach problems is because of my time as a scientist. He commented that my identity won’t change just because I am not at the bench…!

My new job is very science-heavy. I do just as much writing and literature searches as before, except I am not at the bench.

It seems to me that researchers and scientists often forget that there are alternate careers that utilise our skills. Junior researchers, PhD students and post docs are more than aware of it, but moving into an alternate career requires mentoring. something that often, albeit not always, is lacking. This is why when we are unemployed, we have no idea how to find these other careers. Leaving research is often not considered, and sometimes feels like it is not encouraged unless it is because a lab head thinks you ‘won’t make it‘.

There is that toxic phrase again!

Final Thought

So what is the moral of this rambling prose? Buried deep in the writing, somewhere, is the thought that we scientists should not feel ashamed or guilty for leaving research to pursue other careers! whether we realise it or not, we have been shaped by our time in research, and this is what makes us desirable candidates for many jobs.

I’m not saying these jobs are easy to find. It took me 6 months, a lot stress and internet searches to find my job, but there are other options. It is about time that there was more support for helping people leave research without making them feel embarrassed or like failures.

End of rambling prose.

The Communication Series: Using communication to dominate or empower


Post-modernism theory

As a result of growth in areas such as education, scientific knowledge and the progress of industry, society has seen an enhancement of life and culture. However with these changes, a problem of domination has arisen. This is when one person uses or withholds information and knowledge from another person in order gain control.

The heart of the emerging theory (consisting of the post modernism and critical analyses) is that organisations need to be flexible and less structured in order to change with society. Scholars write that post modernism uses knowledge, information and language to create a culture where the language can be used to either empower or to dominate.

 The feminist critique of communication

In honour of International Women’s Day, I am going to discuss a sub-genre of the post modernism approach, the feminist critique. This field challenges and questions the ideological and cultural perceptions of female roles in society, and how communication shapes and influences women’s roles within organisations.

Historically, patriarchal dominance has been used in organisations to engender women to particular roles, (for example, secretaries or nurses) positions seen as “women’s work” and perhaps beneath that which a man should perform. Key to this dominance and perpetuation of gender bias is the language used.

Further to this is the structured hierarchy of an organisation, women in more subservient positions, men in positions of power or positions involving decision-making and the relay of information.

Communication to dominate

One study examined taking maternity leave in regards to changes of identity and how workplace interactions affected leave choices. This study highlighted the problem within organisations to attach meaning and identities to the pregnant woman, often to their detriment.

Central to this was the communication used, as there were differences between what was said and what was done. By this I mean that communication between the women and their supervisors and their co-workers, was used as a means of controlling the decisions made by the women regarding their decision to take maternity leave. It was also found that the language used by the supervisors affected the attitude of co-workers to the women taking or returning from maternity leave.

The communication processes were often used to make the women feel guilt, shame and inferiority about taking leave. It was also used to convince both the women and their co-workers that their work performance would be inferior or less productive based on the decision to take or return from maternity leave.

Communication to empower

Here I am going to focus on an example concerning female dairy farmers in rural India, where researchers studied how breaking down patriarchal dominance and empowering women influenced social change within the communities.

Traditionally in these communities men dictated the control of money, interpersonal relationships and the distribution of work. But some villages were part of a program that was designed to provide female dairy farmers with greater education about dairying, running a co-op, and encouraged social clubs to increase interpersonal interactions.

As you would expect, changing the communication processes and empowering women benefited everyone!

Not only was more information about dairying, health and finances exchanged between the women, men in these villages said that there was a positive effect on the collaborative approach to dairying as well as in their family life!

In short, it was evident that when the women were given a voice, the whole village not only benefited but also underwent social changes. In contrast, more isolated women who were not in the social clubs felt less empowered and still felt they were under patriarchal control.

Final Thought

Communication, how it used, delivered and what is said, has the ability to empower or dominate, affect attitudes, culture and identity, and to create social changes to the benefit of all.

What we do not say can be as powerful as what we actually say.