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Charity sponsoring ‘career break’ scientists is busier than ever

The Daphne Jackson Trust, which helps scientists returning after a career break, plans to change its fellowship awards from a “reactive” to a “proactive” model.

Katie Perry, who was appointed chief executive in September 2011, told Funding Insight that she wants a more sustainable funding model for the future. She aims to identify sponsors for 70 per cent of fellowships before potential candidates approach her organisation by the end of the year.

We always used to have people come to us and then try to find funding for them,

she says. But I thought this wasn’t the best way to move forward. I have people coming to the end of the application process and I’m finding it difficult to find the money, and they can’t start their fellowship until I do.

For instance, the trust is now advertising one position half-sponsored by the University of Huddersfield and one half-sponsored by the University of Edinburgh—the closing date is the end of January. Recruitment for two fellowships sponsored by Prostate Cancer UK is due to end on 14 January.

The trust receives around 200 enquiries a year for the rolling fellowships, of which around 30 per cent are eligible and will be guided through the application process. Perry acknowledges that the procedure, which can take up to a year to complete, does involve quite a lot of hand-holding. When someone’s been out of work for maybe five or 10 years, they can’t always write competitive proposals, so we offer support, guidance and mentoring all the way through, she says.

However, she says the awards are also becoming a lot more competitive. That is driven by the need to ensure applicants are ready to make the move back into science and are likely to forge a successful career for themselves. We turn more away than we have done before, but in some ways that’s a good thing. We don’t want people to flounder, or to be unsuccessful in the end, she explains.
Perry says that there is an increasingly strong business case for an award for those returning to science. The UK can’t afford to have these people—well-trained people—not in the workplace.

She adds that better engagement with equality issues and the increased profile of the Athena SWAN awards means that more institutions are approaching the trust looking to sponsor fellows. Athena SWAN awards recognise commitments to improving diversity, and as 95 per cent of Daphne Jackson fellows are women, she thinks they are an appealing way to demonstrate this commitment. People are realising that this is something that they have to take on board—it’s becoming far more important. It’s now something universities feel they must do, rather than just being an add-on if they have time, she says.

Potential fellows must have spent at least three years working in science—this can be just a PhD, but it usually involves a postdoc. They must then have taken a career break lasting at least two years for family or health reasons.

Past fellow Miriam Watson, now a Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin fellow at the University of Birmingham, spent 10 years out of science. The Daphne Jackson fellowship gave her the chance to get back into the field and get used to working in an academic environment again. Ultimately she says it was why she got her current job.

The fellowships, which are run part-time, also involve tailored training courses, specific to the participants’ needs. Current fellow Allen Mswaka warns that applicants should be dedicated, and be ready to put in a lot of work to make the experience worthwhile. Anyone applying should be very sure how much time they can commit, he says. If you are to achieve all that you want, you may have to spend extra time working towards it.

Applicants are expected to locate a university and supervisor for their projects, but are guided through the application process. Candidates are advised not to go back to the same institution they were at before, but Perry recognises that those returning to work will often have geographical constraints on where they can go. We’d recommend not going back to the same supervisor, she adds.

After an eligibility assessment, candidates will be assigned a fellowship adviser. They will produce a first draft of their proposal, which is critically assessed. If it is up to scratch, the candidate will be invited to officially apply. Applicants are then interviewed based on their first draft, which Perry says gives them a chance to refine the proposal before it is passed on to two independent referees, assuming they make it through the interview stage. At this point the awards committee will make the final decision on whether the applicant is awarded a fellowship.

In the case of sponsored fellowships, the funder may choose to sit in on the interviews or conduct their own in order to have the final say over which candidates are chosen.

Perry says candidates are noticeably more confident during the course of the fellowship and that it will help them break back into a successful scientific career.

We can’t make any guarantees, but what we say is that we take away the disadvantage of a career break, she adds.