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How to bridge a career gap…

The Daphne Jackson Trust helps people to secure a job in academia after spending time away. Margaret O’Hara, a medical physicist, has found the trust’s help invaluable, but says that gaining its backing is far from the only step that a returning researcher must take.

“It’s not a quick or easy solution,” O’Hara told Research Fortnight. “There’s no guarantee of success, and you have to have an institution that will support you.” It can take up to a year to apply, she says, and the trust advises you to go for other awards at the same time: “It would rather you found something on your own terms.”

Indeed, the trust takes measures to ensure that it has the perfect applicant before proceeding. “It wants to establish that you really won’t return to science if you don’t get its grant,” O’Hara says. This meant she had to emphasise issues that she might have downplayed on a normal application. “The trust was saying that with my references it looked like I could get a job easily, and asking what was stopping me. So I explained that if I could up sticks then I would, but I couldn’t. I had a young family. My partner had a job. They told me that needed to be on my first page.”

O’Hara says she wouldn’t be where she is now—coming to the end of a 2-year fellowship—without the trust’s support. “It wants to get women back into science,” she says. “It’s one of the only ones trying to repair the leaking pipe.” The trust can’t fully fund a fellowship itself, but will help to secure money from other sources, she says. “I get a salary and £1,000 for travel to conferences and workshops. There’s a lot of moral support from the trust, but financially you need wider support.” Consumables, she says, are unlikely to be covered, and fellows have to be creative to cover such costs. Things may be improving though: Medical Research Scotland and the Genesis Research Trust are both working with the trust to provide fellowships that come with £10,000 for consumables.

The trust aims to have most fellowships funded before seeking applicants, but O’Hara was one of the few to gain the trust’s backing without a confirmed source of funding. In the end she didn’t have to wait more than a couple of months before the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and the University of Birmingham agreed to fund a 2-year position, but she says it can take longer than that and funding is not guaranteed.

This might seem a tricky situation, but a spokeswoman for the trust explains that it is vital to keep some prospective fellowships open-ended: “We also want to fill a niche for individuals who know they want to get back into research but haven’t found the perfect connection.”

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight