Returning to the lab and my career

Dear Labby,

In March 2020, I was entering the last year of my postdoc when my child’s daycare center shut down and my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. Because my partner’s job was secure and meaningful and paid twice as much as my postdoc stipend, I took the off-ramp. I finished up my research project over an extended period and wrote and revised a paper that reports the important results of the post-doc. My university extended time limits for me, my PI was understanding and supportive, and we continue to have a good relationship. During the pandemic, I was able to attend ASCB’s annual meeting in 2020 and 2021 because it was virtual. I also participated in breakout rooms related to science and career, e.g., as sponsored by WICB. But I missed the chance to interact with senior people in my field who had the potential to mentor or sponsor me. Now 3 years later, my child is in school, my mother is once again able to care for herself, and my partner is happily moving up the ladder at their firm. I am ready and eager to get back to the lab and move on with my career. I don’t want to do another postdoc, but I want to explore new models and techniques to further interrogate my scientific questions. How can I to best position myself to move forward as an investigator? I feel like I have lost momentum and fear that I am no longer competitive for the positions and funding necessary to engage as a cell biologist. I am looking for an on-ramp where I can also regain my momentum. Your suggestions are very welcome. Thank you so much in advance.
—Ready to Return

Dear Ready to Return,

You are not alone, and in fact, NASEM has already published their study, “The Impact of COVID-19 on the Careers of Women in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (2021).” They report that “…the evidence available at the end of 2020 suggests that the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic endangered the engagement, experience, and retention of women in academic STEMM, and may roll back some of the achievement gains made by women in the academy to date….” Not only is your situation not unique to this time, but it is not unique to women in science. Let’s look at some creative approaches that could be helpful.

Industry is ahead on this. They realized that recruiting women who have taken time out to deal with other responsibilities gives them access to people who “Come back to the workforce stronger and more prepared to take on the world’s most critical health challenges” as described in the Johnson & Johnson Re-Ignite program—a program for experienced professionals ready to return to work after a career break of two years or longer. In 2015, The STEM Reentry Task Force microsite, a career reentry initiative, was started by the Society of Women Engineers and iRelaunch. Their website features many companies that have job opportunities they characterize as re-entry, re-invent, and re-launch. More relevant to jump-starting your career aimed at academia and becoming a PI is the NIH re-entry supplement grants. “The goal of this program is to provide support for a mentored research training experience for individuals with high potential to re-enter or re-integrate into an active research career, after an interruption for family responsibilities or other qualifying circumstances. This program encourages re-entry and re-integration administrative supplement applications to existing NIH research grants to support full or part-time mentored research experiences by these individuals. The supplement grants are intended to provide these scientists an opportunity to update or extend their research skills and knowledge and prepare them to reestablish their careers in basic biomedical, behavioral, clinical, translational, or social science research. It is anticipated that by the completion of the supplement support period, the re-entry/ re-integration scientist will be prepared to apply for a fellowship (F), career development (K) award, a research award (R), or other types of independent research support.” And applications for the NIH re-entry supplements have a 61% success rate, and over 20 of the NIH institutes offer these grants. Hopefully one of these programs will help you get back on track. A career in science may be better characterized by a highway, with off- and on-ramps, than by a ladder with fixed traditional steps. Looking forward to seeing you back on track with wind in your sails.

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