Parental Leave and Sexism

Parental Leave and Sexism

There’s been a bit of a twitterstorm about the story of a ‘techie mom’ who overheard a conversation between two presumed IBM executives on the subject of hiring women. Their view was, don’t do it: they have the temerity to take time off to have children. Written up in a more detail as a blog, the comments at the end are, in some cases, as shocking as the reported conversation. (I will, unlike some of the commenters, assume it is accurate reporting. However, even if it weren’t the case, the remarks are sufficiently unsurprising to form a good basis for discussion).

I am always surprised by the fact people hold up the US as being ahead of the UK when it comes to female employment. The absence of statutory maternity leave means that child-bearing is bound to remain a contentious issue. Having to use up holiday time simply to allow one’s body to recover after birth, seems to me all wrong. Being forced to make complex and difficult choices, whilst still adjusting to a totally new way of life and an imbalance of hormones, is equally unreasonable. The existence of statutory maternity leave (with pay) removes many of these sorts of pressures the new mother may otherwise feel. The UK system may be far from perfect but it is an awful lot better than the default US position. Of course some employers have good (if voluntary) policies, but it is not the norm and it is not simply a right. How can the States progress to thinking about parental rights when they are still so hung up about maternity leave?

The agenda has moved on in the UK, at least a little. The battle over maternity leave is won in principle, although the generosity of what is granted and paid for varies hugely between employees. There is now a shift to considering paternity leave, with new statutory rights around this which have yet really to be taken up in any significant way but which provide some flexibility in who takes time off when. Nevertheless, taking such leave may still lead to significant financial consequences that cannot always be borne by a family.

But perhaps we need to stop thinking in these terms and simply talk about parental leave. There are all kinds of reasons which mean that typically it will be the woman who wants to take the leave, particularly in the weeks after the birth, but why not give complete flexibility over the entire period so that each couple can make the choice that works for them (and ideally extend entitlement to some more limited leave for later on in the child’s life)? One of the reasons I think this switch could be so significant is that, if it becomes normal for men to take extended periods off then employers won’t be able to make crude judgements about ‘let’s not hire her, she might have a baby‘ because they will have to factor in ‘let’s not hire him, his partner might have a baby‘. They couldn’t even think in terms of ‘child-bearing age’ since men can in principle father children at any age.

Now I know, as at least one of the commenters on the blog I cited says, one has to be pragmatic about the difficulties any kind of statutory leave could cause a company with a small workforce. Small companies could (as some currenty do) undoubtedly face difficulties if a significant proportion of their staff all happened to have children and take leave simultaneously, but the conversation being reported was allegedly about IBM. Such caveats can hardly apply to that giant of a company. Furthermore, those sectors where the workforce has particular skills which are likely to be in short supply and hard to replace on maternity/parental leave cover, are also the ones where one might expect them to wish to invest for the long term. This is certainly the case for faculty in universities. People once on or beyond tenure-track would not be switching institution every year and hopping around for the sake of it. There is an investment on both sides. Individuals are also more likely to stick around for a decent length of time, rendering their absence on parental leave but a small proportion of the time they are actively serving the company, if they are treated with respect. Those companies that put the squeeze on qualified staff are likely to be the ones that see the best depart to their more friendly competitors.

The story which prompted this post is specifically about a computing company. I have read about too many horror stories in the techie field (see here for my thoughts on an earlier shocker) to find this episode hard to imagine. I don’t know why it is that coders are more prone to misogyny than other fields of work. Possibly if the percentage of women ever rose in the field then the atmosphere would improve, but that sounds like a bit of a catch-22 situation. What is going to happen to all those children who are now – in the UK – to be brought up to speed from the start of primary school with coding? Will this early exposure to the tools of the trade mean the proportions of girls taking computing at a university reach the high level that was the norm when the field was young? One can only hope so. But if sexist comments continue to be tossed around then it may remain the case the numbers of women employed in the industry itself will not grow swiftly.

One can argue, as again one of the commenters on the original blog did, that eavesdropping is a bad habit and that private conversations should be treated as just that, private. Nevertheless, executives who think and say, however privately, ‘let’s not hire women’ are hardly likely to be pushing to increase the proportion of women in their company. They may keep their lips sealed during recruitment, for fear of justifiable recriminations, but I would not reckon they’d be the ones recommending minorities for employment. So, whereas it may be right and proper that no action be taken against individuals talking ‘off the record’, it is equally right for attention to be drawn to the issues that such comments highlight. Only by making such behaviour completely beyond the pale will we, as a society, make real progress, and we’re a long way off from that happy state as yet.



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…or ‘Congratulations’ in English. Up and down the country this is the time of year for graduation ceremonies. Proud parents, wider family and friends go along to watch their loved ones briefly smile and shake the (Vice)Chancellor’s hand, or something along those lines – such as being doffed with a hat made from John Knox’s breeches, according to tradition at Edinburgh University. Subsequently, either sweltering in unaccustomed heat or cowering under umbrellas according to our unpredictable weather, formal and informal photographs are snapped and, finally, sad partings from friends take place. Graduation. A day that means so much to so many but rather little to some others. My impression is that my generation tended to be in that second camp, but now that I see graduation from different angles (see here) I feel rather differently about the process. For many students and their families this is a day wreathed in smiles, relief and emotion.

Universities are not in the business of teaching deportment, nor fashion sense or how to pose for a photograph. For the duration of the taught course that is usually adequate and appropriate, but there comes a point, at this final juncture of Graduation, when this absence of relevant tuition may show! For that brief moment when each student has their moment of glory as they walk up to the podium, all eyes are upon them. Now I don’t wish to draw any parallel with the ‘catwalk’ that is Downing Street, either in the Daily Mail’s original version commenting on dress, marital status and other factors totally irrelevant to ministerial duties of the women involved, or the New Statesman’s and Guardian’s  responses discussing the sartorial elegance of the endless variants of the navy blue-suited male ministers. Nevertheless it is impossible to sit on a graduation platform and not consider the characteristic appearances of male and female graduands alike.

This week I was at Swansea University (Prifysgol Abertawe), honoured to be awarded an Honorary Degree, a ceremony mainly carried out in English but with distinctly Welsh overtones. I was told, being Welsh, they wanted to include the powerful trio of poetry, prose and music. The poetry was in Welsh and English; the music was show music, although the Welsh National Anthem was also sung. This is a wonderful tune, familiar to me (I suspect from footage of Rugby matches), but few people seemed to know the words. Additionally some of the formalities were carried out in Welsh and the programme itself was printed in both languages.

From my vantage point of sitting on the platform watching the hour-long stream of students walk onto the stage and off again, let me offer a few words of advice to those still to graduate (or coaching them), keeping them as gender-neutral as I can.

  • Chewing gum as you greet the (Vice)Chancellor is not attractive. If you really can’t bear to be without it, try at least not to make the chewing visible for those brief moments of exposure on stage.
  • Bare midriffs or jeans don’t really seem appropriate.
  • Wear shoes you know are comfortable. Shoes that look as if you’ve never worn them before and which cause you to teeter are ill-advised. At the very least practice walking in them in advance, ideally up and down some steps since most stages are raised and steps are likely to be a hazard you should anticipate.
  • Personally, light tan shoes and navy trousers don’t strike me as a good fashion statement on such a formal occasion.
  • Slouching, ambling or shuffling whilst staring at your feet may not convey confidence or pleasure in being present. (And if you are tall and wearing a mortar board, check the height of any doorways to avoid knocking the hat off.)
  • Be prepared to respond to any questions posed succinctly and appropriately. ‘What are you going to do next?’ is probably not asking whether you plan on getting hammered that evening so much as your future employment, further training or travel plans.

Most people end up getting some photographs taken some time around the ceremony – and that applies as much to an honorary graduand as to the ‘regulars’. For myself, this is not a process I feel very comfortable with and I tend to be very critical of my posture, my teeth and/or my hair when I subsequently get sent the prints. I don’t seem to have a set of face muscles that easily relax and can too readily look anxious, cross or simply tense. Indeed, my mother’s favourite and encouraging phrase (such as mothers are wont to produce) is that I look as if I’m waiting for my execution! Unfortunately for the honorary graduand, the speech celebrating their life and achievements may take some time, during which you are required to stand (or possibly sit) looking and feeling like a lemon in full view of the audience. However honoured and chuffed you may feel, it is also deeply embarrassing to listen to the flowery prose and wonder who this wunderkind who is being described really is. So, in my experience any photos taken during that phase do not show me at my sunny best.

I have had several doses of media training, but no one has taught me how to look relaxed and comfortable when I am anything but, how to keep a smile without feeling as if rigor mortis is setting in or that my facial muscles have started twitching. I would also like to know what tricks I can learn that would remind me before the photographer starts snapping that I should stand tall, shoulders back and stomach tucked in rather than only when I’m told it’s a wrap. The freshly graduated class may fare better because, with luck, they are being photographed in the presence of family and friends who will giggle with them and help them to look at ease. But the comments about posture may equally apply even so. Deportment lessons may once have been de rigeur for young ladies but we are all – men and women – sadly lacking in this department these days.

Despite these caveats, graduation should be and generally is a joyous occasion with a great sense of success and a journey well-travelled. I certainly enjoyed my time at Swansea. If my attention occasionally wandered during the ceremony it was only temporary. (I did find myself trying to work out, for instance, why graduands A and B received loud cheers whereas most individuals did not. Were they the most popular or simply had brought the largest family contingent? Was there anything in their gait or appearance to explain the enthusiasm with which they were greeted?) The organisation was superb. I felt like royalty when I arrived at Brangwyn Hall where the ceremony was being held, the car door was opened and I was instantly relieved of my luggage and escorted to the ‘green room’. Thank you to my delightful hosts and to those who nominated me for the honour.


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Shuffling Forward in Education

This week has been full of surprises in Whitehall. The departure of David Willetts was foreseen. Indeed, it has been predicted just about every time there has been a ministerial reshuffle in the recent past. He will be missed by many who thought he ‘got’ science – and other parts of the university sector too (although perhaps not the financial bits). The much less expected departure of Michael Gove seems to have come as a shock/delight depending on where you sit. That part of the teaching profession he rudely referred to as The Blob will undoubtedly have been cheering in staff rooms up and down the country, but there are some who seemed to believe his reforms really were likely to improve the quality of our education, despite their effect on morale and retention of teachers coupled with the continuing likelihood of teaching to the test remaining a necessary key strategy for schools.

During my recently completed stint as chair of the Royal Society Education Committee I had opportunities to interact with several of the ministers involved in education including Gove, Willetts, Liz Truss (now Minister of State for the Environment, so we can hope her Norfolk constituency has given her a good grounding in badgers, fact and fiction) and the newly reinstated Schools Minister Nick Gibb. These interactions ranged from the surreal to the depressing via the hilarious and the uncomfortable (not all of which I feel able to share!). What did I learn?

Chris Huhne reportedly said Gove was ‘the politest man in the House of Commons’ and certainly during the uncomfortable period when I had to host him before he gave a speech at the Royal Society in 2011, he was superficially perfectly charming. This was a speech whose content was unknown to us and so I had no idea whether I wanted to harangue or congratulate him on what he was about to say. In fact it turned out that what he said that day about science and maths education was entirely positive and consistent with Royal Society views, describing amongst other things the importance of maths for all post-16. During those awkward 20 minutes or so in which I was left to entertain him – he had, to everyone’s consternation, turned up early – we talked more about the portraits displayed in the basement of the Royal Society’s building (a safe topic I felt) than education, nevertheless it was clear how much his own experience taking Scottish Highers thereby enabling him to stick with maths beyond 16, was important to him. This idea of breadth of education post-16 sits at the heart of the recent Royal Society Vision Report, launched last month, which recommends all students to study maths, science and humanities/social sciences up to 18. On that Gove and I would be in agreement.

However, as my previous post on education matters made clear, many of the edicts issued at rapid speed from the DfE under Gove’s leadership seemed to be completely untouched by views from the education establishment and professional bodies. They, including the Royal Society, made repeated attempts to inform policy through their responses to the many consultations issued over the past 2-3 years. Gove and his cohorts (notably his ex-SPAD Dominic Cummings, he of the colourful reputation for bullying  and short fuse) have pressed on with wholesale changes to education regardless. Gove believed his own experience gave him a good indicator of what schools needed but a brief exchange with him at a dinner of a right-wing thinktank about the lack of careers advice now available in schools suggested his understanding was less acute than he thought. (The exchange was brief as I was then effectively told to shut up so that more sycophantic attendees could metaphorically pat him on the back.) He clearly believed children did not need careers advice provided because (and I quote what he said to me) ‘any self-respecting 16 year old can find all they need to know on the web.’ Really? How would the confused child know what questions to put into a Google search when they have no idea what careers are out there? How would they begin to know what careers might suit them given a particular set of interests/ strong GCSE subjects? I was not impressed, but I was not allowed to challenge his response.

Education sits uncomfortably between the DfE and BIS with less communication than is desirable. In order to help joined-up thinking (at least I assume this was the underlying motivation) via the use of outsiders, a group known as the DfE STEM Ministerial Group was set up to meet 3-4 times a year. In principle both the Schools minister and the Universities minister attend, plus an entourage of associated civil servants. Too often these meetings were rearranged at short notice, so that many of the group members – representatives from key professional STEM bodies including the Royal Society – weren’t able to attend. Meetings took place with any number between zero and two ministers actually present because of the other calls on their time. When two ministers were present I think the meetings were genuinely useful, with those of us making up the group able to express our views freely on the key topics of the moment. When this wasn’t the case, the meetings were much less valuable or even interesting.

At the meetings the body language between the officials present (including the ministers; Willetts was obviously much more comfortable with Truss than with her predecessor Gibb) was interesting, with the civil servants from the two ministries often sitting as far apart as possible. At least that’s what it looked like to the outsider. Also remarkable upon occasion was the civil servants’ (in)ability to answer fundamental questions about the reforms that were being rushed out. This occurred particularly during the meeting discussing A level and GCSE reforms, when no one seemed to have any useful answers to the barrage of questions we raised. It was not a reassuring performance. This was at a point when no minister was present to hear the unease voiced, which made it all the more depressing.

Now Truss has moved on to higher things as Environment Secretary, Gibb is back as schools minister. I don’t feel particularly optimistic about his vision. During a one-to-one meeting I had with him at the DfE (one-to-one, that is, if you discount all the civil servants who lined the walls) I was astonished to find him challenging me to do a sum of long division he had written down on some paper on his desk. Well known for having a bee in his bonnet about this particular approach (as he discusses himself earlier this year here) I declined to play his game, saying that I thought there were more useful things to use the time for. One key outcome of that meeting was the upping of the frequency of the group meetings from 3 to four a year. I was told by one of his minders as we headed for the lift that the Minister must have enjoyed the meeting, since it overran by 15 minutes. I can’t say I did, or that I was edified by what I learnt. I have no doubt he will be more than happy to continue with Gove’s ‘reforms’ as, presumably, will the new Minister of State Nicky Morgan although I have no first-hand experience of her.

I live in hope that the Vision for STEM Education Report that the Royal Society has produced in its recent report will indeed provide some vision for the new ministerial team, although without very much confidence that my hopes are well-placed. The one encouraging sign I see in terms of joined-up thinking is that Nick Boles (again not someone I have met) is a joint BIS-DfE appointment covering Skills, Enterprise and Equalities. Anything that enables these two ministries to work well together to the benefit of our young has to be a good thing; the disjunction that has been the norm over the past few years cannot have helped post-GCSE STEM progression, apprentices, FE colleges or any other of the crucial stages at 16+. So, although no longer so closely connected with this work, I will continue to follow it with keen interest.

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Holiday Questions in Natural History

Last week I escaped to the Shropshire hills and blissfully allowed my brain to stop turning over matters concerning committee-work, exams, grants and other responsibilities past, present and future. Instead I have been exercising my limbs up and down the slopes of the Long Mynd and surrounding countryside and refreshing myself in local hostelries, albeit largely with substantial quantities of iced lime and soda to cool me down and replenish my liquid levels after hefty hot walks: the weather was generally kind and the countryside gorgeous and enticing me to walk further than I would have expected my stamina could take me.

The area was delightfully quiet with no major roads. Noise mainly seemed to come from the tractors busily cutting the hay and baling it (or whatever the correct term is for those cylinders tightly wrapped in black plastic; bales from my youth were rectangular), the mechanical growls sounding across the valleys. Gliders circling on the thermals above the Long Mynd also produced an eerie hum as they passed overhead (naively I had thought gliders were silent). But there were also the sounds of chattering swallows as they swooped around farm buildings, the frequent call of chiffchaffs from the hedgerows, the mew of buzzards above the fields and the incessant bleating of (nearly full-grown) lambs who’d temporarily lost their dams.

When indoors my reading matter was also pleasantly irrelevant to my normal daily round. But it seemed particularly appropriate to spend evenings enjoying Meadowland: The Private Life of an English Field by John Lewis-Stempel, describing a year on a Herefordshire working farm’s pastures and meadows, situated somewhere not very far south from where I was staying. His descriptions of the meadowlands of the title in the summer months absolutely chimed with the appearance of the fields across which we were walking. Resorting to a scythe (an instrument I dimly remember seeing once in use in my far-distant childhood) when his mechanical equipment for cutting failed, may seem extreme, but he was clearly very much at one with his fields and lingered on descriptions of the wildlife he found therein.

I can feel smug that, without binoculars or even particularly trying, I saw or heard 45 different species of birds (list appended below for the curious) during my walks, a figure I felt that compared extremely favourably with the 55 he listed seeing on or above his fields over an entire year. Nevertheless I also recognized that whereas, erstwhile twitcher that I am I may feel smug about my ornithological identification, my knowledge in just about every other sphere of wildlife is pathetic. The butterflies/moths that I saw were not the ones I recognize from my urban life. They seemed predominantly to come in various shades of brown – sometimes with a tad of orange – but whether a variety of argus, fritillary, brown or something completely different I cannot tell (there was also a splendid caterpillar crossing the Long Mynd trail that seemed to feel no need to avoid our boots).

Likewise I realised my knowledge of the life of trees was sadly lacking. Why, in the village of Norbury, was there a venerable yew located in the churchyard cited on a nearby helpful board as being 2700 years old and still going strong, yet the striking double avenue of beeches up nearby Linley Hill were likewise cited as dying off at a mere 300 years of age. What limits the lifetime of a tree (aside from beetle infestation or other disease or indeed a lightning strike)? Do trees simply die of ‘old age’ and if so why the differential factor of 9 between yew and beech? Can someone please enlighten me as my scientist’s mind is curious!

I was also struck by the birds I did not see, or saw only in tiny numbers. I saw a single curlew with beak delicately probing at a recently cut field of hay but not a single lapwing (aka peewit) which surely would previously have graced these fields in large numbers. I heard a solitary yellowhammer with its once-familiar call of ‘a little bit of bread but no cheese’ that I used to hear regularly even on Hampstead Heath. Skylarks were thin on the ground too although the meadow pipits seemed to be thriving. And in the hedgerows there were chiffchaffs a-plenty calling but of its close relative the willow warbler not a single cadence did I hear; this is a phenomenon I have noticed around Cambridge too.

The most magnificent spectacle was, however, of a bird that used to be all but extinct in the UK. 10 or 11 red kites circling was an amazing sight. These birds are huge and beautiful but they were all but hunted out of existence over many centuries. Recent reintroductions have seen them prosper: I believe they are now even breeding on the outskirts of Cambridge (although the nearest I have seen them is from the A1 near Peterborough). Nevertheless to see so many of them up close and personal is striking. These birds no doubt were once affected, like so many birds of prey sitting at the top of the food chain, by organochlorides such as DDT; now they are flourishing.

In contrast many of the once-common insect-eating birds are now being hit, according to a study published in Nature just this week (written up in the Guardian which was where I read about it whilst on holiday), by neonicotinoid insecticides, which have already been implicated in the drastic fall in bee numbers. Part at least of the decline of starlings (which I noticeably did not see during my week away), sparrows and swallows seems attributable to these chemicals. The decline in other species such as lapwing, skylarks and yellowhammers are probably due to changes in farming practice (and, by implication, EU subsidies) destroying their nests before their young are fledged.

So, as ever, when I go on holiday my mind does not switch off from scientific matters completely, it merely changes a gear or two. A previous trip to the seaside seemed to present more physical science challenges than this week of walking in Shropshire, but there are always questions to ask. On this occasion the frustration the unanswered questions provoked was made the worse by the complete absence of any internet access due to the poor reception on my mobile. Now I’m back in Cambridge perhaps I really should sit down and consider what determines the lifetimes of trees and the identification of the panoply of butterflies that flitted past my tired legs.

Birds seen or heard during the week:

Wood pigeon, song thrush, blue tit, great tit, long tailed tit, marsh tit, coal tit, greenfinch, goldfinch, chaffinch, linnet, redpoll, bullfinch, skylark, meadow pipit, greater spotted woodpecker, redstart, spotted flycatcher, dunnock, blackbird, house sparrow, nuthatch, chiffchaff, blackcap, yellowhammer, swallow, house martin, swift, red kite, buzzard, kestrel, carrion crow, rook, raven, jackdaw, magpie, jay, curlew, mallard, wren, robin, pheasant, wheatear, grey wagtail, pied wagtail.




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Metrics, Fulfilment and Career Trajectories

“More effort should be done on understanding people paths. We are too much focused on processes and structures.” JP Bourguignon #esof2014

I was struck by this quote I saw on Twitter from the ERC President Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, because of course we don’t do this at all well. Too often at a departmental level we look at people almost as a commodity, there to deliver excellence – in teaching and research – rather than as individuals to support and allow to flourish.

I assume Bourguignon was discussing the value of ERC Starter grants as a means of giving an initial boost to those outstanding researchers just starting on their personal, independent research trajectories. The success rate for all the ERC grants is only around 10%, many are inevitably going to end up disappointed, but departments need to offer all the support they can to those setting out to find the right way forward for them. Not everyone needs to be a research superstar and not everyone travels in a straight line zooming up through the hierarchy. And all these other people’s aspirations and strengths should be taken into consideration, whether someone is destined to stay in academia or not. We need scientists in the big bad world just as much as in the corridors of academe. And we need to find better ways of assessing who might be best suited to staying in academia which don’t simply rely on outdated ideas and crude metrics of dubious value.

I recently came across an article in Science*, written nearly a year ago by Sandra Schmid who heads up the Department of Cell Biology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, explaining how they were going to change the way they carried out recruitment in their department. Instead of simply relying on volume of publications or impact factor of journals in which these had been published – in other words those most simple of metrics which removes the need for much thought or judgement – this particular department was going to go for a more subtle approach. This will be an approach that also downplays other aspects that all too readily are used as a proxy for looking at the individual themselves, such as whether the person had been trained in some big name’s group. Instead, a letter covering the following four aspects was to be the submitted material at the first stage (i.e. before interview):

  • their most significant scientific accomplishment as a graduate student;
  • their most significant scientific accomplishment as a postdoc;
  • their overall goals/vision for a research program at our institution; and
  • the experience and qualifications that make them particularly well-suited to achieve those goals.

I can see the attraction in this approach because it weakens the power of the purely metrics-driven judgement and takes individual circumstances better into account. It may also reduce the tendency to hype or go for a hard sell that some people find so much easier than others. It should, in principle, allow someone to explain how a particularly innovative approach to some problem has yet to lead to multiple Nature papers (but perhaps they’re on the way), or what they learned from some experiment that failed. Whether it actually leads to ‘better’ hiring decisions will, of course, remain to be seen but it may facilitate hiring individuals who are not just clones of those already in post.

BIS/HEFCE’s call for submissions regarding the use of metrics in any form in assessment has just closed. I am unclear whether a digest of these is actually going to be used to inform REF2020, other aspects of BIS funding or simply as background insight into how quantitative data could or should be used. Whatever, it is probably helpful that the community’s collective views (and I suspect unease) are collated. I am, however, nervous that what a university may say in such a response may not exactly tally with how individuals in that same university actually go about making decisions themselves. Individuals and organisations who have signed up to DORA (Declaration of Research Assessment), for instance, rejecting the use of journal impact factors as a judging criterion, may still implicitly be using them (possibly even barely consciously using them) when it comes to decision-making. If I write, as I just did quite deliberately above, a reference to Nature papers you all know what I mean. I am using Nature as a shortcut to express a ‘good’ paper and in a post like this that’s not a problem. But if I continue to scan an application – be it as a CV or in a more thoughtful, extended cover letter – to look for demonstration of publication in such a journal I am not living up to my signature on DORA. I fear many are still too wedded to such actions and, as with any kind of unconscious bias, we have to bring it explicitly into the open.

So, to return to people paths, what can we all do in our institutions to get away from the mere ‘processes and structures’ that Jean-Pierre Bourguignon referred to? We have to look at each student or postdoc as an individual, with their own strengths and weaknesses. Firstly we need to recognize that some people may have projects that go badly through no fault of their own (bad choice by the supervisor included, but also failure of equipment or delayed supply of samples). If they can explain why, explain what they did to circumvent their problems or how they tackled finding an alternative project to get their teeth into, that may actually be a better recommendation than someone who had an exciting but ‘easy’ set of experiments handed to them on a plate because someone else previously had done all the hard legwork.

Additionally, not everyone will simply travel linearly but some may take time out for all kinds of personal reasons, or decide to move in and out of university research. But we also have to recognize that at every stage people need support, encouragement, advice and, sometimes, a good kicking if they are to fulfil their potential. And finally, we have to appreciate that fulfilling that potential does not always mean sticking around in academia in the vain hope that a job will come up. Those of us sitting in academia will probably only be making decisions about jobs in academia (clearly the thrust of this post) but that’s a tiny part of the world. There are so many places where smart scientists can deliver novel ideas and academia is just one small part of the ecosystem our multitalented early career scientists should be exploring.

*Incorrectly cited as Nature when first posted, corrected (thanks to eagle-eyed Stephen Curry) an hour later.


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