Career Trajectories: Not Always Straight and Easy

It is all too easy to fall into the trap of thinking anyone who has reached the top of their particular tree has travelled in a straight line from their teenage years on and have had the cards always stacked in their favour. This week I have come across some remarkable examples of those whose lives have not been like that at all. For those who are just starting out, as well as those further on in life, I hope you will find these vignettes as striking and impressive as I have.

At the start of last week I led a public ‘conversation’ in my College with a former student and then Fellow (and now Honorary Fellow since she left and went to Oxford): Professor Dame Carol Robinson. Carol’s career has been truly remarkable in its lack of following the standard ‘rules’. If you want to hear the full dialogue, it is available as a podcast, but I’ll just pull out a couple of surprising facts. First of all, Carol left school at 16 and went to work as a technician at Pfizer in Sandwich (as it then was).

There she was responsible for a mass spectrometer, and this technique has sat at the heart of her research ever since. But, leaving school at 16 and ending up (after gaining qualifications as a day-release student and then taking a PhD here at Churchill) as the first woman to be a professor of chemistry in Cambridge – and then repeating that achievement at Oxford is remarkable enough in itself. Add in the fact that she took 8 years out after her PhD to bring up 3 children before returning to the workforce as a postdoc at 38 and you can see quite what an extraordinary career path hers has been. It should inspire others. You don’t have to travel in a straight line; you can step back or start late and yet still achieve a fantastic amount.

Just to reinforce this message, starting late was also a key feature in the life of one of the women in the audience for this conversation: Jane Clarke. Also a professor of chemistry here in Cambridge, she was a teacher till her 40’s when she started her PhD. This year she was elected to the Royal Society: another remarkable trajectory.

Later in the week I went to Manchester where I was honoured along with four other individuals with an Honorary Degree . The evening’s ceremony gave me much more food for thought about our life paths. First up on the platform was poet Lemn Sissay. He was being doubly honoured, not only as an Hon DLitt but also as the incoming Chancellor of the University of Manchester. Much was said in his praise by the well-known writer Jeannette Winterson. She spoke in warm terms of all Lemn has done and written, drawing parallels between her own life as an adopted child and his as a child of Ethiopian origin brought up in care. These were neither of them children who started with anything approaching a silver spoon in their mouths and yet look at what they have both achieved through their words and lives.

Then onto the platform came Joan Bakewell. From a grammar school in Stockport, to Cambridge she went on to become a pioneering woman at the BBC. To do this she had to overcome stereotyping and negativity as she fought to make her mark as a presenter and thought leader. Having to contend with remarks such as ‘the thinking man’s crumpet’  (thanks Frank Muir) she has nevertheless emerged seemingly unscathed as Baroness Bakewell of Stockport and President of Birkbeck College.

By comparison the lives of myself and Nicholas Hytner probably seemed quite humdrum in trajectory, but this was most certainly not the case of the final honorary graduand Dame Janet Smith. Probably best known for her unenviable task of leading the Harold Shipman and Jimmy Saville Enquiries and as an Appeal Court Judge, she also had a curious start in her career. Having won a place at Cambridge to read Natural Sciences (Chemistry) she chose instead to get married and never took a degree at all. Instead she went via a route into law that I think no longer exists simply taking exams from the Bar – and hence rose and rose ending up on the bench. But, as she admitted when she made a few remarks on behalf of all of us, the lack of a degree always made her feel different, not quite belonging. Indeed, an impostor although she never used that word. That was indeed the word that Carol Robinson used about herself for exactly the same reason: no (first) degree.

Now, clearly both Carol and Janet set out a long time ago and times are indubitably different. But they are living proof that not doing things in the sausage machine way, not simply getting on one end of a conveyor belt so that you can step off at the other, does not preclude success. Nor, as the choice of Manchester graduands demonstrates, does gender, sexual orientation or skin colour: Manchester had certainly done well when it came to diversity. No doubt that was not the primary consideration when the group of us were chosen, but nevertheless a fact remarked upon by many that evening.

I write these remarks to remind people that success comes in many shapes and forms. It does not require following a set of rules slavishly; many people who do just that fail miserably for all kinds of reasons. You do have to aspire, even if inwardly you quake, you do have to want to do just the next thing and the next. But don’t let assumptions of what is ‘right’ or ‘normal’ deter you from trying.


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2 Responses to Career Trajectories: Not Always Straight and Easy

  1. The ugly duckling says:

    Thank you Athene, for offering this quietly inspirational blog. As a woman with three young children made redundant this year while on maternity leave, I’ve all but given up hope of continuing my career in research. Your blog is a wonderful reminder of the sea of possibility. There are many ways to skin a cat. And to climb a tree.

  2. Elephant says:

    This is a very positive view on the diversity in paths that one can take. But why are so many fellowship applications fixated on traditional progression? Mine is not particularly hors-norme, yet a bit different. I was sad to read my ERC grant feedback pointing this out as a potential weakness, with the reviewer querying whether my maternities or family matters may have been the reason for the unusual path. Why this need to conform?

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