Not Knowing Where You Are Going

One of the initiatives I started when I became Master of Churchill College was a series of public conversations with eminent women, many – but by no means all – academics. To start with I was quite nervous: would I run out of questions? Would my interviewee just answer in monosyllables (none of them ever did)? Would I put my foot in it accidentally by asking a question that felt too intrusive? Would I just fall over all my words and mumble? You can imagine the sorts of things that troubled me, but by and large none of them came to pass and I have enjoyed the interactions enormously. You can find the series of interviews on the Churchill website here. It may not have fulfilled my original objective of reaching out to students – sadly few of them ever found the time to come – but it has certainly been immensely satisfying for me!

Sharon PeacockMy last conversation, rather a bittersweet one given it was the last one now I am stepping down, was with my successor at the College, Sharon Peacock (pictured). Whereas many of the women I’ve talked to have had what one might call ‘typical’ careers, in that they went to university straight after school and then followed a fairly logical path, this cannot be said of Sharon. Here was a woman (the recording will be up on the Churchill website soon) who left school at 16 with no qualifications. Although, like her, both Jocelyn Bell Burnell and Sally Davies of my previous interviewees had failed that largely historic hurdle, the 11-plus, Sharon did not have the family know-how and backing to find ways round the setback so straightforwardedly as they did. Sharon went to a school that had low expectations and did not offer a route to the exam successes she would have needed to go on to A Levels and university in a straight path.

As a result, Sharon had to study both O-Levels (GCSE’s predecessor) and A-Levels in her evenings, while working in full time employment, starting with work in a dental surgery, and only finally got to university much later in her 20’s. It is interesting to note that my very first interviewee, Carol Robinson, had also not gone straight to university from school, but worked as a technician at a company that encouraged her to take qualifications and progress so in due course she could study for a PhD at Cambridge. Carol went on to become the first female professor in Chemistry at Cambridge and then at Oxford, where she still is, and will be receiving an Honorary Degree from Cambridge this summer. Sharon, meanwhile, has had a successful career in infectious diseases, before coming into the public limelight as the leader of the Covid-19 Genomics UK Consortium, something that was fantastically important as the world tried to combat the disease.

The point I want to make is that not all careers go in straight lines, including the highly successful ones. Luck – good or bad – plays a part in progression. Cultural capital arising from one’s family background is incredibly helpful to have, but neither Sharon nor Carol had the background to start off with it. This week, two activities I’m involved in will be confronting the issues of what happens if you didn’t have the best start in life.

Firstly, I am off to a school in the Fens, as part of the Speakers in Schools Programme, to talk to some Y12 students. I have been asked to give a ‘motivational and aspirational’ talk to a group who perhaps are coming from backgrounds thin on cultural capital, with little awareness of what a university education can and cannot do for them, but who have already made their post-16 exam choices.  These may be A-Levels or BTECs and they certainly won’t necessarily be in the sciences, so a fairly generic talk is required. I will certainly be ending up with a potted history of Sharon, to demonstrate that ‘not all those who wander are lost’ as Tolkien put it in a different context, a subject I have written about before, but as applied to postdocs.

Secondly, as part of the Royal Society’s Science 2040 project looking at what an ideal system for science should look like in 2040, I am leading a working group exploring ‘Future Careers’. We cannot and should not assume things ought to go on in the same way as now. What needs to change? We also importantly need to consider the overall needs of the entire science ecosystem and not just for those who may be the FRS’s of tomorrow. In this vein, I wrote recently about Ottoline Leyser’s comments regarding just how many different people contribute to an overall outcome to make a fully functioning science and innovation system. Our organisations – whether universities or not – need to recognize this in their incentives and progression systems. I suspect industry, for instance, is already much better at rewarding team work than our universities currently are.

At the end of the day, our education system and our society need to realise that A-Levels may not be the gold standard that everyone needs to work their way through if they are going to contribute to a fully functioning science system, although I doubt that T-Levels are the answer either. (In the Fens, for instance, how are schools going to find sufficient local businesses to provide 45 days useful and relevant work experience?) Equally, students setting out on their educational and career journeys need to understand that a beginning that does not fit the norm does not mean all doors are closed to them for ever more. It takes determination – as Sharon clearly demonstrated – luck and supporters within the family and far beyond, but nevertheless a great deal can be accomplished even with a shaky start.


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