#happyfemalePI – a space for success…

…by Sophie / from England / PhD Tissue Repair / 3rd Year

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it takes to make it in academia, and how I sometimes perceive myself as not necessarily cut out for it. I don’t mean doing a PhD, which I’m (pretty!) sure I can complete, but I mean continuing on the post-doc cycle, sourcing grants and making it through the horrible, horrible statistics to become one of the few female PIs in the biz.

Comparing yourself to the other PhD students at the same stage is a risky thing to do because all projects vary but I couldn’t help but think who out of my cohort would make a ‘good’ PI. The ones that sprang to mind are the ones that can reel off papers from memory, the ones that come in all hours of the night to churn out that data. That seems like the best way to succeed in academia, and that’s not me. So I guess I didn’t consider myself up to the job. Maybe I’m just more suited to something else. (Is this part of a whole other set of feminist and imposter syndrome issues? Perhaps, but let’s unpack that at a later date guys, I’m not ready right now.)

Then I considered the PIs I feel are not just good, but great. And it’s not the ones who got a string of Nature papers or the ones who work 20-hour days. It’s the ones who care about how their students are feeling, who really support their post-docs through their fellowship applications, who have time for a hobby or a cup of tea. These are the PIs who create an environment for students to succeed, where support is part of the package and they go beyond pushing out high-impact science. I’m lucky enough to know and be supported by some of these PIs and know that this will be a big part of my PhD career. These are an inspiration, but also seem like an achievable aspiration for me personally.

There is the image of a PI as someone who has no life, who has dedicated their whole self to their research. This is not something I’m willing to do. And it’s why I’m really glad to see a conversation on twitter called #happyfemalePI, where researchers are discussing how they live their lives alongside being PIs. Reading that one of my favourite PIs spends weekends hanging out with her husband and binging Netflix honestly gave me more hope and joy than I can say. And I know she provides a great environment for her students to work in.

I know that they will all have stressful times and pressures and late-night working. I’m on board with that being a part of the job – it’s just good to know that that’s not all there is to it.

What makes a good space for success? Well, it truly is whatever works for you. Some students have great confidence in their abilities and want freedom to explore their project as they see fit, while others benefit from more regular guidance. Inevitably students are moulded by their PIs and I am glad to have role models providing a template that I could potentially see myself following. If I reset my perception of my own abilities it might influence my ambitions – I’m not here to announce I’m fixed on becoming a PI, but perhaps if I reconsider the job description it could be something on the horizon after all.

Check back at the end of the PhD where you’ll see me write how I’m definitely leaving academia forever…

Read Sophie’s full blog here


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