The Royal Society of Biology (RSB) are celebrating the first Returners to Bioscience Week, 9-13th November. In today’s blog, Gabriele Butkute, Science Policy Assistant at the RSB, covers some of the challenges faced by returners and celebrating the talent they have to offer.

 

It is estimated that the UK is facing a shortfall in domestic supply of around 40,000 STEM skilled workers annually[1]. Yet there is a pool of talented workers that is not being fully accessed – those who for one reason or another have been out of employment for some time but now wish to work again – the returners.  To recognise the talent and raise awareness of the challenges that returners face, we are celebrating the first Returners to Bioscience Week, 9 – 13 November 2015. To mark some success stories and inspire others, we have interviewed several returners who now work in a variety of fields, from forestry to virology, to share their experiences and advice.

A STEM returner is a person – man or woman – who having had an extended career break (or change) now wishes to return to work in STEM. Even though taking time out to care for babies and young children is one of the most commonly-cited explanations for career breaks among women, we heard about many other reasons for a career break when preparing case studies. The breaks may be taken for caring responsibilities, illness, bereavement, unemployment, or a desire to change career paths. For example, Edward Wilson, one of our interviewed returners, who is now an education manager at the Royal Forestry Society said: “I am inspired by this initiative as it recognises that people don’t always have conventional careers. For me, that’s a more grown up way of looking at people’s lives.”

There can be significant barriers encountered when returning to a career in science – for both genders. Returners may have lost professional contacts; not be up to date with their skills; or lack confidence, good careers advice or role models.

There are some well-established fellowships and schemes, such as the Daphne Jackson Trust Fellowships, Wellcome Trust Re-entry Fellowships and The Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowship, that help returners come back to research. But there is one part of a returner’s story that is often overlooked. It’s the initial departure. Some people might plan a career break, however, that isn’t always the case as people become ill, personal circumstances change and they might well find themselves in the middle of a break without a plan. Therefore in addition to supporting those who are ready to come back, it is also crucial to help people prepare for a possible break; helping them to plan their time away from work so that the return can be smoother. A few of our interviewees said that having careers advice and being able to access academic papers would have been very useful during the break.

In addition to people who are thinking of taking time off and those who are trying to come back, it is worth bearing in mind  those who think that they will never have to take a career break. Having interviewed several returners, it became very clear that more often than not, they had no idea they would be taking a break until illness or bereavement forced their hand. For this reason, it is important that we raise awareness of this issue widely as this is may become relevant to anyone.

Learned societies have a potential role to play in helping returners by providing up-to-date careers information and news to members on a career break. At the Royal Society of Biology we recognise that more needs to be done to increase opportunities for returners. We have established a Returners to Bioscience Working Group to examine the experiences of those who face difficulties in returning to a career in the biosciences. The group includes representatives from funders, employers, learned societies and a number of experienced returners themselves, and aims to provide resources and mechanisms to support scientists before, during and after a career break. As part of the ongoing programmes, we have developed a Returners Resources webpage which carries a collection of information and resources available to help returners succeed in getting back to work in the biosciences.

We are always looking for more returners from any bioscience field (eg academia, industry, teaching) to share their thoughts and inspire others. If you would like to get in contact with us about your experience as a returner or employer, or you have any other comments and suggestions, please get in touch via policy@rsb.org.uk

[1] The STEM human capital crunch, The Social Market Foundation, 2013