How to return to a research career after a break from the lab
The Wellcome Trust Research Career Re-Entry Fellowships (RCREF) support people who want to return to science following a substantial break (2 years or more). Getting back to a career in research is not just a matter of funding, and it may be hard to know where to start. With this in mind, the Trust has created a guide for people thinking of taking a break from research, or planning to return to a research career in biomedical/public health. Shewly Choudhury, from our Science Division helped put the guide together with a group of the current and former RCRE Fellows, and speaks to two members of the this group who contributed their experiences to this high-level guide…
“I took a 10-year break from research for family reasons, during which time I combined childcare with science-writing work” explains Jessica Buxton, a former RCRE Fellow now at UCL. She returned to full-time research in 2009, but not without some trepidation.
For Christiaan van Ooij, leaving bench science behind originally felt like a permanent step. “As time went by, I missed it more and more” he says, “but thought that I was not eligible (or hopelessly uncompetitive without an active research programme) for any Fellowship that would support a continuation in science”. Christiaan returned to full-time research in 2011.
These are common concerns, but taking a career break needn’t be the end of your research career. There are a number of funding schemes out there, including the Wellcome Trust Research Career Re-entry Fellowship, which can support a return to science and we hope that our new guide will be help to answer some of the questions you might have. The guide also describes some of the different Fellowships that support a return to research after a break of several years as well tips that may help you to produce a more competitive proposal.
Here are some of Christiaan and Jessica’s tips for getting back into scientific research:
“It’s hard work, but if you were passionate about science before your break, then the chances are that the effort required to get back into a career you love will be well worth the effort” says Jessica. There is a lot of competition for Fellowships, so ensure that you thoroughly prepare for your application and interview.
Get up to date
Find out what’s happening in your field and what’s changed since you left the lab. There is a wealth of resources online, including open access articles, podcasts, and science news services. “Contacting former colleagues or following scientists on Twitter is another good way to hear about important new advances in your field” says Jessica. For Christiaan his non-lab work also helped him keep up his connections: “I was working as an editor at a microbiology, which allowed me to stay on top of the developments in my field and maintain contacts with former colleagues”. “This made it a lot easier to incorporate the latest technologies in my research plan and update it with the latest findings” he says.
Returning to a career in research will take time and energy. “If possible, try and time your return to fit around your other commitments and the support available” advises Jessica. “In my case, returning to full-time research coincided with my husband launching his own business and working from home, so he was able to take over the ‘parent-taxi’ duties”.
Find a good mentor
Having someone to support you and help you navigate your return to research science can be a real help. They can help you plan the steps on your journey and introduce you to people and inspire you to try new things.
Ask for help
It is inevitable that things will have changed in the time that you’ve been away. When you return to the lab, don’t be afraid to ask how a new technique works, or for advice on the best way to tackle your research question. “Most people are very happy to share their expertise” says Jessica.
Plan for the future
Once you’ve returned to research, the challenge is to stay – for that you’ll need publications, ideas, funding and supportive collaborators. Early on in your post-break career, you should try to identify your long-term research goals, and stay focused on what you need to do to achieve them. Have open conversations about paper authorship at the start of projects.
So was the hardwork worth it? “Once I had overcome the initial terror of donning a lab coat and picking up a pipette for the first time in a decade, the experience of working with enthusiastic students at the start of their careers made me realise how much I missed being a researcher” says Jessica.
“Returning to science has been a wonderful experience” says Christiaan, “Being back in the lab on a daily basis has been a wonderful experience; the time away from it has certainly allowed me to see what a great job it is”.
You can access the “Returners’ guide to research: Getting back into research after a career break” and find out more about the Wellcome Trust Research Career Re-entry Fellowship scheme on the Wellcome Trust website.