"For young scientists, by young scientists." If you've been a Next Wave reader for a few years you might remember our old strapline. One of our reasons for changing it was the sheer number of scientists who were no spring chickens but still felt they needed the kind of career advice and support Next Wave offers. With multiple postdoc positions now common, you can be an "early career" scientist in your late 30's and early 40's. And there are others too--those who, for whatever reason, didn't start studying until later in life, and those who have taken career breaks and are returning to the scientific workforce several years later. As Y2K draws to a close, we thought we'd take a look at what life is like for these mature scientists in early career situations. What special challenges do they face and how do they cope? What are the benefits of being older and wiser?
One of the interesting things about coordinating an international feature on maturity is discovering that an "old" scientist in one country might actually be the "normal" age somewhere else! The Brits are the babies of the bunch. North America and the UK both have 3- or 4-year undergraduate degrees, but the usual span of a Ph.D. grant in the UK is just 3 years. That means that a UK student can get doctored by the age of 25, whereas their North American cousins probably have at least 2 more years to go--if they're lucky. Meanwhile in the rest of Europe, particularly in countries where national service prevents many students from entering university until they're in their 20s, many scientists are still slogging away on their first degrees at this point. In Germany, the average age at first graduation is 28. Scottish Ph.D. student Paul Higgins is in his early 30's and due to finish within the next 12 months. His plan is to go elsewhere in Europe to do a postdoc--where he'll be much the same age as other new postdocs and no longer the old man!
The reasons for returning to study are various. The impetus for Mike Topping's career change was being made redundant at the age of 36. He studied computer science with a view to going into teaching, but his plans changed when his final year project took on a life of its own. His neighbours' 12-year-old son had cerebral palsy, and Topping designed a robot to help him become more independent. Backing from the European Union and industry followed and today Topping is head of the rehabilitation robotics research center at Staffordshire University.
Growing fascination with an emerging field, as well as frustration with her career prospects, were the reasons immunologist Judy Henwood went to university. She'd spent 12 years as a technician in a plant biology lab but realized she'd need a degree and Ph.D. if she wanted to progress. At the same time she used to nip up to the library to "read about this bizarre disease which was striking down gay men in California"--the first reports of AIDS.
Both Topping and Henwood agree that they were more focused than their more conventionally aged contemporaries: "I had more determination to succeed," says Topping. However, according to Henwood the fact that "there aren't many of us" makes building a career in science after a late start tough. For those already in this situation, or contemplating a Ph.D., reading our case studies will show how others have coped.
In the U.S., both Lois Abbott and Lois Edgar had completed undergraduate degrees in biological sciences before becoming mothers. They returned to university to get their Ph.D.s once their children no longer needed their undivided attention. In Abbott's case, her role model was her own mother, who also returned to education after raising children. For Edgar, divorce and the need to find gainful employment was the trigger. In the UK, Mark Clarke found himself on a one-rung career ladder and decided a degree was the answer. He got hooked by his subject, the science of art conservation, and is due to complete his Ph.D. next year. German biophysicist Monika Fritz was self-employed for 6 years before turning to science. She believes her greater maturity has been advantageous to her career, and she has been able to nurture another mature career changer within her research group.
Kris Obom's career break came after her Ph.D. She always intended to return to science, but after 11 years away from the bench she decided that she needed to retrain. She's now poised to take up a career in the new field of bioinformatics, a change of direction that Kris says many women returners are taking. (For other stories of how women have made it back into science after a career break, take a look at Next Wave's previous feature on women returners.)
Sadly, having got their hard-won qualifications, not all mature students find it easy to get a job. Despite the fact that getting a degree as a mature student "shows real determination," when it comes to getting a job "the older you get the harder it becomes," according to Tracey Cleminson, president of the UK's Mature Students Union. "Our whole society should be valuing the experiences that older people have," says Cleminson. Topping agrees. "The more mature employee who has a really good education is going to have such a lot to offer," he asserts. This position is also argued by Edit Kirsch-Auwärter, Women's Representative of the University of Göttingen. In an attempt to make German scientists more competitive on the world stage, age limits are being introduced for scholarships and tenured positions. Kirsch-Auwärter warns that the wide and valuable experience of mature scientists risks being lost in the process.
In the U.S., age discrimination legislation exists to help the older job seeker. But as Roland Smith explains, age discrimination goes on unhindered in the UK. Smith did his Bachelor's and Ph.D. at the usual times, but then became a serial postdoc. Now he finds that he's priced himself out of the employment market, through a combination of age and experience, unable to find work in either academia or industry. Smith's story serves as both a stark warning and a damning indictment of the contract research system in its current form. The UK government has just signed up to a European Union directive on age discrimination. This directive compels them to bring in legislation in this area by 2006. In the meantime the Campaign Against Age Discrimination in Employment is pressing for swifter action.