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Returners to Bioscience – a neglected pool of talented workers

Posted by on November 9, 2015

by Gabriele Butkute, science policy assistant at the Royal Society of Biology

There is a pool of talented workers that is not being fully accessed or acknowledged in our workforce – 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 – 13th November 2015. We have interviewed several returners who now work in a variety of fields, from forestry to virology, to share their experiences, advice and to say that it is quite alright to have a career break.

I found the interviewees’ stories very personal, varied and enlightening. For example, George Carnell took time off to join the army, Emma Pilgrim and Sara Burton went on maternity leave, Betina Winkler wasn’t able to get a job locally and couldn’t move due to family commitments, Sharon Strawbridge found herself ill and Edward Wilson was affected by bereavement. When you hear them you will realise that these are people just like you or me – people with family commitments, illnesses and ambitions, that sometimes make them take an unconventional route in life. But then again, if so many people have career breaks, maybe we should drop the term unconventional altogether.

There is a wide range of challenges that returners face including: difficulties accessing academic journals without an organisational subscription, feeling isolated at home, low confidence. It is important to acknowledge that many people might need to take a career break and help them prepare for it, support them to keep their skills up to date while away from work and help ensure a successful return. When asked what helped them, returners often said that having an understanding employer had been a key factor, and also added that being able to access academic journals and having an online community would have been of great help to them.

Another thing worth bearing in mind is the attitude and culture in the academic departments. People often have to explain why they took time off work and prove themselves valuable, which often leads their not wanting to admit having taken a break at all. Attitudes in relation to returners and part-time workers must change to ensure that STEM departments are fully inclusive and making the most of the talent available to them.

At the Royal Society of Biology we have established a Returners to Bioscience 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. We are concerned about helping people return to their career as well as to prepare people for a possible break. As part of the ongoing programmes, we have developed a 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 share on social media with #BioReturners or get in touch.

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