Taking a career break should never be a full stop, but a comma in your dementia research career

Alzheimer’s Society is proud to be partnering with the Daphne Jackson trust (DJT) to offer a Fellowship for people returning to research after taking a break for caring and health reasons.

In the spirit of collaboration, Alzheimer’s Society and DJT spoke to Fellowship applicant Dr Emily Clark, and former DJT Fellow Dr Rachel James – about their experiences of re-entering the research field after taking a career break.

They share candidly  their highs and  lows and why it’s crucial to make people aware of alternative career paths in research. Both Emily and Rachel chose to see their career break as a pivoting opportunity, and their return to the lab as a chance to show the world that you can do it, especially with the right support. 

Dr Emily Clarke: challenges following a break from research

Emily is currently re-entering her dementia research career after taking time to care for her son following health complications at birth.

Now he is in good health and having spent some quality time together, Emily felt ready to re-enter her research career. However, she came across many of the same challenges other research returners face.

What were your thoughts and feelings when looking to return to your dementia research career?

'I knew I couldn’t work full time, I needed an element of flexibility. I had been out of the lab for a while and there was a big gap in my CV. I contacted many positions asking if they would consider a 4-day role, and I didn’t hear anything back – from any of them.'

'The barriers were overwhelming and it felt insurmountable. I was talking to a neuroscience researcher about how sad it is that I wouldn’t be able to return to my career, and that’s when she mentioned the work of the Daphne Jackson Trust (DJT).'

How did you find the Fellowship application process?

Life isn’t linear, everyone has a story.

'And it’s been reassuring speaking with the team at the DJT and at interview stages with Alzheimer’s Society. There was comfort speaking with people who really understood and were sympathetic to the situation. Without feeling like I needed to apologise.'

'When you initially see that the total application process can take about a year, on the face of it seems long. However, I knew at the start I was ‘rusty’, and I think this duration would be helpful for those that may be feeling apprehensive.'

'The process helped to get me into a place where I was stronger and more confident – with realistic, attainable deadlines. I found the process being long as a positive, as I needed that to get me into a place where I was definitely ready.'

What advice would you give to those looking to return to dementia research after a break?

'I would say just don’t give up. It might feel like it’s insurmountable, the barriers that you see in front of you, but there’s always ways around it. There are always options. Take it one day at a time.'

'When you have an application to do, or a proposal to write, it can just seem overwhelming, and you don’t know where to start…and you’re looking at that blank page…You don’t know how to get your thoughts out of your head onto that piece of paper.

It can be difficult, but just break it down one day at a time and remember there are options out there.

'I wish I’d known about the Daphne Jackson Trust before I started my maternity leave. If you think about the number of brains that are lost from research because their lives aren’t linear, it’s a real shame.

'People need true flexibility and this is an incredible scheme which provides this.'

Dr Rachel James (The University of Edinburgh): feeling reassured to take a career break

Prior to her research career break, Rachel was working part-time on her second post-doc. She took an 8-year break to raise her children, during which time she continued to work in science related areas on a part-time basis, such as editing science manuscripts and teaching.

Her Daphne Jackson Trust Fellowship was sponsored by Medical Research Scotland at the University of Edinburgh. 

What were your thoughts/feelings when returning to your research career?

'Even though I had been working in science related areas, where I didn’t feel as though I was too much out of the loop, when I was back in the lab, I realised how much the research world had moved on.

'The methods and the ways of working, coupled with a complete lack of confidence in my ability to actually do the research. Despite this, I was very excited to return to my research career.'

'I was lucky to know ahead of my career break about the types of Fellowships that are offered to research returners. I had come across a publication, “Mothers in Science: 64 Ways to Have it All” (Royal Society, 2011), inspired by two women scientists, Carol Robinson and Helen Arthur, who had already successfully navigated career breaks.'

This gave me the confidence that I could put on ‘pause’ my research career without worrying that it was entirely over.

'These types of funding schemes make a huge difference to science, and to individuals going through life. For me it gave an alternative option for retaining my career and being a mother.'

'The DJT Fellowship is more than a grant, it’s a community full of people who share similar stories. They just get it – they understand that we want to live life without having to sacrifice our careers and are a huge support to research returners.'

How did you find the Fellowship application process?

“The application and interview stages are a long process but seemed to come around quite suddenly. At which time, I was very excited to be going back to the lab.'

'That being said, within the first few weeks of my Fellowship it was very clear that the research environment had moved on significantly, and I realised how much I had lost from being out of the research environment.'

'This was of course overwhelming and challenging, and there was a steep learning curve. No matter how much you keep your foot in the door – and are learning new skills whilst not in research – you need support when returning.'

The Daphne Jackson Trust Fellowships give you the space to learn, and support you to find your feet again.

'From going through this process, developing my ideas, putting together funding applications, I feel less inhibited and more confident than before.'

Supporting researchers’ career breaks

At Alzheimer's Society, we are committed to providing the flexibility and support that our funded researchers need to be able to look after themselves and their families, whilst flourishing as researchers. 

We know that it can be challenging to balance a research career with home life and recognise that more needs to be done to change this culture in research.

We remain one of the only funders to offer funding to cover family and sick leave for our PhD students who, outrageously in our opinion, often fall through the gaps in terms of employment rights.

We’re continuing to work with researchers about how we can better support those going on leave and returning to research.

If you are interested in returning to research, or if you know someone who is, then take a look at the Daphne Jackson Trust Fellowship sponsored by Alzheimer’s Society.

Find out more