Redefining Success Stories – Barbara

Barbara is a currently a Research Assistant at Oxford University, and is also the mother of two children, aged 6 and 10.

1) In which ways does your definition of success align with those currently put forth by our scientific culture, and in which ways does it differ?

My personal view of success doesn’t always align very well with the one put forth by our current scientific culture. The very fact that there may be a common definition of “success” put forth by our society and that people might feel forced to adapt to it no matter their circumstances and aspirations is dissonant to me. This is because I think that what we understand as success not only varies between individuals, but can also change during the different stages of the life and career of different individuals…I think that “success” should always encompass having a good balance between work life and personal life…Psychological health comes first, physical health closely second, and they make up a big percentage of personal balance, and ultimately that’s the foundation for happiness…

2) What accomplishment, in or out of the lab, are you most proud of?

I am proud of having been able to realize within a convenient amount of time when the moment had come to introduce changes in my scientific career; most of all, I am proud to not have ever been scared to make those changes happen. I am also proud of the fact that I have not been affected at all by other people’s opinions about my choices. In general, I have striven for this to be so in all areas of my life, not only my career.

3) Did you at any point want to have your own lab, and if so, at what point did you decide that track wasn’t for you? What were the deciding factors in making this decision? What were the most difficult obstacles to overcome during this period?

When I was about 2-3 years into my post-doc I was working on a nice project that seemed to give very interesting results, and I believed I was about to be able to publish a couple of papers into high impact journals. At that point, also because I was often encouraged by my supervisor, I considered the idea of becoming a PI. After another couple of years I realized that pursuing this career did not allow me to maintain a good balance between my personal life and my work, and I clearly saw how this was only going to get more difficult the more I proceeded towards higher responsibilities such as running my own lab and managing people. This was when I decided to quit the post-doc, without seeing my papers published, and become a Research Assistant. I did not wait for my papers to get published because it would have taken me more than another couple of years to get to the stage my supervisor wanted the data to be, and I realized that even then there was no guarantee whatsoever that the work would have made into a high impact journal, which was the only thing that could have allowed me to proceed further (but with no certainty). Aside from that, the other main factor that brought me to that choice has been that I wanted to have a more immediate satisfaction deriving from my job. By helping post-docs on their own projects I have a feeling of daily validation of my work, as opposed as having to work for years on my own before potentially being able to publish…I had two young children at the time as well, and I felt I couldn’t afford that level of instability for much longer.

I realized that I wanted to keep doing science but also have more time to spend with the kids and my family, and especially, I wanted to get rid of the stress of “when and where will I publish to get my next job?”…Seeing my work help some very talented post-docs publish good papers and get to the career stages they wanted gave much more satisfaction that having my own papers published. However, I am not discouraging talented PhD students and post-docs from pursuing their own dream careers. Personally, I did not feel that the stress and the hours were worth the outcome… I realized [being a PI] was not my dream career after all. I think my main point of strength has been acknowledging this, without experiencing it as a failure. I have never been happier in my working life… As well as feeling good about helping ‘stressed out post-docs’ in the lab, I get to take part in different projects, learn many new techniques, and am given enough challenges to keep me busy and interested without the need of the highly demanding commitment required to drive a project completely on my own. I enjoy working with and for other people more than on my own… I feel lucky to have realized this on time to make this choice when my children were still young (2 and 6 years old at the time), so that I haven’t missed out too much of their very young years. Nevertheless, I still do work full time and have to juggle with school runs and school holidays, but I don’t feel stressed and I am benefiting quite a lot from the flexibility of the university policies about working hours and childcare.

4) What life (or career) advice would you have for scientists struggling with their current career path and feeling they need to make a change?

My only advice is to be as honest as possible with themselves and really think about what it is they really want in life, taking everything into consideration, not only thinking about the career path. For example they need to think about whether they want a family, whether they care about pursuing hobbies; what quality of life do they look for – apparently trivial things like living close or far from the workplace can make a huge difference; having more money but less time and freedom or vice-versa is also a factor to take into account.

But again, the main point is understanding and acknowledging the reality of your own aspirations, distanced from the pressure of others (friends, family, partners…) and of society. Once you really know what your life aspirations are you are really more than half-way through on your way to feeling more balanced and happier. When I was in the middle of my “work crisis” I sat down and wrote down as sincerely as I could how I felt at that moment with respect to different aspects of my life, and that was crucial in helping me to understand where I was and what I wanted. I suggest to try the same – being as sincere and honest with yourself as you can is a must.

5) If you had to go back and do it all over again, what would you do differently, if anything at all?

I wouldn’t change my choices. My life path up to now brought me where I am now and I am satisfied, so it was all worth it. I am now enjoying new challenges and choices to make in this second part of my working life. What is for sure is that whatever the choices one makes, more challenges will always be there – thankfully!

I also had the pleasure of speaking briefly to Barbara’s husband, who had this to say about the impact Barbara’s success has had on them: 

From our kids’ point of view, and thanks to precise choices Barbara and I made in the past, I believe that they identify “being a scientist” with someone who finds out stuff, but also someone who is never particularly stressed!
From my personal point of view, Barbara has always been dramatically honest with herself in terms what her priorities were, which has in a way led to an ever improving and long lasting relationship with the world of research and science. In a certain and very positive sense she has slowly molded her career to be where she is now.
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