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8 Mar 2021

Don't be afraid to use your voice – some personal perspectives on building a career in applied science

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On International Women’s Day, our ARC Director Professor Eileen Kaner shares her own personal perspectives on building a career in applied health research.

Eileen is a Professor of Public Health and Primary Care research at Newcastle University and an NIHR Senior Investigator. She is also a lead academic in the NIHR Policy Research Unit for Behavioural Science, School for Public Health Research and School for Primary Care Research. She is an Honorary Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and has secured more than £73 million in research grants across her career, as well as over 300 publications.

She is also a mum of four children, aged between 17 and 29, and a trustee for Children North East – a charity supporting children and families in need.

‘Shy bairns get nowt, so don’t be afraid to use your voice’

My career has taken a few unexpected turns along the way – but looking back, it all makes perfect sense and I don’t think I’d change a thing.

I had my first two children in the early nineties, just after I had completed my PhD in Behavioural Science, and was working for the NHS by 1992 where I managed to publish two papers. I secured my first university job in 1995, in a fixed-term research associate post, then went on to gain an MRC Fellowship which enabled me to complete an MSc in Health Systems Research.

That then led to a Primary Care Career Scientist award between 2000 and 2005, and by the end of that I had published around 70 papers, secured around £1m in funding, gained supervisory experience – and had two more children.

Raising a family whilst developing a career is never going to be a walk in the park, it’s always going to be a juggling act. We only have so much mental and emotional capacity and so many hours in the day. When you’re building a career whilst also being a parent or managing other life responsibilities, it isn’t always easy.

From 2005, I moved into academic leadership. I secured a senior lectureship and was involved in teaching and faculty work, alongside supervising PhD students. From there, I was invited to take up leadership roles including with NICE, the Royal College of Physicians and the NIHR. I became involved in policy work and along with that came further invitations to speak and collaborate.

In 2010, I became an Institute Director at Newcastle University, and in 2019 I led work to bring an NIHR Applied Research Collaboration to the North East and North Cumbria – and became its Director.

Some of the things I’ve learnt along along the way

As the saying goes ‘If I only knew then, what I know now’ but you navigate and learn as you go. Everyone’s path is different. This is what I’ve learnt along the way:

Be prepared to be flexible – opportunities won’t have your name on them.

Rebranding can help – you can take your skills from one area and use them in another.

Be bold – and go for it. Don’t hold yourself back with self-doubt.

Be independently minded – and be prepared for the fact that this can challenge colleagues at times.

Meet new people – get out and about. Network. Even if that’s just virtually at the moment.

Have a niche – what is your unique expertise or skill that sets you apart from others with similar qualifications and work experience?

Work with good people – seek out a great mentor or role model, recruit the best staff and nurture them.

Seek out collaborations with others – the best science comes from wider participation/contribution.

Work on your presentation skills – we all feel uncomfortable at points, my advice would be to work to your own style. A low and slow voice can help with projection, and humour can also help if it feels natural.

Is it more difficult being a female in academia and science? Work life balance is never easy, but a university environment can provide some flexibility. Demands are high and output driven, but the same can be said for comparable roles in industry. If you’re in a partnership with someone, then my advice would be to play to your strengths. Divide the responsibilities, if you can, to make sure they’re shared fairly.

Personally, I get a great amount of professional satisfaction from work that is meaningful, important and relevant. I am lucky that the people I work with are interesting and varied and generally very supportive.

No career path is easy. Just remember – juggling is normal. And as they say here in the North East ‘shy bairns get nowt’ so don’t be afraid to use your voice, ask for what you need and use your success to support others along the way.

View Eileen’s profile