The bumpy road to success in academia: a personal account of deviating from the straight path and succeeding anyway 

Considering International Women’s Day (Sunday 08 March 2020) and #EachforEqual, Associate Editor Mentee, Maria Paniw shares her story in academia, and why we shouldn’t fear the road less travelled in our careers.

Maria_PaniwAnyone who has recently opened Twitter or read the news may well conclude that the academic job market is broken and dire, especially for women. I certainly get my daily dose of gloom reading research on what it takes to make it ‘in academia – by ‘make it’ I mean achieve a stable position and lead one’s own group. As a woman (and recent mum!) approaching the end of her early-career cushion, I have had my share of panic attacks about my professional future. These moments of uncertainty manifested early in my PhD, when I realised that I haven’t been following that magical straight path to academic success. This path, depending on where you live, often looks something like: get undergrad and be sure to incorporate lots of ‘applied’ experience; don’t lose much time (butmaybe spend some time on unpaid volunteering for a prestigious project); get Master’s degree; then quickly off to a PhD (in a large, famous group), then postdocs #1 and maybe #2 (both preferably with rock stars in your field). If after postdoc #2, you don’t have a tenure-track position lined up, you are doomed.

Suffice to say that the straight path to academic success has been designed for people with few obstacles preventing them from focusing exclusively on their career. Alternatively, this path forces people to remove obstacles, often leaving them burntout, or worse, in the process. For many women, who accumulate obstacles along the way, the path to success becomes ever-more a bumpy road. It certainly has been for me. I consider myself ‘successful’ in the sense that I have remained productive in my research and have recently secured a large grant, hopefully leading to a tenure-track position.

However, I got to where I am with many bumps and detours. To start with, although I am now an ecologist, I got my BA in history. I worked part-time and switched universities in the process, which resulted in me finishing my BA at the ripe age of 24. It is only during my Master’s degree that I focused on ecology, but that again took me almost two years to complete because I had to work part-time. At the ‘senior’ age of 29, I started my PhD in biology – in an utterly small group at a tiny university in southern Spain (Cadiz). I was idealistic, and chose the PhD because I really like the project. And it was only after I started that I decided I wanted an academic career.

In addition to my non-traditional CV, one challenge I had to deal with, and one common to many, is that my partner in older than me and therefore more advanced in his career; meaning he has a permanent job and can’t move with me across the globe. As a result, I restricted my academic job search after my PhD to Europe. After having my son, I had to come back to Spain (one of the most underfunded countries in Europe when it comes to research) and find funding here.

But grit payed off and I did manage to find success in academia. The importance of resilience to succeed in one’s career is hotly debated. In my case, although I certainly have had luck on many occasions, I have always been very persistent. I never let a rejection get to me for long and successfully convinced my employers that having a non-traditional curriculum is an advantage. Second, I have profited from an increased public awareness of ‘the leaky pineline‘ and policies put in place to maintain women in the workforce. I have been working at universities and groups that value diversity and facilitate work-life integration. During and after my pregnancy, strong policies (paid maternity leave, flexible working hours, access to near-by daycare), and the incredibly positive attitude of my co-workers ensured that I didn’t leak through the pipeline. I also got my current grant because I could demonstrate that the implementation of the proposed project would optimally integrate my work and personal life.

What lessons can be taken from my peculiar case? To my fellow female ecologists: do not be afraid to take the bumpy road. It is often worth it. Our increasing scrutiny of diversity issues and ensuing policies to tackle these issues are not perfect, but they exist, so take advantage of them.

How have you overcome challenges and obstacles to succeed in applied ecology? Share your stories in the comments.




One thought on “The bumpy road to success in academia: a personal account of deviating from the straight path and succeeding anyway 

  1. The road less travelled is a road less known. You will be alone. There no maps or travel guides. Only you will know when you arrive at your final destination. Mine was to leave academia after my first taste as a visiting assistant professor. I joined an engineering consulting compony as their token ecological consultant
    . From that day forward I became engaged in consulting in applied ecology to industry and commerce, offering ecological change to the inside management of many kinds of business. Incremental change introduced directly showed business clients how to gradually get greener with no loss of profits. Indeed old hard case corporations now proudly announce how sustainable they are. because they actually are . I witnessed and participated in the arrival of Applied Ecology in business. Its a wild career story just barely accepted by academia though largely embraced by business as a survival technique for the longer term.
    Thanks For Asking … David.


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