Returners to science mentoring scheme

by Graziella Iossa


The trail to returning to academia is not always a straightforward one. (Credit: G. Iossa)

In the summer of 2012, I sat down at a café with my mentor and asked her, with trepidation, a question I had been mulling over for nearly a year: “Do you think it’s too late to come back to academia?”

Nearly four years previously I had left academia and changed careers. I had enough of employment uncertainty, short-term contracts and pressure to find research funding. This seemed to me completely incompatible with starting a family and have time to enjoy my future children. My husband was also looking for a position at the same time and, because we were both working within the same field, it seemed to me an impossible task. Thanks to my mentor’s advice, support and tips, I was lucky enough to secure a job in scientific publishing and, what’s more, the journal I joined was new, innovative and published ecological research. I was thrilled and truly enjoyed my time in publishing but, with time, I grew sadder about my choice because I missed academia. I missed the variety that comes with research, the challenges, following my intuition and interests freely – or almost freely. When it dawned on me that I wanted to go back, I thought it was too late. I had made my choice, I had a family, how could I go back? Then, during that summer, I had the opportunity to meet my mentor again and I mustered the courage to ask her that question. To my utter surprise, she replied without hesitation: “It’s never too late!”. I was truly energised by that encounter and by the conviction with which my mentor encouraged me to try and go back.

I followed this encounter with a year of searching possible schemes to return to academia, including potential projects and academic supervisors, all with a very young family and a renovated sense of new possibilities ahead. After several attempts, I found support in the Daphne Jackson Trust, who took me under their scheme which, for ecologists, does not come with funding but simply with sponsorship. I was nearly awarded a fellowship but, just before the committee sat to make a decision, the perfect opportunity came along at the University of Lincoln with a returners to science scheme, the Back to Science Fellowship. I was one of the two initial fellows on the scheme and I have been at Lincoln since 2015. Last year, I decided to join the British Ecological Society Women in Science mentoring scheme – as a mentor. I have had several mentees so far, formally and informally, and I have found mentoring to be extremely rewarding, as I want to give back the opportunity that was offered to me, since without my own mentor, I wouldn’t be here.

Starting January 2019, the British Ecological Society is launching a new scheme of peer group mentoring, including a returners to science group, and I feel incredibly lucky and humbled to be one of the senior mentors for the scheme. I think this is going to be a very exciting opportunity to share my experience with other returners, and together find ways to overcome the challenges that come with taking a long break from academia.

If you are a returner to science, whether it be you have taken a break for maternity/paternity/adoption reasons, or if you have looked after other family members, or for any reason, and you feel you’d like to share what challenges you faced coming back and/or tips to help cope with the challenges, I’d love to hear from you (@g_iossa) and compile a post with all the tweets to publish to Rapid Ecology (@rapidecology).

Author Biography: Graziella Iossa is an evolutionary ecologist interested in behavioural and population ecology and is currently exploring interdisciplinary approaches to link ecosystem services and human health, in the context of antimicrobial resistance. She is an early career researcher at the University of Lincoln, UK.