Dr Marie Clark on the HB2 voyage in Antarctica. Image: Oli Sansom


Recently a friend texted asking the graduate salary for a teacher and the quickest way to become qualified. Given this friend is a relatively successful mid-career scientist in the field of stroke research, I was surprised by this line of enquiry. She explained that her lab did not get any grants this year, and that she will be jobless by 2021 if no grants are successful between now and then.

This might seem pretty normal in the ruthless world of medical research. Trying to convince the funding bodies to, you know, fund, has never been the easiest part of the job. But the latest round of grants released by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) has revealed some worrying statistics:

  • Gender bias for grant success has increased significantly in 2019 – the proportion of awards for women is the lowest it has been since 2015.
  • The success rates of early and mid-career researchers has nosedived, largely due to more experienced scientists now being allowed to compete for the same funds as junior investigators
  • To be successful, early-career researchers now need, on average, twice as many publications that they did 5 years ago.

Rampant gender bias aside, one of the most concerning aspects of this funding round is that already well-established investigators are being funded at the expense of those who are still developing as leaders. In essence, scientists are eating their young. Ironic, given early and mid-career scientists are often raising their own children. Without funding, many talented investigators will leave their fields after years of training.

Homeward Bound is a leadership program, aiming to build a global network of women in STEMM who are equipped to lead, on a planet that sorely needs it. As part of the second Homeward Bound Antarctic expedition in 2018, I noticed that a number of participants expressed dissatisfaction with their work; subsequently, some have significantly changed their career trajectory since the program. This is perhaps unsurprising, as initiatives like Homeward Bound attract the type of person who is hoping to optimise what they offer to the world.

Crucially, Homeward Bound teaches a collaborative style of leadership; leading for the many rather than the few. Not an easy feat: a maxim of collaboration and cooperation may be challenging to adopt fully if you’re working within a system that rewards fierce competition. As an ex-research scientist, I’ve seen first-hand those who are struggling with the system; those who must pivot their careers due to funding, harassment or other difficulties that seem to disproportionately affect women. And now, as a qualified careers counsellor, I see the huge emotional impact of these transitions, which I think is partly explained by misconceptions around what actually constitutes a career.

Most people see the word ‘career’ as interchangeable with ‘job’ or ‘occupation’; synonymous with paid work. Career success is historically measured by success in the workplace. This grant was successful, that paper was published, this promotion was secured. By viewing career success through this narrow lens, we not only overlook some of our best gifts to the world, we set ourselves up for emotional pain when things are not going so well in that single domain of paid work. A more nuanced, 21st century definition is that a career is everything a person contributes to the world.

Think about all the positive ways we impact upon our surroundings. Volunteer/community work, raising kids who are good humans and potentially future leaders themselves, learning and teaching, setting examples for others, making people laugh, being kind, helping others change their mindset, caring for living things, making art, creating knowledge, planting veggies, or a mixture of all these things (and many others).

Imagine how uplifting it would be to include all these wonderful contributions when we talk about careers. And as we start viewing paid work as just one small sector in our overall career journey rather than the whole thing, decisions within that sector become easier, because they fit within a balanced whole that reflects who we are, what we value and what we can offer the world. It might sound trite – ‘the answers are inside you’– but it absolutely works in careers counselling. And it underpins one of Homeward Bound’s most well-received workshops, in which participants elicit their values and map out strategies for change-making using those values as the centrepiece.

Globally, women are gaining choice in terms of paid work, but it cannot be at the expense of who we are. We are more than what we are paid to do. The world needs women who are giving the best with everything they’ve got.

Dr Marie Clark (BA, B.Sc. (Hons), PhD, Dip.Ed.) was a participant of HB2 and currently works as an educator and careers counsellor at Maffra Secondary College in Gippsland, Victoria.