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Jb © Daniel Punch

For International Women’s Day 2019, PhD students Ben Bowers and Peter Hartley at the Department of Public Health and Primary Care, University of Cambridge, spoke to Dr Jenni Burt, Senior Social Scientist at THIS Institute and Department of Public Health and Primary Care.

Starting out

Q: Were you ever pressurised to go down one route in your career?

I’ve never felt pressurised to fit in a particular box. There are so many great possibilities inside and outside of academia, and many routes I’d happily take. I certainly haven’t ended up where I thought I would; I originally set out to be an archaeologist, so who knew healthcare improvement would turn out to be such a passion of mine.

Q: What attracted you to academia?

There aren’t many careers where you will be immersed in deep analytical thinking one moment, and the next be attempting to fix the printer. To succeed in academia you need to be a competent administrator, accomplished project manager, inspiring leader, general fixer and deep thinker (not that I’ve achieved all of those yet). Most exciting for me, I get to hang out with some of the cleverest people I have ever met; it’s a privilege every day.

Negotiating your place at the table

Q: Are there any role models that have influenced your approach to negotiating?

My mother, actually, who could be wonderfully nurturing but pretty ruthless when she needed to be. She was also unapologetic about being herself. Over the years, I have learnt that there is an important balance to find between looking after your own needs, and looking after the needs of others. Too much give and not enough take (a very easy path for women to find themselves on) is not the way forward; but nor is prioritising your work to the detriment of everyone else’s. Academia is a team effort, not a solo enterprise.

Q: Where have you had the most resistance to getting your voice heard and how did you respond?

There’s still an irritating hierarchy around research approaches, particularly in the health and clinical sphere. Social scientists often get the short straw, whether in distribution of funding, perceived ‘importance’ of publications, or being given time on a meeting agenda. It’s changing, but not fast enough. My strategy is to repeatedly show what a difference we can make – for example, working with trialists tends to really open their eyes to the possibilities and impact of qualitative research approaches.

Working life

Q: What has been the biggest challenge you have faced as a woman in academia?

Wanting to excel at everything, whether that’s being a researcher, partner, mother, daughter, sister or friend. You can’t have it all, and it frankly annoys me no end that you can’t. I tire myself out trying: I would never say this is an easy career to choose, but it is unbelievably rewarding.

Q: What do you wish senior academics would do differently?

Academia can be overly hierarchical, but progress and achievements are made possible by every member of the team. We all have an important contribution to make, and I’ve seen some really talented early career researchers get understandably frustrated at not having a voice. By enabling everyone to fly ever higher, we only strengthen the academic endeavour.

Q: How do you manage work life balance?

For me, everything blends together – fun is not confined to ‘life’ and responsibilities are not confined to ‘work’. I’m employed part-time, and that’s obviously had an impact on my career in terms of outputs, but it means I maintain flexibility over when and how I work. I do push myself pretty hard – I get up stupidly early to exercise (only time I can fit it in); work on Saturday afternoons when my eldest is at a club; and plan pretty obsessively to keep on top of my workload. But I wouldn’t do it any other way.

What needs to change…

Q: What one thing would make the most difference to women in academic and research roles?

Greater continuity of contracts would benefit everyone, not just women. Jumping from one short-term contract to the next (as I have done for nearly twenty years) has so many poor consequences, both for getting research completed and disseminated effectively, and for people trying to build their lives and settle in one place. I don’t have a magic solution, sadly, as our whole world is structured around short-term funded projects – although the vision of the Health Foundation in funding THIS Institute and giving stable long-term funding shows alternatives are possible.

Message for students

Q: What one piece of advice would you give to students starting out in their careers?

Be clear on your priorities; don’t be afraid to ask, and don’t be afraid to refuse (politely). Establishing boundaries on what you are or are not prepared to do in terms of work commitments might seem difficult in the pressurised world of academia, but take a step back and see the bigger picture – in five years’ time, will your decision now make any difference at all? Saying no rarely has the consequences we fear.