Episode 95: Career coaching in STEM with Dr Hannah Roberts

n this week’s episode, Dr Bahijja discusses career development, being a parent in academia and the process of career coaching with Dr Hannah Roberts, career coach and professional skills trainer.

A walk through Dr Roberts’ career history

“In a department of 200, I found that there were only 5 women” – Dr Roberts

By the final year of her PhD, Dr Roberts had just got married and was thinking about starting

a family. Of the 5 women that were in her department, only 2 had children, making her question whether it was even possible to maintain her career development whilst having her own family.

2 weeks into her postdoc, Dr Roberts fell pregnant, but she wanted to prove herself so that she’d have a job to come back to. However, after her second maternity leave, she never went back into the lab.

Dr Roberts started to do scientific project management and spent 8 years managing large multi-million-pound projects between academia in industry and commercialising research. She became the manging director of a spin-out company she started as part of one of the commercialisation projects with 3 other female academics, and held this position for 2 years – all while having 3 children!

However, during her third maternity leave, she felt a sense of being stuck. After visiting a career coach to help her find direction, she decided to resign and retrain to become a career coach herself, and has since been a coach in her own business for the past 3 years.

What is career coaching?

“Conversations that lead to transformation” – Dr Roberts

Coaching is future-focused – seeing where you are now and deciding what to do next

through breaking it down into steps of action. Career coaching helps people move beyond mental blocks in order to move forwards – it’s a very reflective, technical and active process.

Dr Roberts divides coaching into two categories: life coaching and career coaching. Life coaching revolves around life decisions, confidence, identity, values, finding a vision and purpose, however these factors are closely interlinked with career experience, decisions and development, so Dr Roberts emphasises the importance of taking these personal factors into account during career coaching.

“Helping scientific women struggling with “what next?” to achieve purposeful career direction by restoring confidence and developing a 5-year action plan” – Dr Roberts’ LinkedIn Statement

Dr Roberts identifies 3 steps to making an impactful statement in this area: calling out the person you are talking to, identifying the impact and aim of working together, and finally the method – how you go about it.

Is there ever a right time to start a family?

“Everything comes at the same time” – Dr Roberts

The biological clock, short-term contracts, lack of security and the competitiveness of trying to get a fellowship all come at the same time in life, and there never seems to be a good time to start a family – but if not now, when? Will it ever happen?

Dr Roberts found herself asking these questions and decided to go ahead with it. What isn’t often known is that if you go on maternity leave, the funding body pays for your replacement until you return – it doesn’t cost extra money to keep you onboard while you’re away.

There is also an overwhelming amount of pressure to be productive on maternity leave – Dr Roberts held onto all of her projects, and 5 days after a difficult birth she was back replying to emails, organising with project partners and getting reports together.

“I had this feeling that I needed to be indispensable” – Dr Roberts

Changing workplace culture

Dr Roberts highlights how the culture of the workplace makes it difficult for system change. The workplace is a highly competitive and hierarchal environment which does not support minority groups and women, particularly mothers, in STEM. It is clear that the culture needs to change, but individuals must feel resourceful enough to be able to fight for it, and this is especially hard when they are already so busy and involved in their careers.

This is where career coaching comes in – on an individual level, career coaching can resource people enough to care and take action to cause the change in a bottom-up approach.

Dr Roberts’ 5-day career planning challenge

In this 5-day challenge, Dr Roberts offers a breakdown of what would usually be done over a 3- month period. The challenge aims to help people make decisions about their career in a very short amount of time – for free. With videos, action steps and Q&As, this challenge hopes to provide people with purposeful career direction.

Dr Roberts’ podcast

“Women in STEM Career & Confidence” is the name of Dr Roberts’ Top 10 UK Podcast, launched this January, now with 12,000 downloads. Her podcast covers a range of topics, from how to deal with catastrophising and ruminating, to thinking about life purpose.

Dr Roberts also has a series called “Inspiring Stories” where people come on the podcast to talk about their own experiences and journeys.

The podcast is available on iTunes, Spotify, Amazon Music, Google Podcasts, The EdUp Experience and on Stitch.

Chemistry and coaching – how different are they?

“Once a scientist, always a scientist” – Dr Roberts

Dr Roberts retains her identity as a chemist, applying her critical thinking and analytical skills in whatever situation. Interestingly, she highlights how chemistry and coaching are not so different.

In chemistry, you can react copper with sulphuric acid to make copper sulphate, but you can also react copper with a different compound to make something completely different. Dr Roberts draws parallels between the wonders of chemistry and coaching; in a similar way, she can change her behaviour during coaching to get a completely different person.

Dr Roberts’ take home message

Dr Roberts emphasises that despite what is reaffirmed so often in society, starting a family while in academia and maintaining your career development absolutely can be done.

Find out more:

Dr Hannah Roberts’ website - https://hannahnikeroberts.com/

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