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More traffic for the on-ramp

By Margaret Harris

The “On-Ramps Into Academia” programme aims to make the transition from industry to academia easier for women in science.

I saw an intriguing press release yesterday about a new programme, called “On-Ramps Into Academia”, that aims to help women who have PhDs and at least three years’ experience in industry make a transition back to an academic career. The programme’s first workshop is in Seattle, Washington this October (there’s an online application here , and applying before 15 May is encouraged), and participants can expect practical advice, networking and support from senior women researchers who have already switched to successful academic careers.

The rationale behind the workshops — which are funded by the US National Science Foundation — seems to make sense. The release quoted one of the programme’s co-investigators saying that current strategies to recruit more female scientists to work in US universities are a “zero-sum game”, because most rely on wooing them from one university to another. The new programme, by contrast, is similar to schemes in fields like law and business that aim to bring experienced women back into the workplace after extended absences (e.g. maternity leave).

Still, I had to wonder exactly what “industry” jobs would be suitable preparation for academia, and whether physicists might be at a disadvantage compared to scientists in disciplines like engineering or chemistry, where industry-academia links tend to be more widespread.

I put these questions to Eve Riskin, an electrical engineer at the University of Washington and the project’s principle investigator. She said that while they are specifically targeting women working in industrial research, consulting or national labs, they are “really open to different career paths” and someone who has done meaningful work in fields like IT, finance or education could also be a good candidate for the workshop. However, she added, “we will be reviewing applications for the workshop through the lens of ‘Would this person be a strong faculty candidate in a year or so?’” so clearly some industry careers will be more suitable than others.

As for physics, she said, one member of the group’s advisory board, Patricia Mooney, is a semiconductor physicist at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada, so it’s not just for engineers, computer scientists or biochemists.

I’m still thinking about the idea of a zero-sum game, though. If you were wanting to be awkward (and we at Physics World generally are), you could argue that luring women out of successful industry roles and into academia is, in fact, depriving young women of scientific role models within industry. One of my own mentors in this respect is my godmother, Cheri Leigh, a structural engineer who founded her own firm after experiencing some problems at an established one. She’s a warm, funny woman with a lot of patience, and I’m sure she’d make a wonderful professor — but she already makes a great private-sector engineer. Does that really need to change?

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