Soil science. A man’s world?

I am a female soil scientist (a soil ecologist, more specifically). And while traditionally the field of soil science has been dominated by men, I’d like to think that women are catching up. Certainly in the labs where I have worked in the last 10 years, women have dominated the postdoc and PhD positions, although this trend yet has to reach the more senior, permanent academic posts. (Unfortunately, there are many reasons why it might not.)

And I couldn’t help but notice that in a recent NERC strategic call for soil science grants (within the larger Soil Security and SARISA programmes), all eight grants that were awarded had male principal investigators. (And that is on top of the fact that all other projects in these two programmes, which were funded about two years ago, are also led by men.)

And because of this traditional male domination of soil science, I thought that maybe, just maybe, and hopefully (in a way), this might just be a true representation of the gender balance of the applications, and of the wider UK soil science community.

So I inquired. And these are the numbers.

Out of 34 applications, 11 were led by female principal investigators – which means that grants led by women made up a reasonably healthy 32% of all grants submitted. And this number is actually representative of the gender balance of the members of the British Society of Soil Science (which assume to be a representation of the UK soil science community as a whole): women make up 30% of its members.

But none of these applications led by women were successful in getting funded. While the female submission rate was 32%, the success rate of female applications was 0%. And while it is well known that grants submitted by women often have lower success rates, this is a pretty low number. I made a graph to visualise it for you, just in case it wasn’t clear yet.


The number of applications and the number of grants awarded in the latest round of Soil Security small grants (between £150k and £250k), split for male and female principal investigators.

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On gender bias in research funding

I have never, in any way, in any shape or form, experienced sexism in my career. I have never though that I could not do something because I am a woman. In primary school and high school, never once made anyone a distinction between boys and girls and their abilities, or future career aspirations. At university, I never gave the fact that I am a woman any thought. And during my PhD and postdoc, OK, maybe I started thinking about having children at some point, and maybe that seemed complicated (I now know that it is certainly not straightforward). But never, never, have I experienced any form of harassment, or bias, or being disadvantaged, or not being taken seriously, because of my gender. Despite my gender, I am generally doing quite well in my career.

But it might be that I am, unknowingly, disadvantaged in receiving the research grants that I am applying for.

But last year, the BBSRC, who fund my research, published a report ‘Towards a better understanding of issues affecting grant applications and success rates by female academics’. This report clearly shows not only that fewer women apply for BBSRC research funding, but also that their success rate is lower than that of male applicants. This is particularly the case with the applications for strategic LOLA (longer larger) grants, which are considered to be more senior grants. A notable exception are the fellowships, which are aimed early career scientists (and of which I am a recipient), in which female applicants are more successful.

Then, a couple of days ago, I read an article that essentially shows the same trend for NIH grants. While there was no difference in funding rates for start-up grant applications, when women applied for grant renewals, they received lower scores than men. This was despite the fact that these grant applications were more likely to receive praise in their written feedback from the panel.

Triggered by these two reports, I decided to have closer look at the gender balance of research grants of some other funders – particularly the ones that I might apply for.  Continue reading

How I got my fellowship – and how you might get yours

In my previous post I wrote that I recently got awarded a very competitive BBSRC David Phillips fellowship! And I promised I would dedicate a post to this. Applying for this fellowship has been a lengthy, exiting, and exhausting process, which has taught me a lot about how to write a grant proposal and how to prepare for such an important interview. Although I have applied for grants previously, none of them was anywhere near as much work, and as stressful, as this one.

So, here I will outline the points that I think are crucial for being successful in getting a very competitive fellowship like a BBSRC David Phillips fellowship. I think these points, together, can greatly improve your chances of being successful. But who am I that I think I have advice on this? Well, since 2008 I have applied for seven personal research grants (a Royal Society Newton International Fellowship, a Dutch Rubicon fellowship, a L’Oreal For Women in Science fellowship, a British Ecological Society Early Career grant, a Royal Society International Exchange Grant, a Royal Society University Research Fellowship, and a BBSRC David Phillips Fellowship), of which three were successful. If you consider that the average success rate of this type of grant is around 10%, then that’s pretty good. Moreover, I think I have learned a lot from applying for these grants and getting feedback on them, and I believe that as a result, I got better at it. Also, I regularly review grants for a range of funders, and I think this has improved my own grant writing.

Here are my tips. Continue reading

Quite a year!

Despite all my good intentions it has been very quiet in this space. For a long time. Nine months to be precise. Which only illustrates what a hectic year it’s been! Yes, I know I wrote exactly the same last time, but this year has even been more hectic. So, here is a quick update of the past 9 months – as soon as that is out of the way, I can start writing proper posts again. Just a word of caution though: I might forget things, or repeat myself, as I am severely sleep deprived.

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Switching off?

I know, it has been embarrassingly quiet on my blog, and I am ashamed to see that my last blog post was almost two months ago – on the 16th of May. Why have I been so quiet? Has nothing been happening in my academic life? Or am I also someone who, after an enthusiastic start, throws the proverbial towel into the ring, as we would say in Dutch? Well, at least, in the last two months, readers of my blog would have found a blog post that said it all: I have been incredibly, ridiculously busy.

So what have I been doing during these two months? Well, in no particular order, I have built roofs for my drought experiment and done the first samplings, I have organised a publishing workshop at the Faculty of Life Sciences of The University of Manchester, I have been on field work for the Ecofinders project, I have been to a knowledge exchange workshop with Cumbrian farmers, I have participated in a workshop about food, health and environmental change, and I have revised and resubmitted two papers. I have also written and submitted a grant, and I am currently writing another one. On top of that, I am writing two other papers, I am setting up a lab, I am an associate editor for two journals, and I regularly review articles for a range of journals. And I am also secretary of the Plants, Soils, Ecosystems special interest group of the British Ecological Society. Oh yes, and I have also been to the Netherlands for a week to visit family and friends.

Writing all this down does make it look a bit ridiculous, and it at least sort of underpins my feeling that I have been pretty much working flat out. Which is slightly worrying, since I have not even started teaching yet! Continue reading

No time!

It has been a while since I wrote a blog post. The reason is simple – I have been away for almost four weeks. First, I went to Aberdeen for a week to extract DNA from my glacier samples (yes, I actually have a project on glaciers, or rather, the soil in front of glaciers, which represents a chronosequence of ecosystem development because of the retreating ice), then I went on holiday to Portugal for almost two weeks (kitesurfing! 25 degrees! sunshine!), and then I went to a three-day workshop. Yes, this sounds great, but coming back from it all is not so great, as I have been struggling to keep up with things, or rather, to get rid of the backlog. Holidays cause stress – before you go to finish things, and after you come back to catch up with things.

Of course, I could have made time to write a blog post. I could have also made time to catch up with friends, to ring my family, to send private emails, to reply to all those non-urgent work emails, and to clean the house. I could have made time to buy a plant for my new office, to take my car for an MOT, or to have my passport renewed. I could have also finally analysed data from last year’s experiment, and talked to a sales rep about the centrifuge that I want for my lab. But none of this was urgent enough.

Kite surfing is very relaxing indeed, but afterwards you pay the price!

Kitesurfing is very relaxing indeed, but afterwards you pay the price!

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Two careers, one journey

A career in academia means choosing to be flexible. I have already written about the drawbacks and benefits of short-term research contracts and moving around a lot in terms of having a social life and maintaining friendships, but when it comes to maintaining your relationship, things can become a lot more complicated. Especially when both partners have a career, and are driven and ambitious about it.

Of course, it is fairly common for couples to move abroad for one partner’s career, if that partner has a high-earning job in business or industry. In general, it will be the husband that has the career, and the wife that follows, whether or not with children. If you think this is not the case anymore, you’d be surprised how many people responded with ‘normally, it’s the other way around’ when my partner and I announced that we were moving to England for my job (for the record: I am a woman).

However, maybe things are different in academia, and maybe the choice between the man’s or the woman’s career is more balanced. You might expect this to be true, because I like to believe that academics are rational, thoughtful, and generally quite liberal when it comes to equality issues. On the other side, there are fewer women in professorial positions than men, and this is largely because when women have children, they choose to work fewer hours whereas men generally don’t (note that I am not in any way judging this decision, but the facts are the facts – if you want to read more about this, have a look at the most recent special issue in Nature). At a younger age, men are more likely to be more advanced in their career because in couples, generally the man tends to be older than the woman. Because it makes sense to give priority to the most advanced, or well-earning, career, it is therefore likely that partners that both have a job in academia move for the man’s career. Continue reading