Success Strategies for Women in Science: A Portable Mentor, By Peggy A. Pritchard Inspire article

A professor once told me in a job interview that he prefers to hire women for his laboratory “because they get things done”. Nonetheless, although a blunt question as to whether you plan to have children is certainly out of fashion, female scientists still experience situations that are…

As long as women hold fewer than 20% of senior academic positions in science (in the USA and Canada; in central Europe it is well below 15%), this situation will continue. You may not be able to change the system, but you can prepare yourself before you enter it. This is why communications specialist Peggy A. Pritchard has compiled the essay collection Success Strategies for Women in Science.

Pritchard argues that every young scientist needs a mentor, a person higher up on the career ladder who is willing to share her experiences on how to get ahead. As not all students can approach such a person directly, she selected a circle of successful women scientists who give their personal advice in this “portable mentor”. In its 12 chapters, the reader is led through a wealth of information concerning professionalism that is usually not part of the science curriculum. ‘Communicating Science’ is one of the core chapters, in which students preparing their first talks can learn how to convey confidence and win over the audience. The more experienced scientist is reminded to learn at least the first few sentences of her presentation by heart. Less formal occasions, such as meeting colleagues, also benefit from preparation, and communication with the lay public either directly or via the media is best done using plenty of examples and metaphors.

The chapter ‘Working Abroad’ gives young scientists good reasons for broadening their horizons. The description of ‘Networking’ will help those who feel pressurised by the need to assemble a distinguished portfolio of discoveries to understand that teamwork is a win-win situation. An awareness of ‘Personal Style’ and good interpersonal skills are important when you start ‘Climbing the Ladder’. Manage your time and train your brain, recognize turning points and cope with setbacks, ask for individual work solutions when you have children – the reader learns much more from this book than just advice on straight career building.

Unfortunately, this otherwise excellent book is marred by its opening chapters, which will especially puzzle scientists who are trained in careful reading and clear thinking. Here the reader is confronted with three rather redundant forewords. Next,Chapter 1 concentrates too much on success as the only goal of career management while other parts of the book quite sensibly deal with the need for ‘Balancing Professional and Personal Life’ and ‘Transitions’. Finally, Chapter 2 offers a very general description of a certain gender-related training programme that was conducted in Germany between 2001 and 2004.

My recommendation to readers is therefore to skip over the first 40 pages to reach the wealth of practical, concisely written advice which is enlivened by short clippings of personal biographies. References at the end of each chapter include easily accessible websites, and the book ends with a comprehensive index. As far as communication goes, the book is the mentor.

Although aimed mainly at female advanced science students, the wide-ranging advice on how to optimise job performance makes the book a general guide to professional conduct. My personal favourite is the list of ‘personal traits that help’: gain a reputation for integrity, work on a high energy level, handle conflicts in a positive, productive manner, guard your language and develop an appropriate personal style. It probably is a good idea to start working on these issues as early as possible, and although the book has ‘women’ in its title, men should read it, too.

Science teachers in schools are important role models. They may be the first mentors for gifted pupils and their degree of professionalism has a great impact on adolescents who still have to decide where to go. Teachers will profit directly from the chapters on communication skills, time management and mental strength, and they should pass on the information to their students. In addition, girls who are interested in studying science should be encouraged to read the biographical sections so that if they are ever subtly informed of their worker-bee status in the laboratory hierarchy, they become neither angry nor discouraged.


Publisher: Elsevier Academic Press
Publication year: 2006
ISBN: 0120884119


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