“Never give up on a good thing…” goes a George Benson song. This is just the advice that should be given to many scientists who think their research careers are over after a career break.

It is also a message that needs to get across to employers in academia and industry. With falling numbers of graduates entering science, engineering, and technology (SET) careers, employers can no longer afford to ignore the fact that women and men who take a career break often do not return to their old jobs. This has serious implications for the cost of recruiting and training staff and, at a national level, affects competitiveness and productivity.

It is not an isolated problem – scientists across Europe find it is almost impossible to return to careers at the same level as they had before they left. Organizations such as the European Platform of Women Scientists (EPWS) are addressing the problems, and Daphne Jackson Fellowships in the UK have been held up as examples of good practice.

It can be almost impossible for many scientists in the UK to return without the help of such fellowships. The Daphne Jackson Trust offers two-year, part-time paid fellowships in universities and industrial laboratories throughout the UK. These offer the opportunity to re-establish scientific credentials and obtain a recent research record while retraining and renewing skills.

The Daphne Jackson Trust, in collaboration with the UK Resource Centre for Women in SET, produced a report in 2006 called Real Returners, Real Issues. The report is looked at the issues and needs of returners and those who employ them. It discusses the barriers, the business case, and the benefits of employing returners, and presents a series of recommendations for societies and professional bodies, research councils, employers in academia and industry, the UK Government, and returners themselves.

According to the report, academia is often one of the last strongholds of negative and outdated attitudes toward returners. This has to change. It is with the help of societies, research councils, and university departments that change can be implemented, making sure that equality and diversity guidance and good practices are actively implemented.

The report recommends that professional bodies and societies highlight the help and support they offer. Similarly, research councils should make their policies for funding applications transparent and publicize them to academic departments who are often at fault when not considering part-time research positions. There is a role for government in ensuring that there is sufficient good quality and affordable childcare available for returners, as well as encouraging companies and academia to tackle the prejudices that exist against part-time working.

Finally, returners themselves must be consistent and motivated in their approach to finding suitable opportunities to return to their careers. Individuals must see their break as a positive experience that has enhanced their skills and reflect this on their CV.

Returners have much to offer. Not only are they fully qualified for the role, their career breaks have often heightened the skills required by top-class employers or departments, namely time management, flexibility and adaptability, conflict resolution, and working under pressure.

Bea Lindsay is a materials scientist who began her research career at Queen Mary, University of London. After her PhD and two years as a postdoctoral research assistant, she became a research fellow at the University of Surrey before taking a career break to have a family. Lindsay decided to return to her career as a research scientist when her younger daughter was settled in full-time education, so she contacted Jim Castle, who had worked with her at Surrey. Castle recommended the Daphne Jackson Trust, helping Lindsay through the initial stages of finding a suitable host and supervisor.

Lindsay was awarded her fellowship in 2004 after a career break of 13 years and is very enthusiastic about it and the opportunities it opened up for her. After completing her fellowship, she took a one-year contract at the University of Surrey and is now looking for the next opportunity to continue her research.

Another materials scientist, John Mason, took advantage of a fellowship after he had a 12-year career break. Mason had worked in academia and industry for six years after his PhD and then took a break for childcare and caring responsibilities. Mason was awarded a fellowship in January 2005 at Swansea University. Now, three years later, he has successfully completed the fellowship and is a postdoctoral fellow on a two-year contract in the Department of Materials at the University of Oxford.

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DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(07)70364-4