Staying on Track for a Career in R&D

Last year I had a wonderful opportunity to give an invited talk at MS&T 2013 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada on staying on track in a career as a female scientist in an R&D environment. First of all, one of the amazing things about this talk was that the audience was the highest female-to-male ratio I have EVER seen in a technical meeting in materials science.  I was really impressed on how engaging the (mostly female) audience was and how eager they were to know what it is really like to work in R&D. Since then, I have presented on this topic – most recently on a visit to the Pennsylvania State University Materials Advantage Chapter Meeting this October.  A truly engaging and attentive group of students!

Penn State Materials Advantage Chapter

In preparing for this talk, I came across this video on women in science at the then GE Research Lab in 1954:

It’s clear that even back in the early 1950s, women played an important role in science. Katharine Blodgett, one of the researchers depicted in this video, was the first female Ph.D. to join GE Research Lab, and was a pioneer in her field. That said, even into the 1960s, women were absent in most technical roles. Ceramics research at GE Research, for example, had no women in technical roles 50 years ago, and even as late as 1989, only 6% of the technical staff in ceramics research was women.

We have come a long way in recent years – these are very exciting times!  More women than ever are entering STEM careers. 35% of all Ph.D. degrees granted in natural sciences and engineering are to women (Council of Graduate Schools, 2013).  The CSPL (Ceramic Structures and Processing Laboratory) -where I work – is now 38% technical women in 2014!

A career in R&D is challenging- in a report in 2008 published by the Harvard Business Review, a shocking 52% of women drop out of STEM careers mid-career (Hewlett, et al. 2008). To address this issue, GE Global Research held its third annual GE Women in Science and Engineering (GE WISE) conference in September with a focus on attracting, developing, and retaining women in science and engineering. It was so invigorating to spend two days with 113 women from all different businesses within GE – learning about career management, best practices on communication and meeting new people (and I have never before had to wait in such a long line for the ladies room!!!)

So what has changed since 1954 for women at GE? In short, a LOT.  GE was named one of the Working Mother 100 Best Companies in 2014 (11 years in a row on the top 100 list!). We have Flex Ability initiatives that help all employees manage their work and home life –  like paid parental leave, flextime, family initiative leave, remote work options and part-time employment.

Even with all these initiatives and benefits, I truly believe that the initiative for a successful career in R&D needs to come from within, and takes hard work and willingness to ask for help when needed. Over the years, with help from mentors, speakers on similar topics, and some discovered quite by accident – I have drafted my career “to-do” list – important advice that I think we can ALL implement to stay on track in our careers in R&D:

  • Establish your credibility. I think this one speaks for itself.
  • Build your network & seek opportunities. I really believe that building your network is equally as important as delivering in your job. In fact, over time, it will make your job even easier and give back in ways you can’t predict or expect.  Added bonus – having a solid network makes it much less lonely as a woman in R&D, especially in those fields/projects that have less women.
  • Seek out mentors, coaches, cheerleaders, and sponsors. They all have a place in your career! Statistical findings reveal that too few women are seeking out sponsors to help them in their career. This is an area we all have to actively work harder in!
  • Be a mentor, coach, cheerleader and sponsor. Giving back is a great way to learn.
  • Learn to communicate effectively (and ask for help!) When I first began my career, this was the hardest hurdle for me. Once you reach out (and accept that you can’t possibly know everything), it is amazing how much more you learn and how much more efficient you can become in your career.
  • ASKYou will never know how flexible your company can be unless you ASK. Being a mom to a tween, twin toddlers and an 8-month old, I can’t speak enough about the importance of having honest, open communication about your current needs in your career and potential solutions when life presents you a curveball. You might be amazed at the creative solutions that are out there. You will just never know unless you ask!
  • Be Happy. I was so excited that Gretchen Rubin (author of “The Happiness Project”) gave our keynote talk at the GE WISE symposium last year. I really think being happy is important part of being successful. I don’t let others get me down, I enjoy life as it comes, and smile often.
Ceramic Structures and Processing Laboratory today!
Ceramic Structures and Processing Laboratory today!


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  2. Daniel Tan

    Kristen, I like your article and 1954 video.