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Case Study: Dr Sharon Cahill

Dr Sharon Cahill joined UEL in 2002 as a senior lecturer in the School of Psychology at UEL.

The following is a case study to understand some of the challenges as a woman working within STEM and how Sharon has overcome these and what she would like to share with others.

What are your areas of interest and what made you interested in these?
I am going to start before UEL because this is my second career. I trained as a general nurse and worked in intensive care and then decided to retrain as a psychiatric nurse. This is where my interest in psychology came from. I then completed my degree in psychology at the University of Teesside. I then did an MSc in Health Education which was not right for me in the sense that I thought I’d combine health and psychology but I didn’t enjoy the prospect of a health education career.

I never thought I would be the type of person to do a PhD but I think sometimes we don’t plan these things. I met a woman, a psychologist, at the annual Psychology of Women Section conference where I was presenting my undergraduate research. She found what I was doing interesting and asked if I would like to come and do a PhD. We were both interested in emotion so the topic was ‘Women’s experience(s) of anger: social and personal perception’. This was not planned, I loved it.

What are some of the challenges you have faced? How have you handled these?
For me communication is important, how we communicate, what we communicate, our power, our agency sometimes is lost I think because we don’t believe in ourselves if we don’t have those role models to look at. I come from a very working class background, doing O-Levels was an achievement never mind moving on to university.

After my PhD, I got a job as a Research Fellow at the Institute of Psychiatry (Kings College London). This again wasn’t planned, I went for another job and the interviewer said you are too qualified but I know someone who does want you. I got this job because I had both a clinical and academic background and they needed both of these. While there, I managed a randomised control trial and stayed there for about 3-4 years.

As a Research Fellow, I found it was too much work in the sense that the other bits of my life were not working out and I wanted to start a family. So I gave myself a sabbatical. I took three months off to look around. Again I had no plan but I knew someone at UEL who said they had a vacancy to teach part time. I came to UEL in 2002, I was pregnant at the time. I now work 4 days a week and have on the whole really enjoyed my experience here.

For me some of the things I’d like to start conversations on are around part time working, the struggle maintaining work life balance and alongside that when you work part time what happens in terms of your progression . . . it slows right down.

How do you balance your (academic) career with life outside the workplace?
I mange my work-life balance now by working part-time. My career is very important but I do not prioritise it over my home life. I think it is really difficult to move ahead in academia if you work part-time but I am trying to get my head down now and forge forward. I think I have learnt that small steps can take you there and that leaping isn’t feasible for me – this has come through the mentorship. Having someone saying how great you are doing when you feel that you are not moving is very powerful.

Who have been your professional role models? Why?
In our school we have 3 / 4 female professors which is great and they are good role models but we have no women readers and we have some great women academics ready for that next step up. It would be great to see them there. I think for me it is having that stepped so you can look up a step to see how they got there and then again to the next level.

What if any support has most benefited you in your career?
One of the really good things that happened to me recently is I got myself a mentor. That has moved me on leaps and bounds in terms of thinking about my own career progression and pulling my PhD students along as well.

Looking to the future I am thinking about how we can use Athena SWAN to benefit everybody and I think structures for progression (part-time and full time) and mentorship could be quite powerful for the organisation.

What do you feel is the most enjoyable / rewarding aspect of your job?
I like the small group teaching, the more interactive the better. I also enjoy supervising students (at all levels) in their research adventure – seeing them grow in confidence and learning or applying the skills is a great boost.

What achievements are you most proud of? Why? What have you learnt that you would like to share with others?
I am proud that I have a PhD but in equal measure I am SO proud of the students that I have helped to achieve their PhD’s or Professional Doctorate. It is an amazing feeling to think that you have helped to facilitate people’s careers. I believe what you give out you get back so I try and treat everyone the same – Head of School, student or colleague. It is difficult for women out there but you’ve got to grit your teeth and get on with it – shout when you need to – join forces with other women (and men) when they and you need to because we’re all in it together.