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Ep 2: Return to work-Industry to Academia : Vidya Narayanan- Researcher, Oxford University

Updated: Jul 22, 2023




EPISODE SUMMARY


Hello, This is Sirisha, welcome to my podcast! We have talked quite a bit about our perspective on what it takes to return to work after a career break so far. In today's episode, we are going to hear from a guest on her journey to return to work after a break. Join me as we have a conversation with Vidya Narayanan. She wears many hats in life. a scientist, busy mom, math geek, a great friend, and somebody from my hometown Chennai. More importantly, she is an everyday woman, who balances many things and is a rockstar in her own way. Follow Vidya Narayanan on Twitter @vidunarayanan. Each podcast has a few takeaways and resources at the end. Check them out and leave me your feedback!!


Come, let's #paintlifetogether!


Follow us on Instagram @womencareerandlife and don't forget to listen & subscribe to the podcast here!


Below is a transcript of the episode, slightly modified for reading.


PODCAST TRANSCRIPT OVERVIEW


[00:47] - Vidya's story... [Jump to section]

[04:13] - Career Break... curveball [Jump to section]

[06:42] - Transitioning back to work [Jump to section]

[08:27] - Note to your 21-year-old self... [Jump to section]

[09:49] - Aspirations for the future [Jump to section]

Food for thought. Episode takeaways [Jump to section]


PODCAST DETAILED TRANSCRIPT


Vidya's story... [00:47]

Sirisha: So Usha, today's our first guest episode. So what are we going to talk about today?


Usha: We talked about our perspective quite a bit and what it takes to return to work after career break so far. In today's episode, we're going to talk about a guest's journey on returning to work. Now our guest today, she wears many hats in life. She's a scientist, a busy mom, a math geek, a wonderful friend, and also from my own hometown, Chennai. More importantly, she's an everyday woman, like you and me, who balances many things and is a rock star in her own way. Welcome, Vidya Narayanan, we are excited to hear your story. Why don't you start us off with a little background on where you are today.


Vidya: It's a pleasure to be here on your show and thank you for inviting me. So, I'm a postdoctoral research scientist at Oxford University. I'm with the oncology department where we're using machine learning and optimization techniques to improve radiotherapy practices. So that's what I do as a professional. I have three lovely children, so I just live a regular life juggling various responsibilities and duties and hopefully doing justice to both my home and carrier.


Sirisha: You wear so many different hats, you know, we go back, we are old friends, essentially childhood friends. So what I actually admire and kind of find a great perspective from your life is you have not only studied but also worked in three different continents, you know, in India, in the US and the UK. So can you sort of dwell back a little more into your past, probably when I knew you and sort of work your way through the present where you are right now in the oncology department.


Vidya: We go back a long way. So when I graduated from college, I think we were all pretty much in the same boat. I think we were ambitious, we wanted to make a mark but the part was still a little uncertain. My first degree was in mathematics, I knew that I wanted to do something that would use mathematical principles to perhaps build products or to change to contribute to society. I think that was something that I thought about fairly early on. But of course, like for most of us, I think, you know, the path is not clearly laid out, especially when you're 21. So I would say that I certainly wanted to be a career woman. I did want to work in the broad area of maths and science, to hopefully make a contribution to society. Everything sadly, didn't go the way I thought it would, I'd like to emphasize that I think at that age, I didn't have a very clear idea of how I would achieve my goals. So it was more of an aspiration than a sort of concrete plan. There were roadblocks along the way, but nothing that was very unusual, that I couldn't handle. I would say that it was not something, that millions of other women haven't faced.

There were roadblocks along the way, but nothing that was very unusual, that I couldn't handle. I would say that it was not something, that millions of other women haven't faced.

Career Break... curveball [04:13]



Usha: We were talking a little bit, both of us have twins and the math of taking a break, thinking that you're going to take a break for a year or two and then ending up taking a longer break. That's the math that did not quite compute. So let's talk a little bit about that. Why don't you tell us a little bit about how you returned to work from that break, what steps you took and how you reached out to contacts and such.


Vidya: That was a real curveball because we were thinking of adding to the family but nobody plans twins. By then we had an energetic six-year-old, the initial break was planned for about three years or so. I was working on artificial intelligence techniques and so on before my break. I tried to come back, field had completely changed in the sense that it advanced quite a bit because we now had access to vast amounts of data, social media data and so on. So data science was the next big thing. My skills were sadly very rusty at that point to get back, if you like into the swing of things. I mean, there was a real adjustment that was required. It was not just about making time, but also changing the way I was thinking at that point of time. That was much harder than I anticipated. This position at Oxford University to analyze social media posts was working with political scientists, sociologists, media, which was a completely different experience for me. So I think for the first couple of weeks, I was like a fish out of water. Not only was this my first job after a long break, but the language, the idiom itself was very, very different from what I was used to. My work had been very, very technical. It was a high-pressure environment, but also extremely exciting. I think it helped that I did have a sort of natural curiosity, a very challenging couple of months, but also intensely exciting and it was something that, that you could really get into. I felt that for the first time, I was really, you know, in the thick of things.

My skills were very rusty. There was a real adjustment that was required. It was not just about making time, but also changing the way I was thinking at that point of time. That was much harder than I anticipated.

Transitioning back to work [06:42]


Sirisha: So as you talk about the pressures of your job, how did you balance your job, were there colleagues at work, were there mentors, you're talking about the academic aspect of the job itself? But how is it that you balanced, sort of your inner self, which I refer to it as rocky terrain, you know, the first year is such a hardship, just managing, figuring all this stuff out? Just pulling things together? So can you speak to that a little bit more?


Vidya: Sure, so firstly, it was a sort of university environment, there's quite a bit of flexibility in the sense that there were periods of intense activity, but there was also the flexibility to plan your schedule a little bit. This particular group was very, very supportive of women, PI (principal investigator), and others in the project, actively encouraging the participation of women. I think that really helped me, I always felt that I was in a comfortable place. I mean, I did have to do a lot of learning, it was hard from that point of view, but was also given a lot of responsibility. I think the research environment was quite supportive, it's hard to pick out just a couple of mentors, I think the entire, you know, credit must be given to Oxford Internet Institute, which is always trying to be as inclusive, a place as possible. That was a big factor in helping me get my bearings initially.

The research environment was quite supportive, its hard to pick out just a couple of mentors. That was a big factor in helping me get my bearings initially.

Note to your 21-year-old self... [08:27]


Sirisha: You hit upon the right point, right, the environment, your colleagues, it helps you make that transition. And having inclusivity and people's understanding of it, I think is very key to it. This is a question we ask every guest. So if you were to write a letter to your 21-year-old self, what would you tell yourself about your career and life,


Vidya: I think I would tell my younger self to be hopeful, to be ambitious, but not to feel very dejected when things don't go your way. There's only so much that is under your control and perhaps that every stage in your life, it's important to know that or to realize that there are so many people who are in the exact same position. Identify people who would always have your back and maybe cultivate those relationships or at least invest in those relationships. I would tell young women to be hopeful, to dream big, but also know that it's not going to be easy, and you're not going to achieve all your goals, which is okay, so just learn to enjoy the journey and hopefully, you will reach your destination.

My younger self to be hopeful, to be ambitious, but not to feel very dejected when things don't go your way.
Identify people who would always have your back and maybe cultivate those relationships or at least invest in those relationships.

Aspirations for the future [09:49]


Usha: Let me ask you this. So that was your note to your 21-year-old self. Right now your life is running full steam, kids, family, career fully packed. What aspirations do you have for your future?


Vidya: It is to have a career that would motivate me to get up every morning with hope and expectation. Something in which I'm using my skills but also finding time to do things that I enjoy outside of work, like spending time with family and friends and reading and so on. Like a future where I'm in a role that gives me personal satisfaction, but also leaves me with some time to pursue interests that are outside of work.

A future where I'm in a role hat gives me personal satisfaction, but also leaves me with some time to pursue interests that are outside of work.

Usha: And our wishes are that all of that comes true! That's all we have time for today. Thank you so much for joining us and more importantly, I want to say thank you for being so honest and open about your life experiences. It's not easy. You made it seem very easy, but it's not. I'm very happy to see how well you have navigated all your changes in life. You've come out as a very accomplished but level-headed person. So I wish you the very best again and hope you continue being a rock star in your world.


Sirisha: I want to echo my thanks as well with Usha, it's been a real pleasure having you on the podcast. I think you have touched on very key points that we all see as we have navigated this journey, to leave our listeners with, you know, the hope and just enjoying the journey is a key aspect of it. If you want to connect with Vidya online, her Twitter handle is @vidunarayanan. Thank you, everyone.


Vidya: Thank you.


Food for thought. Episode takeaways

Here is today's food for thought,

  • There were roadblocks along the way, but nothing that was very unusual, that I couldn't handle. I would say that it was not something, that millions of other women haven't faced.

  • My skills were sadly very rusty. There was a real adjustment that was required. It was not just about making time, but also changing the way I was thinking at that point of time. That was much harder than I anticipated.

  • The research environment was quite supportive, it's hard to pick out just a couple of mentors. That was a big factor in helping me get my bearings initially.

  • My younger self to be hopeful, to be ambitious, but not feel very dejected when things don't go your way.

  • Identify people who would always have your back and maybe cultivate those relationships or at least invest in those relationships.

  • A future where I'm in a role that gives me personal satisfaction but also leaves me with some time to pursue interests that are outside of work.


Resources Mentioned:

Similar Podcast Transcripts: Return to Work Season

Guest: Vidya Narayanan

Guest Host: Usha

Host: Sirisha

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