The impact of academic career breaks: New insights from


Career breaks are likely to affect the majority of academic working lives, either directly or indirectly, yet there has been very little research in this area, particularly in an academic setting.

Whatever stage of your life you enter academia it is unlikely the career will resemble the traditional career ladder, as life takes many unexpected twists and turns. With the retirement age creeping up, many academics are looking at working for almost half a century. At some point academics will probably take a break, either by choice or by chance. It may be for family reasons, to change direction or because a temporary contract has come to an end. In many cases one reason can lead to another. teamed up with and Research Media to produce the largest independent study of its kind with over 5,000 academics responding to our online survey to explore their thoughts and experiences. The goal was to provide information and resources to help inform academics and their employers about the challenges of both taking and returning from a career break.

The online survey reached out to everyone in the academic community, and respondents represented academics at all levels of their career journey.

  • The most represented position was post-doctoral researchers at 22 per cent – perhaps symptomatic of swelling numbers of academics falling into this category
  • 61 per cent of respondents were female, and of those 41 per cent had taken (or were taking) maternity leave.

In fact, maternity leave was the number one reason for taking a career break, closely followed by the end of a fixed-term contract or redundancy which affected almost a quarter of respondents, and was the number one reason amongst male respondents.

The gender difference

This gender difference was of particular interest. Despite the genders being fairly equally balanced in academia only 22 per cent of professors are female. Whilst career breaks affect men and women, certain reasons behind the interruption seem to prevent women in particular from progressing. Furthermore, the measured and metric nature of contemporary research may have a negative impact on the professional reputation of academics that take breaks.

The most recent presentation of the research at the Vitae Researcher Development International Conference 2016 in September considered the particular impact of breaks on postdocs and early career academics on a series of short-term contracts in a staunchly competitive environment. The presentation introduced a number of new findings from the survey and the highlights can be found on Storify.

New insights into the impact of career breaks

As part of the, Vitae and collaboration, the most recent analysis of the career break survey has looked at the impact of career breaks across career trajectories. The data is still being collated, but there are already some interesting findings emerging which look at why people took career breaks at different stages of their career.

Maternity leave

The main reason for taking a career break across all respondents was maternity leave at 28 per cent overall. However, breaking this down by job title, the most likely group to take maternity leave was the professors, with 42 per cent of them citing this as the reason for their most recent career break. This was closely followed by associate professors at 39 per cent.

Given that only 22 per cent of professors in the UK are female, this is a very interesting finding. More analysis is needed to understand why the proportion of female professors taking maternity leave is so high, including exploring the qualitative data gathered from respondents.

Uncommon reasons for a career break

The survey provided a few options for the question ‘What was the main reason for your most recent career break?’, and some were more popular than others.

One of the least common answers was Personal Development with only 9 per cent of respondents citing this as a reason, and perhaps not surprisingly this type of a career break seemed to be more prevalent amongst those with more advanced careers. 22 per cent of those who are or had been Head of Departments had taken a break for personal development, as had 17 per cent of those in more senior administrative positions. But at the other end of the scale, so had 14 per cent of PhD candidates.

This may be a consequence of how respondents interpreted this answer, and how in the complexities of real life it becomes hard to define or remember exactly what motivated a break in the first place, especially if various life changing events happened in a short space of time.

The survey was packed full of fascinating insights, and if you are interested in finding out more you can download the full Academic Career Break research report.

Vitae, and have formed a collaboration to enhance our offering to the sector through supporting PhDs, researchers and researcher developers with a range of tools, research and thought leadership pieces. Together we have a unique opportunity to listen to our global audiences and their challenges and turn this learned knowledge into actions to help with the circulation of talent and improve the sector.  If you have any ideas for what you would like us to look at together please get in touch.

[1] The question asked was ‘What was the highest position you have held?’ rather than current job title.