UCL Careers
  • Welcome

    The UCL Careers team use this Blog to share their ‘news and views’ about careers with you. You will find snippets about a whole range of career related issues, news from recruiters and links to interesting articles in the media.

    If you are a researcher, we a specific blog for you.

    We hope you enjoy reading the Blog and will be inspired to tell us your views.

    If you want to suggest things that students and graduates might find helpful, please let us know – we want to hear from you.

    Karen Barnard – Director, UCL Careers

    UCL Careers is part of The Careers Group, University of London

    Accurate at the time of publication
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  • Science Communication and Science Policy Forum

    By Sophia Donaldson, on 16 March 2018

    Did you come to our Careers in Science Communication and Science Policy forum earlier this month? No? Well fret not! You haven’t missed out because we’ve summarised the key points below.

    Who were the speakers?

    David Robson, a freelance writer and editor, previously at New Scientist and BBC Future, currently writing his first book THE INTELLIGENCE TRAP: Why Smart People Make Stupid Mistakes, and How to Avoid Them, which will be published in Spring 2019.

    Iain Dodgeon, Strategic Ventures Manager in the Wellcome Trust’s Public Engagement team, where he’s helped develop science-related entertainment in the form of games, TV, and films. Iain is a former medical doctor.

    Rose Gray, Senior Policy Advisor at Cancer Research UK. Rose is a UCL Chemistry alumnus, who built up a range of science communications experiences while studying, including working with Guerrilla Science.

    Sam Dick, a Science Information and Policy Officer at The Institute of Cancer Research, who completed his PhD in Structural Biology at UCL before moving into policy work via voluntary and internship roles at The National AIDS Trust and the Humsafar Trust in India.

    Aalia Kazi, an Account Manager at Incisive Health, a healthcare communications agency that focuses on policy and policy makers. Aalia is a UCL MSc Cardiovascular Science alumnus, who first joined Incisive Health as an intern after volunteering for Doctors of the World UK.

    And Jayne Hibberd, Associate Director at Galliard Healthcare Communications, whose role focuses on global communications strategies for her clients. As Associate Director, Jayne helps shape the future direction and day-to-day business of the agency.

    What do they like about working in Science Communications and Science Policy?

    Everyone agreed working with bright motivated people – whether they’re other communicators, scientists whose research must be communicated, or policy makers being communicated to – was one of the best things about working in these two sometimes overlapping sectors. Jayne values the insight she gains into her pharmaceutical company agency clients driving exciting scientific developments. As a popular science writer, David especially enjoys working with art departments of magazines on displaying stories effectively.

    Many felt being attached to science, which most of the panellists studied at university, was a draw, as were daily tasks of writing and crafting arguments, and the variety of scientific topics covered by both those communicating to the public and to policy makers. Iain mentioned working for an organisation like Wellcome, which is independent from government and commercial pressures, is liberating.

    Aalia, Rose, and Sam agreed that knowing their policy work influences real changes that impact real people’s lives is one of the best things about their jobs. Rose gave the example of having reports she’s worked on read by the secretary of state, and seeing beneficial legislation passed in part as a result.

    What are the worst bits?

    The variety of topics covered can have a downside, potentially leading to overload and stress. The hours can sometimes be long, and working late occasionally means cancelling social plans. Though the hours and deadlines seemed more of an issue for those working with clients, they were also mentioned by David when he’s scheduling interviews with researchers overseas outside of working hours due to time differences. David also commented that getting negative feedback on your writing from editors can be very tough at first, so you need to develop a thick skin.

    Aalia and Jayne have clients, and though they both value working with them, they acknowledged it can also be demanding, a bit like having multiple bosses. The client-focused nature of the work also means they both have to account for their time very precisely in order to bill clients, a different way of doing things to the other speakers.

    For those in policy, the flip side of the rewards gained when important change is effected is that it can be frustrating when something you’re passionate about doesn’t work out, or when change is only incremental. Additionally, the work is dictated in part by political whims rather than simply by the science.

    Will getting a science communication or policy qualification help you get in?

    None of the speakers had one of these qualifications so clearly it’s not a prerequisite! Those in science communication mentioned that the qualification can be a great way to build networks which may be valuable, but that the science communication world is fairly small so you can build useful networks through your working life without the qualification too. Rose commented that having a policy qualification shows motivation, but in her team at CRUK relevant policy work experience is likely to be prized above a qualification. And some people undertake a policy qualification after already working in the sector for a while in order to get maximum value from the experience.

    Any tips for those wanting to enter the sector?

    The overwhelming advice from the panel was to do stuff. Lots of stuff. Even if you don’t know where it will lead. This reflected the speakers’ career paths. Whether it was Iain leading a comedy group and securing funding for a film-making course while at university, Rose working in a hospital alongside her study and learning she didn’t want to be a medic but she did want to influence change over the NHS, or Sam volunteering in policy and outreach during his PhD and realising this was the work he enjoyed the most, all of the speakers had stories of taking a punt on something they thought looked interesting without necessarily having a ‘career plan’ in mind. In retrospect their narratives make sense, fitting together nicely into a career story. But none of them knew that at the time. They simply tried stuff, learning about themselves and the working world in the process.

    The panel also advised reaching out to people. Most will be happy to tell you about their experiences and offer advice, some may even be able to give you a job. Jayne in particular shared that she would be impressed by the motivation of someone who was proactive enough to contact a professional and show an interest in their work.

    For aspiring journalists, David extolled the virtues of starting a writing career in a small industry publication or local newspaper as a way of creating a portfolio and getting valuable feedback on your writing. He also advised being bold and pitching story ideas to publications like New Scientist who are always looking for great feature ideas. And if a pitch gets accepted, ask to be paid.

    And finally, Rose recommended visiting UCL Careers. In her words, Rose “absolutely rinsed” us when she was exploring her career options, and found our help very useful.

    Chris Penny’s Communications Internship at Portland Press

    By Weronika Z Benning, on 5 May 2016

    Internships, placements, work shadowing….when it comes to selecting a career they’re all great ways to ‘try before you buy’. Some UCL PhD programmes contain a mandatory placement period, a few months where students must do something unrelated to their research. These prove invaluable to the students involved, so in this series of posts we hope to spread the career knowledge by speaking to three PhDs about their placement experiences.

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    Interview by Shadae Samuels, Placements and Vacancies Officer, UCL Careers.

    Image taken from Chris Garcia.

    Chris Penny is a current PhD student with the London Interdisciplinary Doctoral Training Programme.  He is based in Sandip Patel’s lab and his PhD project is studying the molecular physiology and signalling functions of an intracellular ion channel. Through Chris’ project he was able to experience writing papers and reviews, which piqued his interest in potentially pursuing a career in publishing. This made publishing the perfect option for his PIPS placement to provide him with the opportunity to gain new skills and find out as much as possible about the industry. Chris secured a 12 week placement with Portland Press, a leading provider of high-quality publishing and knowledge dissemination solutions. He was supervised by the Executive Editor, Clare Curtis.

    How did Chris secure his PIPS with Portland Press?

    Chris initially researched a large number of publishing houses, he speculatively sent his CV and cover letter; he would then follow up his application with a phone call to the organisation. He found this approach was quite time-consuming and did not yield a high response, so Chris reached out to his own network for contacts in the publishing industry. Luckily Chris had a friend who previously worked at Portland Press Ltd and they put him in touch with a member of the editorial team. Chris organised an interview, and he was offered an internship starting a few months later. Chris would advise anyone applying for internships to utilise their contacts and be persistent in following up with the organisation. Having a contact in the organisation really helps with getting your application noticed!

    What did the company look for in a placement student?

    Portland Press wanted someone who was enthusiastic, willing to learn, and able to ‘have a go’ at a variety of tasks, some of which were mundane and others that would be more challenging. It was good to have someone who had little or no experience in the publishing industry so that they did not arrive with any preconceived ideas. The only requirement they had was for the intern to have scientific knowledge.

    What did Chris do on his placement?

    Portland Press is the wholly owned publishing subsidiary of the Biochemical Society, and produces the Biochemical Journal and Clinical Science, among other titles. It is a really exciting time to work there, with both the Society and the Press going through a number of changes to their look, systems and processes. Chris’ role mainly consisted of qualitative and quantitative data analysis, building upon his lab skills in the context of publishing. This included carrying out extensive citation analysis, looking at which research is high profile and which areas could be improved. Helping with the peer review submitted articles, Chris was able to generate strategies for expanding the research that is published by Portland Press, and he helped with commissioning experts to write the hot topics of the week.

    What did Chris gain from the experience?

    The placement was an opportunity for Chris to experience the other side of academic publishing. From the placement Chris gained commercial awareness, which he found particularly useful as this experience is very difficult to come by during a PhD. He improved on his analytical skills, market research skills by soliciting reviews, launching new content and searching for peer reviewers. Chris broadened his scientific interests as he was exposed to research in areas he was almost completely unaware of previously.

    How did the placement contribute to Portland Press?

    Portland Press is going through a period of significant change both in organisational structure and in processes. The work Chris undertook provided some foundations for future development of the department, and helped the creation of an overall strategy. The Biochemical Society is committed to the advancement of science for academics and students. Part of its ethos is to foster education and student opportunities. Therefore being part of the BBSRC PhD placement programme was the perfect way to meet this for Portland Press.

    Has the placement influenced Chris’s career direction?

    Since the start of his PhD Chris always wanted to go into post-doctoral work, however he enjoyed the editorial and strategic aspects of his placement.  Therefore Chris would certainly consider joining an editorial board while in academia if possible, but would also consider working in publishing outside of academia. Chris has a better understanding of the publishing industry and hopes the experience will come in handy for articles he will publish in the future.

    If you’re a UCL PhD or researcher wondering how to secure work experience or a more permanent post, book an appointment to speak with one of our advisers. And for advertised opportunities check out UCL Talent Bank and JobOnline.

    Alice Lui’s Festival Experience at Science Museum

    By Weronika Z Benning, on 30 April 2016

    Internships, placements, work shadowing….when it comes to selecting a career they’re all great ways to ‘try before you buy’. Some UCL PhD programmes contain a mandatory placement period, a few months where students must do something unrelated to their research. These prove invaluable to the students involved, so in this UCL Careers Researchers series of posts we hope to spread the career knowledge by speaking to three PhDs about their placement experiences.

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    Interview by Shadae Samuels, Placements and Vacancies Officer, UCL Careers.

    Image taken from Allan Watt.

    Alice Lui is a current PhD student with the London Interdisciplinary Doctoral Training Programme; based in Saul Purton’s lab her PhD project is studying the synthesis of fungible biofuels in cyanobacteria. Alice initially wanted to gain experience in science communications to reach the wider public beyond academia. The placement team brokered a relationship with the Science Museum who offered exclusive roles to PIPS students, one of which was the chance to work at one of their upcoming festivals. This was the perfect opportunity for Alice to gain experience in science communication to a wider audience, she applied and was offered the position after having an interview. She was supervised by the Assistant Content Developer, Pippa Hough.

    How did Alice secure her placement with Science Museum?

    The placements team was aware that Science Museum were interested in taking on UCL students as interns so we got in touch and informed them of BBSRC/LIDo programme. They were keen to host such students on a placement and offered two exclusive PIPS opportunities, Alice sent her CV and cover letter to Science Museum, and she was then invited to an interview and then offered the position to begin shortly after.

    What was The Science Museum looking for in their placement student?

    The Science Museum wanted a student who would be able to work to tight deadlines, has excellent research skills, and would be able to handle a lot of changes! Alice’s expertise in synthetic biology and bio-sciences in general really stood out in her application/interview as this would be helpful in translating complicated research papers.

    What did Alice do on her placement?

    The main focus of Alice’s placement was to research and develop the scientific content for the ‘You Have Been Upgraded’ festival on the topic of human enhancement technologies. Her time was spent mostly on researching the area of human enhancement and synthetic biology. She contacted academics, artists and individuals involved in this area of research and interviewed them about their work and whether they would be interested in being involved in the festival. Alice also researched possible demonstrations that could be shown during the festival.  During the week leading up to the festival, Alice helped with setting up the festival space. During the festival Alice supported the scientists and interacted with the public, she was also responsible for researching possible objects that could feature in the museum.

    What did Alice gain from the experience?

    The main thing Alice gained from her placement was the confidence to communicate! She improved on her communication skills as she was communicating with people outside the industry and therefore had to learn how to engage a lay audience. This was extremely valuable to her especially if she decides to embark on a career outside of academia. Alice learned the importance of being organised which improved her time management skills.

    How did the placement contribute to The Science Museum?

    Alice’s ability to think fast on her feet and problem solve on the go really helped the festival run as smoothly as it did. Alice also did general research around contemporary science topics that fed into events and small exhibitions the department produces. Her work on finding an object to represent a case on Ebola was particularly helpful! Overall she proved how valuable it is to have an intern which is something the team has not done before and there are excited to have their next LIDo intern.

    Did the placement influence Alice’s career plans?

    Although Alice is still uncertain about her future job prospects the placement has made Alice realise how important job satisfaction and your wellbeing is. She is therefore considering different types of opportunities. Alice may consider a role in Science Communication following her PhD as she gained a lot of confidence in communicating with a wider audience.

    If you’re a UCL PhD or researcher wondering how to secure work experience or a more permanent post, book an appointment to speak with one of our advisers. And for advertised opportunities check out UCL Talent Bank and JobOnline.

     

    Life & Health Sciences Careers Themed Week: jobs round-up

    By Weronika Z Benning, on 23 March 2016

    We hope you enjoyed attending our events during Life and Health Sciences Careers Themed Week (7th – 11th March 2016).

    As a follow up, we’d like to highlight the following employment, learning, and networking opportunities posted on UCL JobOnline, related to the sector, in which you might be interested:

    Internships

    Scientific Internship at Costello Medical
    This position is ideal for current students and recent graduates in the sciences seeking to gain an insight into life at a fast-growing consultancy serving pharmaceutical industry clients. You will be presented with the opportunity to gain hands-on experience of a variety of medical communications projects involving the assimilation, interpretation and creative presentation of data from clinical trials. http://bit.ly/1Q35CDf

    Health Economist Internship at Costello Medical
    The Health Economist Internship typically lasts for 6 months, but we are also able to consider applications for 3 month internships. The stipend for interns is £1,200 per calendar month, and you will be entitled to statutory holiday. http://bit.ly/1R3vxZ6

    Science Policy & Impact Summer Placement at the National Physical Laboratory. This placement will provide you with an excellent opportunity to gain first-hand experience of evaluation and impact analysis in support of policy development. Apply by:  29th March 2016. http://bit.ly/1UfVZVP

    Trainee Ecologist at MLM. We have a great opportunity for a Trainee Ecologist to join our ecology team in Chelmsford for your summer break. Apply by: 24/03/2016. http://bit.ly/1RkYjuo

    Business Strategy & Marketing Intern at Health/ Biotech start-up:  iamYiam. http://bit.ly/1ROiyel

    Permanent Positions

    Associate/Senior Epidemiologist at Boehringer Ingelheim Ltd UK.
    Provide robust relevant real world data and epidemiological reasoning to drive innovative strategies and aid evidence based decision making across the Prescription Medicine portfolio. Apply by: 25th March 2016. http://bit.ly/1U7Ov80

    Pharmaceutical Market Analyst at Visiongain. Opportunity in healthcare research:
    Are you the analytical type?
    Do you want to make sense of data, collecting and interpreting it to benefit medical companies? Are you fascinated by how technologies there affect our world?
    So, if researching, handling those numbers and drafting reports suit your talents, visiongain’s pharma analyst role could fit you. No deadline specified. http://bit.ly/1VcufAQ

    Learning and Behaviour Specialist at Ambitious about Autism. We’re looking for trainee and experienced learning support staff – Learning and Behaviour Specialists – to deliver high-quality learning support to young adults with autism. Apply by: 1st April 2016. http://bit.ly/1U7Q6dZ

    Nutrition Consultant Vacancies at Oxford Policy Management. Exciting opportunities for Nutrition Financing/Health Economist; consultant in Monitoring & Evaluation of Nutrition and Food Security Programmes and Public Health Nutritionist! Apply by 14th April 2016. http://bit.ly/1pLzn39

    Commissioning Editor at the Future Science Group. We are now seeking a self-starter with a strong work ethic to play an important role in the running of our journal portfolio. Apply by: 1st April 2016. http://bit.ly/1RObIpg

    Marie Curie Trainee’s (EU Early Stage Researchers) in Biomedical Optics for Brain Injury Monitoring (x 2 positions) at UCL. Development, test and clinical application of the state-of-the-art optical instrument for multi-wavelength, multi-channel and multi-modal brain tissue spectroscopy/imaging. Apply by 31st March 2016. http://bit.ly/21vehBP

    And a range of Research Assistant positions in this sector at institutions across the country are available on UCL JobOnline.

    This Themed Week event programme will be repeated next year, with fresh lineups and panels. For more information on Life & Health Sciences Week 2016, including audio recordings of events and other resources, please visit http://www.ucl.ac.uk/careers/events/getinto/lifehealthsciences.

    Applying for the NHS Scientist Training Programme, part II

    By Weronika Z Benning, on 2 February 2016

    One of our Careers Consultants recently interviewed two candidates currently on the NHS Scientist Training Programme. We’re sharing these interviews to help inform you about the value and opportunities available in the programme, and give you real-world insight into the experiences of current candidates. Last week we posted our interview with Aled Jones,  a finalist in the Bioinformatics stream. Read on for our interview with Heidi Kuoppama, during her first year on the Genetics Stream.

    Applications for the NHS Scientist Training Programme have just opened. Find more information and apply here.

    Heidi

    What made you apply to the STP?

    I have an undergraduate degree and two masters degrees in science and I wanted to work in a lab, so in 2009 I started on the PTP, which is a two-year practitioner programme for technicians within the NHS, at the Cytogenetics lab at Guy’s hospital. I then spent another two years working as a technician within the same lab, and at that point I felt I wanted to do more; as a technician I was largely involved with lab and administrative work, with only a bit of analysis and interpretation. I applied to the STP because I wanted to gain a more in-depth understanding of genetics, and the science behind it, and I wanted to be able to interpret and report patient results.

    What does your job involve?

    As a qualified healthcare scientist, the bulk of my job will be interpreting and reporting patients’ results. The amount of labwork I’ll do will depend on how each particular lab is organised, but generally it will only be a small part of my job – maybe 10 or 20%. I’ll need to understand and be aware of what’s going on in the lab to be on hand for troubleshooting if something goes wrong. But most of the lab-based work might be when clinical scientists get involved in introducing a new test to the lab, or trying to improve existing techniques, R&D work.

    As a trainee, I’m currently in the process of writing up my evidence for each of the competencies I have to fulfil as part of the training program, which involves a lot of sitting in front of a computer. But this will vary throughout the course of being a trainee – at other times I’ll be in the lab more. During the first year we do four rotations of three months each, across different labs; one in our own specialism, then three others. The three I chose were cellular specialisms; Cytology at St Thomas’, Reproductive Science at Guy’s, and ?!

    As part of the STP you also study for an MSc in Healthcare Science. At the start of the first year we had an induction day where I got to meet lots of different STP trainees across all of the different disciplines, and we also had a week’s contact learning in Nottingham, where I was with all of the other Genetics trainees in my year. Later in the training I’ll also work on a research project relevant to my specialism, one that will hopefully benefit my lab.

    What was the application process like?

    Very competitive – it was a lot of work! I had NHS and PTP experience, as well as two Masters degrees, which was a good start, but I still applied twice! The first time I got to interview but wasn’t quite good enough, then I was successful second time around. The first step of the process is answering short essay-style questions. Answering those fully to make sure you stand out can take days. Then there are online reasoning tests, and if you don’t pass them you don’t get any further. I looked at a few example questions beforehand and thought it seemed quite easy, but some of the questions were very tough in the real test, mostly because you’re so pressured for time.

    The next stage is the interview, which is a bit like speed-dating! There are four different tables with two interviewers at each, and all the candidates cycle through them in turn, changing table when the bell sounds. In my year there was a general science stand, two specialism-specific stands (so for me that was genetics), and then a stand on leadership, healthcare science and the NHS in general. You really get grilled on these stands, so you need to know a lot about what’s currently going on in your discipline, and in the NHS in general, and you need to be prepared to answer technical questions and be shown data. Then you’re given a mark for your performance on each stand, your scores are all added up, and you’re ranked against all the other candidates. Your rank will determine whether you’ll get a training place, and where that place will be.

    Did you get your first choice of training location?

    Yes I was lucky enough to get my first choice, which was the lab I already worked in. But I saw a few people who had to move across the country to take up places they were offered, which might not have been their first, second, or even third choice, so if the STP is something you really want to do, you may have to be flexible on location during your training.

    What kind of experience is needed to get onto the program?

    It’s a graduate scheme, so in theory all you need is a relevant undergraduate degree, however, it’s very competitive, and there are many applicants that meet the minimum criteria. In my intake I think there were about 16 Genetics trainees, and only one of them is a fresh graduate from university. About half of them have PhDs, and maybe around a third have worked as technicians in the NHS or in research.

    What do you enjoy most about the STP so far?

    I get to make a difference and help people through science. And I’m being challenged mentally; I have to innovate, and try to take my lab forward to provide a better service to patients, which is awesome.

     

    What are the downsides?

    Juggling the academic and the practical side of the training can be difficult, and you have to sacrifice your own spare time to get everything done. However, if you’re really passionate about the job, this isn’t too bad. Another key downside for people who like labwork would be the lack of lab time involved. I actually really enjoyed being in the lab when I was a technician, so I’ll miss it, but I’ve come to terms with it now!

    The job can also be stressful at times. There’s a lot of work and tight deadlines to meet, and if something goes wrong, as scientists we have to be able to find a solution, otherwise we’ll be holding up the important work of the lab. But of course that’s also what makes it rewarding, how crucial the work we do is.

     

    What advice would you have for anyone trying to get onto the STP?

    I was lucky because I’d worked in NHS labs before, and although that’s not the case for all successful trainees, I would advise trying to get some NHS exposure, even if it’s just visiting a lab for a few hours. Talking to healthcare scientists, and reading relevant journal articles, will also help you to keep on top of developments in your field and in the NHS, which is important in the interview. I would also recommend practicing before taking the online tests, as you can definitely become quicker with practice.

     

    Applying to the NHS Scientist Training Programme, part I

    By Weronika Z Benning, on 22 January 2016

    One of our Careers Consultants recently interviewed two candidates currently on the NHS Scientist Training Programme. We’ll be sharing these interviews this week and next to help inform you about the value and opportunities available in the programme, and give you real-world insight into the experiences of current candidates. This week we’re sharing our interview with Aled Jones, while a finalist in the Bioinformatics stream. Check in next week for our write-up with Heidi Kuoppama, during her first year on the Genetics Stream.

    Applications for the NHS Scientist Training Programme have just opened. Find more information and apply here.

    AledJones

    Aled Jones has a degree in Human Biology from Loughborough University and is now entering the final year of the three-year Bioinformatics (Genomics) NHS Scientist Training Program, during which he has been based in the Genetics department of Viapath at Guy’s hospital London.

    How did you decide to apply for the bioinformatics STP?

    I first became interested in Genetics during my undergraduate degree in Human Biology, so after graduating I took a job in forensics and saved money to fund an MSc in Medical Genetics at Newcastle University. It was here that I was introduced to clinical genetics in the NHS, the role of a Clinical Scientist and the scientist training program (STP) and realised that was a path I wanted to follow.

    I applied for the genetics training scheme but I didn’t get onto it. The feedback that I got was that the competition was very stiff, and successful applicants had PhDs or previous NHS lab experience. To increase my chances I got a job as a technologist in the Cytogenetics department at St Mary’s hospital,Manchester.

    I was there for four years. I had intended for this job to be short term, a foot-in-the-door of the genetics scientist training program. I enjoyed being in the lab environment, so much so I started to realise the role of a genetics clinical scientist wasn’t for me. I loved the labwork, being busy, and the trouble-shooting elements but I didn’t enjoy analysing and interpreting the results of the genetic tests. That was only a small part of a technologist’s role, but it would be a much bigger part of the genetics clinical scientist role. It was great to find this out in advance but it also meant that the goal I’d been aiming for had vanished.

    At around that time next-generation sequencing was starting to be adopted in the clinical service, and this posed lots of challenges in terms of the wealth of data produced. There were many talks which said there was a huge shortage of bioinformatics expertise within the NHS. I was very comfortable on a computer and realised there may be an opportunity here, so I spent my lunchbreaks teaching myself about different aspects of bioinformatics, and learning the Perl programming language on the advice of the department’s Bioinformatician. I really enjoyed this and was looking for ways to move into it more when the NHS announced the bioinformatics STP, which suited my experience and aspirations perfectly. I applied for the first intake and I think that because I had NHS experience, showed that I had researched, investigated and “tried” bioinformatics, I had a good understanding of the training program and discussed bioinformatics in the NHS with colleagues from my lab, I was accepted onto the programme.

    What was the STP application process like?

    The basic requirement is a 2.2 degree, but it’s a really competitive program. Nearly everyone in my year’s bioinformatics intake has either a PhD or previous experience working within an NHS lab. It is possible to get a place straight out of an undergraduate degree (there’s one person in my year who did) with little or no lab experience, but you’d have to put in a very good application, and show you understand bioinformatics, clinical science, and the NHS.

    In the application form there are five questions to answer in quite a short space, so you have to be concise and to the point, and show evidence of your skills and motivation from your real-life examples.

    There’s an aptitude test after the application form is submitted. If you don’t pass the test, no one will look at your form. The test is pretty daunting so it’s worth using the practise tests provided as much as possible. However, I didn’t feel I did particularly well on the test, and I got through!

     

    The interview’s a bit like speed-dating. There are four ‘stations’, each lasting 10 minutes, where you are asked really prescriptive questions. Two of the stations were speciality-specific, one computer science based and genetic based which included interpreting the output of a genetic test, so my background in NHS labs was really useful.

    What’s good about the job?

    Working for the NHS may not offer the biggest salary, but I feel I’m doing something that really matters, ‘giving back’. With the STP you get paid a decent wage to get on-the-job training and a Masters degree. You learn a lot of really useful things during the training programme, and especially with bioinformatics, these skills open up a lot of doors, within and outside of the NHS.

    I’m still training so I’m not the most useful person around the lab yet, but when I’ve had the opportunity to work on real bioinformatics projects that are useful to people in the lab, I’ve found it really absorbing and rewarding.

    What are the challenges/downsides?

    A lot of the challenges my intake to the program has encountered are to do with the fact that bioinformatics is so new, and we’re the first year of the bioinformatics STP, so we’ve been guinea pigs in a way. I think subsequent intakes will experience fewer of those issues.

    But there are some more general challenges too. The way the programme works is there are separate modules, and each of these have competencies that you have to tick off in various ways, maybe through writing a report or giving a presentation, and sometimes these can seem a little disjointed. Personally, I’m better at getting stuck into one bigger piece of work, so balancing all these little projects can be tough at times.

    Another thing I’ve found difficult is the switch to a fairly solitary desk-job. When I was a technologist I was in the lab, physically moving around and had built up responsibilities so I was in demand and often asked for advice, but now I sit at a desk all day and have little reason to interact with the rest of the lab, especially as at the moment I’m training.

    And another possible downside is the way that the STP positions are allocated. STP vacancies come up across the UK, and depending on how you perform in the interview, you may end up being offered a position somewhere in the country you don’t particularly want to work. This is what happened to me. I was very happy living and working in Manchester, my friends and girlfriend were there, but I ended up with an STP offer in London, which was not one of my top choices. Guy’s has a great genetics department, one of, if not the best, in the UK, and so in hindsight it was a good thing, but the move was pretty disruptive to my and my girlfriend’s lives. I know people have turned down offers because they were placed somewhere they didn’t want to move to.  Although there is no guarantee you’ll get your choices I’d recommend researching the labs which you apply to.
    What’s the progression like?

    When I complete the program I’ll be state-registered as a clinical scientist. However, there’s no guarantee of a job, so I’ll have to apply for any clinical scientist vacancies that arise. I’m an optimist, so I think if a department has spent three years training a person in an area where there’s a skills shortage, they should be ideally suited for a job in that department. But whether departments will have the money to fund a post is a different story (trainees are funded centrally, not by the host lab and money is quite tight in many departments/in the NHS!!).

    I’m confident I’ll find a job in clinical bioinformatics though as if I cannot find a role in a genetics department, I think there will be bioinformatics positions popping up in virology and microbiology departments as they too adopt next generation sequencing and encounter the same challenges genetics faced.

    Also, with bioinformatics in particular, I’ll come out of the program with a whole host of new computing skills that I didn’t have before, and they’ll be valuable to a variety of employers, not just the NHS.

    What are your top tips for anyone interested in the STP?

    Take every opportunity to find out about the STP and the work of clinical scientists [reading this blog post counts!]. Lots of labs have open days, and representatives from the STP visit universities. If you’ve missed all of that, try contacting your local department and asking a few questions. This will help you to understand the programme, and to show your motivation.
    Applications for the NHS Scientist Training Programme have just opened. Find more information and apply here.

    Check in next week for our write-up with Heidi Kuoppama, during her first year on the Genetics Stream.