UCL Researchers
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    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.

    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 – Head of UCL Careers

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

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    A PhD’s experience in Life Science Consulting

    By Sophia Donaldson, on 18 October 2018

    Dr Xun Yu Choong has a PhD in Neuroscience from UCL’s Institute of Neurology and is now a Life Sciences Strategy Consultant at IQVIA. Xun had some great insights to share when we sat down and chatted about his career.

    What are you up to now?

    I’m an Associate Consultant working for IQVIA, which was formerly known as IMS and Quintiles before these companies merged. IQVIA as a company offers a whole range of services for the healthcare industry from R&D to commercialisation, and as part of Consulting Services we do a broad range of strategy consulting work relating to Life Sciences and Healthcare. This could relate to anything from early stage product development all the way to understanding the best way to commercialise and launch a product around the world.

    How did you get here?

    I realised at the end of the second year of my PhD that I didn’t want to continue in academia, for a bunch of reasons, but mainly because I wanted to try something outside basic research that may translate more immediately to impacts in the shorter term. As one of the preparations  I started going to UCL’s grad school courses, and my first role I took was actually a direct result of UCL Careers’ Focus on Management which had brought in four major employers, one of which was GSK. During the course I found out about GSK’s Business and Technology Consulting Future Leaders Programme, which was looking for people to bridge the technical and commercial needs of the business, without needing a computer science background. That appealed to me as I wanted to see different parts of the business and learn about different aspects of technology in a large healthcare company.

    During my year or so in GSK I learned a lot of seemingly obvious things that as a PhD student I hadn’t learned, such as what it’s like to work in a large open-plan office, and how to reply to emails in a business setting. It might sound silly, but these are habits and states of mind that are quite different between business and academia. For instance when you’re in academia there is less distinction between what is work and what isn’t, all the work is tied very closely to you, whether things move forward or not are frequently down to you to try pushing. Whereas in a large company everyone had an ascribed role, you are a part of a larger process, and it takes time to learn how to be part of that process. Naturally in my role as a Business Process Analyst I also learned a lot about the digital platform and how to be part of a team rolling out large scale programmes to a tight timeline.

    However, at that point I realised I was again becoming a bit more specialised than I would have liked, and part of why I’d wanted to move away from academia was to try jobs that allowed a far broader view. So I started to look into other jobs, including consulting, and after going through rounds of applications again I fortunately ended up with three quite different job offers. Apart from consulting, one offer was in a smaller firm largely providing competitive intelligence services to pharma, which meant finding out information about the competition in a regulated way, while the other  involved internal risk auditing where I would have been part of a team visiting different parts of the business to assess how ready they were for different forms of risk. I went for IQVIA because it was the broadest and most commercial role, while I also had a good impression about the workplace, culture and opportunities to develop.

    What does an average day look like?

    In consulting, the “products” you deliver are the knowledge and recommendations present in your powerpoint slides, reports, spreadsheets and so on. Most of the time as an associate consultant I’m conducting primary or secondary research, creating project documents or helping to coordinate activities needed to deliver projects. The projects you have been assigned will define what the research part looks like, and these projects can last anything from a couple of weeks to 6-7 months. If you’ve got a project involving mostly qualitative research, say if a client wants to understand how payers in the NHS might think when faced with a certain drug’s performance data, then you might be on a phone call with an expert who used to make such decisions, interviewing them with a set of questions your team had devised. So these projects might involve more interviews, surveys,  transcription and analysis to understand what stories it presents. If you’re doing a more quantitative project, for example you may want to understand which regions in Italy we should focus on for a certain initiative, you might want some sort of quantitative data to collect and analyse, for example data on hospitals in the region. In those cases you’d be doing more analysis on Excel – nothing extremely technical – but the research you need to do for projects would depend on the questions posed. There are a broad range of other project types as well, such as organising and conducting workshops, expert panel discussions, mock negotiations and so on.

    Generally speaking as a new joiner you would mostly be focusing on project delivery – conducting research and creating materials, for example – while a more experienced project manager will be the main point of contact with the client. Nonetheless, you are fully involved in contributing to the thinking and discussion on how the solutions eventually shape up, and you’ll often be on the client calls and have a chance to offer input. For some projects I have travelled to client offices to present, but so far I’m usually supporting on the phone when needed – this may vary between different projects and indeed between different companies.

    What are the best bits?

    The work is genuinely very interesting – if it weren’t an important problem for the client they would unlikely have paid for consultants to advise on it. I am happy that my role is focused on Life Science and Healthcare as that is where my interest lies, and within this industry there is still a huge variety in scopes of work, which consulting allows you to broadly explore. My colleagues are great, they come from varied backgrounds, are highly capable and most importantly are very lovely people. There are also very experienced principals whom you can learn a lot from. After a while you get used to switching between project teams, and it always makes for a very dynamic environment.

    What are the worst bits?

    Classically in consulting, schedules are less predictable as they depend on deadlines set by the client’s needs, and by how the research goes. In IQVIA we work on multiple projects at a time –  usually two, occasionally three – so sometimes it can get very busy if you happen to be on two projects with the same peak periods.

    Saying that, from what I understand life sciences and healthcare-focused consulting generally offers more stable hours than some other forms of consulting. There’s also not a culture of showmanship in the sense where working longer is perceived more favourably – the main focus is to deliver project work on time and to a high quality. But because we often can’t fully predict when we will have to stay late, there needs to be some flexibility involved, though any challenges would be dealt with as a team. On the plus side, it also means that if you book time off way in advance it is most likely you can go as you are unlikely to have started a project yet, and your staffing can be built around those leave dates.

    Do you need a PhD?

    I think PhDs are undervalued. The technical expertise and in-depth knowledge doesn’t even cover half of what they can do, and PhDs often don’t realise how much more developed their PhD has made them in multiple ways. The classic selling points are that PhDs are analytical, they’ve been involved in problem-solving and can conduct research. Because of this most consultancies recognise the value of PhDs, and some consultancies, including IQVIA, accept PhDs  at a higher entry level that undergraduate or Masters students.

    But I also think the softer skills developed in PhDs is important, and the challenge with most PhD students is being able to articulate this. For instance PhDs are incredibly resilient because research fails all the time, and you get used to failing and dealing with it. Consulting involves thoroughly addressing client questions, and sometimes these change quickly given new developments and you have to go back to the drawing board; PhDs will likely be able to deal with that situation.

    One thing PhDs may struggle with if they enter consulting, and probably a lot of other non-academic workplaces, is the concept of things being “good enough”. There are more deadlines and more acute pressure to deliver, so you can’t be obsessed with doing everything absolutely perfectly, but rather learn to deliver projects that are of an excellent standard within the  limits set. It’s important to think about the big picture as well instead of getting bogged down in every detail, which can take time to adjust to.

    What’s the progression like?

    One of the good things about consulting is the clear frameworks for how consultants progress. Loosely speaking the more junior levels focus on project delivery and analysis, middle levels get involved with day-to-day project management of increasing complexity, while the more senior roles provide strategic leadership and advice. You are expected to progress within reasonable timeframes, with an industry average of around two years per level. If you demonstrate the qualities required consistently, there is little reason for you to be held back, so the progression opportunities are clear. In consulting in general there is a relatively high turnover of people who join for a few years and then move onto other roles. After being exposed to so many different projects, areas, and companies, part of the reason may be that you may hit upon an area that really appeals to you, and decide to focus on that as a next step.

    What are your top tips for researchers wanting to get into this career?

    Look at your CV as a character profile rather than a list of things you’ve done. The STAR [Situation Task Action Result] model is pretty useful, use it as a guide for each trait that you would like to tell an employer about. This involves not just describing what was actually done, but also the impact of your action, and what this shows about you.

    It’s also useful to consider all the things you do as potential evidence of different abilities. There are no specific technical requirements for consulting, and there is a strong emphasis on transferable skills such as working in a team and being able to communicate effectively, which you can draw upon from any experiences that may be relevant. But because “anything goes” in a consulting CV, if justified, you need to be very clear about the profile you’re building up and what different items in your CV are meant to achieve in portraying your abilities. In other words, what does this item show about my abilities and are they combining to meet what the position is looking for?

    As an example, I enjoy going to the theatre a lot and occasionally write assessments for shows, so I made the argument that writing these assessments requires conveying what was worthwhile in a show, without spoiling the plot, and this honed an ability to communicate opinions succinctly. So think about what your pursuits bring to your character, and you may be surprised how much can go in your consulting CV. On that note, it may be surprisingly useful in terms of supporting a future career to do stuff that you enjoy and that you find meaningful, instead of constantly tailoring what you do depending on what you think is “constructive”. So although to some degree you should cover the bases, you should also do what you enjoy, and figure out how to tell the story in the CV along the way.

    A PhD working in Biotech Venture Capital

    By Sophia Donaldson, on 25 September 2018

    Dr Jonathan Tobin has a PhD in Molecular Medicine from UCL, and is now an Investment Director at Arix Bioscience. Here he tells us about his current role and career path.

    What are you up to now?

    I’m a Biotechnology Venture Capitalist. That basically involves finding interesting and novel ideas for new drugs and therapeutics, and either building a company from scratch – finding a management team, and putting money into the company, and helping to develop the products; or finding a company that already exists, with a management team in place, and leading an investment into the company. Some of our investments are in very early pre-clinical work from academia, some are already in patients – phase II or phase III testing. We work in the UK, Europe, Israel, Australia, US, and Canada, and we have an office in London and one in New York. We’ve got about £250 million to invest with. A part of my role is helping raise capital, but that responsibility mostly falls to the CEO. Our capital comes from a variety of sources, including pharma companies, institutional investors, mutual funds, family offices, and wealth managers who manage money for clients. We’ve invested in 15 companies in the last two years, and four of those we’ve started from scratch ourselves.

    How did you get here?

    I’d always been interested in business, partly because my family have always been in business – they own a firm of chartered surveyors founded by grandfather in 1930. When I was growing up all the dinner table conversation was often about business, few in my family had really been to university or been academics. I was the first person to show a strong interest in science and research, but at the same time I had been imbued with a business mentality. If I hadn’t been so interested in biology I might have joined my Dad’s company, like he joined his Dad’s company in the 1960s.

    Instead I did a PhD with Prof Phil Beales at the Institute of Child Health. Phil was an excellent mentor and helped me a lot. I was quite lucky that UCL were generous with training programmes for graduates. I took advantage of a lot of courses; at that time they had one at London Business School for PhDs, and there was an entrepreneurs training course called the London Entrepreneur’s Challenge. There were courses in writing and presenting and professional management skills, a residential course in Wales for a week – and it was all totally free, which was amazing. I don’t think many people really took the time out of their PhDs to do that stuff because they didn’t realise how useful it would be. I always had one eye on something beyond working in the lab, but I knew that I wanted to do science. I thought I might like to work in venture capital from when I was a graduate, but obviously I had to train first in the science before I could do that. So it was on my radar from the beginning, but it takes a while to build up the skills to do it.

    After my PhD, which I finished just as the credit crunch started, I tried to get a job in the city as a pharma equity analyst. I had spoken to lots of people in the field during the second half of my PhD – people in banking and finance and consultancy, but no one was hiring in 2008 – it was impossible to get a job as everyone was being laid off because of the recession. So I did a post-doc thinking that I would continue my scientific training and I went into a much more basic scientific lab at what is now the Crick. I applied for a Henry Wellcome post-doc fellowship, and I thought if I got that and I could basically be independent from the beginning then that would be an interesting way to be a scientist. I didn’t want to work in someone else’s lab at the bench, as I was much more interested in designing experiments and thinking about the big picture, and a bit sloppy at the execution in the lab!

    I didn’t get the fellowship. I think I failed largely because I was unconvincing about my motivation and passion to stay in academia. So I decided that tech-transfer would be a good stepping stone out of academia and into venture capital. I got a job at MRC Technology finding and assessing new drug discovery opportunities. They were very supportive of helping me learn. I spent a year there and it was really interesting because I learned loads of stuff; they sent me on courses about drug discovery and development, IP, licensing, negotiation, all sorts that I had never learned in science. I learned how to do due diligence in a really thorough way, and my job was doing due diligence on hundreds of biotech projects. But there were no career progression opportunities there, and I didn’t want to stay in tech transfer, so I signed up with a bunch of headhunters and got contacted about a job at Imperial Innovations who had just raised £140 million to do biotech investing – it was transitioning from being a tech-transfer office to a venture capital fund. They had decided they wanted someone with a PhD and science background, so I was lucky, I was in the right place at the right time. I spent five and a half enjoyable years working there on lots of interesting companies. And then I decided that I wanted be part of something new, where there wasn’t already a hierarchy, and I wanted to look at deals outside the UK, so I got the opportunity from a headhunter to join this new start-up, and helped build Arix Bioscience from its early days.

    What does a normal working day look like for you?

    I’m probably in the office about half to two thirds of my time. On a day when I’m in London I generally meet companies that are pitching, several companies a week in person or on the phone. I go to board meetings of companies I have already invested in. I’m often involved in executing deals, reading documents, and having conference calls to discuss terms of deals. There’s quite a lot of due diligence too, which involves quiet reading to research an area and figure out if it’s interesting or not, and as part of that I might talk to experts in the field to get their advice. I also manage an associate in London and one in San Francisco, and we have shareholders I often meet and present to. I’m generally travelling a few days every other week. This might be around Europe for conferences or to meet companies, I’m on the board of two companies in Israel so I travel there, we have an office in New York, so I’m in New York four times a year, and I’m on the board of a company in Boston, so I also go to Boston, once a year we go to the JP Morgan conference in San Francisco, and we have a shareholder in China that we visit as well. So quite a lot of long haul, of meeting people, and talking about their ideas.

    What are the best bits?

    Finding really cool projects and helping to turn them into companies is the best part. When you see really good results it’s very exciting. It’s the same sort of feeling as getting a great result in the lab. Even though I haven’t done the lab work, I have facilitated it, and I can see it will directly translate into new drugs which are helpful to people, which is quite satisfying.

    Another reason a lot of people want to enter venture capital is because of the work-life balance and being in control of what you do. I work very hard and a lot, but it’s mostly on my terms. I largely come and go as I please, and I travel a lot to interesting places meeting very intelligent and interesting people, talking about fascinating things. Typically I get into the office after dropping my children off at school, and usually leave the office around 5.30pm. I do work at home a lot, and I do have to be “on duty” the whole time, so it’s a different mentality to being able to completely switch off when you’ve left the office. The work is completely proactive – I have to find work, no work just comes inbound. So if you’re not busy, you’ll be stressed about not being busy! And if you’re doing a deal you have to be on hand, for example I was on holiday last week and a deal was going on so I had to be on call the whole time. It was a bit stressful because we were camping in the New Forest and the signal was terrible. That’s the flipside for the freedom I guess, you’re always on duty.

    For many people the compensation is also a draw. It’s generally well paid, and with the upside that if in the long run your companies are very successful then you can do phenomenally well. Obviously that’s an appealing feature of the role, especially if you want to live somewhere as expensive as London. But the interesting thing about this industry is that because everyone’s a scientist and a bit nerdy at heart, people tend to be more interested in the science and the excitement of developing new drugs that can help people, than the financial side which is just a very nice bonus.

    What are the worst bits?

    There’s a lot of pressure. In the short term there are pressures to find good deals and get them done. And in the long term, there’s a pressure to generate returns. Our business model involves raising money from shareholders and investing it in companies, then ultimately selling those companies to big pharmaceutical acquirers for a profit. Typically we’re looking for five to ten times the cash invested returned to compensate for the risk, as there’s a high failure rate. But it might take five to ten years for any given company to mature to the point you can sell it. If after ten to twelve years of being in the game you haven’t returned any money it’s like, what are you doing? It’s a bit like being in academia for twelve years and not publishing a paper – your career becomes a little limited at that point. If that happens, you might find you don’t have tonnes of transferrable skills as you’ve spent all your time being a critic rather than a chef. We’re not actually operators of businesses, I’ve never run a company myself, and I don’t necessarily have the skills to set up my own company and run it. So that’s the long term stressor in this industry I guess. And it’s fairly binary, a bit like academia, you just need one huge win to make your career. One major breakthrough is much better than having five or six tiny successes, which is fairly high risk in the long run.

    The other thing that’s a bit frustrating is you’re dealing with a lot of different stakeholders; academics, tech transfer offices, pharmaceutical companies, lawyers, other investors, and there’s a lot of different motivations. Some people are motivated by money, some by the science, some by the politics, some by risk reduction, and that makes things interesting but tricky, it means you’ve got to deal with people who have very different views of the world, but you’re trying to achieve the same thing together.

    Is a PhD essential for your role?

    It’s not essential to have a PhD, but it improves your chances of getting in. I’ve just hired someone with a PhD in neuroscience followed by three years of consulting experience. Most people – maybe 75% – in this industry have a PhD or an MD. People who don’t have a PhD will have more operational or consulting experience.

    My years in research have helped me in the role. I spend a lot of time looking at companies’ data and trying to interpret if the results are interesting and kosher, and I think I’m actually probably a better scientist now than I was because when you’re doing experiments that could lead to a drug, you have be super rigorous about controls and reproduction and having experiments done in a blinded way in multiple labs and under multiple conditions again and again and again. In academia you would never do that, because as soon as you see a result you move onto the next experiment and you don’t really, personally at least, question validity (though you’d hope eventually the community would produce enough repetitions to check validity, but that could be over a long period of time). In one of my companies we’ve spent a year and about $4 million repeating two experiments hundreds of times in five different labs in different conditions because we want to be 100% sure that the findings are legitimate. There just isn’t the money, the personpower, or the necessity to do that in academia. If you’re going to put something into humans though you have to be pretty careful. Also these projects are very expensive, so you want to make sure you’re spending your money wisely.

    What’s the progression like?

    Venture capital in Europe is a tiny tiny pool. There’s probably fewer than 20 high quality firms, and each might employ five or six investment professionals. There’s also low turnover because of the duration of the projects and the way the incentive structure works, as you get rewarded once your companies do well. So the further you are into your career the more upside there is.

    Generally people start off as an Analyst or an Associate which is somebody who basically does due diligence, so they do a lot of reading and talking to experts, and they also go to conferences and start to source opportunities. Then next level up is a Principal who might have three or four years of experience and is starting to learn how to lead deals, but is not fully independent. And then there’s Partner or Investment Director who basically does the transactions, takes responsibility for the deals, is part of the investment committee that makes the decisions and ultimately has the responsibility for that investment, taking the credit or punishment for the success or failure. Then the highest level will be the Managing Partner who has started the fund and is more responsible for raising the capital. They would typically be a very experienced individual with a track record of success.

    What tips would you pass on to researchers wanting to get into this area?

    Enrol in as many courses as possible; business courses, biotech courses, go to events and get to know people. Do a lot of reading about the other elements of the job – intellectual property, finance, company law, entrepreneurship, management. There’s a lot of things you have to know about, not at an expert level, but enough to have a conversation with an expert. It also demonstrates a commitment to and interest in the area. There are lots of podcasts you can listen to about the subject matter. Also start to network, because generally people hire through their networks; the person I just hired was a recommendation from someone else who had met them. So start as early as possible to put out feelers and ask people – most people are happy to have coffee for 20 minutes and share some advice or ideas. And also if you can find a mentor early on in your career that’s quite helpful. Someone who cares about and takes an interest in your journey and can help you if they hear about openings or opportunities. Because otherwise if you’re stuck in the lab and you’re a bit insulated from the rest of the world, where are you going to find out about these things? And how are you going to demonstrate an interest and passion for the area? You may also have to play a long game. It’s possible that straight out of research, if you’ve been on courses and networked, you might get a job in venture capital at the most junior level. But more likely you will need a couple of years of non-academic experience first, maybe in consultancy for instance, where you have learned the rigour of doing work for somebody else, and have learned the macro picture of the industry, not just how to load a gel.

    Careers Advice from Baz Luhrmann’s Wear Sunscreen

    By Sophia Donaldson, on 31 August 2018

    Remember that weirdly amazing song by Baz Luhrmann, Everybody’s Free (to Wear Sunscreen), that was pretty much just a guy reading the words to an essay by Pulitzer-Prize-winning Mary Schmich? It reached number 1 and Gold status here in the UK. But more importantly it formed the basis of how I live my life. If I’m ever unsure about a decision, I consult Wear Sunscreen, and within it I usually find my answer. For it covers all of life’s important arenas: Health (“Be kind to your knees, you’ll miss them when they’re gone”), Love (“Don’t be reckless with other people’s hearts, don’t put up with people who are reckless with yours”), and Beauty (“Do NOT read beauty magazines they will only make you feel ugly”).

    But of course the advice I want to discuss in this post relates to careers. And there’s lots of it. Here are four sets of key lyrics from the song, and how I see them relating to the careers of researchers I work with:

    1) “Enjoy the power and beauty of your youth. Oh nevermind. You will not understand the power and beauty of your youth until they have faded. But trust me, in 20 years you’ll look back at photos of yourself and recall in a way you can’t grasp now how much possibility lay before you and how fabulous you really looked.”

    We can all argue about where the cut-off for “youth” lies (I will always argue it’s located a few years older than me), but this lyric applies not only to the young. It’s about perspective. It describes how it’s tough in any one moment to see how much opportunity you have and how blooming great you really are. This can be especially true of the researchers I work with who have career worries. Sometimes it can be helpful to try to step out of the moment you’re in. What would Future You say when looking back at you now? What would Past You, with all their hopes and dreams, but also their doubts and uncertainty, think about what you’ve now achieved?

    I’ve had two conversations in the last month that recalled these lyrics for me. First, I was working with a client discussing her desire to work overseas. She said it was something she’d always wanted to do, but the perfect time to have worked overseas would have been five years ago, and it’s way too late for her now. I asked why she hadn’t moved overseas five years ago. She replied it was because Past Her had thought it was way too late for her back then too. Hmmmmmmm. I wonder what Future Her might think?

    The second conversation was with a PhD graduate who’d left academia. I was interviewing him for a careers case study blog (like these). His advice to current academics was to ignore the inner voice that criticizes you for leaving things too late – it’s a fruitless distraction. Sure, we advise starting your career thinking as early as possible. But for any one person, now is as early as possible. No matter how long you’ve been in academia before you start considering how to strategically get ahead in the field; or no matter how “late” you’ve left it before you start considering non-academic options, you’re currently the youngest you will ever be, and now is the soonest you can ever take action. Just ask your Future Self, and they’ll tell you how much potential and opportunity you have.

    2) “Don’t waste your time on jealousy. Sometimes you’re ahead, sometimes you’re behind. The race is long, and in the end, it’s only with yourself.”

    There’s plenty of evidence to show comparing yourself to others impacts your emotional wellbeing. But that evidence is a little complex, and how these comparisons affect you seems to depend on your own self-esteem and personality, and on whom you’re comparing yourself with.

    From a careers perspective, sometimes comparisons can be helpful. They can reassure you that other people experience similar difficulties, uncertainties, and insecurities as you (they do!). And when looking at LinkedIn and The UCL Alumni Online Community at jobs “people like you” have, comparisons can provide career ideas and inspiration, and can motivate you to work hard and develop new skills.

    But a vital part of the comparison process is self-awareness. Awareness of your own strengths, interests, and values. If you know and accept your own career motivations, then you can focus on running your own race, and avoid falling into the trap of feeling jealous of those bound to take different paths to you, because they want completely different things out of life. Our “How Will I Know What I’ll Like?” researcher workshop can help raise your self-awareness (check out our Careers Consultant workshop schedule to see when the next one is, and to sign up), and in preparation we ask you to complete a Jobmi.com strengths questionnaire, so why not start that now?

    3) “Don’t feel guilty if you don’t know what you want to do with your life. The most interesting people I know didn’t know at 22 what they wanted to do with their lives. Some of the most interesting 40 year olds I know still don’t.”

    Speaking of not comparing yourself to others, everyone is different. Some people know exactly what they want to do with their lives and they’re happy doing it forever. That’s great, and if that’s you, come and see us for an appointment if you need help getting there. But studies like thisthis, and this tell us that’s not true of everyone, and in fact, changing careers, sometimes multiple times, is pretty normal. So don’t put so much pressure on yourself to find the single one right thing. And try to see not being fixed on one route as an exciting prospect. If you view yourself as someone who may have multiple careers, then you can be more experimental, trying things you wouldn’t ordinarily try. And with retirement ages creeping upwards, you’re likely to be working for longer than previous generations. With all that time to work, why not actually aspire to try multiple careers? You never know, you may even enjoy one of them enough to stick with it forever.

    4) “Whatever you do, don’t congratulate yourself too much, or berate yourself either. Your choices are half chance, so are everybody else’s.”

    For me, this lyric evokes Dr Jim Bright and Dr Robert G. L. Pryor’s Chaos Theory of Careers. Yes. That’s right. There’s a chaos theory of careers. A butterfly flaps its wings in Japan and you become a Senior Portfolio Developer at The Wellcome Trust. This theory not only concedes that most people don’t have firm long-term career plans, but actually questions the value of having such plans in the first place. Given that seemingly small chance events can have a gigantic influence over the course of our careers, this theory says it’s far better to focus on smaller shorter-term goals and actions, and to be curious, self-aware, and open to new opportunities.

    (On that note, do you even know what a Senior Portfolio Developer at The Wellcome Trust does? Why not take this opportunity to be curious and google it? We’ve given you a helping hand by speaking to one and writing about it here.)

    From academic research to translating in the arts

    By Sophia Donaldson, on 2 August 2018

    Ingrid Chen has an MA in Comparative Literature from UCL, and she studied for a PhD in Humanities and Cultural Studies at the University of London. She left the PhD behind for a role in Sotheby’s, and is now Deputy Director, Head of Translation Department at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong. We managed to coordinate ourselves across time zones and have a chat bout Ingrid’s career journey. Here is what she told us:

    What are you up to now?

    I’m currently Head of the Translation Department at Sotheby’s. When Sotheby’s wants to promote Western art to a Chinese audience, the catalogue, the essays, and the condition report need to be translated into Chinese, and that’s what my team deals with.

    I joined Sotheby’s in 2010, starting in London with customer service, because there was a lot of interest from Chinese collectors wanting to buy non-Chinese art. Then an opportunity arose to join the Hong Kong marketing department, working on copywriting and translation. I moved to Hong Kong, and since then the job has grown into a department with a seven-person team responsible for translating over 60 catalogues per year, as well as all the corporate materials to show our Chinese clients.

    I don’t actually translate anymore in my current role. I oversee the team’s work, making sure it’s all consistent and there’s a Sotheby’s style to it.

    How did you move from academia to your current role?

    I did a Masters in comparative literature at UCL. I went on to Birkbeck’s London Consortium with the Tate Museum for a Masters of Research, and continued there with a PhD. During my early years of study I assumed I would stay in academia and become a lecturer and then eventually a professor. But in the second year of my PhD I started having doubts, wondering where else I might possibly end up. Because the London Consortium had lots of curators it sparked my interest in art, and I started attending gallery openings and auction previews. Through these events I met people in the art industry who said you don’t have to be an art historian to work in the sector. So I started to do part-time work in galleries.

    I didn’t finish my PhD in the end. I became lost in my thesis and wasn’t sure if it was something I really wanted to do. It’s like a relationship, after a while I was kind of tired of it. And then towards the end of my PhD, when I was already in two minds about finishing it, the Sotheby’s translation job came to me. I took it as a sign from God saying this is your chance to decide whether you want to stay in academia or not. And I chose to come to Hong Kong.

    What does a normal working day look like?

    My day is divided into three different time zones. I start by picking up emails from New York. Then I’ll move on to what’s happening in Hong Kong, then later in the afternoon or evening I’ll deal with what’s happening in London.

    On any given work day I might look at the seasonal auction calendar at what’s coming up and what needs to be translated. The material I receive will often be full of new terms I’ve never seen before, and that requires a lot of research, and we have an archive of technical terms involved in conservation and the painting techniques etc. which we maintain to ensure we use consistent Chinese terms.

    My work also involves people management. It’s a seven-person team and the translators are at very different phases in their career, so they may come to me for advice, either translation or career-related, and I’m a head of department who always listens, so I will try to be a good listener and help them with their problems.

    We have to follow tight deadlines and there’s a lot of communication with the Specialists, who are writing the descriptions and documents in English that we will translate into Chinese. The Specialists are experts and perfectionists, they are honing their craft, which is great, but if they’re late that will delay our schedule, so we all have to compromise in order to achieve the goal assigned to us. So there’s a lot of management, communication, and research in the role every day.

    What are the best bits?

    I have intimate access to incredible masterpieces. For example we’re selling a Modigliani in New York and it travelled to Hong Kong, so before anybody else sees it I got to examine it up close. That’s something you cannot do as a visitor in a museum. Also, when you go to a museum show you usually don’t see the back of the painting. But the back of the painting holds information; the provenance, the condition, the artist’s signature, maybe a dedication. Because we have to describe items in a condition report I get to see all of this. It’s like there’s a separate exhibition for us, we get to see other angles. So if you’re an art lover it’s a great job for you to look at a variety of different things, not just paintings: we have a very strong Chinese ceramics department here so they’re usually very kind and they’ll let us touch these amazing pieces in pristine condition. There’s a lot of hands on experience. And sometimes there are the weirdest things for sale, like dinosaur egg fossils or a skull of a mammoth.

    Anything that interests our Chinese clients we need to become sort of an expert it in, and that’s fascinating and unpredictable. So I get to be a semi-expert in many different fields, which I think is why I chose to work for Sotheby’s in the first place, because in academia you have to focus and specialise, but I almost want to be a renaissance woman rather than specialising in any one thing.

    It’s also great to be producing something tangible – I’m not just building a castle in the clouds, churning out something that doesn’t mean anything to anyone other than me, which I sometimes felt I was doing in academia. Every time I see a catalogue I feel like they are my babies, I have something to show for my work, I can say I made this.

    And what are the challenges?

    The communication. There are so many different parties involved in producing one catalogue or brochure and time difference can be a big issue. One of the disadvantages of being in Hong Kong is that if we want to communicate with our global colleagues either we have to come in really really early or stay really really late. There have been times, especially in my first year or two of working here where I was leaving the office at 1am in the morning because we were waiting for something from New York and we had to finish it before going to bed. The good thing is that these days with cloud technology you can do a lot of the work from home, but for me personally I still prefer to come to the office for my work, and I prefer to work early than stay very late.

    Has your research experience been useful?

    When I left my PhD my parents were saying that if I only did another year or two I could finish it, why was I leaving it behind? Part of the reason was at that point I feared all of the things I’d learned through the PhD would not be very useful in my future, so why had I spent so many years before that acquiring these skills?

    But funnily enough, the further I’ve got into this job, the more I’ve realised that the research skills I acquired have been really useful for my current role. A lot of the phrases and terms I’m working with have never been translated into Chinese before, so I have to do a lot of research. For example, I didn’t know anything about African art, but today I’m working on an African sculpture and I have to research what it’s about and how I can best describe it and its historic context. So research skills can be transferred into many different jobs, and they’re invaluable to me here.

    Also some of the theories I learned in my Masters are useful for understanding contemporary art. Now I’m in the workplace, theories are not just theories. When I’m reading something from an art critic or an art historian, it all comes together and makes sense. I’ve received compliments from my supervisors who’ve felt that my translation brings more depth than outsourcing to an experienced translator because I understand the style required – so it becomes more persuasive, it becomes more intellectual in a way, and I do try to make sure that everything that we translate into Chinese reads as elegantly and as knowledgably as possible. So I think having my PhD degree experience, though I didn’t finish it, in the end was very helpful to me.

    What does the future hold?

    That’s a question I’m asking myself at the moment. Sotheby’s have never had a translation department before, so I don’t have a mentor to tell me where this type of role could lead me. And there are not many similar roles in the art world or auction industry, so in a way I’m in a unique position, but I don’t know whether that uniqueness is a good thing or not! I’m hoping I’ll progress to more of a creative role because we do publish some magazines at Sotheby’s, so there may be opportunities to write things or become an editor, and decide the direction of the magazine for the Chinese audience. I’m also taking courses exploring digital marketing, content creation and management. So this or next year may be a turning point for me where I decide the next step.

    Would I consider going back to academia? Maybe, after all of these years and the distance they’ve given me, maybe I can go back and finish my PhD.

    What are your top tips for getting into this industry?

    Think broadly when exploring options. Humanities grads often limit themselves to working in ‘traditional’ humanities graduate roles. But these days there are a lot more opportunities. For example content creation is a big deal right now. And people with a humanities background can often create great content.

    Something I lacked when I was studying was business acumen, which has to be acquired by getting experience outside academia. You have to know what’s going on in the marketing world or in a certain industry. Reading the Financial Times or other relevant industry publications is helpful.

    Build a portfolio of writing examples, so employers can see what kind of employee you will become. Don’t just say you will be a great translator or a great writer, provide evidence. Create a blog, show you are consistently building something that has become your personal brand.

    Networking is crucial. I approached Sotheby’s about the work I started doing for them part-time. If you just blindly contact an organisation there’s a high chance they won’t get back to you. So networking is quite important. I met some people from Sotheby’s who recommended me. Large organisations will receive many CVs and applications, so if someone from inside the organisation whom the recruiters trust recommends you, it makes a big difference.

    Moving from a PhD to Life Science Consulting

    By Sophia Donaldson, on 19 July 2018

    Dr Roumteen Keshe has a PhD in Biochemical Engineering and Bioprocess Leadership from UCL, and is now a Consultant at Kinapse, an advisory and operational services provider to the global Life Sciences industry. Roumteen contributed to our 2018 Life and Health Science Biology and Business careers panel, and kindly agreed to help out those of you couldn’t make it to the panel by telling us about his career journey for our blog.

    Tell us about your current role and organisation.

    Kinapse is a specialist advisory and managed service provider trusted by 19 of the top 25 pharmaceutical companies in the world, as well as some of the fastest-growing contenders, to design, build and operate critical business processes. Our Advisory services team supports the design and implementation of improvements or transformational changes to operating models across multiple areas ranging from R&D operations to Market Access.

    As a consultant within Kinapse my role consists of researching and writing thought capital around the pharmaceutical industry, scoping out potential work with existing and new clients, writing project proposals, and planning, managing and contributing to small and large projects. I have worked on a number of strategic and change management projects across Medical Affairs, R&D, and Clinical Operations. The work involves first understanding the client’s requirements before presenting recommendations based on the collective experience of your team to collaboratively develop a vision for the future state of the business unit/process. One of the fun bits is then figuring out how to introduce these changes in large, traditional organisations before finally executing the plans you have developed.

    How did you move from academia to your current role?

    My doctorate was sponsored by MedImmune (the biotech division of AstraZeneca), so I got to spend nearly half my 4 year programme embedded within an R&D team at their site in Cambridge. Working within the team at Medi, I liked the immediate applicability of the work that was being done. What I didn’t like was the thought of being “stuck in the lab” for the next 10 years, so I set out to gain an understanding of the business around the science. This began while at UCL, taking advantage of the ties UCL Advances had to London Business School at the time, to take three electives around change management and business growth, and trying to take as many internships as possible to gain an understanding of how different areas of business worked (law, marketing, consulting, programming). This actually included an internship at Kinapse, where I work now. After university I moved into a business development position within a private equity tech company before switching to a similar position for a biotech company that was developing scale down, 3D human organ mimics with collaborators across the world (including DARPA at the US Department of Defence!). Having learnt a great deal during my time in Business Development, I reached out to Kinapse again and joined the consulting team to get to work on bigger projects with bigger teams and continue the learning journey.

    What does a normal working day look like for you?

    My day depends on the client, the project and the stage of the project… it can vary widely. It could include taking multiple calls with different project teams, for each one we need to prepare the approach, action any matters arising, and develop the outputs of the meetings (this is the part of the job where you have to really put in the time and that people don’t often acknowledge). Alternatively, you could be flying off to a client site anywhere around the world (literally), meeting new people, and running really interesting workshops or interviews trying to collect data and plant the seeds for the eventual change the organisation is implementing.

    What are the best things about working in your role?

    Firstly, every day is a learning opportunity, working with highly experienced consulting and client colleagues and using their knowledge to get a better understanding of the Pharma industry.

    Secondly, the variety is never ending. If you want to learn or do something different, you can definitely work towards it at any point. The company is very supportive and happy to give more responsibility if you show you can handle it.

    Thirdly, but probably very best of all, is the colleagues, who are all driven, motivated, highly intelligent and supportive. They are like a big extended family who are all going through the same journey, albeit at different stages.

    What are the biggest challenges?

    One of the biggest challenges is time pressure; there can be a lot of work at times, and you need to really be able to prioritise your tasks for different stakeholders. Although I enjoy the aspect of constant learning, some might find the constant self-improvement and openness to learning a challenge. Another challenge is that most projects involve a new team. This always presents the usual challenges associated with team formation before you get to optimum working dynamics.

    Is a PhD essential for your role?

    No, but it helps. It adds a level of credibility to you as you go into big companies and begin offering advice to senior managers who have been in their jobs for 20+ years. I also use the core skills I developed during my PhD on a near daily basis, such as the ability to determine what information I need, plan how to find and collate it, and use that to synthesize findings. I was lucky in that the Biochemical Engineering department at UCL had such a big focus on presenting your findings to big groups of people, because that is also a big part of the job.

    What’s the progression like?

    The progression is what you make of it. If you are focused and know how you want to develop, you can quickly climb the ranks. It is a very flat meritocracy here at Kinapse, and that seems similar across the consulting industry. That is not to say there is not a huge learning curve, but that is nothing that knuckling down and putting in the hours does not fix! I am fairly open to the direction my career can take, I know I like to be challenged by my work, I know I enjoy working with multidisciplinary teams, and I know I enjoy helping to define and implement business strategy. For now I am happy where I am, but we will see what the future holds.

    What top tips would you pass on to a researcher interested in this type of work?

    If you want to get into consulting, find an internship and try it out! Consulting has always been viewed as a glamorous job, lots of travel, different projects, working with senior clients… and it can be, but there is a whole load of hard work, attention to detail, and late nights behind that. It is definitely not for everyone, but it is very rewarding if it is for you.

    To get that internship, first-off do your research. Find a consultancy that fits your interests and your profile, then reach out. Find a connection into the company, whether through your existing network, by attending networking/recruitment events, or just sending a message on LinkedIn. Explain who you are, what you want to do, and why you think the consultancy is a good fit for you.

    Do academics need an entrepreneurial mindset to succeed?

    By Sophia Donaldson, on 16 July 2018

    Bit of a rhetorical question, this one. The answer is yes, academics benefit when they think like entrepreneurs. If you’re not sure why that is, or you have no idea how to think more like an entrepreneur, check out this brilliantly amazing guest post (ahem – I wrote it) on the even more brilliantly amazing careers blog The Professor Is In.

    A media and tech career

    By Sophia Donaldson, on 7 June 2018

    Alys Donnelly has an MPhil in Multidisciplinary Gender Studies and is now Head of Business Process at Xaxis, a media and technology company. Below, Alys tells us about her career journey, and offers tips for those wanting to take a similar route.

     

    Tell us about your current role and organisation

     

    I currently work for a media company called Xaxis as the Head of Business Process. I make sure that our business is running as efficiently as possible and that we’re working to improve the way we deliver results for clients. Xaxis itself is a media and technology company that runs digital ad campaigns for clients who are looking to drive a certain outcome, such as a sale or download.  

     

    How did you move from academia to your current role? 

     

    During my undergrad degree I interned at Google in the Corporate Communications team. I really enjoyed the experience and learned an awful lot, so when I finished my MPhil and decided that I didn’t want to move on to a PhD I decided to apply back to Google and managed to get a job in their Dublin office. There was quite a lot of serendipity in my getting my internship, I responded to a flyer and was in the right place at the right time, but that was how I got my foot back in the door for my first job.  

     

    What does a normal working day look like for you? 

     

    I don’t really have a normal day as such, as I’m lucky in that the projects I work on change pretty frequently. However, on the whole an average work day for me usually involves a lot of meetings and talking to people about the work they’re doing and how it affects my teams and the outputs we’re trying to drive. I work very closely with stakeholders from across multiple business units to make sure that everyone’s expectations are managed and that our projects are on track to deliver what we need them to. I also deliver certain elements or entire projects on my own depending on the size, scope, and expertise involved. 

     

    What are the best things about working in your role?   

     

    One of the best bits in my role is that I get to work with some smart people on some pretty cool products. The media/tech businesses I’ve been in have also put a lot of emphasis on work/life balance, more so than I’ve seen my friends experience in other industries, so that’s been a definite plus!

     

    What are the biggest challenges?    

     

    All the usual things I suppose! Admin things like a bit too much email sometimes, and all the usual things that go along with working in offices, but there aren’t all that many downsides to a career in media I’ve found so far. 

     

    Is a PhD essential for your role?

     

    Absolutely not! Though that being said, my degrees certainly helped me win my first role, from which the rest of my career has stemmed. So attending a very good university for my BA/MPhil really did set me up for my subsequent career. Also, I think the discipline, intellectual rigour and approach to working with data that I learned during my BA/MPhil were crucial to my being successful in my roles in each business or team I’ve worked in. 

     

    What’s the progression like?   

     

    Media/tech is a very dynamic and fast-paced environment so predicting where you’ll be in a five years time is pretty hard. But that’s also a bonus in that people do move roles, companies, and sectors of the industry quite regularly and that’s not necessarily frowned upon! If you put the work in and know where you want to go, with a bit of luck you should be able to get there or find something relatively close. I’m not sure that’s the case in all other industries. 

     

    What tips would you give researchers interested in this type of work?

     

    I know ‘networking’ can be seen as a bit of a dirty word, but it really does help. Even if it’s just to work out what you don’t want to do. Talking to people about what their job actually entails is invaluable, especially in the media and tech sector where people can use the same words but mean totally different things and the lived reality of a role/business can change very rapidly. Asking around if anyone you know also knows someone who might be open to a coffee can really be useful in giving you a steer in the right direction. 

     

     

     

    Getting paid to drink wine: from academic to wine buyer

    By Sophia Donaldson, on 10 May 2018

     

    Dr Nicholas Jackson has a PhD in Theology and Literature from Cambridge and is now a Wine Buyer for Sotheby’s Wine in New York. Nicholas kindly took time out from wine tastings (!) to share his career journey.

    Tell us about your current role and organisation.

    I am a buyer for a retail business. Specifically, I buy all the wine for Sotheby’s Wine retail store in New York. Sotheby’s is most famous for selling high value items at auction (including wine). But we also have a wine retail store, and that’s what I focus on. I select, source and ship the world’s finest and rarest wines for sale in our shop.

    How did you move from academia to your current role?

    I enjoyed academia very much but ultimately found it frustrating. I wanted to be an intellectual but academia forced me to be an academic. That’s the difference between being a thinker and a writer of footnotes (I’m exaggerating! But I always felt there was some truth in that kind of formulation!).

    I attended the wine society at Cambridge when in the second year of my PhD and was quickly taken with the whole world of wine. I was lucky insofar as just as my commitment to academia was wavering, this new interest came along. I started gaining professional qualifications even while still a student, and during the last year of my PhD I worked at a wine shop in Cambridge (I actually asked to work for free just to get the experience, but they insisted on paying me).

    I was really committed to wine when I finished my PhD; so much so that I would have been willing to work for a tiny salary if it meant working in wine. I didn’t apply for any academic positions. That refusal to equivocate made me really focus and become committed. That was invaluable. You don’t want to have any doubts when making this kind of change otherwise you’ll never do it. And I manufactured some self-confidence: I always thought someone would give me a job because I was intelligent and hard working. I wouldn’t starve. I got my job by writing to my now boss and asking for it. It took a while to work out all the details, but I think he appreciated the initiative. My previous wine shop experience was vital, my new boss said he would not have considered me without it.

    What does a normal working day look like for you?

    A lot of my job involves working out whether wines represent good enough value to purchase. So I look at a lot of spreadsheets of wine prices! But I am also responsible for writing content about the new wines – for our retail emails, for the website or for special offers. And then the tasting: I taste wine virtually every day. Either in the office (from samples sent by suppliers/producers), in person with those same people visiting me, or I go out to large portfolio tastings, where I taste 100-200 wines at a time, all with the aim of trying to find the best to stock in the shop. Reasonably often I have evening events where I present wines at tastings or at dinners.

    I also sell wine to some of our more important clients. Working in the buying role helps me know exactly what is coming in and what I can sell to those clients.

    What are the best things about working in your role?

    Combining aesthetic appreciation with a commercial perspective. That means: tasting wines well and identifying quality, then being able to sell those wines to our clients, and then have them come back and tell you how much they love the wine. It’s very rewarding to have people appreciate your judgement in matters of taste! Otherwise: travel to wine regions; opportunity to taste the world’s greatest wines on a regular basis.

    What are the biggest challenges?

    The hardest part of coming from a PhD background is moving into a corporate environment. It can feel impersonal compared to the very individual work you can do as a PhD student (particularly in the humanities). But of course there are also many benefits to working for a large, well-financed company such as job security and benefits.

    Is a PhD essential for your role?

    It’s totally unnecessary! But I do think it has helped me. For instance, I have recently taken (and passed) the Master of Wine exams, which is the highest qualification in the wine world (there are about 380 MWs worldwide). The discipline and self-motivation required to work for two years on that definitely came in part from doing a PhD for three years, where every day could be construed as monotonous: going to the library, reading some pretty abstract stuff and writing a little bit. But it certainly gave me the discipline and study methods to succeed.

    The other aspect of it is the creative one: I write a lot for the job and after my PhD experience, it’s second nature. The ability to write well in today’s business world is increasingly rare and valued.

    Also, I think anything requiring appreciation (in my case of wine) borrows from the same skill set used in humanities PhDs – the ability to recognize the distinctiveness and worth of one specific thing within a sea of very similar items.

    Where do you see yourself going from here?

    Hopefully I will receive the Master of Wine qualification soon which (rightly or wrongly) brings with it a reputation for knowledge and expertise. So I have to remain committed to learning and gaining experience. Ultimately, the whole field is about serving the consumers who drive the whole industry. An interesting way of posing the question is: how can I best serve people? How can I add value to their (wine) experiences? And that’s where I think we can be creative: using social media, video etc. to inform and engage people. So I’d be interested in exploring those possibilities.

    What top tips would you pass on to a researcher interested in this type of work?

    Never apply for a job! If it’s advertised, you don’t want it and in any case, there will be too much competition. Your unique skill set should be matched to a unique job – so create it! Figure out who you want to work for and get in contact with them, explaining your particular interest and skills and how you can add value for them. Of particular interest are companies which are expanding/launching new ventures. They will need new staff.

    Be commercial. There’re very few jobs out there which don’t involve the requirement to make money for your employer in some way. PhDs generally don’t teach that. Employers think that PhDs (especially in the humanities) are ‘dons’ in ivory towers. It’s up to you to prove them wrong. Read everything in the media about the companies you’re interested in; everything about the field you’re interested in. If you do that for a month, you’ll end up learning more about the work than 90% of people who have worked at the company for ten years.

    Get work experience. It makes employers realise you are serious about their industry. Offer to work for free. If the job involves writing, write for publications for free in order to build your CV. Ask significant people in the field to meet for coffee and talk to them about their experience. Do whatever it takes!

    What’s academia like in China?

    By Sophia Donaldson, on 25 April 2018

    Last week Professor Limin Zhu from Donghua University kindly gave a talk at UCL about careers for PhDs in China. It was an illuminating session, largely highlighting that academia in China isn’t too different from academia in the UK. Here is what Professor Zhu told us:

    Publish, and publish well: It was no surprise to hear that publications are key to academic success in China. Professor Zhu focused the majority of his attention on the very top universities in China, where he felt you would need a 10+ impact factor publication to be considered.

    Institutions matter: Where you studied will influence your eligibility, with higher prestige institutions in China tending to only recruit those who gained their first degrees and Masters/PhDs from high-ranking universities.

    The benefits are good: We heard that packages for new lecturers – which might include research budget and accommodation assistance in addition to salary – are good, allowing a very comfortable life.

    The pressure can be high: Getting a lectureship position isn’t the end of the process. Every couple of years your performance will be reviewed to assess publication output and research funding generation.

    Foreigners are welcome: Professor Zhu referred to a drive to attract top talent from abroad, saying that high-performing post-docs should be very welcome.

    There are lots of options outside top-tier universities: Although his talk focused largely on the highest-ranking Chinese universities, Professor Zhu told us there are ~2,300 formally recognised universities in China, and many more private universities too. He said the pay doesn’t differ too much between them (although in lower-ranking universities there is less chance of attracting large research grants or bonuses for e.g. Science and Nature publications). And just like in the UK, outside of the highest-ranked research-intensive universities, lecturers may have a heavier teaching load and less time (if any) to focus on research. Accompanying this will be a reduced pressure to publish.

    No nine to five job: working as a senior teaching fellow AND in the restaurant business

    By Sophia Donaldson, on 20 March 2018

    Dr Sayeda Abu-Amero has a PhD in fungal virology, and until recently was a Senior Teaching Fellow at UCL, as well as working part-time at a (very very tasty) local restaurant – Hiba Express. When we spoke Sayeda only had a few days left at UCL. She has now started working full-time at the restaurant, and hopes to open a coffee shop in the near future. We couldn’t resist adding such an inspirational interview to our case study collection! So if you’re interested in either Higher Education teaching roles, or in entering the restaurant game, read on…

    Describe your current role

    Currently I have two jobs. One is three and half days a week as a programme tutor for a UCL Masters course in Genetics of Human Disease. I’ve been working on the course for seven years, and as a programme tutor for the last two years. This is purely a teaching-focused academic role, looking after the organisation and timetabling of the whole course, and dealing with any student issues that may arise. What I teach on the course is something called Core Skills. I teach students how to present, write scientific essays, talk to their peers and to the public, write for blogs, and conduct themselves in interviews; life skills they will use to communicate their work, very much in the context of genetics and human disease. This sort of training is an essential part of ensuring that the work of scientists isn’t misrepresented or misunderstood outside of the scientific community, equipping future scientists to be the ones who can convey their own science confidently, clearly, and accurately.

    The first term is very busy, as that’s when I do most of my face to face teaching. I also teach on several other courses, and have a number of students as my tutees, as well as project students in the lab and literature review students from other courses.

    The other two and a half days a week I work at a Palestinian and Lebanese restaurant, Hiba Express. We have three branches and a stall. My main duties have been to look after their social media and emails, arrange bookings and catering, work on promoting the restaurant, and look after any issues that may arise. I also cover the legal aspects pertaining to running a food business, such as training staff according to food standard agency regulations. So although I have worked front of house on busy evenings, I’m usually found working behind the scenes.

    What led you to become a Senior Teaching Fellow?

    I did my first degree at UCL in Genetics then moved to Imperial for my PhD in Dutch Elm disease, using the same molecular biology techniques I’d been learning about, but applying them to plants. When I was looking for a post-doc there was very little funding in London to do plant work, so I took up a one-year research post researching children with growth restriction with Professor Gudrun Moore at Queen Charlotte and Chelsea Hospital. That was the beginning of a 22-year working relationship with her, which exposed me to some clinical work, which I’d always been quite interested in.

    I left UCL for a bit of that time, spending three years working in a hospital in Saudi Arabia on several Mendelian disorders, where I had my first taste of the business and coordination side of science, as I was involved in setting up core facilities for the whole hospital. When I returned to the UK as a single mum, I contacted Gudrun, and was able to take up a part-time role with her. In some ways being part-time was perfect at that stage as I was able to spend more time with my daughter and to slowly get back into the science I had left for three years.

    Gudrun had always wanted to set up a biobank. So in 2009, back when biobanking was still relatively new, I stepped away from lab work and moved into setting up and coordinating the ICH’s Baby Biobank (https://www.ucl.ac.uk/tapb/sample-and-data-collections-at-ucl/biobanks-ucl/baby-biobank). This was a very steep learning curve, getting to grips with clinicians and red tape and managing staff across multiple sites with many logistical challenges. Towards the end of my five to six years of working on this project the role became very much about analysing large amounts of data and computing. Wonderful in terms of the research, but there’s nothing worse than asking me to sit in front of a computer and look at numbers all day! It took about a year of feeling this way and expressing it to Gudrun before I stepped down as Manager of the Baby Biobank.

    Throughout my time at UCL I had always been teaching alongside doing research and the Biobank. The teaching opportunities started with me taking on lectures and marking that my supervisor was unable to take on, and then the opportunities grew from there. So when I wanted to move away from the Biobank, I wrote a business case for a 3.5 day/week role working on the Genetics of Human Disease Masters MSc. I’d already been contributing to the course alongside the biobank, and in many ways I was quite keen to focus on teaching, which had always been another passion. So I wrote the job description for that person. At that time it was a bit of a struggle to put a business case together for the role, to justify the number of hours that good teaching actually takes – it’s not just the face-to-face teaching time. But especially with the Teaching Excellence Framework coming in I think this sort of teaching-focused role is on the increase.

    And how did you get into the restaurant business?

    Towards the end of my time at the Biobank I started taking my daughter to improv class in Marble Arch. While she was there I would visit a restaurant I liked in Holborn to get something to eat while I caught up on marking and other work. One day I went to pay the bill and the owner asked me why I ate there so much. Although I could have taken this as a comment that I ate a lot (!), actually he was really interested in exactly why I liked the food. So I told him: I loved the food! There are many Lebanese places in London, but not of this standard. The quality is exceptional. Shortly after, I organised my birthday lunch there, which ended up being more like a full-day event! It was great. I wrote a positive online review, for which he thanked me.

    So I got to know the owner this way, and I continued to eat and drink as usual. I guess the owner would often see me on Facebook, and so one day he asked me to help him with his restaurant’s Facebook as he was too busy and not very familiar with it. So I started helping him with that, and then with a few emails. And as my daughter was in Marble Arch for three hours every Saturday morning, I suggested that rather than spending that time hanging about and shopping, I could spend it helping out at the restaurant. He said yes and that they’d pay me for those hours. When I realised I was going to be moving to the part-time teaching role, he offered me some proper days working at the restaurant because he was looking at expanding. At that time I thought this may be just what I need to start entertaining the idea of leaving academia and eventually setting up my own coffee shop, which is something I’d been considering for over a decade by then!

    What prompted your current move to focus on the restaurant full-time?

    Both of my current roles are not 9 to 5 jobs you can leave behind at the end of the working day or on the weekend. They both mean you’re constantly thinking, answering emails, on the phone etc. I don’t mind that, as I have a flexible approach to work, but to have two such jobs can only really be sustained for so long. Also, the Core Skills module took a long time to set up and get running the way I wanted it to. I think I achieved that three years ago, and since then it’s been running much the same. Obviously you can tweak and update things, but I was starting to get twitchy feet as I’m not someone who likes to do the same things again and again. So I decided I could have a mid-life crisis and just leave! I’d been murmuring about it for a while, so it didn’t come as a huge shock to people, but a lot of family and colleagues were still concerned, asking whether I was really sure I wanted to do this, moving from a well-paid academic position to something so new and potentially less stable. For me it is an adventure. My child is a little older so it’s a good time to take up this opportunity. And if it all goes pear-shaped? So what? I’ll start again. I’ve started from scratch before, I can do it again.

    And the truth is a lot of people are having to leave academia, even later in their careers. When I first started studying for my undergraduate, having a lifelong career in academic research seemed like a very realistic prospect. But things have changed. Certainly the wider environment has changed. The workload is going up, funding is being cut or stretched, there are more and more PhDs being produced, and advanced researchers are expensive. So obviously a lot of PhDs are not going to be in academic research forever. We’ve even held many farewell dinners for colleagues leaving academia at Hiba!

    What will you be doing in your new full-time role?

    My boss was originally a film-maker, and one day just decided he would run a restaurant. He knew nothing about the industry, but he learned. And he learned so well that he now has three restaurants and a market stall. We’re now looking at a concept that will be bigger. He’s Palestinian and he’s a social activist. So what he wants to do is to help people, the people who are stuck and in refugee camps. People who are capable and can create. He wants to help them do these things, help them sell their products here in the UK, which as a rule is a place that is very supportive of the Palestinian people. He also wants to connect with sustainable farms, to make sure the produce he’s using is bought from them. So I’m going to be working on making these visions a reality.

    The catering is a very lucrative part of the business, we do office catering, events, weddings – we had our first gay wedding in August! It was beautiful. So I’ll also be pushing on the catering side. And I’ll be doing two or three evenings a week front of house. Interestingly enough, my daughter has now taken over running the social media for the business for some pocket money. She’s very good with technology and it means we can have interesting discussions over dinner.

    What are the best bits about your teaching role?

    The best thing is the interactions and meeting people from so many different backgrounds and cultures. You may be the teacher, but there’s still so much you can learn from the students. Getting to know them, seeing how they are at the beginning of the course, perhaps starting off shy; and then you take them through the year and you see how they’ve progressed, confidently booming out presentations. That’s very rewarding. Getting students to work together, students who will potentially one day be scientific collaborators, is also a high point. We recently had a reunion for graduates from the course, and seeing how people had grown and progressed was something I really enjoyed. Teaching is always an exciting and rewarding activity as it means you’re having to keep up to date, and you know that someone is going to directly benefit from it.

    And the worst bits about teaching?

    The only negative point I would say is the marking. The amount of hours spent marking is never truly calculated or appreciated. It’s so hard to know how long marking will take, it really can suck up a lot of time!

    What’re the best things about working in the restaurant?

    That’s much the same as the teaching really. Meeting so many different people, and being able to help them, albeit in a different way.

    And the worst?

    It never ends. It’s 24 hours, 7 days a week. Even when the doors are shut, the restaurant is still working. It needs to be cleaned. The butcher comes in at 4am in the morning and needs to work there alone. Then everything needs to be cleaned again before the veg etc. are prepared. And we have a big menu, so that’s a lot of prep. It’s never ending!

    And on top of that there are so many challenges I would never have imagined but for me it’s all new and exciting!

    What skills developed during your PhD are useful in your current roles?

    I think the PhD can be useful in many ways, for whatever you go on to do. It gives you a specialism, an expertise. And it teaches you how to think. You’re left alone for years to get on with something, so you learn to solve problems on your own and take ownership of your work. I think people who come out after doing a PhD are changed. I’ve seen it. They’ll come in as students, behaving like students throughout their PhD. But they walk out of their viva with a new confidence. The award itself can instil a confidence that should’ve been there before but often wasn’t.

    Although I personally don’t think you need a PhD to be a good teacher (people who have been in research for many years without getting a PhD would be just as good), for most university teaching fellow roles like mine a PhD is a requirement on the job description.

    Even though you obviously don’t need a PhD to run a restaurant or a coffee shop, I certainly don’t think I’ll be the first PhD to make the move. And I’ve used lots of the things I’ve learned during my time in research, especially the organisational and time-management skills. I present what I’m doing in excel spreadsheets, PowerPoints, and graphs. I use my analytical skills to keep track of the business over years, scanning the data to analyse how the business is doing, looking at improvements year on year, and daily and seasonal variations. I use my experience of teaching to train restaurant staff, for example bringing social media and customer reviews into their awareness. And now that we’re looking at implementing a larger concept, I’ve done a lot of research for the restaurant around similar initiatives. And I use the writing skills I’ve developed in academia to put together business proposals. I also use the networking skills, resourcefulness, and proactivity I’ve needed in academia. If I want something from someone I will go and ask them. Those face-to-face communication skills that get things done are valuable in any setting.

    Where does it go from here?

    My last day at UCL is this week. Ideally I will work at the restaurant for the next two or three years. I want to see the restaurant stabilising and becoming more comfortable during that time. And I do still want that coffee shop! I’ve already seen one or two potential spaces. I like the idea. But I don’t want to abandon the restaurant I’ve grown to love. So I think perhaps the two can be married, and the coffee shop could become part of Hiba. That would also mean I can do the bit I’m interested in – running a coffee shop – without the setting-up-a-business bits I’m not so interested in.

    I’ve always wanted to live abroad. I keep trying to leave! Originally the coffee shop was meant to be abroad, in Spain. I don’t speak Spanish. But I love listening to it. So maybe that’s not the most practical move, which is why the restaurant/coffee shop dream is happening here. It’s more practical but it’s still a risk. The economy here is very unstable. Business rates are rising. I keep walking around Tottenham Court Road and the Brunswick area and passing places I thought were very good that are shutting down, so anything can happen.  That’s why I’ll wait a few years before branching out with a coffee shop.

    What are your tips for researchers hoping to follow a similar path?

    You just have to go out there and do it. Whatever ‘it’ is! I always tell my students not to wait for opportunities, you need to go and get them. Talk to people. Build relationships. My own career has revolved around networking. When I decided I wanted to do a PhD, I didn’t apply for adverts, I just emailed the people I thought were interesting, and I got a response. People are often still writing grants, so whether it’s a PhD or post-doc place, if you get in at the right time you can be a named person on their grant. And when I went to Saudi I contacted people, told them what I could do, and they created a position for me. Even with the restaurant they didn’t ask me to come and work full-time! I really liked working there, I could see there was a need for a full-time person, and I put that to the boss. Hopefully he’s ok with it!

    It may seem that in a structured environment like academia this wouldn’t be possible but you’ll be surprised how easy it is to become invaluable. If you find something you like to do, just go out there and do it. You will end up sometimes being overloaded. But that’s academia, you always end up giving more than what’s on your job description. But if what you’re doing is useful, you’ll become the best person for the job and give it an identity. It’s what happened with my teaching role. You also have to be creative, flexible, and adaptable. Especially when it’s not just you in the picture – when you have partners, kids, parents you need to care for. All of which I’ve had to juggle with work. Sometimes that’s inevitable. But when my father was ill and then eventually passed away from stomach cancer, it taught me that we never know when it will be our time to go, so there’s no point in waiting. I’d been putting off the coffee shop idea for various reasons, once my daughter’s older etc. But at that point I realised it was something I really had to start pursuing, even if only slowly at first. So find something you like and just do it!