By uczjsdd, on 12 October 2021
Dr Guy Bullen has an EngD in Decision Making from UCL (2009). After working at a large international company for 25 years, he founded ToBeToAct, to promote sustainable development for organisations, teams, and individuals. Guy told us about his career journey, and passed on tips for researchers looking to follow a similar path – including those graduating into a tough and uncertain economic climate.
- Tell us about your current role
I have created my own small company in coaching, consulting, and training. The focus is to help emerging businesses develop and grow sustainably. For me, the picture is quite clear: given the facts on climate change, the exhaustion of natural resources and the collapse of biodiversity, we’re heading for an extremely complicated time. In my work I present the latest research to people – which can be scary for them. I encourage them to think about how they are going to create a thriving enterprise in this environment where everything is changing. I believe the key is to cultivate the better part of our human nature in any way we can–and this applies, perhaps especially, to business. This may sound idealistic, but in fact it is a pragmatic (maybe even selfish) approach: the only way to survive when things get really tough is to create oases where there is mutual respect. Otherwise we simply go back into tribalism.
- How did you move from PhD to your current role?
I took a bit of an unusual route into academia. I already had significant management responsibilities when I started my doctorate. I was selected, as part of a talent initiative, to do a Masters degree. The course leaders appreciated my Masters dissertation and suggested I go on to do a doctorate on the same subject. I did, but as I was doing 60+ hours a week alongside the EngD, it wasn’t easy! If there’s one lesson I could pass on to people thinking of doing something similar, it would be to negotiate beforehand with your employer that they give you the time to work on your doctorate, and make sure they give you the days off that they promise you. Be far more firm than I was about protecting your doctorate time!
Had the perfect opportunity presented itself to stay in academia I would have taken it. However, I was already on a good salary, and post-doc wages were not appealing, especially as I had a family. So I stayed in industry after I graduated, writing the business plan for the company’s operations division (12,000 people), and then taking on the additional responsibilities of managing volunteering and implementing the company’s sustainable development into its operations. After leaving the company, this experience set me up well for delivering training in sustainable development.
- How did graduating into the last recession impact your career path?
As I was already in work, at first it didn’t impact me personally. However, I was doing the business plan for the company’s operations, and saw the impact in the financial cuts and headcount reductions due to the crisis. Furthermore, although the decision-making model I devised within my doctoral studies could have been very useful to them, I was going through a tough time personally with a divorce, I was under pressure at work, and it was not the best time in the company to bring in innovative approaches to decision making. Eventually the cuts hit me, and four years later my role was cut and I took redundancy.
- What does a normal day look like for you?
In July and August there is little happening for independent consultants, and I usually use this time for research and attending training courses. During the rest of the year there are four types of typical day:
- Teaching start-ups about business and sustainable development. Normally they are classes of about 15 people who are creating their own business. These will be two-full-day sessions where I share the latest facts on climate change, the economy, resource depletion and biodiversity collapse. I provide tools for them to build a collaborative business and to do their risk analysis in view to equip them to build resilient businesses.
- English classes for Masters students at a Paris university. Instead of giving a typical English lesson, I run workshops on leadership, decision-making, conflict resolution, and get the students to discuss those issues, which are of high interest to them, in English. I don’t teach grammar – I hate grammar!
- Doing research on the collaborative economy, sustainable development and where society is heading.
- Days full of administration and accountancy. When you own your own business you spend inordinate amounts of time doing the things that the finance or legal departments do for you in big companies!
- What are the best bits?
The best bits usually happen on the courses I deliver to start-ups. They’re two days long, and towards the end of the second day, when people realise they can build a business without necessarily being “nasty” people, that’s amazing to watch. It’s a message that goes against a lot of what we have been taught. In the States in the 1980s it was sometimes fashionable to state that “Greed is Good”. But the research I have encountered (for example Elinor Ostrom’s work on the Commons, Axelrod’s “The Evolution of Cooperation” or Pinker’s “The Better Angels of our Nature”) shows that when you create the right context, altruistic behaviour comes “naturally”; and that collaboration and respect for those who work with you are actually the levers for high performance, which leads to profitable and sustainable businesses. It’s a wonderful moment for me when I see the penny drop and attendees realise they can make money and be a force for good in the world. When people thank me afterwards for helping them to see business in a completely different light, those are the most rewarding times for me.
- What are the challenges?
One of the biggest challenges came from leaving a huge company; moving from being part of a team of 100,000 people to being a single lone person trying to start a business. For a number of months I was a little disoriented, so I didn’t do anything productive, which I think would be common for many people in this situation. I’ve moved on from that now, but it was a challenge. The administration that comes with running your own business is also challenging, especially as I was used to relying on a lot of support functions in a large company.
- What skills from the PhD do you use now?
I’m not the best salesperson, so I didn’t really use the fruit of my doctorate inside the company. More recently, I put the model I devised on my business’ website, but I didn’t get any clients asking about it, perhaps because it was still too academic. So really the way I use it is for myself, and my own business, and sometimes when I’m coaching I use it to help people think through their decisions.
However, as I open up a new area for my activity (helping communities of ecovillages), I believe I will be able to use my research, twelve years after completing it!
- What next?
Given the current context I will be orienting my business more towards support for alternative communities such as ecovillages. I’m helping a friend and colleague who teaches at Paris University in his research into the functioning of ecovillages. He will also help me in my research project on the parameters that generate contexts that generate the higher part of human nature. Alongside this, I feel I am at last in place and in a context (alternative lifestyles) where I can put the model I created during my EngD into practice. Linking the use of my model into my vision of cultivating our higher nature gives me the opportunity to put it to work for a really worthwhile purpose at last! There is an association of ecovillages in France, and I’m linked into the central network of people who finance ecovillages, and so the different levels of reflections on decision-making that I can bring to bear could help at that level, as well as within an actual ecovillage. This will be a totally new path for me, but that is where I want to go, and that is where I would use the results of my research to enable these groups of people to make better decisions and to live better together.
- What are your top tips for our researchers?
If you want to get into a big company, connect your research or your wider skills to a business problem, and connect to a person whose “survival” depends upon resolving that problem. There’s a distinction between addressing a generic business problem, and somebody whose heart and guts are on the line to resolve the problem where your research can help. From the first you’ll get lip service, from the second you’ll get 300% support.
Also, learn from my mistakes: when I first went into consulting, I thought I had the best thing since sliced bread with my doctorate and I tried to convince people to buy my research. But I was so full of what I could contribute, I didn’t listen to what the needs of the potential customers were. You need to connect to the business and personal needs of the people you’ve identified as your potential customers.
- Any specific tips for researchers in the current uncertain climate?
My doctorate was about decision-making in uncertain and complex environments, so hopefully I have some tips! Firstly, consider targeting smaller businesses. You’ll probably earn less money, but you’ll have more impact. My time in big business was fantastic in many ways, and I’m proud of what I achieved there, but if you want to bring substantive change it’s easier to do it in small companies.
Secondly, have a vision of what you want your contribution to the world to be, and be flexible about how you do it. One of the pieces of research I came across in my doctorate (the Cynefin model, developed by Dave Snowden, formerly of IBM) shows that in a complex and chaotic environment, those who succeed are not those who get their ducks in a row and then follow a predefined plan. Instead Snowden talks about “sensing” what is happening, then acting into the environment, and then adjusting. Use rational analysis, but when all is said and done, rely on your intuition and your sensing of the environment and the path you need to take to achieve your life vision. My research on decision making showed that our major life decisions (such as our life partner) are made intuitively.
By s.duran, on 30 September 2021
Kicking off our autumn term of employer events, we welcomed two researcher employers to discuss an important and hard to define area – leadership. So, what skills make up good leadership and what are researcher employers looking for? Mansi Vithlani, Business Unit Director from Dolon Consulting and Matt Tsim, Head of MedTech at Costello Medical, joined our researcher community to share their insights.
Strategic, critical thinking
Whether in an interview or on the job, Matt and Vansi agreed that employers are looking for people with a strong ability to think critically and strategically when solving problems. They shared several ways applicants and employees can demonstrate this – including adapting a structure, identifying key project risks and mitigation strategies, and planning and delivering a longer-term strategy. Matt highlighted critical thinking as the main area he assesses at interview – he seeks to understand the thinking behind the answers.
Emotional intelligence and professionalism
Mansi shared the need for leaders to demonstrate emotional intelligence and professionalism in their roles. In addition to understanding and responding to the needs of a team, this skill is a key part of cultivating strong relationships with colleagues and clients. Employers are looking for people who can manage the complexity of behaviour, strengths, and challenges in others, and use this to build relationships.
Autonomous self-driven working
In a junior role, you will have a manager or senior leader directing and overseeing your work. As a leader, you become the main driver of progress for your team. You will decide what areas to pursue, what holds value, and how you can achieve your goals. While this can be a fun part of a leadership role, it can also be challenging. You will be responsible for setting and achieving targets and creating a balance for yourself and your team within that freedom. Matt recommended developing your vision and strategy by thinking about the key things you aim to achieve in six or twelve months, and working backwards from there.
A leadership position means that you will face a series of challenging situations where you will have to use your skills to manage complex situations. These will come into play when pursuing projects, dealing with team dynamics, and implementing change. As Matt discussed, the complexity can be overwhelming. As a leader, it is your responsibility to guide your own and your team’s efforts to the things that make a difference. In seeking your first role outside of academia, you may not transfer directly into a leadership position. However, these skills are important to remember as your experience puts you in a strong position to take advantage of progression opportunities.
If you’re interested in finding out more about researcher positions in consulting, sign up for our Researchers Careers in Consultancy Panel on the 13th of October.
You can find more workshops and employer-led events through the Autumn Term Researcher’s Careers Calendar.
By uczjsdd, on 27 September 2021
Dr. Sunday Leonard has a Ph.D. in Environmental Engineering from UCL and is now a Programme Management Officer at the United Nations Environment Programme. Sunday kindly told us about his career journey and offered tips for researchers looking to follow a similar path. As Sunday graduated during the credit crunch, he also offered insights for those graduating into an uncertain economic climate.
Tell us about your current role
I work in Washington D.C. for the United Nations Environment Programme – UNEP. My role entails providing scientific and technical advice to project implementers and policymakers on how to make our environment better. In my current role, I work in the Secretariat of the Scientific and Technical Advisory Panel (STAP) to the Global Environment Facility (GEF). The GEF is a fund established to tackle our planet’s most pressing environmental problems. It provides funds to developing countries to enable them to invest in nature and support the implementation of global environmental agreements including on biodiversity, climate change, chemicals, and desertification. The STAP provides independent scientific and technical advice to the GEF on its policies, strategies, programs, and projects, and also brings the latest scientific knowledge on environmental issues into the GEF Partnership, thereby keeping it up-to-date. I’m often working on new science-policy reports – for example, I just finished a report on the circular economy and climate change – to help guide the GEF to implement circular economy projects that can deliver climate change mitigation benefits and deliver transformational environmental change.
What’s the UN recruitment process like?
In the UN system, we have different staff categories including general service, national professional officers, field service, and professional and higher categories. I am in the professional category. The UN does not usually use CVs, instead, we use a Personal History Profile – PHP. You fill in your work, education, and personal information online to generate a PHP. It’s quite like a CV but with more set descriptions. In addition to the PHP, you’ll also have to submit a cover letter for the particular position. You will also need to answer some screening questions regarding required and desired qualifications, experience, and skills for the position you are applying for before submitting your application. These are usually “yes or no” questions and with written text to support your answer if yes. If you answer “no” to a required question, your application will not be screened further.
After the submission of your PHP and cover letter, your application is reviewed against relevant skills for the job. Long-listed candidates will usually be invited to undertake a written test. This can take different formats. I’ve seen written tests that are objective questions, but most of the time they are very time-limited technical essay questions. I’ve also encountered a test where I was given 72 hours to draft a concept note. The written test shows the recruiter your understanding of the technical issues related to the position. If you make it through that stage there is the competency-based interview, where you’re asked questions based on the competencies relevant to the role. If you do well there, assuming your references check out, you could be offered the job. In some instances where there are more candidates deemed qualified, the best candidate will be offered the position, and the rest may be “rostered”. It’s possible that when another similar position arises, a manager could select someone from the roster rather than having to go through that recruitment process again.
How did you move from your Ph.D. to your current role?
I went straight from undergrad to masters to Ph.D. with no break in between. So towards the end of my Ph.D., I was already tired of being in the academic environment and I was hoping to work outside academia, and my initial goal was to work in an Oil and Gas company. I interviewed with several companies, including BP and Shell. I received an offer from Shell, but for various reasons in the long run it didn’t work out. When I started looking elsewhere, things had become difficult due to the 2008/09 financial crisis; lots of graduate programmes were shutting down.
After seeing it wasn’t working out in the private sector I started applying for research post-docs, and I got one at the University of Greenwich. I did that for a year, while still applying for external roles.
I had a grad school friend who was already working at UNEP and he encouraged me to apply. When I looked at UN positions, I didn’t see how I was qualified. I had been working in the lab, training to be quite a technical engineering graduate, and UNEP focused much more on policy. But with his encouragement, I found a position I thought I could struggle to modify my CV to fit. It was a lot of work because the job was asking for applied experience and a history of influencing policy. I had to think about the policy aspect of my Ph.D. work, and the transferable skills I’d gained during grad school, and modify my CV to be convincing, at least to be shortlisted. And getting shortlisted at the UN is a big deal. After getting the role, I later discovered that more than a thousand people applied for my position, so for me to even be invited to the next stage was a big achievement. I passed the written test and competency-based interview, and I started with UNEP in January 2011 in Nairobi, where the organisation is headquartered. I moved to the Paris office on promotion in 2015, before moving to the Washington D.C. office in 2017.
How did graduating into the last recession impact your career path?
On a practical level, I had to stay for a further year in academia, and I ended up on a different path than I might otherwise have been on. But more than that, it was a very discouraging period. When I started getting responses saying we cannot go ahead with you or with the recruitment process because of the recession, it felt demoralising. But I told myself I couldn’t let it get to me, and that I needed a role, for now, to give me the space to strategise, so I pivoted back to focus on academia, and I just kept trying, and I kept my options very open – applying to a range of role types and locations. The post-doc role really gave me the financial stability and space to calm down and assess my options and think about what I wanted to do. And in the end, at the time I was offered the UN role, I also had two other offers, one in Canada and the other in the UK. So the persistence and flexible attitude worked for me.
What does a normal day look like for you?
With COVID we have a new definition of “normal”: I’ve not been to the office for a year and seven months now. Everything is being done online, but the good thing is we’re still getting things done. In general, a typical day might involve a technical task, where I’m researching the literature or horizon-scanning for knowledge that needs to be applied. It could mean I’m drafting a report or a research article, and I do actually still publish journal articles as we want our knowledge to benefit the scientific community. Or I could be designing or delivering a presentation. I also might be doing administrative tasks, like being involved in recruiting and interviewing people for consultant or other positions. My past roles have also involved managing budgets. And there are lots of meetings – I’m always meeting with people to get perspectives from policymakers and so on. One important aspect, before COVID, was also travelling, meeting stakeholders, attending conferences or conventions related to my field.
What are the best bits?
The best bit is definitely seeing your work have an impact on decisions and policymaking. In contrast to typical academia, where you’re researching in the lab to get it published, often in the hope that in combination with lots of other research there will be a great impact in the future, in the UN you’re dealing with real-life immediate situations, which is very interesting. For example, in my first year in the UN, I was part of the team that developed two reports on hydrofluorocarbons, ozone depletion, and short-lived climate pollutants. The findings of the reports were influential to the creation of the Climate and Clean Air Coalition (which I ended up working for in Paris), which aimed to promote the identified solutions in the report. When you see policymakers making an intervention based on a report you helped put together, you know your work is actually effecting a real-life solution to a real-world problem.
What are the challenges?
In the UN there aren’t many “fresh grad” positions. Most positions require experience, so it can be challenging to enter without policy experience, and if you make it in it can be difficult to navigate the system. Another challenge is that in the UN promotion is mostly via a competitive process. This means if I want to move – like when I moved from Kenya to Paris, on promotion – it’s not like someone just assessed me as an employee, saw I was doing well, and promoted me, which is a process that can happen in many commercial companies, and even within post-doc roles in academia. Instead, you must look for a vacant position and apply for it in competition with many other people. Sometimes this means you have to be very flexible to move ahead. If I had for example not wanted to leave Kenya, it would have limited my chances to move ahead. I’ve had to be open to moving to where the positions are available – Paris and Washington D.C.
Also, things don’t move as fast as they do in academia, and you’re not as autonomous. When I was in academia, I woke up, decided what I wanted to tackle, and did it. But there are many other factors at play when decisions are being made in large organisations like the UN, and if you’ve been in academia for a long time, that can be frustrating. None of these things are problems, but people should be aware of them when entering the system.
Did you need your Ph.D. to get your position?
A Masters degree is generally the minimum qualification for most professional UN positions, or an undergrad plus two years relevant work experience (in lieu of the masters degree). So a Ph.D. was not required for my position, although I’ve seen positions advertised where it states that having a relevant Ph.D. is an advantage.
However, although it wasn’t asked for when I first applied, I believe my Ph.D. was one of the advantages that led to me getting shortlisted in the first place. And many of the skills I acquired during my Ph.D. have been very useful, not only in navigating the interview process but also in doing the actual job. For example, when I faced the written test during the recruitment process, the question I was asked was not something I could have had a ready-made answer for. But as a Ph.D. I knew how to do my research. In one hour I was supposed to respond with my answer, and I was able to do my research and writing on this unfamiliar topic – and not plagiarise in the process – convincingly enough to pass the written test. In the job itself, project management skills are key – and that’s one of the most important skills people develop during a Ph.D., even if they don’t realise it! Experience of working in teams and written and oral communication skills, all of which were sharpened during my Ph.D., have also helped me in my role.
What’s the progression like?
As I mentioned, you have to apply for vacancies competitively to progress. But in the UN Secretariat, there are certain rules about progression. For example, at my current level, I must move laterally at this level before being eligible to apply for positions at the next level. It’s part of the administrative process of the UN; they want to see you’ve acquired a range of experiences and an understanding of the organisation.
The next position up for me is Senior Programme Officer. The good thing is that within the UN there are several opportunities to move and be trained, which can help you learn and progress. My goal is to move to that higher level, which may mean I have to acquire new skills. I may need training in relevant fields or management to improve my chances. It’s not unusual that to move higher you have to pick up new skills, but progression can be easier within some private or public sector organisations compared to the UN, which is something people need to consider when deciding where they’d like to work.
At the senior position, there’s more management responsibility, and you’re also dealing with people at the very top levels. If you’re at the Director level, for example, you may be talking to top government officials, and there are many challenges; countries can object to certain recommendations, and you need to be politically savvy to deal with that. So that’s very different from me looking at the science and putting policy recommendations together based on it. Convincing countries and leaders to actually make those changes needs a different skill-set.
What are your top tips for our researchers?
- Assess the skills needed in the role ahead of you, and learn to recognise and sell those you’ve gained in your Ph.D./post-doc. These might include being able to research a variety of things, being able to understand, interpret, and present data, communication skills, and project management skills. And if you don’t have some of the skills needed already, proactively seek experiences that will build them. The Ph.D. years are the perfect time to volunteer or take classes. When I was in UCL, I took a course on business at London Business School and that was useful. There may be opportunities to take training courses free or cheaply while you’re a student, and you may never be more autonomous than you are in academia, so take advantage of that.
- If you’re still doing research, try to direct it toward the interest of your desired job/organization. If you’re interested in business, direct your research to more of a business or commercial angle. If I’d known my future direction, I would have spent more time looking at the policy implications of my Ph.D.
- Consider internships and volunteering in your field of interest. As I mentioned, you need work experience for most UN roles, my first position in the UN required 5 years of work experience. I combined my Ph.D. years at UCL, my work experience before starting my Masters, plus my one year at the University of Greenwich – which added up to 6 years of work experience. If you don’t meet the work experience criteria, you can’t be long-listed for a UN position. So take up internships and volunteering positions to accrue work experiences and build your skills.
- Learn to write for a non-academic audience. In the UN, I need to prepare documents that busy policymakers can quickly understand, so the language has to be simple, concise, and persuasive.
- In most positions – not just in the UN – employers are more comfortable hiring people they know to have the desired skill-set for the job, especially if they come by referral. They’re less of a risk. And networking provides you with useful insights and information, and the opportunity to be referred. So take opportunities to network with people through conferences, meetings related to the UN, and go to industrial-focused talks, seminars, conferences, etc. where you’ll meet people from outside of academia too.
- Study industrial trends – whatever industry you’re interested in. That will be useful for you in interviews and on the job.
- Be prepared you may not be treated as “special” compared to undergrad or Master’s colleagues. For most non-academic positions out there, an undergraduate or Master’s degree may be enough to get the job, so you may start on the same salary as new graduates. But the skills you have will speak for you later on and should help you move upwards. At first, though, you must keep an open mind.
Any specific tips for researchers navigating an uncertain economic climate?
My main tip is to be flexible. Things may not go exactly how you had hoped due to factors beyond your control. You may need to take positions available to you for now, and you can use that as a stepping stone to your next stage. It may take a little longer to get where you were hoping to go, and it may be frustrating to settle for “less” originally, but try to concentrate on getting a foot in the door of the industry you’re aiming at, and then see how you can navigate the system from there.
By s.duran, on 9 September 2021
Looking forward to the next few months, we’ve got a great series of virtual employer events coming up. If you want to develop your skills in leadership or networking or learn more about researcher careers in different fields, you’ve come to the right place!
Attending an employer-led event lets you hear directly from companies that hire researchers and connect with other PhD grads who have moved out of academia. Employer-led events are hosted alongside a full programme of career consultant workshops. Click the event links below to sign up and for more information!
Featured Employer Events:
Date: Thursday 14th October 2021
Get an insight into finance, economics and the quantitative analysis industries from PhD level speakers who have paved a career for themselves in these areas.
Date: Wednesday 13th October 2021
Want to know what the consulting industry is really like? Hear from PhD holders who have left academia to become consultants at EY-Parthenon, LEK Consulting, and Capgemini Invent.
Date: Wednesday 27th October 2021
Gain practical experience and dig a bit deeper into the consultancy world with this session! Hosted by a consulting firm, you will gain practical experience of a consulting task while getting an insight into the field.
Date: Wednesday 3rd November 2021
Attend this session to improve your networking skills and meet with alumni and employers looking to hire researchers! This session is a great way to put skills into practice following the Networking Skills workshop.
By uczjsdd, on 6 September 2021
In the third of our series of interviews with PhDs who graduated during the last recession, we spoke with Professor Shun-Liang Chao, who was awarded a PhD in Comparative Literature from UCL, and is now a Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Taiwan’s National Chengchi University. He told us about his journey, and offered tips for those graduating in similarly turbulent times.
- Tell us about your current role and organisation.
I’m currently a Professor of English and Comparative Literature at National Chengchi University, a top research university in Taiwan which just signed a student exchange agreement with UCL in 2020.
- How did you move from your PhD to your current role?
I’d always wanted to be an academic since I started my PhD because I enjoyed doing research. Therefore, I devoted most of my time as a PhD student to making myself competitive in the future academic job market: I frequently attended public lectures, seminars, and workshops to keep abreast of the recent trends in my field, presented my research findings in international conferences, and, above all, published my research in refereed journals and edited volumes. By the time I entered the job market, I had managed to publish a few journal articles and book chapters, a publication record that was good enough to have myself invited to job interviews for postdoc and tenure-track posts in the UK, Hong Kong, South Korea, and Taiwan. In addition to research, I also gained teaching experience by teaching an undergraduate seminar whilst at UCL. As an Asian working on European comparative literature, I found it most challenging to prove that I could be just as competent as, if not better than, PhD students from the West. Therefore, I had to constantly urge myself to work even harder to get my research published. In this aspect, I benefited greatly from the research training (including PhD supervision and examination) I received from UCL and the IAS at the University of London. One year after I completed my PhD, I managed to publish my thesis as a monograph, which was later awarded in Paris the Anna Balakian Prize (Honourable Mention) by the International Comparative Literature Association. This award paved the way for several research grants and collaborative projects.
- Did graduating into a recession have an impact on your career path?
When I entered the job market, the humanities were already in crisis. I remember I applied for a tenure-track post at a flagship university in the US and later was informed that the advertised post was suspended due to budget cuts. Nevertheless, since I had always wished to stay in academia, such recessions never thwarted my determination. I considered myself very lucky to land a tenure-track post at a top university in Taiwan just a few months after teaching part-time in Taiwan.
- What does a normal working day look like for you?
Normally, academic life consists of three parts: research, teaching, and service. Service may sound abstract to those outside academia: it involves department admin, serving on department/college/university committees, serving on editorial boards of journals or book series, peer-reviewing articles, books, and grant applications, examining PhD theses and MA dissertations, and so on. During term-time, teaching and service take up most of my time and energy on a daily basis. I can fully concentrate on my research only during summer and winter breaks. Whilst people outside academia may envy that academics don’t have to work a 9 to 5 job, I have to say I find it rather nerve-wracking not to have a clear line between on-duty time and off-duty time in my life because I often have to work at night as well as on weekends and holidays. Fortunately, my wife is also an academic, so we can sympathise with each other.
- What are the best things about working in your role?
Teaching young minds has helped me constantly to rejuvenate myself psychologically. Also, I find it very rewarding to be able to kindle their passion for literature, particularly when their vision of life has been shaped by neoliberal capitalism.
- What are the biggest challenges?
Admin-wise, I find cutting through red tape most challenging and frustrating, particularly in the case of intermural/extramural research collaborations. Teaching-wise, under the sway of neoliberalism, university education has become much more conditioned towards a capitalist vision of life, become more about having to look at oneself as an entrepreneur such that students are less willing to ‘invest’ in non-lucrative subjects like literature or, broadly, the humanities. Under such circumstances, the biggest challenge is how to ‘sell’ literature to students. Research-wise, at a research-orientated university, I’m under a lot of pressure to publish or perish whilst also having to satisfy the demands of teaching and service.
- What skills do you use from your PhD in your current role?
In addition to research skills, the communication skills I learnt from my PhD supervisor have helped me greatly to supervise my students. Also, this is probably not a skill but an attitude that I picked up whilst at UCL and has been motivating me constantly to explore new things (be they academic or not): it wouldn’t hurt to give it a go.
- What’s the progression usually like in academia?
A PhD is an essential for a tenure-track position. These days many PhDs may have to get a postdoc fellowship before landing a tenure-track post. In Taiwan, getting on the tenure track, a PhD typically starts as an assistant professor and is expected to become promoted to associate professorship within six years in order to get tenure. Whilst the tenure review evaluates one’s contribution to research, teaching, and service, research plays a pivotal role in one’s promotion to associate professorship (and to full professorship) at a research university. Even after having tenure, one still has to go through evaluation every five years at my university. I’m lucky enough to be promoted to full professorship in 2020, eleven years after I completed my PhD. Now I can finally pace myself a bit in life instead of constantly chasing one deadline after another.
- What top tips would you pass on to researchers interested in progressing within academia?
Here’s my two pennies worth: Above all, enjoy what you do; second, try to get published in refereed journals or volumes in order to make yourself competitive in the future job market; third, stay positive when your submissions or applications get rejected; last but not least, network with other PhD students or colleagues to exchange ideas or research experiences and, furthermore, to pave the way for future collaborations.
By uczjsdd, on 19 August 2021
Want to know what a career in publishing looks like? We spoke to a Comparative Literature PhD grad turned freelance translator and editor to find out, and they offered up some great tips for getting your foot in the door.
This article forms the second in our series spotlighting PhDs who graduated during the turbulent times of the last recession.
Tell us about your current role
I used to be a commissioning editor in a UK publishing house, and am now a freelance translator and editor, working on fiction and non-fiction books for a range of publishers, both large companies and smaller independents.
How did you get from academia to here?
I seriously contemplated a career in academia, but having got to know the university world a bit better during my PhD – when I did some teaching alongside my research – I realised that what I really wanted to do was be directly involved with what’s being published. I decided this about halfway through my PhD, as far as I recall.
I then scoured my circle of friends and uncovered one who had contacts in publishing. That’s how I got my first work experience placement in an editorial department. Then I started cold-emailing people, and eventually got my second placement – someone had just dropped out of a two-week work experience slot, and they needed someone to start right away. I ended up staying on at the company, and getting hired as an editorial assistant. They were a bit wary at first, because they had a preconception about PhD students being more or less locked in an ivory tower. But I managed to convince them otherwise by showing that I was quick to learn the business, and that I wasn’t ‘just a geek’. You have to get into a different mode, which can be a bit difficult if you’ve gone straight from A levels to BA to MA to PhD, but if you’re keen you’ll pick things up pretty quickly.
Did graduating into a recession have an impact on your career path?
I was fortunate enough in that my partner at the time had a safe-ish job, which meant that I was able to pursue a career like publishing without having to worry too much about the bills. Publishing is a very competitive business, and jobs are difficult to come by even when the economy is healthy. Publishers don’t make as much money from books as you might think they do, when you hear about the six- or seven-figure advances some authors are paid. The profit margins are very small. In a way, publishing always feels a bit like an industry in recession! There’s a dark running joke, that no one’s in it to get rich – money, when it comes in, is more or less a happy side-effect. Of course, that’s an exaggeration: some publishers do make a lot of money. But many don’t.
What does a normal working day look like for you?
Normal days are rare when you’re a freelancer, and the nice thing is that you can more or less have the working day you need or want. You may have children to raise or a relative to care for, or have time-consuming extracurricular interests such as sports or music – and freelancing allows you a certain amount of leeway when it comes to working hours. On an average day, though, I rise at a sensible hour, have breakfast, check my emails, deal with anything urgent (you do get the occasional editorial emergency), and then I get on with whatever book I’m working on at the moment, whether it’s translating or editing it. I work on a wide variety of things, so I might be translating a history book one month, proofreading an Argentinian thriller and editing an actor’s memoir the next… It never gets boring, really, unless you’re working on a boring book. Depending on how tough the book is, my working day can be anything between 5 and 15 hours long. I usually work on one project at a time, which means that I can focus properly on each one.
By contrast, a commissioning editor’s day at a publishing house is a bit more bitty, because you’ll be working on lots of books at the same time – it could be as many as twenty or so, all at different stages in the publishing process. You may start the morning off by checking out a few submissions from literary agents, then sit down with an author to finalise their manuscript, have a meeting with publicity and marketing about a book that’s about to come out, check the proofs for a book that’s just returned from the typesetter, interview someone for an assistant role… and in-between there’s all sorts of admin to do. And after work you may have a book launch to go to as well. Days can be very long sometimes, but boredom is one thing you’ll rarely hear people in publishing complain about.
What are the best bits?
In my role as translator, the best thing is knowing that you’re playing a part in conveying a great book to readers who would otherwise not be able to read it. I also love solving problems, and you need to do a lot of that as a translator – and as an editor. The best thing about being an editor is that you can have a tangible impact on what’s being published, and – I know this is a cliché, but it’s true – you do meet a lot of interesting people.
What are the biggest challenges?
The biggest challenge is that the business of books – especially as a freelancer – is an uncertain one. I definitely recommend going freelance only after you’ve had a chance to make contacts in publishing. Most of the work that comes across my desk these days is sent to me by people I got to know when I was working for the publishing house, which is how they became my clients. Even working within a publishing house, though, it isn’t easy to make decent money during the first three or four years. However, things are improving: there are more properly paid internships around these days than there once were, and publishers are increasingly moving to, or opening up new offices in locations outside London.
Some people find it hard to reconcile their love of good books with the business side of things. Publishing is in many ways a business like any other, and the idea that a book is a product which needs to be sold and marketed just like, say, hosepipes, can be a bit of a shock. But you’ll very quickly get over it, because there is so much pleasure to be had from working in publishing. Who cares if a wonderful book by a brilliant new author is a ‘product’? It’s a wonderful book. By a wonderful author. And it will make someone, somewhere, happy.
Is a PhD essential for your role?
A PhD can be essential for certain jobs in academic publishing, but in trade publishing (i.e. fiction and non-fiction books for the so-called ‘general reader’) it can be something of an obstacle, because some people assume that you will have a brilliant mind, but also an unpractical one. The way to get over this is to show them that you know what’s going on in publishing, and that you’re aware it’s a living, breathing business. For example, when you apply for an editorial assistant role or similar at a press that does modern fiction, by all means tell them that you have read the whole of the Enlightenment canon and can quote Macbeth by heart, but also show that you know a few contemporary authors and have an idea of what’s in the bestseller list.
The most useful skills I acquired in the course of my PhD are:
- Research skills – for us postgrads it’s second nature, so it’s easy to forget that research is an Actual Transferable Skill. In my very first job, my colleagues were amazed (and I’m not exaggerating) that I was able to find things out quite quickly, such as who owned the rights to an image, who the top 50 social media cookery influencers are, information on an author they were thinking of publishing… things that can take ages when you haven’t been spending half your life for the past three or four years researching.
- Self-discipline and initiative: if you’ve written a 100,000-word PhD thesis, you evidently have stamina, you know how to manage your time and how to work hard. You will also have learnt how to be creative and innovative, and how to get down to work without someone having to hold your hand every step of the way.
- Office skills: Word, Excel and PowerPoint – these are essential, and I found out about a lot of the tools and features as part of my PhD (writing my thesis, preparing presentations). A knowledge of InDesign and/or Photoshop also comes in handy.
What’s the progression like?
It depends very much on the publishing house. In some it’s very easy to get promoted, and you can go from editorial assistant to commissioning editor in two or three years, in others it’s much harder. If you work for a small indie publisher, you may find that even at entry-level, the person in front of you in the career queue is literally the owner of the company, so you have no choice but to move out to move up. Then again, it’s easier to make your mark and get noticed in a small company. You also have to be willing to put yourself forward. If you’re enthusiastic (and show it) and are good at what you do, though, you can move up very quickly.
As for my own future – I’m very happy doing what I’m doing, but if the right job at the right place were to come along (I have a very short shortlist of publishers I’d like to work for), I might go back to being a commissioning editor.
What are your top tips for researchers interested in this type of work?
In no particular order:
- Sign up to the Bookseller magazine’s morning email (go to their website and click on sign up/register). This is the trade magazine for people in publishing, and the morning newsletter has all the key news – career moves, big book deals, prizes, etc.
- Read the book reviews in the Guardian and the Sunday Times – no matter what you think of them as newspapers, their books pages are the most influential ones in the country. Some titles become bestsellers off the back of a single rave review in one or the other.
- Work experience: this is the big one. Even if your PhD is about books, you still need to prove that you’re committed to publishing as a job/business. Work experience slots can be difficult to get, but don’t lose hope: check out publishers’ websites, join the Society of Young Publishers, cold-email people in publishing (their email addresses are rarely online, but you can sometimes find out with some judicious googling), and ask around. Perhaps you’ll discover that your aunt’s neighbour’s grandson works at Hachette, or that your supervisor’s best friend has just set up a small indie press. Also, even if you think that you really want to become an editor, consider doing work experience in other departments, such as sales or marketing. You may find out that you actually prefer one of those other areas. Or try getting work experience with a literary agent. And when you’ve got your placement, work hard, be friendly, and make sure you talk to as many people as possible – once you have your foot in the door, networking is key. Finally, when your placement is nearing its end, ask if you can do another one elsewhere in the company, either right away or at a later date.
- Create your own experience: start a journal – online or print – with your fellow students, organise a book festival…
- Online research/take a punt: watch interviews / read Q&As with people working in publishing (check out publisher websites and YouTube), to find out more about the different jobs you can do in publishing. Get in touch with someone in the industry and ask them if they can spare half an hour to talk to you, or would be willing to answer some questions via email. If you can, invite them for a cup of tea or something at a café close to their office. They may say no, but no harm in trying!
- Do other book-related things: blog/vlog about books, work in a bookshop, help out at literary events/festivals, start a book club, ask the Book Trust or Reading Agency if they need volunteers, ask your old school if you can run a reading group or help out in the library, offer to copy-edit or proofread books for UCL staff for free… basically, show them that you’re more than an avid and intelligent reader, that you’re aware that publishing is an actual business, and that you’re not choosing it merely because you can’t think of anything better to do.
- Learn how to make a good cup of tea or coffee. I’m not having you on: as a rule, people in publishing love hot drinks, and it’s a brilliant way to break the ice when you’re doing work experience, and get to know that intimidating-looking-but-genius editorial director sitting across from you in the office.
By uczjsdd, on 3 August 2021
Dr Alice Moon has a PhD in Biochemistry, and now works here at UCL Careers as a careers consultant for the Engineering faculty, working with departments to offer careers support to their students. Alice kindly told how she got here, and shared her top tips for researchers considering leaving academia.
How did you move from your PhD to this role?
I did my PhD for the classic terrible reason that I didn’t know what else to do. I performed well in my degree, and I had a tutor who said I should do a PhD, so I did. I hadn’t done much of the careers thinking I now recognise as so important. Despite this, I quite enjoyed many aspects of research, and I found myself wanting to be an academic. However, after my PhD I did a couple of post-docs which generated pretty unexciting results, so it would have been a bit of a battle to stay in academia. And at the same time I felt like my values were changing. I looked around at work and didn’t see any role models I wanted to be. It still seemed really difficult in academia even at the supervisory level, with constant applications for funding, a need to move around to get jobs, and being impacted by larger institutional decisions.
So I left my post-doc, but again I did it without doing much careers thinking. I simply knew I no longer wanted to be an academic, and had a feeling there must be something better suited to me out there. I didn’t know what my options were with a PhD, and I’d always used and been interested in science, so I tried to get into intellectual property, but I wasn’t hearing back on my applications. My partner at the time was a scientist and wanting to leave, and he was applying to accountancy grad schemes. I felt like that wasn’t for me, but then he told me about the National Audit Office because I was interested in society, and encouraged me to apply. I sort of applied on a whim, but then I made it through the various application stages, and I ended up in an accountancy graduate scheme.
I probably went into that role thinking I had it all sussed. I didn’t feel I needed to be the best at it, so I thought I could just do enough to get through the exams and it would be fine. But it was so difficult, in fact one of the most difficult years of my life. Graduate schemes want 150% from you, so I was studying and taking exams as well as doing the work. Probably from week two I had doubts about accountancy as a career path for me, but there was so much momentum – for example, in week four I had two exams which I had to pass or I’d be asked to leave – so I didn’t have the brain capacity to think about whether it was right or wrong for me, I just had to focus on the work. I took 11 of 12 exams, and passed 10 of them. I stayed for just over a year, and then I left. It was definitely valuable to learn about financial reports and business models, which I’d had no understanding of as a researcher. But it wasn’t the right step for my career, and it was so full-on that afterwards I had to take time out to recover.
So for about three years I was focusing on personal rather than professional development. For me, that meant a mixture of travel and working in a café start-up, and temping. I wanted to keep things light, and not take on anything too new and serious, because I wanted the next step to be more considered. I did a lot of networking as part of the career exploration process, and took an interest in other people’s jobs and what they liked about them. That was essentially the first time I was reflecting on what I wanted and liked in a job. And during those conversations, a friend of mine inspired me. She studied drama/dance as her degree and now works as an office manager in a media company. When I asked her how she chose her path, she told me she’d thought about what she liked in a job, and she realised she didn’t want to have to wear stiff smart clothing, she wanted to work in a pretty environment with nice lighting and furniture, and she wanted people to thank her lots and appreciate her. And that’s what she gets from her current job. It was a bit of a revelation for me, as it was the first time I’d ever encountered someone thinking about the more day-to-day factors involved in being at work.
As she is one of the happiest people I know in their job, I tried to take the same approach of thinking about what I wanted day-to-day. I realised I didn’t want the output of my work to be a report. And I started to recognise that my strengths were in interpersonal understanding, and that I wanted to work with people. I wanted to work more flexibly than a post-doc – I didn’t want my field and skillset to be so narrow that it dictated where in the world I could work, I wanted flexibility to live life on my terms. I wanted a sense that my skills were innate in some way, they were part of me. I didn’t want to have to have technical expertise, for example, using a very specific piece of machinery. All of this led me to gravitate towards coaching, but I didn’t want to take a coaching qualification without knowing it was the right next step for me. And then I met someone who worked at UCL Careers, and she told me about her job as a careers consultant, which entailed one-to-one guidance and groupwork. There was a qualification involved, which definitely wasn’t a draw for me as I didn’t really want to commit to another qualification, but the employer would pay for it, and I got to start the work and see if I would like it before embarking on that study. It sounded good, and so here I am!
What does an average day look like?
It’s really varied, and often depends on the time of year. Seeing students is a big part of the role – offering guidance and practice interviews. In the Autumn and Spring terms delivering workshops is a key feature, so is the planning and preparation for those workshops. I also work closely with academics and academic departments, figuring out what they want for their students. In our team in engineering there’s also someone who looks after employer engagement and someone who looks after sourcing internships and vacancies, so I’m often liaising with them and informing my work through their knowledge. I also work closely with colleagues on projects, which can take various forms, from putting together new events to thinking about online content.
What are the best things about the role?
I find working with students massively rewarding. I enjoy the conversations we have, I feel like I learn a lot, and I feel I have (usually) helped them move on by the end of our conversation, so there’s a tangible immediate value to my work. Thinking back to my days as a post-doc, it would take a long time to see the impact of what I was doing, so it’s refreshing to see the impact there and then, and especially reflecting on my own journey, I know this career thinking is important. I also enjoy being in a university setting, where I get to work with so many stimulating ideas; whether that’s the most innovative teaching and coaching methods, or the engineering innovation that impacts employment and careers for the students I support. I also enjoy working with my colleagues and getting to be creative in how we approach the task of helping students.
What are the challenges?
The role is incredibly varied, which I really like, but I also know it’s a very different way of working to when I was in research or accountancy. I have to do lots of different things well now, so there’s a lot of time and quality-management involved. I’m no longer focusing on one thing and making it perfect. Instead I need to get lots of things done in a way that’s high quality but efficient, and allows space for a broad range of tasks. There’s also a lot of managing a busy calendar, and managing it around lots of colleagues who are also managing busy calendars themselves.
Is your PhD useful in the role?
A PhD isn’t essential for the role, although I have several colleagues who also have PhDs. There are definitely some similarities between my research years and this role; I get to work with ideas, and I have a fair amount of autonomy, I’m always learning and can take a scholarly approach to my work. And an ability to research means you can stay up to date in innovations in teaching, coaching, employment and recruitment processes etc. Having the PhD experience also helps me when working with students considering moving to PhD study, or with PhD students thinking about what to do next.
What’s the progression like?
It’s great to be in this sector as it feels there are loads of opportunities to progress in different directions, which is refreshing compared to my time in academia. For me personally, I really enjoy our core practices of guidance and coaching, so that’s something I want to develop, and perhaps take that on as an area of expertise if I move to Senior Careers Consultant level. There are also ways to move upwards if you want to take on managerial roles – Team Leaders, Deputy Heads, Heads. And in Higher Education more widely there are lots of opportunities to move around and support students and/or research in different ways, and movement between roles isn’t unusual.
Some careers consultants will go freelance at some point and work with private clients. I have considered having more of a portfolio career in that way, and if I did ever want to do that, this is a great platform to start from. So I feel very positive about the opportunities, and I feel very strongly that I have control over what I want my role to look like in future. I’m the one getting to choose.
Tips for researchers
If you think you might like to be a careers consultant, get involved in talking to the careers team at your university, and see if there are any opportunities for you to work shadow, or to get involved in helping at events. Also take on opportunities to support students, such as teaching or personal tutoring or supervising.
And for researchers thinking of leaving academia more generally, in my experience of talking with current researchers and those who’ve left, I notice there can often be a sense of disempowerment –a feeling they don’t have any useful skills and they won’t be valued outside of academia. But there are so many opportunities for you to be valued in the world. So I would encourage you to take each and every chance to explore what else might be out there for you.
By uczjsdd, on 14 July 2021
In the first of a new series looking at how to navigate your career during uncertain times, we speak to a Biological Sciences PhD who graduated during the last recession, and is now a Science Teacher in a private secondary school.
- Tell us about your current role and organisation.
I work in a private school as a science teacher. At the higher levels I cover just biological sciences, but at the younger ages I sometimes cover more subjects. I also take on additional responsibilities for sports and arts clubs I’m interested in.
- How did you move from academia to your current role?
I’m not much of a planner, and I’d been so wrapped up in my research that I hadn’t looked ahead and thought about how to progress in academia. When I did, towards the end of my PhD, I realised I didn’t have any teaching experience whereas other PhDs did.
So I contacted people in my department who let me do a few guest lectures on their courses to fill the gap. I also got involved with a charity that puts researchers into schools. I was doing it just to have some more teaching experience on my CV, but I found I really enjoyed the whole process! I realised teaching in schools would offer me the stability and people-contact that academia wouldn’t, so I started to consider that as my plan A and academia as my plan B.
While researching teaching, I was surprised to learn that private schools didn’t always need their teachers to take a teaching qualification, which was appealing as I didn’t fancy more study at that time. So I applied to private schools, and after making me deliver a teaching demonstration, one of them took me on.
- Did graduating into a recession have an impact on your career path?
I think there might have been something about the stability and recession-proof nature of teaching that appealed to me because of the credit crunch. Maybe that wouldn’t have meant as much to me if the world had felt more stable at that time. Also, I probably would have found the PGCE teacher-training route a bit more appealing if I’d felt more secure in getting a job afterwards. During that time it felt important to be earning money and not to go back and study again.
- What does a normal working day look like for you?
My days are very full. I’m up early and teaching students most of the day, and then a lot of evenings are taken up by marking or prep work, and some by extracurricular activities I run for the students. I like to think of creative ways to teach, which is fun, but it adds to the prep time! Obviously adapting to online teaching over the past year or so also took a lot of prep.
- What are the best things about working in your role?
There are lots of great things. I like working with people, I find it really energising. I missed that in academia, and so that’s probably the best bit for me. I also like still being in touch with science, and in a broader way than academia allows.
I went to a state school myself, and I never imagined I would work in a private school. But there are some particular perks to it that are worth mentioning. The pay is very good, and as I’ve progressed and taken on more responsibilities – both extracurricular and within the science department – it has increased. It sounds gauche to talk about, but I’m earning a lot more than my colleagues who remained in academia – even the very successful ones. Some private schools even throw free accommodation into the package! The holiday is also unbeatable. Of course all teachers get lots of holiday, but private schools often have even more holiday than state schools, so that’s been really nice, especially for those teachers who have young families. And just like academia, travel is one of the unexpected perks! Outside of pandemic conditions, some private schools send their pupils on fantastic field, sporting, and social trips, which always need teachers to supervise, so I’ve managed to travel to some amazing places for free – although obviously I’ve had to spend a lot of the time working!
- What are the worst bits?
The flip side to the amazing holiday benefits is that it’s difficult/impossible to take holiday during term-time, and during term-time the workload can be very heavy, especially if you take on extra responsibilities as I have. That way of working – very intense followed by long breaks – suits me, but it probably wouldn’t suit everyone.
- Is a PhD essential for your role?
A PhD isn’t essential, but the organisational and communication skills I developed during the PhD help. Having the PhD may well have helped me bypass the PGCE route too, and the teaching experience I had picked up during the PhD was obviously valuable. I also think it adds some extra credibility for the pupils and their parents, who often have very high expectations of the school.
- What’s the progression like?
There isn’t quite the same pressure to “progress” as there is in academia, which I actually like. But there are still lots of opportunities. You can become a head of department, and then of course a deputy head/head teacher. And some people move away from teaching to work on the educational policy side or in educational charities.
- What top tips would you pass on to a researcher interested in this type of work?
If you think teaching might be for you, give it a go – you’ll soon find out! There are lots of opportunities to work-shadow teachers and deliver sessions in schools, so seek them out. Teaching experience at university level will help you too, but it’s fairly different, so you really should get a bit of experience in schools to see if you’d like it.
I’d also advise getting involved in as many different things as possible, especially if you’re not sure where you want to end up, because you never know where they may lead – look at how I ended up in teaching!
- Are there any specific tips you would give to people graduating into a recession?
I think people have to go with how they feel. The recession made me nervous, so I went for a stable well-paid job to reduce that anxiety. Not everyone will need to do that though. I suppose when I look at all of my PhD peers who also graduated in the recession, they’re all doing fine. So maybe my advice would be, don’t worry too much about it. You have the highest qualification you can get, and you’ll have developed loads of useful skills along the way, so you’ll be employable even in a recession, you just might have to compromise for a bit depending on what you want to do.
By s.duran, on 9 July 2021
Throughout the academic year, we take a deep dive into some key topics and career paths discussed in our events programme. In these posts, we explore what careers in a variety of different industries look like for a researcher, find out about the roles their organisation has to offer and get some key tips on applying. In this summer’s bonus blog series, we’re following up with some of the speakers from our Researchers Professional Careers Beyond Academia Conference. We’ll learn more about their roles, industries, and answer a few questions we weren’t able to get to in the conference.
This week we’ll be looking at medical writing with Emma Phillips, Publication Manager at Costello Medical.
Emma completed her PhD in Neuroscience at King’s College London. She worked as a post-doctoral researcher at University of Cambridge prior to moving into medical writing in 2018.
So, how did you move from your PhD to your current role?
I completed my PhD in Neuroscience at Kings College London in 2016 before doing an 18-month post-doc at the University of Cambridge. However, I quickly realised that an academic career wasn’t for me and, after some help from the university’s career service, I decided medical writing sounded really interesting. I had previously enjoyed writing both my thesis and academic papers, so this seemed like a good fit.
I applied to Costello Medical and started as a Medical Writer in the Publications division in April 2018. I found I really enjoyed the job – the work was interesting and meaningful, closely linked to cutting edge science and used many of the skills I developed in my academic career. In April 2019, I was promoted to Senior Medical Writer and began managing projects alongside continuing to write. In October 2020, I was promoted again to Publication Manager. I now do less writing but manage full client accounts and line manage several members of the team. I also play a strategic role in the projects I work on for clients and internally within Costello.
Who are Costello Medical, and what do you do?
Costello Medical provides scientific support in the analysis, interpretation and communication of clinical and health economic data. We work with pharmaceutical and medical device companies, as well as charities, to help communicate their data to a variety of audiences. We provide a wide range of services, which means we can support clients throughout the lifecycle of their product. I work in the Publications division who specialise in academic publications, including peer-reviewed journal papers and congress work, but have frequently worked on cross-divisional projects.
In my current role, my day-to-day work involves keeping all the projects on my client accounts running smoothly and to time. This includes reviewing work that the Medical Writers and Senior Medical Writers draft, communicating with clients about new and ongoing projects to make sure we are meeting their brief, and working on business development to make sure we have projects lined up for the future. As a member of the Senior Management Team, I also have internal responsibilities, including helping plan who works on which project, line managing members of the Publications division and helping shape what Costello Medical is going to look like in the future.
What are the benefits of working for Costello and in your current role?
Whilst I enjoyed my time in academia, there are benefits to my current role. For example, it is permanent, I am better paid and there is better training for managers. However, these are not the things that really stand out to me as my favourite aspects of the job.
I really enjoy how varied my work is – I am always learning about new disease areas and project types; every day is different. I also love the impact I can have through my work. Outwardly, this is most obvious through the publications we develop – the science we write about has real impact for patients and healthcare systems across the world. However, I also have the privilege of having an impact internally within the company, both through mentoring junior members of staff and watching them grow into excellent Medical Writers, and through having my say in the future of Costello Medical. The company has always been shaped by the interests, opinions and passions of its employees. For example, I am really interested in patient engagement in medical research and my line manager has always supported this. We now have a team of people working to progress patient engagement at Costello Medical and in the projects we work on.
What were the biggest challenges in moving from your PhD to industry?
Except for a short placement working at Lilly during my PhD, I had no experience working in industry. I had no idea how to work in a professional office and was really worried that I would do or say the wrong thing! When I got to Costello Medical, I quickly realised my fears were unfounded – everyone was so friendly and helpful. I was also worried that I would miss being in the lab but, honestly, this never happened.
Coming from academia, you often have very little experience in the client-facing side of the role. I did find this daunting at first – it can be scary to speak up on client calls at the beginning. However, my Project Managers and teams were always there to help me, and I wasn’t left to take client calls by myself until I was much more experienced and felt confident to do so.
What type of career progression is available in Medical Writing at Costello Medical?
At Costello Medical, we are looking for individuals who are collaborative, self-motivated and enthusiastic with a genuine interest in healthcare and an eagerness to learn about new areas of science. No prior medical communications experience is needed for the Medical Writer role. Instead, we look for candidates with excellent written English, exceptional attention to detail and strong analytical skills. Furthermore, we expect candidates to have good organisation skills and the ability to work across multiple projects and teams at the same time. Given that our roles are often entry-level and career progression can be rapid, a desire and passion to learn is essential.
As a PhD student, you can do plenty to prepare for a future career in medical communications. For example, taking every opportunity you can to write. It is especially helpful if you can write for multiple audiences and develop writing styles suited to multiple formats, like publication writing aimed at fellow academics alongside writing documents aimed at the general public. Additionally, we would recommend any teamwork opportunities, which can help to prepare you for working within project teams and collaborating with people from different backgrounds.
Audience Question 1: What’s the application and interview process for medical writing?
We firstly ask candidates to submit their CV, along with a cover letter, via the online application form on our website. After an initial CV review, you will be sent a written assessment to complete, which is a critical appraisal of a trial paper. This allows us to assess your scientific understanding as well as your written communication skills and attention to detail. Successful candidates will be invited to an interview which includes a short presentation based on the written assessment. The interview will then be with two senior members of the team and you will have a chance to also ask them any questions about the role or the company. Finally, you will complete a proofreading task to show us your attention to detail skills.
Audience Question 2: How much of a writing portfolio had you built up when you applied for your position within and outside of academic journal articles?
Most of my writing experience had come from writing academic journal articles – I think I had been an author on seven or eight papers. I had also written and presented several congress abstracts, posters and oral presentations. A published academic record is not needed to apply for a Medical Writer role, but I do feel it helped to prepare me.
Outside of academic writing, I had been involved in several projects that required me to target my communication to other, non-academic audiences, including the 3-Minute Thesis Competition and a variety of open days and public outreach projects.
Audience Question 3: Do you ever experience pressure from clients to word or present the write-up in a certain way and how do you deal with that?
Yes, we are often required to use client-approved wording or phrases in our writing. In fact, a key part of our job is ensuring the publications we write align with client strategy and messaging. We plan publications to make sure they are published to timelines that maximise their impact and build a consistent picture of the benefits (and limitations!) of a treatment. However, everything we write must be supported by data and references. If a client wants us to write something unsupported, we are encouraged to push back on this to ensure our work is of the highest possible quality. Honestly though, this very rarely happens – there are almost always independent clinicians involved who would be uncomfortable with this, and the client will want their publications to get past peer reviewers. There are also wide variety of industry standards that pharmaceutical companies and medical publication professionals must adhere to, which prevent companies communicating incorrect data or putting a ‘spin’ on results.
Thanks to Emma for sharing your experiences! We hope you found this useful and keep an eye out for more of our guest blogs… If this has inspired you to explore a career outside of academia, keep an eye out for our Autumn term events programme.
By s.duran, on 28 June 2021
This year’s Researchers Professional Careers Beyond Academia Conference took place over three days earlier this month, with a specific focus on Life and Health Sciences. We heard from a variety of great speakers, both PhD holders and employers, who shared their experiences, knowledge, and tips on moving into industry from academia. So, what did we learn from each session?
Careers in Life & Health Sciences across Industry
Covering clinical trials, medical communications, strategic consultancy and industry research, our keynote panel gave us a small flavour of the types of roles available to researchers in industry, and reflections on making the jump. Long before her role as a Senior Global Trial Manager at IQVIA, Fatima Farzana started planning her future career. Her advice to researchers? “Look at your values to help you map out potential career paths – then apply across the board”. Identifying the values that are important to you can help you narrow down your industry search, and target the types of roles you would excel in.
All four speakers discussed how they found that crucial first role of academia and their recommendations for making the leap. This included:
- Accessing careers service advice – UCL Careers offers one-to-one appointments with Careers Consultants, CV reviews, interview prep, and a range of events and workshops dedicated to researchers.
- Job advertisements – Sometimes the obvious answer is the correct one. You won’t find your next role if you aren’t looking for it.
- Networking – Meeting and engaging with the right people can often lead to new opportunities.
Networking was consistently raised as a critical factor in landing an industry job – but how can you avoid common mistakes in your networking efforts? Matt Harms, Associate Principal Scientist at AstraZeneca, has experienced networking requests first-hand. His advice? “Never say ‘I just want a foot in the door’ – always be genuinely interested in the role you’re applying for”.
What is the Future of Research?
This second session brough together individuals from a variety of backgrounds to discuss their thoughts on the future of research and researcher careers. David Bogle, Pro-Vice-Provost of the Doctoral School oversees Early Career Researchers at UCL. He sees the future of research as innovation, saying “we are training researchers to innovate within and beyond academia”. In response to a question asking if leaving academia is only for those who can’t ‘hack it’, David, who has worked both in industry and academia, said, “this attitude shows a lack of imagination in those who can’t perceive any other path.” – with agreement from panellists.
Across the panel, there was acknowledgement of the failures and identity issues researchers encounter. Jennifer McGowan, a recently appointed lecturer at UCL, shared a list of about 20 positions she was unsuccessful in securing, and commented that the full list is much longer. Sheona Scales, Paediatric Lead for Research and Innovation at Cancer Research UK, recalled questioning herself during her early days as a researcher and in industry. Nirmesh Patel, who was named as one of Forbes 30 Under 30 through his work with Cambridge Cancer Genomics concluded with, “Everyone is winging it, why not you?”.
What does a post post-doctoral career look like?
To spotlight the additional challenge that comes with moving from a post-doctoral career to industry, a dedicated Q&A session was added to this year’s programme to hear from people who have done just that. Below are a few key questions and answered shared by our panellists.
Question: Is there an optional time to switch?
Hannah Boycott, who is a Programme Manager for the Medical Research Council, was happy with her decision to switch from a post-doc to industry after 10 years. She built up skills, was able to travel, and work in a wide variety of places around the world. Diane Sutherland, Group Development Director at Fishawack Health commented that they hire people across the spectrum – both just out of their PhD and those with 10+ years of post-doc experience. Sarah Farrow, Recruitment Consultant at CK Science shared her perspective regarding one of the biggest challenges in moving from post-doc positions to industry. She cautioned researchers may need to have flexible salary requirements, especially when making the first move to industry.
Question: What skills did you need in industry that you didn’t gain from your PhD?
Beth Rycroft, an Associate Director for Global Medical Affairs, shared that she had to quickly upskill herself in simplifying the science, interpreting data that you didn’t produce yourself, changing presentation style to suit the audience, and working in a team. Hannah mentioned the importance of learning business language, such as ‘stakeholder’ and ‘funding landscape’, and getting over inferiority complex when in the room with big names. Diane commented that getting feedback on things can be quite daunting at first, as lots of colleagues will comment on your work, and you will be working with experts as it’s not your research. She also mentioned working to deadlines, as you’re charging out your time and getting past perfectionism – a trait common in many researchers.
Managing your Journey Beyond Academia
In the final session, UCL alumni alongside a UCL Careers Consultant spoke to current students and staff about what they can be doing now to prepare for their career journey.
Rebecca McKelvey, Founder and CEO of in2scienceUK, highlighted the valuable support she received from UCL Innovation and Enterprise when founding her charity, , and discussed that employability skills are exactly what researchers possess – problem solving, independence, resilience, communication skills and adaptability.
Tim Geach, Senior Publishing Manager at Springer Nature, states that his employer requires new hires to hold a PhD. They greatly value PhD experience, and even more so, post-doctoral experience. He stated that he enjoys his ability to work across different subjects, and the various routes that were available to him within publishing.
Crystal Ruff is a Senior Executive in Life Sciences & Transaction Advisory Services at EY-Parthenon. She worked clinically for ten years before moving into consulting and obtained her MBA to support her industry career. However, she stated that an MBA is not a requirement to enter strategic consulting. The skills are needed, but how you got them isn’t important.
A Deputy Head at UCL Careers, Calum Leckie obtained his PhD in plant-based biology and spent eight years as a post-doc. He came into this role after reflecting on his values, and found he enjoyed mentoring and supporting people. He saw the confusion in career paths of others and found a role to help researchers with their own career journeys.
So what can researchers be doing now to developing skills outside of their research?
Matt states you should be learning about the industries you want to go into. Don’t list what skills and attributes you have for a role without referencing what the role is and what you can offer and relate your skills to what’s needed. For example, if you want to write, then show evidence of writing. Rebecca recommended that you should look at what you want to go into and then find ways to develop those skills. For example, you could organise an event, support public engagement or outreach, or gain teaching experience. Calum recommended you do things within your research environment. Network to access the hidden jobs market – roles that aren’t advertised, or that may be coming up. Get work experience, and update your LinkedIn profile.