Behind the scenes of science: working in science funding at Wellcome Trust
By Sophia Donaldson, on 25 October 2017
Dr Dev Churamani completed his PhD in Cell Physiology at UCL (whoop whoop!) and is now a Senior Portfolio Developer at Wellcome Trust. He’s spoken at two of our careers events for researchers in the past, and now he’s kindly agreed to give us a careers case study for our blog.
Tell us what you’re up to now
I work as a Senior Portfolio Developer within Wellcome’s Science Integration, Structures team. We manage, oversee and co-ordinate some of our major initiatives and schemes. We also lead on cross-Science and cross-Wellcome projects, for example the Francis Crick Institute.
How did you move from academia to your current role?
I think I decided academia wasn’t for me during my PhD, which is a little ironic, because after my PhD I spent 6 years as a post-doc in a UCL lab! I enjoyed working at the bench, but I realised early on it wasn’t something I wanted to pursue long term. So for me it was always more about when was the right time to get out. I was enjoying the job and the lab. But after a few years it felt that if I knew academia wasn’t the career for me, that was the point I had to leave and move on to something that was. So I started looking for new challenges.
My first non-academic job was with the Food Standards Agency. The role was part funding, part policy, but it was a fixed-term post, and a microbiology role, so didn’t fit perfectly with my background. From there I saw an advert for a role within Wellcome’s Cellular, Developmental, and Physiological Sciences team, and my skills and experience seemed to fit what they were looking for. I first joined Wellcome as a Science Portfolio Adviser, predominantly looking after the cell biology portfolio. In that role I had a science remit, looking at science grants, and doing portfolio analyses to spot gaps and trends. After three years, I moved to my current position, which is broader in remit, rather than focusing on a specific area of science.
What does your normal working day look like?
I’m sure most interviewees say this, but there is no normal working day. In my first role with Wellcome, a typical working day would involve answering some emails, and maybe shortlisting some grant applications, or having a discussion with an applicant – either pre-application, post-application, or post-decision. Pre-application would be offering advice. Post-application might be explaining the next steps. Post-decision would either be an easy conversation with a successful and happy applicant, or a more in-depth conversation explaining the committee’s decision-making process, and offering advice for how the committee thought the application could potentially be improved.
In my current role a typical day involves less talking to applicants. More often I’m speaking with external stakeholders such as other funding agencies and collaborators, and I’ll be involved in writing reports.
What are the best bits?
The people are fantastic at Wellcome, and although I’m in a small division, it’s a very collegiate atmosphere. My current role has given me exposure to larger projects and allowed me to work in a very self-directed way – for instance I’m currently working towards a review of the Francis Crick Institute. In my original role, it was rewarding speaking to applicants. From my experience working in academia I had seen the struggles academics faced in trying to get grants, so it was nice feeling as though I could help with that process.
And the challenges?
One of the biggest challenges is keeping on top of a very wide range of science. To get my head around really diverse subjects that are quite removed from my background is tough. It’s helped by the fact that I have great colleagues, who can give me their perspectives from their areas of science.
It’s also not working in the lab. So if you’re someone who really enjoys the lab, a transition to this type of role may be difficult. Also, in academia you have a lot more ownership of your work, you have first author publications you can say are yours. This role doesn’t lend itself to that; you’re part of a much bigger picture. Although you may own your work at a local level, once it goes from you it’s no longer yours. Any report submitted at higher levels may have had many eyes on it, and may not resemble what you started with. You have to be comfortable with that.
Does having a PhD help?
Within our division certain roles, including mine, require a PhD. I think this can vary between research charities, but that’s the case for Wellcome. In terms of day-to-day, most useful are the clear and concise communication skills I developed during my PhD. I work with several people, of varying levels of seniority, on multiple projects, and have to convey myself clearly, especially when working with external stakeholders. I also give presentations to different audiences – varying from lay to very specialist – so that’s a skill I regularly use.
What’s the progression like?
People move around within the organisation, or they may move into other related organisations like universities, other charities, or the civil service. It’s possible to progress within the organisation but that depends upon building a network and seeking out opportunities. Within the division, because it’s small, progression can be harder, although I have now moved up to Senior Portfolio Developer from my initial role.
What are your top tips for researchers interested in this type of role?
Talk to people. Seek out employees within research funders and ask them about their experiences. You’ll be surprised that many people will be happy to have a discussion. Attend careers fairs and networking opportunities – I know UCL Careers has people like me speak at events for PhDs. This will give you a really good idea of what the role is like, which will help you work out if you’ll like it, and help you show your motivation.
Photograph from Matt Brown.