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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    Getting paid to drink wine: from academic to wine buyer

    By S 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!

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

    By S 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!

    Careers advice from the (dystopian) future

    By S Donaldson, on 22 January 2018

    [SPOILER ALERT: As well as invaluable nuggets of careers advice, this post reveals endings]

    Have you watched series 4 of Black Mirror yet? I have, and I’m loving the feeling of healthy paranoia each new instalment brings; I’m now keeping my DNA away from my boss (sorry Calum), and assuming my Mum’s spying on me through my own eyes (sorry Mum).

    Many admire how Charlie Brooker uses each episode to explore possible unanticipated consequences of technological advances. But what I find most impressive is the way he subtly weaves career lessons into the show. So subtly in fact you may have missed them. To help you out, here are my top three career insights from the current series:

    1) The job you want now may not exist in 10 years

    “When I grow up I want to be an Arkangel Remover or a Memory Collector”. Sounds kind of silly, right? Partly because I have (apparently) been a grown-up for some time. But mostly because such futuristic jobs don’t exist outside Black Mirror episodes.

    But the statement sounds only a tad sillier than if I’d said “When I grow up I want to be a Social Media Strategist or a Big Data Analyst” back when I was an actual child (or even, for the former at least, when I was at university). Those jobs only exist in the futuristic, humungous-data-filled, internet-based world of work we currently inhabit.

    Google “The future of work” and you’ll find ~91,600,000 hits predicting the road ahead. These prophecies tell us technology will eliminate some roles, but new opportunities will be created to replace them. What should you do in response? Reading a few of the “future of work” google results might be a good idea. But they’re just educated guesses. The best plan is to plan loosely. Be flexible. Be open. Be aware. Keep acquiring new skills and learning how to sell them to employers. So when the changes come, you’ll be ready.

    2) Your emotional side could be the key to success

    Episode 1’s Robert Daly was pretty smart. I don’t know what university he attended, but he may even have been smart enough to make it to UCL. He was so smart that he learned to code, partnered with a business-minded friend, and created a global virtual reality gaming company called Callister.

    But Robert Daly relied only on his IQ (intelligence quotient) and neglected his EQ (emotional quotient, commonly referred to as emotional intelligence). And of course we can all guess exactly how that turned out: Robert inevitably found himself pilfering his colleagues’ DNA and imprisoning virtual copies of them inside his own sick personal computer game where he enjoyed playing God before they eventually trapped his consciousness inside said game presumably leaving Robert’s real-world self to spend the rest of his days in a coma. Obv.

    …Ok. Sure. That was probably more the inevitable consequence of Daly being an evil psychopathic megalomaniac than of him neglecting his EQ. But EQ, which is the ability to identify and manage your own emotions and the emotions of others, is nevertheless important to success. Studies show those with higher EQ scores perform better in the workplace and earn more. Luckily EQ can be improved, and there are plenty of articles explaining how. So while you’re honing your knowledge and technical skills, it might be worth improving your emotional side too.

    3) Following your heart can uncover new worlds

    How do we know this is reality? Like, real reality? You know what I mean, man? Like, am I actually me? Or am I simply a digital version of me in one of thousands of simulations run to find the real me a suitable love match?

    In episode three we follow Amy and Frank as they allow a dating app to dictate their lives, and finally to select a ‘perfect match’ with whom they will spend forever. Amy and Frank think the system sucks, so they rebel, and in doing so they reveal a different world with different rules, where they can be together.

    This sort of paradigm shift can happen in careers too. Perhaps those around you have gently (or strongly) encouraged you down a certain study and/or career path? And perhaps now you’re on it, and you socialise with lots of other people on the same path, it feels like the only possible reality?

    If you’re loving your current reality, good for you. Keep at it. But if, like Amy, your gut’s telling you something isn’t quite right, you too can rebel! We all have multiple possible future selves, and there are whole other career worlds out there to be explored if you care to look. If you think you’re in this situation, book an appointment to chat to a careers consultant about investigating your options.

     

     

     

    Careers in Government: key messages from our Beyond Academia Event

    By S Donaldson, on 19 December 2017

     

    In November we ran a Beyond Academia event shining a spotlight on careers in government for PhDs. We had two great UCL alumni speakers discussing their current roles and career paths: Dr Patricia Idaewor, who has a PhD in Transport Studies, and is now Policy Lead on HS2 in the Department for Transport’s High Speed Rail Group; and Dr Sarah Livermore, who has a PhD in Elementary Particle Physics and is now the Modelling Lead on the Committee for Climate Change, as part of the Government Operational Research Service (GORS). Here are the take home points from the event:

    A career path isn’t always a straight ladder, it can be a winding staircase.

    Patricia’s PhD supervisor told her this some years back, and her and Sarah’s careers have reflected it. Both took their modelling skills into government, using techniques mastered in their PhDs, but in subject areas and settings that were new to them. Since then, Patricia found she enjoyed using her softer skills, and so has moved from modelling to project management, programme assurance, and now policy lead.

    Government careers can be great

    Patricia and Sarah were able to use skills developed during their PhD in their current roles; the technical knowledge and analytical skills, as well as softer skills such as giving presentations and project management. They spoke of the ample opportunities they are given to develop new competencies within government, with allotted time for skills training. They both loved the fact that their work was fuelling the decisions that can make positive impacts on people’s lives. They also commented on the good work-life balance and flexibility in many government roles.

    There are downsides too

    Patricia spoke about the slow pace of some government decision-making processes as a potential challenge. The checks and balances are necessary as massive amounts of taxpayers’ money are on the line, but it can still be frustrating. And Patricia and Sarah both discussed the unpredictability of civil service work as a downside. The modelling Sarah carries out, and the policy work Patricia does, are both dictated by the agenda of ministers. If they change their mind, Sarah and Patricia must change their direction. Even predicting whether you would be called to speak to a minister could be unpredictable day-to-day, and so Patricia always keeps a change of smart shoes in her office just in case!

    If you have a numerate background, the government wants you

    The civil service is a huge and diverse employer, and all sorts of skills can be transferred there. But Sarah particularly emphasised the desirability of highly numerate people. The Government Operational Research Service has a large intake every year, and they struggle to find enough candidates with great analytical/modelling skills. Their current recruitment round has just closed, but Sarah assured us they’ll be opening for applications again in January. And the Government Economics Service or Social Research Service may also be of interest to the numerate amongst you. Whatever civil service role you’re applying for, numerate or otherwise, both Sarah and Patricia advised focussing heavily on the civil service competencies called for, because this is how you will be assessed.

    A pint of careers story with Pint of Science’s Elodie Chabrol

    By S Donaldson, on 11 December 2017

    Dr Elodie Chabrol has a PhD in neurogenetics, and spent 7 years as a postdoctoral researcher at UCL. She’s now a full-time event organiser and science communicator, and she kindly agreed to share her journey and top tips with us.

    What are you up to at the moment?

    I’m the International Director for the festival Pint of Science. I’m in charge of the international development meaning I help new countries to set up the festival locally.

    How did you move from academia to your current role?

    I worked voluntarily for the festival during 4 years while being a post doc. I created the French branch of the festival and developed it, so naturally when the Pint of Science founders earned enough to pay me to do that as a full time job I joined the adventure and left academia. I decided academia wasn’t for me a year before leaving. I was in a very competitive field and wasn’t very much supported by my head of the lab and I felt I was enjoying more science communication than academia. I finished my project and left.

    What does a normal working day look like for you?

    There is no normal day when you plan an event/festival because every day has a new challenge, especially now that I work with 10 new countries. But I’m basically on my computer, I have a lot of digital interactions (skype, emails etc) and I communicate a lot about the festival (Facebook, twitter etc). I talk to every country at least once a week to be sure everyone is ok and on track and no one needs special attention.
     
    What are the best things about working in your role? 

    I was there at the start of Pint of Science, I founded the French one and I get to see it spread in the world and it’s amazing. Also on a more practical note I work from home and that’s quite easy and I’m happy I get to avoid the commute!
     
    What are the biggest challenges?

    Working from home can be one. You are free to work wherever you want but you can also feel lonely sometimes and you need to be disciplined otherwise you end up watching TV in your PJs all day. I’m used to working on the festival from home since I was doing that on the side of my post doc, so for me it was natural.

    Working with many countries can also have a downside: not everyone is in the same time zone so sometimes you need to have late skype meetings or early ones and need to rearrange your personal life around it.

    Is a PhD essential for your role?

    Not per se but the fact that I know the world of research is a big plus for me as my job is to help scientists share their research with the public. I also started giving some lessons on science communication for those who don’t feel confident enough for talks like Pint of Science. I know what it is so I can put myself in their shoes and help them better.
     
    Where do you see yourself going from here?

    Well for Pint of Science I’m pretty much as high as I can be. I see the festival growing and me helping all those countries, and once that’s done I think I will probably find other ways to help researchers do some communication. Either by creating some other initiatives or working as a consultant.
     
    What top tips would you pass on to researchers interested in this type of work?

    If you want to leave academia and go to that type of work you need experience so get as much as possible on the side. Try to take part in some science communication event organisation, Pint of Science or else to see if you like it. If you like it I’d say do more and more! How to take part? When you go to science events, talk to the organisers to see if they need volunteers. Maybe also start using twitter because nowadays a lot happens there.

    Stranger Careers Advice

    By S Donaldson, on 27 November 2017

    What did you get up to this weekend? I stayed in and binge-watched series 2 of Stranger Things. I know, I know, I’m a little behind. I could pretend the delay was due to my active social life or (more believably) because I had The Defenders and Transparent to get through first. But the truth is I was terrified it wouldn’t live up to series 1. I simply couldn’t bear to see Eleven et al. in a sub-par storyline. So imagine my delight when I found that not only is series 2 just as good as the first, but it’s also choc-a-block with useful careers messages – Totally Tubular! Here are three careers tips I took from the upside-down world of Hawkins:

    1) Speaking the same language helps

    “The demogorgon”, “the shadow monster”, “demodogs”, “true sight”…these are terms Eleven, Mike and the gang use to navigate the scary and weird world in which they find themselves. Without these words it would be far trickier to make sense of and communicate what’s happening around them.

    Compared to the academic setting, new jobs and sectors can also feel like scary weird worlds. And if you don’t speak the language – something employers might describe as showing “commercial awareness” – they’ll be even more foreign. So before you attend a careers event and network with employers, and certainly before you make applications, try to learn a little of their language. The best way to do this is by reading relevant industry publications; the blogs, magazines and journals those working in your chosen field are reading. They’ll tell you what’s going on in a strange other world, and the correct terms to describe it.

    2) There are many ways to bring something to a team

    [Warning: this tip contains spoilers. Soz.]

    The Stranger Things kids are a motley crew, yet they’ve managed to save eachother, Hawkins, and presumably the entire world twice. Mike’s the leader, and Eleven’s contribution is obvious, sure. But what about the rest of them? Will keeps getting lost or infected, Lucas reveals the group’s secrets, and Dustin hides a demodog. Yet they all help in their own way. Without Will, the evil-root-tunnel-thingies would never have been found. Without Lucas bringing Max on board, they never would have reached those evil-root-tunnel-thingies. And without Dustin’s bond to a demodog, they’d never have made it out of the evil-root-tunnel-thingies alive.

    These sorts of teamworking skills (minus the evil-root-tunnel-thingies) are attractive to most employers. So even if you’re a Dustin or a Lucas and you don’t take up the obvious leader or ideas-generator role, you have something to add. If you find it difficult to identify and communicate your contribution to a team, check out Belbin’s team roles for details of the less prominent but still vital roles people can play.

    3) Skills can be transferred

    Eleven’s telepathic skills were ideally suited to her first (enforced) career in espionage. But does that mean she can’t do anything else? No sir-ee, she didn’t let herself be pigeon-holed. She recognised her transferrable skills and carried them into a variety of settings, including anti-bullying campaigns, demogorgon elimination consultancy, and an internship at a vigilante start-up.

    Just like Eleven, you’ll have developed a bunch of skills throughout your PhD and post-doctoral experiences that will also be useful in other settings. It’s important to recognise what these skills are so you can speak confidently about them. It could be the research or writing skills you picked up along the way, the project management and organisational skills you used to plan your PhD and fit it around other areas of your life, the teaching skills you used to supervise students, or the communication skills you used to present your work at conferences. If you spot a skill you enjoy using, seek out further opportunities to develop it through your academic work and departmental responsibilities, or through internships and extracurricular activities. This will convince an employer it truly is a strength you can bring to their organisation.

    Is your CV boring? Naturejobs blog suggests an infographic approach.

    By S Donaldson, on 7 November 2017

    As careers consultants we see a lot of CVs. I mean, a lot. Every now and again (especially in the height of the Autumn term) it can make us a little CV blind. So we quite liked Dr Karin Bodewits and Philipp Gramlich’s recent Naturejobs blog on infographic CVs for researchers. They give three examples, including one we’ve pictured below, that tick the boxes of a good CV: clear structure and formatting, and all the important info is easy to access quickly. If you’re finding your CV a little boring and you love infographics, this might be worth a try. Just like Karin and Philipp though, we’d suggest really considering your target sector, organisation, and boss first, as this approach may not be suitable for the more traditional employer.

    K-Bodewits_CV_v3-smaller

     

    Behind the scenes of science: working in science funding at Wellcome Trust

    By S Donaldson, on 25 October 2017

    Wellcome

    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.

    MRC created a tool to stop you missing funding opportunities

    By S Donaldson, on 25 September 2017

    Navigating the academic research landscape is tough. Knowing what is expected of you at each career stage, and scouting available opportunities, can sometimes feel like it takes up as much time as actually conducting your research! So for medical researchers, the MRC has made a handy interactive tool to help. It categorises career stages, and tells you what you should be up to when you’re in them, like so:

    MRC tool_crop

    On the tool’s funding view, it tells you the type of funding available at each stage. And even more helpfully, it tells you which funders offer each variety of award. That frees up a little more time for you to actually apply for them! Have a play with the tool and see what you think.

    MRC tool_funding_crop

     

    PhDs gone creative

    By S Donaldson, on 18 September 2017

    At UCL Careers we speak with many PhDs contemplating leaving academia, and deciding what else to do. So we collect PhD career case studies; interviewing ex-academics who’ve made the leap to see what they’re up to now. And we share their stories with you on this blog.

    If we’re honest, there are some classic ex-academic destinations people tend to report. Management consultancy anyone? Or is data science more your thing? Patent law? How about a bit of science writing? Science policy? Work in a research funder? Or a think tank? It’s great to have examples of these popular PhD destinations to provide inspiration.

    But what if you want to take the path less travelled? What if you hope to explore your creative side? We don’t have many creative case studies as yet. So I’ve compiled a few examples of PhDs turned (famous) creatives below.

    The Actor

    Dr Mayim Bialik has a PhD in neuroscience from UCLA. She’s also played such classic TV characters as The Big Bang Theory’s Dr Amy Farrah Fowler and Blossom’s Blossom. In interviews Mayim has said while studying for her PhD she had ambitions to continue within academia and become a professor. But it was the teaching side that appealed to her most, and she retained her childhood love of acting. In a way, with her Big Bang Theory character she’s been able to combine her interests! As her character is a neuroscientist, she can fact-check the script and sets. And she uses her fame to encourage others to nurture their passion for science.

    The Author

    Dr Sarah Waters’ PhD is from Queen Mary University, London. Her PhD thesis was titled ‘Wolfskins and togas: lesbian and gay historical fictions, 1870 to the present’. So clearly this acted as inspiration for the novels she went on to write, including such award winners as Tipping the Velvet, since adapted to TV and stage, and Fingersmith, recently adapted to the big screen. Makes you think, doesn’t it? Could your thesis become a piece of entertainment? Science Fiction? Political Thriller? Historical Tale? Perhaps…

    The Musicians

    Dr Dan Snaith has a PhD in maths from Imperial College London. Of his academic work, he said, “I’ve proven something original, but I would still call it pretty trivial”. But no one could say his work as world-famous electronic musician Caribou is trivial. He’s obviously well-suited to what he sees as a “different kind of research…one that’s less analytical and more aesthetic”.

    And if one academic-turned-electronic-musician-example wasn’t enough, there’s UCL’s very own neuroscience and epigenetics PhD grad Dr Sam Shepherd. He’s released two critically-acclaimed albums under the moniker Floating Points (keeping it science!), and has founded his own music label.

    The Designer

    Dr Miuccia Prada graduated with a PhD in political science from the university of Milan. And now she sits at the helm of Prada. Yep, that Prada. And she started Miu Miu. Yep, that Miu Miu. And she need not only inspire you with her design career. Before entering the family business, and playing a huge role in making it what it is today, she considered going another creative route, training as a mime for 5 years!

    So good luck to all you budding creatives. If you’d like to talk to a UCL careers consultant about the paths you’re considering, creative or otherwise, book a one-to-one appointment.