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What’s Academia like in the US? – Dr Nelson Y. Dzade

uczjsdd13 July 2022

Dr Nelson Y. Dzade gained his PhD from in Computational Materials Science from UCL, and is now an Assistant Professor at Penn State University. He kindly took the time to tell us about his current role, his career journey, challenges and about any useful tips for researchers wanting to pursue a similar career.

Tell us about your current role and organisation.

I am currently a Tenure-Track Assistant Professor in the Department of Energy and Mineral Engineering (EME) at The Pennsylvania State University (Penn State). I am also a co-funded faculty of the Institutes of Energy and the Environment (IEE) and an Associate of the Institute for Computational and Data Sciences (ICDS). I lead the Materials and Minerals Theory Group, which sits on the interface of Physical Chemistry, Applied Physics, Machine Learning, Computational Materials Science and Mineral Engineering. My research group specializes in the development and application of advanced theoretical methods (including first-principles electronic structure calculations and atomistic simulations) to unravel structure-property-performance relationships in solid state materials that are of interest for many practical applications in renewable energy generation, including but not limited to photovoltaics, heterogeneous catalysis, and high-capacity battery materials.
Regarding my current organisation, I would say that Penn State is a world class academic powerhouse and an R1 (Very High Research Activity) University in the United States. It is often considered as one of the “Public Ivies”: i.e., a publicly funded institution that is deemed to provide a standard of education comparable to that offered by the elite Ivy League institutions (like Yale and Harvard). Located across 24 campuses in Pennsylvania and globally online, Penn State is one of the largest universities in the US with over 100,000 students and 17,000 faculty and staff. I work at the University Park campus in State College, which is the largest campus and serves as the administrative hub.  The Department of Energy and Mineral Engineering where I am based is a unique department with world-class faculty experts in science, engineering, economics, and statistics as applied to the energy and mineral resources sector. In contrast to traditional disciplinary departments, EME faculty encompass the range of disciplines required for the energy and environmental challenges of today and for the next century.

How did you move from your PhD to your current role?

I have always wanted to work in academia, where you’re constantly learning, researching, publishing quality and difference making research works, teaching, and training/mentoring the next generation of professionals –teachers, scientist, engineers, policymakers. My motivation is derived from a quote from Albert Einstein that says “A hundred times every day I remind myself that my inner and outer life are based on the labours of other men and women, living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give in the same measure as I have received and am still receiving”.

To prepare myself for this, after my PhD at UCL’s Department of Chemistry in 2014, I took a postdoc position at the Department of Earth Sciences, Utrecht University, The Netherlands, where I worked with some distinguished scholars: Professor Nora de Leeuw, Professor Bert Weckhuysen, Professor Emiel Hensen and ‪Professor Jan Philipp Hofmann‬ on a Dutch Research Council (NWO) funded project. These projects led to several high-impact publications, in particular a high impact paper in Advanced Materials, and in ACS Energy Letters.‬‬‬‬

In 2018, I was awarded the EPSRC Innovation Fellowship for my proposal entitled “Computer-aided design of zinc phosphide heterojunctions for efficient solar energy conversion” which was hosted in the School of Chemistry at Cardiff University, UK. With this award I became an independent researcher and established a high-calibre computational-experimental research programme, delivering breakthrough insights into the surface and interfacial phenomena in semiconductor heterojunctions and composite materials for green energy conversion and storage. Through the EPSRC Innovation Fellowship, I developed my leadership and supervision skills (mentored 2 Postdocs, 1 PhD candidate, 2 MChem and 3 BSc project students), created relevant research networks and established strategic collaborations with leading groups nationally and internationally both in academia and industry and produced some high-quality scientific publications. I also received the DUO-India Professor Fellowship Award in 2020, which enabled me to establish high-profile collaborations and exchange with leading Indian Scientists.

All these experiences and skills prepared me for my current position at Penn State. During the last year of my 3-years Innovation Fellowship, I begun to apply for faculty positions mostly in the UK and the US. I was shortlisted for a couple of them in the UK but even though I did not get them, I learned from the feedback I received and improved myself for the next one. The Penn State interview process was a whole new experience for me, it happened during the thick of the COVID-19 pandemic, so everything occurred via Zoom. The last phase of the interviews occurred over two days, including giving a research seminar, a teaching talk, research vision talk, and interviewing with Department Heads, Institute Directors, Deans and Faculties across the department of energy and minerals engineering and the Materials science and engineering department.

Did networking help? 

Although I did a lot of information gathering online, it was always better to speak directly with someone working at the institution that could share their personal experiences with me and other information that I could not find online.  So, I had to first identify potential people I could speak with for informal interviews. I started with people with whom I already have a connection: mentors, people I’ve met at conferences or professional networking events and also on LinkedIn who work at Penn State University. For those I do not have any direct connection with yet, I wrote to them introducing myself and requesting if they have time, I’d appreciate the opportunity to learn more about their research work and their department, and take suggestions they might have for someone like me who is interested in joining the department and the University. Luckily for me most of the faculties I reached out to were very responsive and supportive. That helped a lot!

What experience did you need? 

Experience, they say, is the best teacher. The tenure review evaluates a professor’s contributions in three areas: research, teaching, and service to the university, so right from the onset the search committee will be looking out for evidence of experiences you’ve acquired over the years that would enable you excel at the post most especially in the areas of research and teaching. You need to demonstrate evidence of publishing high-quality scientific papers, delivering invited scientific talks at national/international conferences, independent grant acquisition, teaching skills, training/mentoring experiences, etc. You will also have to demonstrate your ability to attract or establish collaboration with leading groups across the world.

In terms of selling yourself to employers, it is important to know that the most important part of the job search – the interview, can make or break an opportunity. To do well at selling yourself to employers, it is crucial that you get comfortable talking about yourself. Give yourself permission to talk about yourself positively and to take pride in your accomplishments! Do not appear braggadocious, but you certainly don’t want to sell yourself short or shoot yourself in the foot. In order to sell yourself very well, (1) be a storyteller – Think of an interview as an opportunity to tell your personal brand story. Be animated. Be enthusiastic. Above all, be authentic. (2) Show, don’t tell – Use examples to illustrate the story you’re sharing. Don’t just use buzzwords like “collaborative”, but demonstrate with practical examples. (3) Tailor your accomplishment, expertise/skills, and experiences to meet the hiring department’s needs. Why are you the best fit for the post and what do you bring on board that other candidate may not have.

What were the most challenging parts of the recruitment process?

The difficult bit of the interview process for me was preparing for the research vision talk, as it is quite difficult to know whether the research directions you are proposing fit into the hiring department’s overall strategic research vision. You’ve also got to demonstrate how you are going to fund the proposed research. To overcome this, and prepare an excellent Research vision talk, I had to carefully read the job advertisement again and again to find what lines of research they were intending to strengthen, so I could tailor my talk to address that. I also had to gather information about the different research themes in the department and make sure I demonstrated clearly how my research activities are going to be uniquely different, but can strengthen/complement existing research portfolios in the department.

What does a normal working day look like for you?

My job is supposed to be 40% teaching, 40% research and 20% service. In reality, it’s more like 60% research, 50% teaching and 30% service, and yes I realize that adds up to more than a hundred percent! But my typical day looks like a mixture of these three things.

Firstly, teaching: I love teaching and that’s why I am a professor, instead of working in industry. Teaching loads vary from semester to semester. In my first semester (Fall) at PSU, I co-taught the course EME 301: Thermodynamics in Energy and Mineral Engineering and in Spring semester, I taught the course EGEE 437: Design of Solar Energy Conversion System and co-taught the Thermodynamics in Energy and Mineral Engineering course again both at the undergraduate level. Basically, the things that I do related to teaching are teaching, i.e., being in front of a classroom, preparing for teaching, i.e., things like reading stuff and setting up discussion documents, creating slides, setting up course materials, and also grading course and answering questions from students, and giving feedbacks. To be clear, I always endeavour to deliver high-quality and well-organized lectures; I care a lot about my students, thus I also do care a lot about the materials I teach my students.

The next part of my job, arguably the most important part, at least in terms of things like job performance, is research. It’s a big deal and I love doing research, which is another reason I am a professor. I work with my graduate students and collaborators on innovative and transformative research projects and publish a lot of high-quality papers with them. This means mentoring and helping my students, a lot of editing, a lot of feedback, and a lot of meetings. There are a lot of things that come after the research, giving presentations and talks. I really care about publishing scholarship, so I tend to tweet about or share our research results on LinkedIn. Finally, grants drive research, so a big part of my job is asking people for money in increasingly complicated ways. The most complicated way involves spending many months and hours of work writing proposals to ask funding agencies like the National Science Foundation (NSF) or the Department of Energy (DOE) to please give me money. In my discipline, not only is bringing in grant money a big part of my job performance and determines in part whether I get tenure, but I also need grant money to pay PhD students.

Finally, service to my department, to my college, to my university at large, and to my scholarly slash professional community: At the local level, this involves things like attending faculty meetings, serving on communities, e.g. the graduate committee or qualifying exams committee, which I currently serve on. And then, there is service to my scholarly slash professional community, for instance, I serve on the Editorial Board of Modelling, Theory and Computational Catalysis, for Frontiers in Catalysis Journal and as Guest Editor, for Engineered Science, Materials and Manufacturing. I also peer-review manuscripts for several of the top-ranked scientific journals.

What are the best things about working in your role?

A tenure-track position at a top-ranked University like Penn State University is often highly coveted not only because it offers job stability and higher pay, but because it offers academic freedom. One of the things I love about my job is you get to pick what kind of research to do and you get to choose your own research team (graduate students and postdocs) and collaborators. I also get to train/mentor and inspire my research students to become the next-generation of experts and professionals. Our students come to us with a considerable amount of talent, and I think my role as a supervisor/teacher is to help them translate those talents into creativity. I try to do this by sharing my passion for knowledge and curiosity with my students, inspiring their creativity, developing their critical thinking ability, and preparing them for the complex world they will face after stepping off campus. I strongly believe in the saying that “Education is what survives when what has been learnt has been forgotten.”

What are the biggest challenges?

As with any new adventure, the first few years of the tenure-track position, in particular can be very challenging as you must learn to manage the new divergent responsibilities/demands and the escalating expectations. Thus, one of the biggest challenges is the time pressure, which increases the stress and anxiety levels. You are evaluated on teaching, research and service, and you are expected to meet a certain bar for all three of these criteria and be exceptional in one at least. So as a new faculty member, setting your priorities right and finding time to do the most important and most rewarding things can be very challenging. In higher education, especially in a totally new country with completely different cultural background to the one I was used to, one of the most significant challenges I face is being able to engage with the students individually and what I mean by that is knowing them both as individuals and also the culture and background that they come from. It also involves understanding the different learning abilities and capacities of my students. And because the student numbers can be very large in a place like Penn State, this is quite challenging at least for now. But I strongly believe it will get better with time.

What’s the progression like in the US?

The tenure track is a professor’s pathway to promotion to the promised land and academic job security. It’s the process by which an Assistant professor (Lecturer in the UK) becomes an Associate professor (Reader in the UK) and then a Full professor. A professor who is on the tenure track is expected to go up for a tenure review 5/6 years after starting the position, where his/her contributions in three areas: research, teaching, and service to the university will be evaluated.

And is the working culture different in the US?

I’ve worked in the UK and the Netherlands, and now the US, and there are always cultural differences when you go somewhere new, so you have to learn the new rules of engagement. Generally, the US system is incredibly forward-focused. People are very proactive and they are always thinking as big as possible; like, always thinking, what next? It’s great because it keeps you at the top of your game too. But it does feel like everything is faster here, everyone is an early bird in the office. It’s just the nature of the US system really, it kicks things up a gear. Don’t get me wrong, everyone works extremely hard in the UK and the Netherlands too, but I think this does feel like an even faster march! And in Rome, you must do as the Romans do. So I’ve adjusted to the culture, and who knows, maybe I’ll even speed beyond them!

Also, if you’re used to the grant system in the UK, you will find things a bit different here. Of course there are huge similarities, in that funding will always go to cutting edge science that is innovative, risky, but rewarding. But things can be a bit different (depending upon the funding organisation). For instance, in the UK I noticed that for the most part, for fellowships and grants they are largely judging the quality of the research proposal. Whereas here it feels more like fellowships and independent early-career grants are judging not only the research, but also the education proposal. So if you’re used to writing only about the science and how you will develop as a scientist, here you may have to shift the focus slightly. It’s a lot about the science of course, but it’s also about how you are going to use that to educate other people, how are you going to engage with people, even to the secondary school level. How is that research going to start changing people, building people, educating people? So if you write a very excellent research proposal without a very excellent education proposal embedded within it, you may find yourself completely lost.

And there are other small differences in terms of style that it would be good to recognise when putting together US applications or talks. Here, they like things to be very direct. In the UK, people are perhaps a bit wordy, but here, they want you to get straight to the point and be very precise: what is it you want to do? What’s your hypothesis? No flowery build up as there might be in the UK!

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

It is always very important that you:
Take ownership of your project: Your research project is your baby. There will be loss of sleep, and growing pains, but you will develop a special bond with it. You should know more about your research project than anyone else. Get the help you need. Take full advantage of group meetings, other faculties and others in your lab.

Network and find good mentors: No matter what you want to do with your life, networking is extremely important. Networking isn’t just about getting a good job, it’s about positioning yourself to be successful in that job. Identify the scientific community that you want to be in, and get to know that community. Know the leading figures in that community. Attend free local meetings and present posters/talks and attend national/international meetings and engage/speak with potential mentors or collaborators. It is always vital to find good mentors because the best way to accelerate your career growth is by finding great mentors who can help guide you through your early career and beyond. I have been blessed enough to have some amazing mentors such as Professor Nora de Leeuw and Professor Sir Richard Catlow (my PhD advisors) and many others who have been instrumental in shaping me as a person.

Position yourself to get good reference letters: Strong recommendation letters are more important to your future than anything else. Good reference letters can get you an interview at least! You need at least three strong reference letters, so take every opportunity to network with collaborators (send regular progress updates, for example), and talk about your research in front of other faculty. Also, speak at joint group meetings or your collaborator’s group meetings.

Develop your soft skills: Note that your PhD/Postdoc position would expand your scientific skill sets, but the most important skills you must gain to secure a faculty position at any University are the soft skills, like effective communication, effective writing, leadership ability, engaging teaching skills, networking, and mentoring skills. Mastering these skills will serve you well no matter what kind of job you want. For instance:

Learn how to write quality scientific papers, and how to give engaging scientific talks: No matter what you do with your life, it is important to know how to do these two things. Take the lead in writing papers based on your research. Take every opportunity to practice giving talks. Whether you are applying for industry or academic positions your job seminar is extremely important. Good letters get you an interview, a good talk gets you the job.

Learn how to write grants and apply for your own funding: Pitching your ideas for money is a very useful skill to acquire. Learn how to write research proposals by applying for your own funding or joint grants. Help your PI write a grant, even if it isn’t on the topic of your research. Ask others to see copies of their successful grants (sometimes they will even give you the critiques). Good grant writing skill is something that can be learned. If you are applying for faculty positions, you will need to write research proposals, and thus you will need new and innovative ideas. Read the literature broadly and attend seminars/conferences.

Learn how to train people: If you want only to do research with your own two hands, you shouldn’t have got a PhD. People with PhDs lead research teams (either in industry or academia). They rarely work in isolation. So, help in training/mentoring undergraduate research project students in your group. Take the time to show others in the group how to do something. Also, take courses in mentoring and teaching.

For postdocs specifically, plan for what comes after your postdoc: Once you’ve established where you’ll do your postdoc and who will be your mentor, it’s a good idea to do some self-reflection about where you want to go when you’re finished. I think it’s important to start that exploration early on. I personally worked very hard to make sure that I was making progress on my postdoc project but at the same time I was preparing the required materials to apply for faculty positions and Independent Fellowships. The first thing to plan for when you start your postdoc is when to leave it. Postdoctoral fellows need to be strategic, once you get beyond a certain number of years doing postdoc, it’s not a training position anymore—it’s a job!

Are there any specific tips you would give to people graduating into the current uncertain climate?

If you are a new graduate feeling uncertain about your future, you are not alone. Several other graduates may also be experiencing similar significant and unexpected disruptions to their plans due to the emergence, spread, and long-term impact of COVID-19. Uncertainty about job opportunities and disruption to regular routines can make an already stressful job search feel even more challenging. However, there are several actions you can take to empower yourself and make informed decisions about your future.

Consider short-term or unexpected work in the interim: Depending on your financial situation, it may be necessary to consider short-term work or work outside your area of expertise whiles you continue to search for your dream job. Some of these jobs may not be the type of work you may have anticipated, but having an extra income can help you navigate this uncertainty after graduation with more confidence. Learning to work remotely or in-person during this time could add a rich experience to your resume and give you an advantage in the long run. Showing employers that you were able to adjust to this challenging situation could make your application more competitive. When looking for job opportunities, prioritize transferable skills and soft skills that could support you in your chosen career path. Even if a job is not in your ideal industry, there may be opportunities to develop skills that you can leverage later when applying for future jobs. For example, complex problem solving, remote software use, defusing conflict and communication are experiences that could be added to your resume in the future.

Continue to enhance your skills: As the saying goes “education never ends”. With your university/college courses completed, now is the perfect time to continue enhancing your skills and certifications to ensure that you remain a desirable candidate. This is particularly true if you’re in a field that evolves rapidly. However, no matter what your chosen profession is, continued education demonstrates that you aren’t ready to just wait for an opportunity to happen—you’re making things happen. This type of self-motivation is an incredibly desirable trait for employers (more so now than ever before), and it will definitely help you gain an advantage over the other candidates.

Update Your Information: When the perfect job opening comes along, you want to be ready. Remember, the saying “The early bird catches the worm.” Constantly update your resume and cover letter so you can submit them quickly when you do find a prospect. You should also update and develop your LinkedIn profile, which can increase your chances of being contacted about an opening. Be sure to highlight your skills that are essential for remote working arrangements, such as great communication, adaptability, technological proficiency, self-motivation, time management, and remote collaboration. These skills are particularly valuable to employers in today’s environment.

Who wants to hear about working at WHO?

uczjsdd19 May 2022

Dr Sarah Paulin gained her PhD in Pharmaceutics and Microbiology here at UCL, and is now a Technical Officer in Antimicrobial Resistance at the World Health Organization. Sarah kindly took the time to chat to us about her career journey and current role, and shared tips for researchers wanting to follow a similar path.

What are you up to at the moment?

I work at WHO headquarters in Geneva in the area of antimicrobial resistance, which was the topic of my PhD. Now I focus less on the microbiology and more on supporting countries in their efforts to contain antimicrobial resistance, primarily focusing on lower-income countries, in all regions, but largely the African region.

How did you get from your PhD to here?

My PhD was laboratory-based, and while writing up my thesis I realised I was motivated by working with people and building capacity in under-resourced areas. Lab work can form part of that, but it’s one small aspect of the larger picture, and I really enjoyed working with that larger picture. For me, that meant moving into Public Health. Knowing this, I took every opportunity to ensure my thesis had a focus on the public health aspects of my work. I also took advantage of UCL courses, in particular for PhD students wanting to move out of academia, where I gained insight into what was possible, and learned more about my personal skillset and what was transferable from a lab-based PhD. I also attended a UCL CV session, which helped me get my CV ready. And I started talking to people within UCL and externally, trying to understand my options.

WHO was not the first or only place I applied. I also applied to The Clinton Health Access Initiative, for a role straddling lab work and public health. In the end I didn’t take the job, but it was a great experience in trying to sell myself outside academia. Then I saw a consultancy role based in a WHO regional office in the Philippines. I tailored my CV, sending it to a few peers to check it made sense, and I was given an interview. They were looking for someone specialising in antimicrobial resistance, and at the time few people had completed a PhD in that area, so my background helped. It meant relocating to the Philippines, but that fit in ok with my life at the time. And the role was only for three months, but everyone has to start somewhere, so I went for it!

I was a consultant for one and a half years after they extended the consultancy from its initial three months. It didn’t have the permanent nature or safety net of some other options, but I was willing to stick it out and wait for a staff position, and when it came up I won it and stayed in Manilla for three and a half years, travelling around the 39 countries and areas the region covers. After that I was recruited to move to headquarters, where I have applied and moved up into two different jobs, and that’s where I am now.

What were the toughest parts of the transition?

Going into the unknown was challenging. Once you go outside of the academic path, it’s hard to get back in, so it’s a difficult decision to make. I was also unsure I would even be accepted into a public health role – and I was actually willing to take a volunteering role to begin with because of this. But taking the classes UCL Careers offered, and meeting others who were also looking to make the jump beyond academia, was incredibly helpful and reassuring, because then I knew I wasn’t alone or crazy in wanting to get off the academic path. It’s only when you start talking to others and go to these presentations of others who have made the transition successfully, that you realise you can do it as well. I realised I just needed to try and believe in myself, which is not always easy! But one of the qualities you can learn during a PhD is to be able to believe in yourself.

It was also challenging financially at times, and it helps if you have a bit of a safety net as well, which not everyone has. Volunteering and internships are often unpaid or low pay, consultancy can be poorly paid (I lived in a tiny studio in Manilla when I first started), but at the end of the day I felt it was worth it.

Thankfully, things are slowly getting better for people wanting to enter the field, as today there is a small stipend for WHO interns, and of course Geneva is a more expensive place to live, so people should also look for options in WHO regional or country offices, which can be more affordable. There are also many opportunities for scholarships once you start looking into them. It takes longer to apply, but there are possibilities to get additional funding to the stipend for these opportunities.

Is it normal to start as an intern at WHO?

Definitely. In non-COVID times, WHO offers internships, which is something I had done during my undergrad. Mine was a very short internship, just to get an insight into public health before going into the lab side, and at the time I didn’t think I was coming back, but now I’ve come full circle! So people usually join as an intern, maybe during the summers of their Bachelors or Masters programme. Internships are anywhere between 6 weeks and two or three months, so some people may be able to fit it in during a PhD if that can be agreed upon with a supervisor etc., and then you’d have some public health experience on your CV by the time you graduate. Then an appropriate consultancy opportunity might arise, and once you’re a consultant you get to know a region and technical area, so of course your CV is much more favourable if a relevant staff role becomes available. If you want to move into global public health, getting to know the realities on the ground through in-country experience is a great place to start.

What does a normal working day look like for you?

Currently, I’m creating a new global guidance document to support countries in developing their policies around antimicrobial resistance. This covers technical innovations that need to be brought in, labs and diagnosis being one of the facets, but it also looks at infection prevention control, and at appropriate treatments. So you might find me working on that. But I would also have regular calls with different regional offices to organise training within countries; most recently we’re supporting Jordan for a leadership and governance training in this area, and I had a call with a regional office based in Egypt and the country office based in Jordan, and spoke to the country counterparts to organise the planning.

I would also probably join a webinar series and present on my area of work, and an external meeting with other implementing partners to offer input and advice into what they’re doing. And I would also do very normal admin, such as putting out a request for a proposal because the WHO needs support in technical assistance in country “X”. For example, in Sierra Leone we need someone to fly in and support them in the costing of their national policy, so I must run through the recruitment process and competitive bidding and get the contract in place, and then manage the resource mobilisation and financing for the role. So in any one day, or maybe week, there’s a big spectrum of work, from global technical to very country-specific support, and from bigger picture work to more fiddly admin work that supports all of it.

What are the best bits?

Definitely seeing the public health changes at the country level. When you organise and deliver a successful training to countries, be it in how they more effectively use their resources in terms of interventions, or ensuring their plans and policies are comprehensive and fit for purpose, and then you see that put into practice, it’s great. For example, if in two or three years down the line from your work, you see a reduction in inappropriate use of a certain antibiotic, that’s the most rewarding part for me. I also personally enjoy working in different locations and getting to know different cultures and health systems, I find it exciting, even if others might find it challenging, so that’s been one of the best bits.

Also, although no one works in public health because they’re chasing money (!), the UN does have quite a few benefits; there is great pension, child education, and health insurance for example. So if you view it as a whole, it’s a good package from an employer.

And what about the worst bits?

Admin, admin, admin. Working in a large UN organisation can be very bureaucratic. There are a lot of processes we have to adhere to and lots of forms to be filled out. This is all for good reason, but it makes putting things into practice rather slow, so that’s probably the most challenging thing. Another challenge is having to be careful about representing the organisation appropriately, because when I speak in my role, I represent the WHO.

Is a PhD an advantage in your role?

The PhD wasn’t asked for as a consultant, but for my most recent position, having a PhD was a desired educational background. So the further up you go at WHO or other public health agencies, the more advanced educational experience, such as a PhD, helps. And at the next level up from me it may be basically mandatory. I think there’s a mixture of reasons for that. There’s the very specific technical expertise that can be useful. There may even be slightly added credibility that the title brings. But there is also the transferable skill-set a PhD develops. I did my PhD in a very specific bacteria with a very specific resistance-mechanism, but it gave me the foundational science for the big-picture global and technical planning and policy work I do now. And as immediate results are rare in public health, the self-motivation, self-discipline, and perseverance a PhD instils is also extremely useful. And the communication skills, gained from writing papers and a thesis and presenting at conferences, are key.

What’s the progression like?

There aren’t many levels at the WHO, and it’s not automatic that one would progress through them. You have consultancies and staff positions. As a staff member at WHO we have “P” levels, from P1 to P6. I started as a P2 in my first contract after the consultancy, which I think was because of my PhD, I suspect if I hadn’t had that I would have started at P1. Where you start is based on years of experience generally, but you’re not automatically promoted as the years pass, you have to look for new opportunities as and when they arise, and then re-apply. I was in the P2 staff role for two and a half years and then moved to Geneva for a short-term role and then applied for my position at P3 level, usually requires five years of experience plus the educational qualification, usually a Masters, and then as of one year ago I applied for a P4 position, which is usually seven years of experience in the relevant area. The PhD usually counts partially as experience if it’s related to the area, and if say, you also had teaching responsibilities, that would partially count, so anything you did away from your pure research will count towards your years of experience. And then you can keep applying, and the goal for me is to eventually work in a country office again. So there’s not so many levels, and you do have to constantly re-apply. There is also not a great deal of job security – nothing is forever – but that also keeps it interesting because you’re kept on your toes, looking for work that continues to intrigue you.

So you’re not on a permanent contract?

No, the concept of a permanent position does not exist at WHO anymore, we generally have one to two year contracts that will be extended based on availability of funds and need. So even though it seems like it might be more stable than academia, sadly, it’s really not. People do tend to find new jobs if they want them though, so it’s a bit different to the precarity of academia in that way – and especially if you’re willing to be more flexible and move location, there will always be opportunities. I was flexible in moving to Manilla and Geneva to get these roles. I now have a family so the next decision will probably be to move again to another country, but that will be a decision I have to make with my family. But for me, I love the work and the travel, it works for me, but I know it wouldn’t work for everyone.

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

  • Find opportunities to volunteer or learn more where you are, and add those types of experiences to your CV to set yourself apart from others. For example, I took part in the Brilliant Club, developing educational materials based on my PhD area and supporting and educating pupils from underprivileged areas in London, which strengthened my communication skills and my CV.
  • Take any opportunity you can to test out whether public health is even something that would interest you – it’s not for everyone. Of course, those opportunities will also help build your CV.
  • Talk to people. And start that as soon as possible. UCL has many opportunities for networking, and LinkedIn and other online platforms are increasingly useful for this. And in the world we’re now in, there are so many opportunities to join webinars and virtual conferences and listen in and then reach other to speakers or other attendees.
  • Don’t just wait for the recruitment process to take its own turn, be proactive. One of the things I’ve learned through getting the consultancy role and later positions is that sending a personal email to the person recruiting may be helpful. They may not respond, but they may, and either way they may remember your name as someone enthusiastic with good questions.

Any extra advice for people graduating into an uncertain climate?

There definitely aren’t fewer opportunities in this field at the moment, and it actually may be that our more flexible and balanced working environment – with more people being able to work remotely and not necessarily having to immediately change country – means that these opportunities are open to more people. So I think it’s actually an exciting time to get into the job market. And as the world is a lot more virtual now, gaining additional skills to suit the world we’re living in will be beneficial for any area of work.

Life as an academic in Germany

uczjsdd23 March 2022

Professor Mona Hess gained her PhD in Imaging Metrology for Cultural Heritage at UCL, and she’s now based at Otto-Friedrich University of Bamberg, Germany. We caught up with Mona to learn about her career path and current role, and get an insight into academia beyond the UK.

Tell us about your current role

I’m a full professor and chairholder for Digital Technologies in Heritage Conservation at Otto-Friedrich-University of Bamberg, Germany. With about 13,000 students, it’s the smallest university in Bavaria. I’m also part of the Centre for Heritage Conservation Studies and Technologies, which is an associated research institution, and I still maintain a role as a senior research associate at UCL Digital Humanities.

In my work, I am continuing topics I studied in my PhD and before, and I’m in the forefront of a new topic, as no other chair with my denomination exists in Germany. I’m also the Women’s Officer of the university, so I get a lot of direct interaction with the university’s management team and the Provost and Vice-Provosts.  I often sit on interview panels, so I get to see and contribute to developments and policy of the university. I’m also programme director of a new Masters course in Digital Technologies and Heritage Conservation, which is also unique in Germany. My work and teaching is very technology-based and interdisciplinary, and I am based in the Faculty of Humanities.

How did you get from your PhD to here?

In the final stages of my PhD, I was already very active in the digital heritage community. I attended and presented at conferences, and I knew a lot of academics in the field. Thanks to my supervisor at the time, I was able to work as a part-time Research Manager in the same department after my PhD. I was a bit hesitant to get involved in teaching at first, but I was encouraged to do so by colleagues as they knew it would help me later down the line, and by doing it I learned I enjoyed it. So, alongside my PhD and Research Manager role, I was a PGTA, and I delivered guest lectures on various courses, and co-taught on fieldwork modules. I also worked with some colleagues on a module for the interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences BASc at UCL, and I ended up coordinating it (the German in me!).

When it was time to move on from this role, I received some good advice, which was to call people I knew to let them know I was available for other jobs. This is exactly what I did, and somebody flagged to me that the University of Bamberg in Germany was going to commence a new Masters programme, and would therefore be opening up a couple of positions.

But it wasn’t all plain sailing before that. There were moments I applied for roles far below my qualification level, like when I applied to be a technician at the Natural History Museum for 3D-scanning. And I applied for a lot of academic jobs, where I did get to interview, but then didn’t get the job, such as at King’s College and UCL.

Due to multiple job openings I commenced applying for jobs in Germany.  I was sad to leave the UK, but it has turned out to be beneficial on a personal level, as I am now near my family, and it has improved my quality of life – spontaneous excursions in a car into the Alps or within Europe are now possible!  I had three interviews in German universities at three different stages: lecturer, senior lecturer, and full professor level. So I developed quite a good routine in performing in interviews! Out of all of those applications, I was very happy to be selected as full professor here, and I do feel it was the role that fit me and my research best. My time at UCL prepared me well for all of these applications, as it provided me with the opportunity to get excellent publications in high impact journals and acquire solid teaching experience.

In Germany, it’s worth noting that, in the humanities at least, in addition to a PhD, you normally have to have a “habilitation”, which is like a second qualification or “second book”, to be considered for a full professorship. Or you have to have enough publications and experience of winning projects that would be equivalent to that. It’s also worth saying that all of this took quite a while, as in academia in Germany, an appointment isn’t simply made from one day to the next. The whole process lasts a minimum of nine months until you are appointed to a position.

Nine months?!

Yes. It’s a highly monitored and transparent process. Initial shortlisting usually takes two or three months. Then there will be interviewing, and another shortlist. There are vetoing options from members, and the whole process will be assessed, including whether Diversity and Equality has been looked at. There’s always a student representative, women’s officer, and a research associate representative on the board to review this list and offer their opinions. That list will be reviewed by external, unbiased professors, and when these reviews come back, you discuss again who you will put forward to university management, Senate.  It also needs to be passed by the Ministry of Education of the State of Bavaria.

By that point, six or seven months after the initial job advert went out, you might get “a call”. The university management negotiate your terms with you. That negotiation can go back and forth for a couple of months, and finally the university might offer the job to you. Of course, in the meantime, the first-choice candidate may get another job offer and so end up not taking it, or turn down the job offer. If this happens, the negotiation will start again with the second person on the list. So, if you’re the second or third person on the list, you may not hear back on your application for many months after you’ve interviewed, and yet you still may be offered the job.

In which areas can one negotiate?

That will depend upon your role. You can negotiate about the number of staff and their duties (administrative/ research). You can also negotiate on lab space and infrastructure , if that’s relevant to your work. I mainly negotiated the size of my starting grant to buy the equipment I needed. As in the UK, we have bands and spine-points for salaries, but you have conditional additions you can negotiate. You can argue you will take on specific tasks and leadership functions in return for a pay uplift, and the pay is conditional for a couple of years, and if you can prove you’ve actually taken on those tasks, you get to keep it.

Tell us a bit more about the academic career-ladder in Germany

Post-docs on a research associate assignment are strictly time-limited to six years, after which you will usually seek jobs to be appointed a professorship. W1 professorship is equivalent to a UK lecturer/assistant professor, and may have an initial probation phase of 3 years, followed by another 3 years that could lead to tenure. W2 professorship is equivalent to associate professor and is an established role often tenure-tracked, mostly ending in a life-time employment as a state employee. In a W3 professorship, you have a leading senior role and life-time employment as a state employee, and this is my position. I report directly to the provost/ president, and could take on additional duties as dean or vice-provost.

In the UK you might stay in the same office in which you started as a lecturer, and as you gain more achievements you may use these as arguments to move up in seniority, and you become senior lecturer (associate prof), reader, etc based on your promotional criteria and these achievements (acquisition of third party funding etc). In Germany you would usually have to change places to progress, applying for the next role up when it becomes available somewhere.

Are there any application differences you’re aware of?

A few. It may surprise those used to the UK system that in Germany you share how many kids you have and when they were born, if you’re married or not. It may seem odd, but there’s a strategic reason why you might want to list your children, because if you have taken leave for childcare reasons, or for other caring reasons, during which time you didn’t publish, recruiters will take that into account when judging how productive you are in terms of outputs. So, it should be a favourable thing.

We also don’t tend to have pre-programmed forms and tick-boxes to fill in, like those at UCL. Instead, a call for a job would say, please apply with the usual documents. So, my first task when applying in Germany , was to find out what the “usual documents” actually are! You need to give a covering letter, a research concept document, and sometimes also a teaching concept, and the usual academic CV. This isn’t too different to some lectureship applications in the UK. But you’re also asked to submit forms students have given to feedback on your teaching. They want the actual forms, so you may want to bear that in mind when you’re receiving feedback in future. Also, it is unusual to name references. Instead, you might submit work certificates you received from your past employers when you left, where they summarise how you did in the job.

Do I have to speak German to work in academia in Germany?

Yes, it is advantageous, and if you don’t, you might be asked to aspire to learn German within the first three years. There are more and more courses taught in English here, so you may get away with not having to teach in German. But if you really want to be part of the department and institute, you might find small talk and strategic talks happens in German, so you would want to be able to access that.

Saying that, if you went to, say, Munich Technical University, I think the language of conversation would be English, because it’s a larger city and university that draws people from all over the world. But here, a small university in a small town, I think a lot of things would be lost on someone who only spoke English.

What does a normal working day look like for you?

During term-time I’m doing a lot of teaching; two or three modules with small groups of students. The teaching itself takes up 30% of my week, 40% at peak times. And then I attend a lot of meetings of the various boards where I need to be present as the women’s officer, and I do a lot of admin for my research group and as programme director. During term-time research probably only makes up 10% of the working week. The bulk of the research itself takes place in the times between semesters – spring-time and summer time.

After five years in the role I’m getting to the point where there’s pressure to win funding for projects. Although winning third-party funding is has not been mandatory for me personally (unlike lecturers in the UK, who might need to win funding as promotional criterium to move up to senior lecturer or professor), I need it to keep my research staff employment going after the end of the initial starting fund by the university and Bavarian ministry.

What are the best things about your role?

There are lots of best bits! International research in heritage locations, working with other disciplines, continued learning. I love travel, so a particular highlight for me so far was teaching heritage professionals in Havana, Cuba, on 3D-laser scanning and photogrammetry, for two weeks. I really do enjoy passing knowledge and skills onto the next generation via teaching. I also did a 6-month sabbatical in Italy, forging networks at different universities. So, the networking, going abroad, coming up with ideas with new and interesting people, that’s all great. I love bringing expertise, asking questions, and being able to contribute to heritage research internationally.

And the technology is always evolving, so it’s exciting for me to go to a trade fair for survey equipment and feed that passion to observe technology developments. Interdisciplinarity and international connections are stimulating. For example, I won a project to work with art historians and baroque ceiling painting experts in France and Germany, which also requires my French language knowledge to be brought back up to speed.

Another perk is how flexible and autonomous we are in academia. And especially now, there is definitely flexibility of location, and working hours.

And the biggest challenges?

One challenge I face is around the bureaucracy at the university. There are lots of hoops to jump through, lots of forms to fill in and hand-sign, if you want to, for example, purchase something pretty simple. You can’t just go and buy it, you’ve got to have it officially approved.

Sometimes I take on too many tasks, and I don’t think I’m the only one in academia who does that. It’s all stuff I want to do – like reviewing articles for a journal, taking on an extra piece of research, or even contributing to a colleague’s birthday book publication (in German academia colleagues get together and each write a little paragraph in a book for a colleague). So although I’m very flexible in my hours and work place, the workload isn’t light, and I do work on weekends fairly frequently. People do get burnout, and I think that’s the same in academia in any country, I know (mostly from Twitter) that it’s definitely true of the UK.

This subject is my vocation. and even when I’m on holiday I’m always visiting interesting sites or an exhibition and I’ll be thinking about how the exhibition has been constructed and if there’s multimedia etc. So even in my downtimes, I willingly devote myself to work-related things! So I naturally want to be working on this a lot, but I can see others might view the deadlines and workload as a challenge.

Saying that, I have seen academics who work much more contained hours, and the university of Bamberg prides itself on being a family-friendly employer. I do however observe that lately there are meetings at 7pm and that’s easy because you can dial in from home, but it means that people who want a more fixed working schedule or have family might struggle.

Has the current [2022] uncertain climate had any impact?

The increase of student numbers in the time of digital studying without the real student experience is a factor that we see changing due to Covid. But we will return to in-presence teaching in summer term.

Here in Bavaria, due to decisions taken by the government in 2019, we actually have a positive impact within academia still ongoing. We’ve been promised 1000 professorships for the high-tech agenda by our state president, and amongst others, universities are currently recruiting professors with a focus on high–tech and artificial intelligence. Despite all the great uncertainty in the world, it’s actually a good time to become a professor in Germany because a lot of money has been put into creating novel types of positions connected with technology.

Any tips for researchers wanting to follow a similar path?

  • Take any opportunities of interesting tasks or roles given to you, even if you feel hesitant. All your expertise from different fields in combination will make your profile more appealing to employers, and will develop your transferable skills.
  • Have mentors and role models who are in the position you aspire to. Seek them out, join mentorship programmes, talk to them often and keep in touch.
  • Seek out opportunities to teach and present your work or research, even if it’s not finished. It will teach you to communicate your work to others, which is part of the academic craft.
  • Become a member of professional networks. Read their newsletters and attend their events.
  • Access UCL’s excellent development courses to prepare you for writing grants and papers, and help with presentation technique, and research methods.
  • Don’t underestimate yourself or be too self-conscious. That’s probably especially important for women, as we tend more often to say, “I’m not ready yet”, or “Nobody will be interested in my ideas/work”. It’s natural to feel that way, but even if you’re feeling like an imposter, the practice will give you that air of having true confidence.
  • Prepare well for interviews. Get knowledge about the institution and the colleagues you would work with. Go through the most often asked questions and rehearse them.
  • Aspire to roles above your current qualification, and dare to apply for them. In Germany, even if you don’t get the role, if you’ve been shortlisted according to the process I described above, you can mention this on your CV. And you will gain valuable application and interview practice. You might even meet people during the application process whom you impress, and who will give you a role next time around.
  • Follow your passion. If you do something that aligns with your passion, you’re more likely to be successful.

 

Working in a learned society

uczjsdd9 November 2021

Dr Curtis Asante has a PhD in Neuropharmacology from UCL and is now an Associate Director at the Microbiology Society. We caught up with Curtis to hear about his career journey, and to get his advice, especially for those moving out of academia during uncertain economic times. 

  • Tell us about your current role and organisation.

I am the Associate Director for Members’ Programmes at the Microbiology Society, which is a membership charity for scientists interested in microbes, their effects and their practical uses. It is one of the largest microbiology societies in Europe with a worldwide membership based in universities, industry, hospitals, research institutes and schools. I’m part of a senior management team that includes 4 others (including the CEO) overseeing all work that goes on within the organisation. A large part of my role involves leading on the development, implementation and evaluation of activities that support the microbiology community with a focus on building communities and maximising their impact and influence. I mainly work across conferences and events, journal development and policy and engagement.

  • How did you move from academia to your current role?

This is the forth role I’ve had since I left the lab as a postdoc back in 2012. I actually always wanted to be an academic, which was the reason I embarked on a postdoc after my PhD. My postdoc studies took me to Columbia University and the City College of New York and it was during this time that I realised my heart wasn’t in it enough to commit to the traditional academic career path. I started applying for roles that would still keep me connected to academic research without having to do any actual lab work or apply for grants and I managed to get a role as an Editor at Nature Communications, which at the time wasn’t even 2 years old.

The first job out of the lab was definitely the most difficult to obtain – I sent a lot of applications! I did reach out to a friend of a friend who was in publishing to ask them about the different roles in order to get a better understanding of the sector and so I could be as prepared as possible when going through the different interview rounds. For editorial roles, particularly at Springer Nature, you need to get into the habit of reading papers quickly and efficiently, picking out the key pieces of information, and making decisions as to whether the submitted manuscript is in scope for the journal and meets the editorial threshold. You also need to get used to reading papers well outside your area of expertise and try to think about what expertise you’d need to bring in from external peer reviewers.

My recruitment journey included a telephone interview with the Chief Editor to establish my motivations, interests and knowledge about the journal; an assessment which required me to read three scientific papers within an hour, identify the key points from the paper and have a discussion with the interviewers where they could ask me questions to see if I had the right skills to become an Editor. I also got to meet several members of the team. It was quite a tough process because I did not feel comfortable at any stage during the process and although I know I didn’t ace the interview, what did get me through was that I was able to explain my reasoning behind all of my statements and I didn’t rigidly stick to my position when challenged with new information, which are really important attributes for all editors.

After my role at Nature Communications, I moved on to become a Project Manager for the UK Regenerative Medicine Platform Immunomodulation Hub based at King’s College London. After this role, I moved to Cancer Research UK where I was a Research Programme Manager. The interviews for those roles required me to deliver presentations on my approach to the roles, followed by competency questions to demonstrate that I’d be effective in my role.

  • Did graduating during the credit crunch have an impact on your career path?

Honestly, I don’t think it did at all. I was aware of what was happening around me and the uncertainty due to the economic climate but I knew what I wanted to do and I had an opportunity to do it so that’s what I did. I think its also quite telling at I moved into my current role during the midst of the pandemic when lots of people were facing uncertain futures with their jobs. Again, I saw an opportunity and I went for it because I knew I’d regret it more if I didn’t.

  • What does a normal working day look like for you?

Every day is different but I do a lot of talking! I manage three Heads of Department and I’m in contact with each of them many times over the course of a week, checking on progress and sorting issues. I’m also part of lots of project groups where I help to ensure that they are aligned with everything else going on the Society. Whenever I get downtime, I’m always thinking about what’s next, forward planning and making sure that things get reported to or signed off by the right stakeholders within our governance structure at the right time so that as an organisation, we can deliver against our ambitious strategy.

  • What are the best things about working in your role?

This is the most strategic role I’ve had to date so I never get bored and I work with a lot of super committed and talented individuals, which definitely makes my job easier. Also, everyone is just really nice.

  • What are the biggest challenges?

I’m having to have more honest and sometimes difficult conversations than I’ve ever had at any time during my career with all levels of seniority in order to solve issues and keep things moving in the right direction. It’s really encouraging when these discussions lead to progress but it often takes a lot of work to get there because problems never get solved overnight. I’ve definitely had to get comfortable with being uncomfortable!

  • Is a PhD essential for your role?

Not at all. However, what the PhD has provided me with is a really good understanding of academics and the pressures they face as well as a very good understanding of the research landscape. I learned the value of good, clear communication from my time as a PhD student, mainly because my supervisor at the time was such a great communicator. I also developed skills in distilling complex information and drawing conclusions from presented data. My PhD studies also made me more resilient due to failed experiment after failed experiment and constantly having to defend my research. In hindsight, I think my PhD also made it much easier to interact with people with different personalities because of the diversity of characters I encountered.

  • Where does one go from here?

I honestly don’t know. I actually don’t have a plan and when I applied for this role, I wasn’t looking to be an Associate Director of anything, but the job description was exactly what I was looking for. However, now that I’m in this role I do see myself continuing to be in leadership roles, although at some point before I retire, I think I would like to experience working in a non-scientific organisation – perhaps one that focuses primarily on social issues.

  • What are your top career tips for our researchers?
  1. Don’t underestimate the value of mentors. I have one formal mentor and several more informal mentors. My mentors are people that I can get advice from that don’t work at the same organisation. These are people that give critical advice on how to approach issues. These are people that can ask difficult questions and while not all of them are more professionally experienced than me, they all have something to offer.
  2. If you’re not sure what you want to do career-wise, get into the habit of writing your thoughts down on paper (or e-notebooks). The point is to make sure you have some kind of written record of your likes/dislikes, the reasons why you want to do things, the areas you want to specialise in, the work environments you want etc. I’ve found that there’s something about seeing written words that really helps to hone the decision-making process and it helps me to be more objective because it forces me to internally challenge why I’m making certain decisions, and if those reasons are the right reasons.
  3. I know plans really work for some people, and I’ve heard some really impressive anecdotes about speaking goals into existence, but you really don’t need to have every aspect of your life planned out to be successful, no matter what your situation is. Life is very changeable, and sometimes it’s really important that you’re able to adapt by making decisions that aren’t part of the plan.
  4. Make sure your decisions are driven by a combination of emotion and logic. It was really hard for me to admit to myself that I no longer wanted to be an academic. I felt like I’d let my field down and that I was in someway giving up. Whilst I have no regrets about doing a PhD, I don’t actually see myself as a scientist despite the qualification and it’s taken a long time for me to be ok with that. If I had stuck to what was expected of me logically, I think I’d be pretty competent as a postdoc or staff scientist somewhere, but I know I wouldn’t be truly happy. For me, my happiness has always been most important.

 

The UCL PhD grad helping to bring us COVID-19 vaccines

uczjsdd25 October 2021

Dr Ranna Eardley-Patel has an EngD from UCL in Biochemical Engineering and Bioprocess Leadership, and is now a Bioprocess Engineering Consultant. Ranna kindly took the time to tell us about her current role and her career journey so far, and offered tips for researchers looking to follow a similar path.

This interview forms part of our series speaking with PhDs who graduated during the last recession.

  • What are you up to now?

I am a freelance bioprocess engineer, working through my own company (PTF UK Ltd) to provide consulting and specialist engineering services. One of my current contracts is as an advisor to the UK Vaccines Taskforce. I am one of ten Tech Specialists seconded from industry, supporting deployment of COVID-19 vaccines to UK and Northern Ireland. My main tasks are as the overall and technical lead for a multimillion-pound investment project involving onshoring of vaccine manufacture, including development of variant vaccines. I also represent the UK VTF to explore partnerships with other international government / public health bodies.

  • How did you move from academia to your current role?

I did an EngD involving >50% of my time with my sponsor companies, so I felt that I was transitioning out of academia at the outset. My department has a fabulous industrial network, and I grew my own whilst doing the courses open to the wider sector. I spoke to people in my network once I’d decided that design and consultancy appealed to me more than R&D or manufacturing, and I got my first job with an alumni. I did have to answer technical questions, mainly about my own research; I quickly worked out that this was not a test of my intelligence, but as a way to find out if I had the right work ethic and personality to work in a small team on problems that there may not be an obvious answer to as the field was new!

  • What does a normal working day look like for you?

No such thing as a normal day, and working patterns continue to evolve with mobile devices and remote working. I am not a morning person, so I tend to do my best work in the evenings – a plus when working with clients in e.g. the USA.

  • What are the best bits?

Being part of a highly capable, diverse and multi-disciplinary team to support the UK government to bring technological advances in vaccines manufacture to the public at a time of great need. It has been amazing to carry on the work I did to bring the AZ COVID-19 vaccine from tech transfer to commercialisation and leverage that experience to other vaccines and infrastructure investments. I am now seeing life slowly returning to pre-pandemic days, feeling proud and privileged to know that I had a part in making that possible via the vaccination efforts.

  • And the challenges?

Engineers need to go to where we are needed to be involved in initiatives that make a global impact. That may mean a compromise between work and home-life, for example, living away from home for long periods of time. This is still not so typical for females, so it is good to know the coping strategies with regards to downtime when being the only woman contractor on site. I chose to become a contractor so I can be free to work on projects that really mean something to me and are worth the trade-offs of being away from my family. Mentors can be found in many guises, and there’s always a handy life-hack to learn from colleagues as well as friends.

  • Is a PhD/EngD essential for your role?

No it is not essential, but it certainly helps a lot! It is called a PhD for a reason no matter what the subject – it trains you in a way of thinking and communicating in ways, that no other experience will, to solve unknown problems, and it often tests the limits of your imagination and perseverance.

The main skill I continue to develop is to be able to communicate complex scientific and engineering concepts to different audiences. Some people need all the detail, but in a language that they can understand from other engineers, architects, politicians, investors and students;  some only need the high level consequences of decisions without the background, but not losing any nuances of the key contributing factors.

  • What’s the progression like?

The biotech sector is booming right now, and there is plenty of scope for progression. Personally, I feel like I have achieved where I want to go, and plan to do this for the rest of my career. I am financially free and can chose what projects I do, and where I work. This freedom happened sooner than I expected; it took me a while to recognise that I had reached my career goals and to feel the confidence that I could say no to work that I did not want to do. My ultimate aim is to leave the world a better place i.e. a legacy beyond my work. Being part of major vaccine initiatives is a significant part of fulfilling that desire.

  • What are your top tips for researchers looking to enter bioprocess engineering?

Please do – we need more talented people like you now to be ready for future pandemics! You will recognise many concepts from other branches of chemical engineering – the fundamentals of mass and energy balances, component specification, process flow diagrams and P&IDs still all apply. There are lots of directly transferable skills from sectors requiring high containment (semiconductor, volatile solvents, nuclear) that are core to working with vaccines, so experience from other sectors is all valuable.

The biopharmaceutical industry has some specific terminology and concepts that takes some time getting used to, as well as a necessarily onerous regulatory compliance landscape. ISPE good practise and baseline guides provide a great overview of these along with practical examples of where they are used. Always keep the customer i.e. the patient, in mind in whatever you design/specify/build/validate. There are lots of resources out there to upskill via the IChemE and the ASTSN Home | AT Skills Training Network.

  • Any specific insights for those graduating into a recession?

I graduated into a recession twice and did not get any of the jobs that I applied for from both the milk-round or speculative applications. First time, I discovered the EngD, which was the perfect mix of working and academia.

Second time, it was whilst I was struggling to write up my thesis, getting married to someone who was not geographically mobile, and only sure of what I did not want to do i.e. work in the finance sector.  It was only when I wrote down what I wanted my ideal career goals and potential paths to be, then communicated that to my network, that I got my first job. It was not quite what I wanted on some fronts, but I asked a trusted mentor and we agreed that it would be a great steppingstone to get me to the career goals I had envisioned.

 

Profile portrait courtesy of Geraldine Curtis, Women-in-Engineering-Photography-Booklet.pdf (skillsandlearningace.com) taken at UCL ACBE in 2019

Working in sustainable development

uczjsdd12 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.

 

United Nations career insight

uczjsdd27 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.

Progressing within academia: tips from a professor

uczjsdd6 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.

From Comparative Literature to the Literature Business

uczjsdd19 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.

Making a career of careers

uczjsdd3 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.