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A Teacher’s Tale

uczjsdd14 July 2021

In the first of a new series looking at how to navigate your career during uncertain times, we speak to a Biological Sciences PhD who graduated during the last recession, and is now a Science Teacher in a private secondary school.

  • Tell us about your current role and organisation.

I work in a private school as a science teacher. At the higher levels I cover just biological sciences, but at the younger ages I sometimes cover more subjects. I also take on additional responsibilities for sports and arts clubs I’m interested in.

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

I’m not much of a planner, and I’d been so wrapped up in my research that I hadn’t looked ahead and thought about how to progress in academia. When I did, towards the end of my PhD, I realised I didn’t have any teaching experience whereas other PhDs did.

So I contacted people in my department who let me do a few guest lectures on their courses to fill the gap. I also got involved with a charity that puts researchers into schools. I was doing it just to have some more teaching experience on my CV, but I found I really enjoyed the whole process! I realised teaching in schools would offer me the stability and people-contact that academia wouldn’t, so I started to consider that as my plan A and academia as my plan B.

While researching teaching, I was surprised to learn that private schools didn’t always need their teachers to take a teaching qualification, which was appealing as I didn’t fancy more study at that time. So I applied to private schools, and after making me deliver a teaching demonstration, one of them took me on.

  • Did graduating into a recession have an impact on your career path?

I think there might have been something about the stability and recession-proof nature of teaching that appealed to me because of the credit crunch. Maybe that wouldn’t have meant as much to me if the world had felt more stable at that time. Also, I probably would have found the PGCE teacher-training route a bit more appealing if I’d felt more secure in getting a job afterwards. During that time it felt important to be earning money and not to go back and study again.

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

My days are very full. I’m up early and teaching students most of the day, and then a lot of evenings are taken up by marking or prep work, and some by extracurricular activities I run for the students. I like to think of creative ways to teach, which is fun, but it adds to the prep time! Obviously adapting to online teaching over the past year or so also took a lot of prep.

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

There are lots of great things. I like working with people, I find it really energising. I missed that in academia, and so that’s probably the best bit for me. I also like still being in touch with science, and in a broader way than academia allows.

I went to a state school myself, and I never imagined I would work in a private school. But there are some particular perks to it that are worth mentioning. The pay is very good, and as I’ve progressed and taken on more responsibilities – both extracurricular and within the science department – it has increased. It sounds gauche to talk about, but I’m earning a lot more than my colleagues who remained in academia – even the very successful ones. Some private schools even throw free accommodation into the package! The holiday is also unbeatable. Of course all teachers get lots of holiday, but private schools often have even more holiday than state schools, so that’s been really nice, especially for those teachers who have young families. And just like academia, travel is one of the unexpected perks! Outside of pandemic conditions, some private schools send their pupils on fantastic field, sporting, and social trips, which always need teachers to supervise, so I’ve managed to travel to some amazing places for free – although obviously I’ve had to spend a lot of the time working!

  • What are the worst bits? 

The flip side to the amazing holiday benefits is that it’s difficult/impossible to take holiday during term-time, and during term-time the workload can be very heavy, especially if you take on extra responsibilities as I have. That way of working – very intense followed by long breaks – suits me, but it probably wouldn’t suit everyone.

  • Is a PhD essential for your role? 

A PhD isn’t essential, but the organisational and communication skills I developed during the PhD help. Having the PhD may well have helped me bypass the PGCE route too, and the teaching experience I had picked up during the PhD was obviously valuable. I also think it adds some extra credibility for the pupils and their parents, who often have very high expectations of the school.

  • What’s the progression like?

There isn’t quite the same pressure to “progress” as there is in academia, which I actually like. But there are still lots of opportunities. You can become a head of department, and then of course a deputy head/head teacher. And some people move away from teaching to work on the educational policy side or in educational charities.

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

If you think teaching might be for you, give it a go – you’ll soon find out! There are lots of opportunities to work-shadow teachers and deliver sessions in schools, so seek them out. Teaching experience at university level will help you too, but it’s fairly different, so you really should get a bit of experience in schools to see if you’d like it.

I’d also advise getting involved in as many different things as possible, especially if you’re not sure where you want to end up, because you never know where they may lead – look at how I ended up in teaching!

  • Are there any specific tips you would give to people graduating into a recession?

I think people have to go with how they feel. The recession made me nervous, so I went for a stable well-paid job to reduce that anxiety. Not everyone will need to do that though. I suppose when I look at all of my PhD peers who also graduated in the recession, they’re all doing fine. So maybe my advice would be, don’t worry too much about it. You have the highest qualification you can get, and you’ll have developed loads of useful skills along the way, so you’ll be employable even in a recession, you just might have to compromise for a bit depending on what you want to do.

 

 

Guest Feature: Moving into Medical Writing

s.duran9 July 2021

Throughout the academic year, we take a deep dive into some key topics and career paths discussed in our events programme. In these posts, we explore what careers in a variety of different industries look like for a researcher, find out about the roles their organisation has to offer and get some key tips on applying. In this summer’s bonus blog series, we’re following up with some of the speakers from our Researchers Professional Careers Beyond Academia Conference. We’ll learn more about their roles, industries, and answer a few questions we weren’t able to get to in the conference.

This week we’ll be looking at medical writing with Emma Phillips, Publication Manager at Costello Medical.

Emma completed her PhD in Neuroscience at King’s College London. She worked as a post-doctoral researcher at University of Cambridge prior to moving into medical writing in 2018.

So, how did you move from your PhD to your current role?

I completed my PhD in Neuroscience at Kings College London in 2016 before doing an 18-month post-doc at the University of Cambridge. However, I quickly realised that an academic career wasn’t for me and, after some help from the university’s career service, I decided medical writing sounded really interesting. I had previously enjoyed writing both my thesis and academic papers, so this seemed like a good fit.

I applied to Costello Medical and started as a Medical Writer in the Publications division in April 2018. I found I really enjoyed the job – the work was interesting and meaningful, closely linked to cutting edge science and used many of the skills I developed in my academic career. In April 2019, I was promoted to Senior Medical Writer and began managing projects alongside continuing to write. In October 2020, I was promoted again to Publication Manager. I now do less writing but manage full client accounts and line manage several members of the team. I also play a strategic role in the projects I work on for clients and internally within Costello.

Who are Costello Medical, and what do you do?

Costello Medical provides scientific support in the analysis, interpretation and communication of clinical and health economic data. We work with pharmaceutical and medical device companies, as well as charities, to help communicate their data to a variety of audiences. We provide a wide range of services, which means we can support clients throughout the lifecycle of their product. I work in the Publications division who specialise in academic publications, including peer-reviewed journal papers and congress work, but have frequently worked on cross-divisional projects.

In my current role, my day-to-day work involves keeping all the projects on my client accounts running smoothly and to time. This includes reviewing work that the Medical Writers and Senior Medical Writers draft, communicating with clients about new and ongoing projects to make sure we are meeting their brief, and working on business development to make sure we have projects lined up for the future. As a member of the Senior Management Team, I also have internal responsibilities, including helping plan who works on which project, line managing members of the Publications division and helping shape what Costello Medical is going to look like in the future.

What are the benefits of working for Costello and in your current role?

Whilst I enjoyed my time in academia, there are benefits to my current role. For example, it is permanent, I am better paid and there is better training for managers. However, these are not the things that really stand out to me as my favourite aspects of the job.

I really enjoy how varied my work is – I am always learning about new disease areas and project types; every day is different. I also love the impact I can have through my work. Outwardly, this is most obvious through the publications we develop – the science we write about has real impact for patients and healthcare systems across the world. However, I also have the privilege of having an impact internally within the company, both through mentoring junior members of staff and watching them grow into excellent Medical Writers, and through having my say in the future of Costello Medical. The company has always been shaped by the interests, opinions and passions of its employees. For example, I am really interested in patient engagement in medical research and my line manager has always supported this. We now have a team of people working to progress patient engagement at Costello Medical and in the projects we work on.

What were the biggest challenges in moving from your PhD to industry?

Except for a short placement working at Lilly during my PhD, I had no experience working in industry. I had no idea how to work in a professional office and was really worried that I would do or say the wrong thing! When I got to Costello Medical, I quickly realised my fears were unfounded – everyone was so friendly and helpful. I was also worried that I would miss being in the lab but, honestly, this never happened.

Coming from academia, you often have very little experience in the client-facing side of the role. I did find this daunting at first – it can be scary to speak up on client calls at the beginning. However, my Project Managers and teams were always there to help me, and I wasn’t left to take client calls by myself until I was much more experienced and felt confident to do so.

What type of career progression is available in Medical Writing at Costello Medical?

At Costello Medical, we are looking for individuals who are collaborative, self-motivated and enthusiastic with a genuine interest in healthcare and an eagerness to learn about new areas of science. No prior medical communications experience is needed for the Medical Writer role. Instead, we look for candidates with excellent written English, exceptional attention to detail and strong analytical skills. Furthermore, we expect candidates to have good organisation skills and the ability to work across multiple projects and teams at the same time. Given that our roles are often entry-level and career progression can be rapid, a desire and passion to learn is essential.

As a PhD student, you can do plenty to prepare for a future career in medical communications. For example, taking every opportunity you can to write. It is especially helpful if you can write for multiple audiences and develop writing styles suited to multiple formats, like publication writing aimed at fellow academics alongside writing documents aimed at the general public. Additionally, we would recommend any teamwork opportunities, which can help to prepare you for working within project teams and collaborating with people from different backgrounds.

Audience Question 1: What’s the application and interview process for medical writing? 

We firstly ask candidates to submit their CV, along with a cover letter, via the online application form on our website. After an initial CV review, you will be sent a written assessment to complete, which is a critical appraisal of a trial paper. This allows us to assess your scientific understanding as well as your written communication skills and attention to detail. Successful candidates will be invited to an interview which includes a short presentation based on the written assessment. The interview will then be with two senior members of the team and you will have a chance to also ask them any questions about the role or the company. Finally, you will complete a proofreading task to show us your attention to detail skills.

Audience Question 2: How much of a writing portfolio had you built up when you applied for your position within and outside of academic journal articles?

Most of my writing experience had come from writing academic journal articles – I think I had been an author on seven or eight papers. I had also written and presented several congress abstracts, posters and oral presentations. A published academic record is not needed to apply for a Medical Writer role, but I do feel it helped to prepare me.

Outside of academic writing, I had been involved in several projects that required me to target my communication to other, non-academic audiences, including the 3-Minute Thesis Competition and a variety of open days and public outreach projects.

Audience Question 3: Do you ever experience pressure from clients to word or present the write-up in a certain way and how do you deal with that?

Yes, we are often required to use client-approved wording or phrases in our writing. In fact, a key part of our job is ensuring the publications we write align with client strategy and messaging. We plan publications to make sure they are published to timelines that maximise their impact and build a consistent picture of the benefits (and limitations!) of a treatment. However, everything we write must be supported by data and references. If a client wants us to write something unsupported, we are encouraged to push back on this to ensure our work is of the highest possible quality. Honestly though, this very rarely happens – there are almost always independent clinicians involved who would be uncomfortable with this, and the client will want their publications to get past peer reviewers. There are also wide variety of industry standards that pharmaceutical companies and medical publication professionals must adhere to, which prevent companies communicating incorrect data or putting a ‘spin’ on results.

Thanks to Emma for sharing your experiences! We hope you found this useful and keep an eye out for more of our guest blogs… If this has inspired you to explore a career outside of academia, keep an eye out for our Autumn term events programme.

A career in cyber security

uczjsdd7 January 2021

Dr Ardavan Alamir has a PhD in Physics and now works in cyber-security at G-Research. We caught up with Ardavan to hear about his role and career journey so far.

Tell us about your job.

I work as a Tech Lead Cyber Data Scientist at G-Research, a fintech organisation. Cyber security is very important for the business. The cyber function collects a huge volume and diversity of data, big data. So my role is to help the cyber analyst sift through the data quicker with the help of data science. One particular area of focus is the use of anomaly detection to find unusual signs of activity that we could be indicative of a cyber attack.

How did you move from academia to here?

I finished my PhD and I was looking for a PostDoc. The search didn’t go well. Then a friend who works in Big Data and data analytics strongly encouraged me to switch to Machine Learning. I studied the famous Andrew Ng course on Coursera. It was brilliant. Then I started to apply and I found my first job in an Education Tech company.

What was the recruitment process like?

Interviews have 2 main focuses: technical and behaviour. For a data scientist role, a lot of the interviews will revolve around Machine Learning, Deep Learning, Probability/Statistics, SQL queries and Computer Science Data Structures/Algorithms. So you need to make sure you learn the key topics of these fields. You have a lot of sample interview questions online. Great resources are glassdoor, leetcode.com and interviewquery.com. The behaviour part is about finding out about you as a potential colleague.

What does a normal working day look like for you?

I start my day with a team meeting at 9am. In the morning I try to do some personal learning that will be useful for my work. Then I work on a current project. I also have regular meetings with my fellow team members to discuss progress with current projects.

What are the best bits?

Getting to do cutting edge research and getting paid much more than in academia!

What are the biggest challenges?

he worst bits in the corporate world, especially in bigger corporations, is the politics. You have Game of Thrones all the time, especially for employees at manager level or above. When you stay in a technical role, it shouldn’t concern you too much though you will witness it.

Is a PhD essential for your role?

No, but what the PhD helped me with is the ability to do effective research in a new area, see a project through its end, and computational and analytical skills.

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

Definitely do some online courses on Machine Learning, Stats and Algorithms/Data Structures. These are the 3 key areas where most companies will interview candidates. I would even say that acquiring knowledge in these three areas is more important than doing personal projects. And definitely have passion !

Bringing behavioural research into industry

uczjsdd3 December 2020

Dr Keith O’Brien earned his PhD in Experimental Psychology from UCL, and now works as the Global Behavioral Insights Lead for Simply Business. Keith kindly spoke to us about his role and his transition into industry.

Tell us about your job.

I am the Global Behavioural Insights Lead for a growing technology company called Simply Business (SB). Simply Business is an insurance broker with over 750,000 current customers in the UK. We have over 750 employees across offices in London, Northampton, and Boston (US). Our success to date has been a result of simplifying the insurance market for SMEs, (small businesses) helping customers find and buy the right insurance easily, with a strong focus on data-led experimentation. If you use price comparison websites in the UK to find insurance for a business (maybe your ‘side-hustle’) you are probably using our service.

My role sits officially in our ‘Digital Product’ organisation, which spans across teams in the UK and USA, reporting directly to our C-suite team (i.e. the Chief Product Officer). As our ‘in-house’ behavioural scientist, my role is to identify (and argue for) improvements to our organisation and products based on behavioural science/economics. This sometimes requires running ‘experiments’, which can range from quick pilots (or prototype tests) with customers (to test ideas/assumptions), to ‘lab-style’ studies (controlled experiments), to ‘scaled-up’ RCTs or ‘A/B tests’ with real-life customers.

While that all sounds very serious and rigorous, and it can be, if you visited our offices you might be surprised to see us all in jeans and t-shirts – playing a game of pool or table tennis in our open-plan offices. Or building some strange robots, like a guitar-operated drone. We pride ourselves on creating a place where we enjoy working – and we’ve experimented with new initiatives like ‘4-day work-weeks’, flexi/remote-working far before anyone else (or COVID19). Our unofficial motto is ‘Build Something Better’, and that includes in society; which is why we have been a certified ‘BCorp’ for the last 3 years due to our actions on climate change, racism, inequality, etc..

How did you move from academia to your current role?

I handed in my PhD in 2016 since joining UCL through the MSc in Cognitive & Decision-Sciences. In 2017, I was balancing teaching fellowships at UCL and LSE in psychology/decision-sciences and being the Assistant Director of the Centre for Behaviour Change at UCL. At the time I was trying to square my passion for understanding human behaviour, with applying that knowledge to tangibly improve people’s lives. Teaching was an outlet for that passion, a buffer against the reality that academia is rarely supportive or enabled to do real-world research.

I came to the realisation that the career I dreamed about, spending my days developing experiments and RCTs to improve people’s lives with psychology, was: a) about 20-30 years away, provided I landed a tenured professorship with ample funding; and b) highly improbable, if I insisted my path to that professorship would be via real-world (non-lab) research. I took a leaf from my MSc in Cognitive & Decision Sciences, and rather than calculate some Expected Value estimates of leaving academia vs staying, I tallied up the pros/cons. Written on paper, it was clear I’d be happier overall to leave.

I was headhunted for my role at Simply Business by a fellow academic who consulted for private industry, and knew more companies were eager to apply behavioural science. I took  the role gladly, being promised (literally), “you’ll get to think up interesting experiments to run to improve our organisation”. The left-wing firebrand in me never considered working in the financial services sector, let alone insurance (the least ‘sexy’ of the financial services). Yet I discovered insurance is a rich place for applying behavioural science. Insurance is founded on the concepts of risk and probability, requires decision-making under uncertainty and limited information, and ultimately is incentivised to make people safer (i.e. healthier, drive safety, etc.) – if only to improve the profit margins at least.

My key piece of advice for making yourself appear suitable to employers, is to: a) learn how your skills and expertise addresses their challenges in simple language; and b) explain clearly how you would go about actually doing the work. Too many behavioural scientists in interviews (not just graduates) are clearly gifted in what they do, but are unprepared to show how they would work with other people and teams to get it done.

Businesses want to know how you’d explain your role/approach to others in the business who have no idea what or why you do things in a certain way. They want to know how you’d demonstrate investing time/money/effort in something isn’t just to satisfy your ‘academic’ curiosity, but to satisfy often competing priorities of the business and people. For example, balancing business revenue, employee/customer satisfaction, etc. If you are convinced this would make a difference, how could you ‘create buy in’ for your idea? In academia we often convince others after we conduct the research, but in the private/public sectors you need to convince people before it.

What does a normal working day look like for you?

During these COVID19 times, I would want to tell you that I wake at 7am to prepare for a day in the City of London…but that is not to be. However, I do enjoy that remote working lets me have a lie-in and savour a morning coffee. I start work around 9am, logging onto Slack to greet our team and check what updates might have come through from our US team overnight.

I’ve an unusual luxury, hard earned, of having 9am-12pm most days dedicated to ‘deep working’. This is a time where people are not supposed to add meetings to my diary or distract me. During this time I work on designing experiments, or analysing data; or reviewing proposals from different parts of the business (e.g. Product teams or HR) to ensure they are addressing/changing customer/employee behaviours in the right way.

12pm-1pm, meetings will start to pop-up. I spend 2xhours a week mentoring people internally and externally (e.g. MSc students from UCL) in behavioural science. 1pm-2pm is lunchtime, or a group trip to the gym – provided by our work benefits scheme.

2pm-5.30pm is when the US ‘wakes up’. I’ll have a variety of meetings with teams from across Product, HR, and our operations teams, on the projects we are running to improve or completely redesign our services, products, or potentially our business strategy. Often this results in discrete research projects for our research (or ‘Insight’) teams, and I’ll collaborate with our Data Science/User Research teams to determine the best approach to get the right answers.

5.30 is where I’d normally ‘log off’, or jump on a Zoom call to do Yoga with some co-workers. There are times where the US offices will need some input (they are ~5 hours behind), but rarely this goes past 7pm. On Fridays, I dedicate 2 hours in the afternoon to self-directed learning, which could be upskilling in SQL/Python or reading academic journals or industry reports.

What are the best bits?

Working with a diverse group of colleagues, spanning multiple disciplines, and constantly being challenged to come up with ideas and solutions that are both a) realistic to implement but also b) based on scientific understanding and methods. It is enriching to work with designers, product managers, data scientists, user researchers, HR representatives, and senior leadership figures from the UK and the USA.

Co-creating ideas, with a team, to impact something tangible – while sticking to the core value of improving customer’s lives – that is what keeps me going. Every day is different – while writing this I’m submitting ideas on how to change both insurers and customer behaviour to be more environmentally sustainable in their choices and supply chains.

What are the biggest challenges?

Prioritisation of ‘what is important’, and being (more) reliant on others to get the work/research done. When I started my role I created a massive list of ideas and experiments – as there were hundreds of optimizations or improvements I could see through the lens of behavioural science, on both the customer and employee sides. Prioritising was hard, especially if something I believed was important wasn’t immediately clear to others. It is a skill, one I’m better at now. I also focus on more transformative pieces of work than ‘simple tweaks’ (e.g. how do create a product that improves customer decision-making; how do we create a system to improve employee wellbeing & performance?). Every week requires me to re-examine requests from teams, existing work in progress, timelines, and make decisions as to what is the most ‘valuable’ thing to work on.

A strange challenge I found was the reliance on others. As an academic, you get to be almost entirely self-reliant, self-directed, and you need to pick up nearly all the skills you need to conduct a piece of work yourself. You are the sole driver of your work, career, and success. In my role, your success is more reliant on others. If I need to access some data, I could either learn SQL and Python (which I did), or wait for our Data team to get what I needed. If I want to launch an RCT on our websites, I need to work with Product Teams and software engineers to both convince them it’s worthwhile and actually make it happen. You learn the invaluable ‘soft-skills’ of how to explain to others why your ideas are important, valuable, and can help them reach their goals etc. If Robert Cialdini was reading, he would say you learn the art of influence.

Some things can happen in days; other times it can take days, months, or even years. For example, a simple ‘presentation-order’ test on our prices has been in a ‘backlog’ for 3 years, but we designed and implemented a trial for employees around a 4-Day Working Week in a few weeks. That is reality for you!

There are positives to relying on others. More people involved means more input on what you want to do, how best to do it, and more support to get it done. We share in both success, and ‘failure’. Feeling ‘part of a team’ is something academia really fails at, while in good workplaces it is key to success.

Is a PhD essential? 

I get asked this question about once a week by graduates and those already in the workplace looking to ‘upskill’ into a pure behavioural science role. So I’ll disappoint you like I do them: it depends!

A PhD is a great signal to prospective employers about all the right things a PhD gives you: critical thinking and the ability to research, absorb and communicate information quickly and simply. If you do a science-based PhD, chances are you have learned how to think about the world and construct testable hypotheses to go (dis)prove, and some data analytical skills. You also are self-motivated and self-directed, with a deep understanding of a subject area. In short, you’ve proven you can excel given time, resources, and a clear goal. What employer wouldn’t love that?

Yet, a lot of people who have similar (and better!) roles to me hold an MSc, not a PhD. Some do not personally carry out data analysis/experimental research, but instead coordinate teams of behavioural scientists who have more research-driven roles. Some are more consultancy-based, versus data-analytical. What nearly all these have in common is ‘relevant experience’ – which is a silly industry term for having worked in a job that isn’t academia for a period of time.

For me, I use the critical thinking and communication skills I learned in my PhD to show the logic to my ideas and create ‘buy-in’; the experimental design skills to design/help teams build their tests the right way to measure the right thing; and sometimes my data skills to get/analyse/build models with our own data. And finally, PhDs are amazing at reading giant swathes of information, digesting, critiquing, summarizing, and generating recommendations in a clear manner (think of all those Introduction sections you’ve done). I turn around ‘rapid reviews’ on research or reports at a pace that baffles some of my colleagues – but any PhD can do it.

What’s the progression like?

The industry has completely changed in the last 5 years, and is continuing to evolve. In 2014 there were a handful of behavioural science units/teams/companies in the world, and graduates struggled to find a job opening. In 2017 there were over 202 behavioural science units in public-policy globally. In 2020, there are estimated to be over 650 teams globally, across various sectors. Roles are diversifying, like: ‘behavioural designers’, ‘behavioural scientists’, ‘behavioural marketers’, etc.

Until about 2016 there were no real careers to progress in, no different ‘career-levels’ of behavioural scientists. Now, in the public sector for example, you have Directors of Behavioural Science (such as Dr Laura de Moliere at the Cabinet Office), and Senior/Junior Behavioural Insights Associates. There are Chief Behavioural Officers in various industries (e.g. financial services, marketing, HR, consultancy), who coordinate a mix of insights and/or behavioural science teams. There are more ‘Head of Behaviour Science’ positions being created every day, indicating more roles are forming under them.

Progression at the junior/senior associate levels can be relatively quick, industry dependent, and easier if the team(s) are more established. This is where having a PhD might actually be a benefit, as they tend to accelerate up the career ladder faster and level out when reaching management level.

Personally, I am looking to move into a ‘Head of’ position, and managing a full behavioural science unit. Our parent company in the US is looking to hire behavioural scientists to work at all levels, so I hope to help them build their team there.

I would love to be a Chief Behavioural Science Officer someday, but I think there is a long way to go before the position is common in companies. A CBO role reflects companies’ acceptance of data-driven experimentation and the use of scientific knowledge to understand and change behaviour; or at least the aim to get there. We are still in a world where experimentation is scary for most, so it’s easier to do something without making sure it works. Other companies think they do experimentation well, but often have a highly fragmented approach to doing it well: one team could be off using AI to predict the best people to hire, while another team is struggling to understand why sample size matters.

What are your top tips for our researchers?

Reach out to people through your networks, or on LinkedIn. People like me love to help aspiring behavioural scientists, and we are all finding our way in this new field together. Offer them a coffee (classic persuasion psychology here) if Lockdown is lifted. Ask if you could shadow them, or if you could do a more formalised internship (even if for a few hours a week). Or if they’ve got any bits of work you could support pro bono (you might find they’ll try to reward you somehow).

You should try to get experience of conducting a project for a non-academic organisation as soon as possible. This doesn’t have to be an experiment – you can easily find organisations who are looking for a literature review and recommendations, which is something most MSc students and PhDs can do in a matter of weeks. The key bit here is recommendations, something that is actionable.

Organisations appreciate the in-depth material to refer to, and often expect it (typically because they want to show what they are paying for), but they really just want to know what they are actually supposed to be doing with it. If you always force yourself to think of providing recommendations, you’ll naturally start thinking about the company, the context of the research, what is the most important/least important thing you’ve found that is relevant to them. If you do this, you’ll be 90% of the way there on the skills you’ll need in any organisation – and you’ll be able to build a portfolio of examples where you’ve applied academic research to practical real-world issues.

Feel free to reach out to me on LinkedIn, I’m happy to talk to people and I offer the odd mentorship to help people in early-stage careers or those considering moves (so far, all have been successful).

Welcome to you, our new ‘prac-ademic’!

Researchers Guest Feature: Taking a Closer Look at Clinical Trials

uczjipo6 November 2020

Throughout the year we will be taking a deep dive into some key topics and career paths discussed in our events programme.

In these posts, we will be exploring what careers in a variety of different industries look like for a researcher. Each contributor will give us their key tips for following a non-academic career path whilst letting us in on the things they wished they’d known before taking the leap. Find out about the roles their organisation has to offer and get some key tips on applying.

This month it’s all about clinical trials…

Taking a deeper dive into the world of a full-service clinical contract research organisation, we have our contributor:

Andrea Flannery
Andrea is a Clinical Trial Manager at Medpace
Andrea studied at the National University of Ireland and has a PhD in Microbiology

Tell us about being a Clinical Trial Manager…

A Clinical Trial Manager oversees the day-to-day clinical operations of a trial. This involves acting as the project lead for multi-full service global clinical trials. The position interacts with sponsors and manages the timeline and all project deliverables.

So, who are Medpace and what do you do?

Medpace is a full-service clinical contract research organization (CRO). We provide Phase I-IV clinical development services to the biotechnology, pharmaceutical and medical device industries. Our mission is to accelerate the global development of safe and effective medical therapeutics through its scientific and disciplined approach. We leverage local regulatory and therapeutic expertise across all major areas including oncology, cardiology, metabolic disease, endocrinology, central nervous system, anti-viral and anti-infective. Headquartered in Cincinnati, Ohio, employing approximately 3,500 people across almost 40 countries. We have two offices in the United Kingdom, Central London and Stirling, Scotland.

Did you find any transferable skills from your PhD to your role now?

My PhD was in infectious disease microbiology and it investigated interactions associated with antibiotic resistant bacteria and the innate immune system.

There are lots of transferrable skills that can be applied to my job now. For example,

  • Collaboration/team work – working with other labs and co-authors to complete lab work, draft and publish papers
  • Project planning/organisational skills – you manage your own project. What needs to be done and when.
  • Time management – you manage your own time to get your research completed for key milestones and deadlines.
  • Coordinating Laboratory logistics – being responsible for certain tasks within the lab (product ordering, liaising with vendors to get equipment calibrated or ordered.
  • Problem solving – this what a PhD is all about!
  • Presentation skills – internal and conference presentations.
  • Adaptability – Often a result changes how you plan to proceed with your research, and you must adapt. Also learning new techniques, training on new equipment, learning new areas of science for PhD etc.
  • Computer skills – word, PowerPoint, excel etc.

What were the challenges transitioning from academia to industry?

It was challenging to multitask learning a completely new industry and taking on a role outside of the lab. There was good training and on the job experience provided at Medpace which meant this challenge did not last very long.

Is there anything you hoped someone had told you before leaving academia?

Network as much as possible! Reach out to alumni of your university or people on LinkedIn to have a quick chat about their day-to-day jobs and find out if that interests you. Once you decide on the industry you want to work in, you can start to reach out to more people in that area to ask for tips and advice for your CV and/or interview.

And any tips specifically for Postdocs…

Medpace hires people with postdoc experience and a few of my colleagues worked as postdocs. Use your years of experience and skills gained throughout the years and apply them to the industry you are applying to. I think it’s important to show that you are willing to learn and adapt to a new industry.

If someones interested in your organisation, are there any minimum requirements to roles?

At minimum, a bachelor’s degree in science is required. We welcome people with a PhD in life sciences, especially for one of the training programmes available where PhD graduates are employed and on an accelerated training pathway.

And finally, what kind of job titles should people be looking for if they’re interested in clinical trials?

Project coordinator (PC), clinical research associate (CRA), regulatory submissions coordinator (RSC) and data coordinator (DC) have entry level positions available at Medpace.

Thanks to Andrea for sharing your experiences! We hope you found this useful and keep an eye out for more of our guest blogs… If this has inspired you to explore a career outside of academia, come along to one of our events in this years programme – click here for more information

 

 

Researchers Careers in Communication guest feature!

uczjipo28 February 2020

Researchers Guest Feature:

Taking a closer look at our monthly employer-led events topics

During our themed months, we will be taking a deeper look into each key topic. In these posts, we will be investigating what a career in this industry looks like for a researcher. Each month there will be insights from an expert who has been through the process of transitioning out of academia. Each contributor will give us their key tips for following a non-academic career path whilst letting us in on the things they wished they had known before taking the leap. Find out about the roles their organisation has to offer and get some key tips on applying.

This month it’s all about Communications…

Taking a deeper dive into the communications industry from the perspective of producer specifically looking at what this is like for a researcher, we have our contributor – Nikolay Nikolov.

Contributor Nikolay Nikolov, Senior Producer, Mashable, PhD in Anthropology UCL

Describe your role and the organisation you work with..

I manage a team of two video producers who are tasked with news-gathering, interviewing, shooting, and producing short-form videos that cover the intersection between technology and sustainability. My role is to drive the Mashable video voice forward, creating thought-provoking documentaries and series that introduce our work to new audiences and challenge norms.

Mashable is a digital media company that focuses on our shared life in the digital age and all that that entails. Each editorial vertical – video is one – has a focus that ranges from entertainment through culture to social good and science. The role of video, specifically, is to experiment with ways to tell powerful stories in different mediums – one video can be posted on Snapchat, for example, another on TikTok. The key is to find how the narrative and story corresponds with the platform and anticipated audience.

Give a brief overview of your industry and the opportunities that are available to researchers…

Journalism – and digital journalism – is a very difficult field to break into and one that often falls victim to preferential treatment, influence, and connections. Oftentimes in my career I have been encouraged to omit my academic background because it might make me seem overqualified and unemployable. That said, there are a number of incredibly successful journalists who have a strong academic background – Anne Applebaum is the first to mind. Having a PhD, at the very least, can help one build a strong career as a reporter, analyst, or opinion writer. But those type of positions tend to occur later in one’s life and are, as you may assume, highly competitive.

In terms of job titles and options for researchers, it is difficult to say without specific discussions of expertise. The world we live in is increasingly marked by disinformation and digital propaganda and I can see how certain areas, specifically in journalism, benefit immensely from people who have an academic background – climate change is one; technology is another, specifically when it comes to Open-source intelligence (say, Bellingcat or the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab). The New York Times and BBC Africa have both now created digital forensic teams that have made groundbreaking investigative work that is based on tools and knowledge that derives from a variety of academic fields.

Describe your academic background

My research was about finding a way to track how much daily life changes before and after huge societal transformations – like the socialist regimes in Europe. The way I approached it is by looking at the mass housing complexes, called ‘panelki’, which can still be found to house large portions of populations of the former socialist bloc. Because these complexes were prefabricated and largely resembled one another (in Bulgaria, for example, around two million people live in largely identical flats), my research traced how people made changes to their homes over the years – changes to the functionality, to the external facades, to the interior designs; but also social changes – who lived there, how, for how long, where are they now, etc.

What were the key skills you used during this time…

One of the key skills I learned is conducting interviews, taping conversations and taking photographs. When it comes to ethnography, especially in the urban setting, it’s a valuable skill for a journalist. Knowing how to adapt to different individuals, how to enter unknown settings (someone’s home, say), how to ask and repeat intimate or private questions and then how to transcribe and use those quotes is essentially what a lot of the hard work in reporting is all about. Particularly when it comes to features and long-form articles, that is essential.

My role is to tell powerful stories that educate people about a changing world. My academic work largely looked at how those changes occurred, so it hasn’t been useful in a direct way. But academia helps in other ways – having access to and being open to reading research papers that sometimes include incredible innovations and becoming the first to break the story that way. It helps in terms of the in-built sense of critique, where the search for plausibility and certainty is an innate goal in itself.

What did you find challenging about transitioning out of academia and how did you overcome this?

I started working as a journalism within three months of starting my PhD. I learned that, in my field specifically, an academic career was hard fought and required a lot of sacrifices in terms of financial independence and settling down. I also found academia stale – in the sense that many people, both academics and students, would end up fixed upon one subject area for extended periods of time. For me, that was simply not interesting or appealing – I wanted to have the flexibility and freedom to have more direct choices about what I could do, where I could live, and how I could earn a wage.

Conversely, what I found challenging when I started working in journalism is having no freedom over my own time and struggling to find meaning in what I did. At UCL, I got to teach first year students Philosophy, to travel across Europe and write about a subject I was deeply curious about. It’s a privilege that I took for granted because, particularly in journalism, you are accountable to both readers and editors and it is a difficult balance at times.

What do you wish you had been told when looking to transition out of academia?

I wish I was told to branch out, stay curious, meet new people. Academia can be clique-y and isolating, especially if you’re trying to change sectors all together. Staying curious means being
versatile and being able to adapt to the world as it is, not as you were taught to see it. A lot of people I know, who are around my age, have ended careers and started anew because they succumbed to the churn of a 9-to-5. Anticipating that is crucial for anyone moving on from academia. That said, some of the most considerate and nuanced people I’ve ever met were people I met during my PhD. Perhaps, at times, an undercurrent of self-confidence affected us all when it came to imagining our prospects outside of a strict academic career. I can safely say that any such worries are misplaced and, in fact, the world requires more people with expert knowledge working in places like journalism.

What is your top tip for researchers when applying to roles with your organisation..

Have a website that showcases, in a sense, your portfolio. In my case that’s www.nikolaynikolov.co – it shows all the video and radio work I’ve done. Maintaining active social media channels (Twitter, LinkedIn) are key for journalism. Cover letters are key because they can provide context for someone’s interest in an entry level (say producer job) that is not reflected in their resume. My first job in journalism, at AJ+, taught me everything I know about editing video. They didn’t hire me because I was doing a PhD, they hired me because I expressed a keen interest in the areas they were covering and was ready to learn new skills.

A big thank you to Nikolay for sharing your wisdom on those key transferable skills from academia to industry and giving us a great insight into your industry. Want to hear more? Come along to our events and hear from PhD level speakers across a range of industries all with valuable insights into what life is like after academia.

A career in research management

uczjsdd16 January 2020

Dr Robyn Parker has a PhD in Medieval History and now has two job titles! She works at UCL as a Public Policy Manager and as a Centre for Doctoral Training Manager. She took time out from her two jobs to have a word with us about her career.

Tell us what you’re up to now

My time is split between two roles. As Public Policy Manager I’m responsible for a year-long project based within the Bartlett Faculty Office 3 days a week, to create an engagement programme that amplifies and deepens the policy work of Bartlett academics. My other role for 2 days a week, which I was previously working in full-time, is managing a Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) in heritage science. When I first started the split allocation I tried to demarcate the two roles cleanly into separate days, but that just doesn’t work! Now I split time more flexibly between them over the entire week.

How did you get from your PhD to here?

Very circuitously and unexpectedly. When I was doing my PhD I only wanted to be an academic. My supervisor went on maternity leave in my final year, so I applied to cover her teaching. I’d taught all her courses already so I thought I’d at least get an interview. I didn’t, and I wasn’t sure what I’d done wrong and it really knocked my confidence. Looking back I can see I’d written a pretty rubbish application! At the time I didn’t fully understand the value of networking and publishing, so just concentrated on producing a really brilliant PhD.

After I finished I moved home and was pretty burnt out emotionally and stressed because of money, so money came first over academia. Off the back of teaching and student engagement I’d done during my PhD, I got my first role at Chevening, an international scholarship programme funded by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Making the move to a non-academic job was hard; I’d had this vision of being an academic and my future seemed tied up with that. I had planned to write post-doc applications and publish on the side but I wasn’t making an effort to do this on top of a full time job…

Six months into the job my mum took her own life and everything came to a head. I really needed a change of environment and since I was still considering academia I moved to UCL Laws doing PhD administration to be in a university setting. It was one of those jobs where you get there and think “What have I done? This isn’t advancing my career at all”. In hindsight it was exactly what I needed – a very supportive environment where I focused on both my own mental health and the mental health support and initiatives for PhD students.

During that time I had this slow rebuilding of who I felt I was, and what makes me happy and I realised academia might not be part of that anymore – it didn’t feel as important. My time outside of work has become super precious to me as has time with family and friends which I probably didn’t prioritise enough when I was doing my PhD, it was very all consuming for me.

After time and bereavement counselling, it’s been easier to think about my career and what it might be outside of academia. I got a secondment at UCL to manage a Centre for Doctoral Training in heritage science which I thought looked interesting and I was made permanent after the secondment finished. It was jumping in at the deep end to some complex financial and project management, and a steep learning curve!

After a couple of years I’d done a lot in the role to make it run smoothly, things were ticking over and I was wanting to do something less admin heavy. I went for the Public Policy Manager role because it was a lot of the project management skills I’d been using and I knew people involved with the project. I’m interested in making the world more just and fair, and that’s what people in the Built Environment are also trying to do. It’s been eye-opening because I didn’t do much knowledge transfer during my PhD so being part of the Built Environment has opened me up to a whole different way of being an academic.

What does a normal day look like?

CDT Manager: mostly it’s fire-fighting and establishing what needs dealing with urgently. Queries can be students asking about money, finance asking about transfers between accounts, contracts asking about signatures, social media posts to schedule etc. There can also be student support questions or dealing with management issues. A lot of balancing spinning plates.

Public Policy Project Manager: this role is all about strategy. Today we’re planning our launch event on tackling inequalities through our policy work. So I’ve been researching government areas of interest in terms of inequality and exploring what academics in the faculty have done regarding inequality, and considering how to bring these together to form event themes. There’s a lot of planning and strategic oversight and meeting the board members for interviews to see how they’re characterising the approach of their departments towards policy.

What are the best bits?

Public Policy: I love talking to people and finding out what they’re doing. I also like jigsaws; being a historian is about taking all the pieces of evidence and slotting them together so they make one picture someone might not have seen before, because of the particular way you’ve put them together. That’s what I’m doing with the public policy role, I’m meeting people individually across the department and the wider university – every little tendril that deals with policy – then combining it into one image of how we can approach this particular issue. I find that very rewarding.

CDT Manager: the best bit is working with students and running events. It’s fantastic to watch events you’ve organised work, and to chat to people and see they appreciate the effort you’ve put in. It’s also nice to know the PhDs think of me as their support contact.

So overall I suppose the best bits for me often seem to involve working with people.

What are the challenges?

Juggling two quite different jobs at once is pretty challenging! But individually:

CDT Manager: financial management. Our centre grant is about £6million, which isn’t the biggest, but it’s a very complex grant. You have to be very detail-oriented, and that’s not my natural orientation, so I have to get myself into a certain mindset in order to work like that. Saying that, my own financial management has vastly improved as a result of this experience.

Public Policy: My role is new and doesn’t really have equivalents across UCL, so I can feel out on limb sometimes and creating something more or less from scratch is really satisfying but can be quite draining.

Is having a PhD useful for your roles?

A PhD isn’t necessary for either of my roles. But a lot of people who work in policy across the university do have PhDs. I think it adds something that you understand the research process. I often use skills I developed in my PhD, such as quickly pulling evidence together to see the whole picture. Also writing skills and narrative creation – which is what I was studying during my PhD – because to engage and persuade policy makers at a higher level you need a compelling narrative.

For the CDT role having a PhD helps me build empathy with the students more quickly and easily than if I didn’t have a PhD. There’s an acknowledgement I know the experience, especially with the mental health work I did in Laws. That’s not to say that you can’t be fantastic at the job without a PhD, and many people are, but I think mine helps me in that way.

Where does one go from here?

I’m not sure to be honest! I’m still exploring what I enjoy. Through my policy work I’ve realised I’m really interested in how the university interacts with those outside of it. I enjoy creating conversations between people so something that combines these – policy, stakeholder management, something like that. Mainly I want to be part of something that makes a difference.

Top tips

First of all learn how to write applications and talk to people! I’ve got jobs because I’ve spoken to the people advertising the roles beforehand. It gives you a better idea of what they want from the job, whether it’s right for you, and you can put that knowledge into making a better application and giving a better interview performance. Nearly everyone is willing to help.

Don’t get too sad when things don’t go the way you want, or you end up in a position you think isn’t right for you, because you can always get something from every situation, and nothing is permanent.

Make the most of your current situation and what you can get involved with now. Some of my most rewarding moments at UCL have involved people I’ve met when I’ve gone and done stuff. Getting involved (while being mindful of your mental capacity for things) makes your work experience more enjoyable, and there needs to be a recognition that networking and relationship building isn’t only this ambitious thing that helps your career, for most people it actually also makes your life more enjoyable!

www.simoncallaghanphotography.com

A career in researcher development

uczjsdd4 December 2019

Dr Rochelle Rowe-Wiseman has a PhD in Gender and Cultural History and is now Academic Development Lead in UCL HR. Rochelle likes to help you all develop – it’s her job! – so she kindly shared her career story with us.

What are you up to now?

As Academic Development Lead in UCL’s Organisational Development team, I am concerned with identifying and addressing gaps in support structures impacting the development and experiences of researchers, at all levels – from postgraduate research students to senior academic leaders. Like a consultant, I explore the issues that affect the experience of researchers and the environment we create for them, the research culture. I also sometimes get to do academic research again – mostly in my spare time.

Talk us through your career journey

My doctoral research produced a feminist history of beauty in the Caribbean and African diaspora which I eventually published as a monograph. One idea I dabbled in career-wise is museums and I worked for an oral history charity when I first graduated from my BA.  When I didn’t yet know I’d secured PhD funding, I was due to embark on a museum traineeship. Then fortunately I received funding which allowed me to concentrate fully on the PhD. I was keen to keep both avenues open, but it didn’t seem possible, the PhD required my full attention.

Coming up to the end of my PhD I didn’t know whether to stay or leave academia. I’m now far more aware than I was then of some of the barriers women of colour face in higher education, and at that moment there was such a scarcity of role models – especially in the arts and humanities. I don’t know if that influenced my ultimate decision to leave, but I was certainly aware of it. I felt I had a dilemma. I loved elements of academia and I’ve always had a love affair with history and writing, and yet the career of an academic didn’t look appealing.

So my first few steps were more cultural sector jobs. I worked in the cultural department of a local authority organising black history month, and I taught History at undergraduate level. Then I got a learning and development job, organising and running training sessions within a university. I was doing this alongside teaching and I found the L&D job preferable to the heavy weight of teaching I was given, with too much marking and too many seminars. The temporary 6-month L&D job became a permanent job offer, but I turned it down, instead moving to Berlin where I fulfilled a book contract to write up my thesis. It no doubt sounds more glamourous than it was…but it was actually quite lovely. Alongside working on the book I took on freelance work as a proofreader, and I went to German language classes. I’d been quite isolated as a PhD student so it was wonderful to make new friends, speak German and develop an identity in such a special place as Berlin, at the time. On reflection it was something of a career break, although I remained busy with multiple projects.

When I was nearing the two-year-mark in Berlin, I started to think about my career more seriously, and I was starting to miss the part of my identity that was fully capable! I loved speaking German, but I wasn’t able to be my full native-speaking self yet. I’d also had some advice from an ex L&D colleague who advised that after two years the gap on my CV might become harder to explain. So I saw a job in the UK and went for it – Researcher Development at Exeter university. At Exeter I ran lots of workshops and absolutely loved interacting with and collaborating with research students to develop a stronger programme for them. I was there for over eighteen months, and if the social side in the city had been what I was after I would have stayed, but Exeter is pretty quiet for someone who grew up in London. Ha! So I took a slight sideways step into Equality and Diversity work in higher education. Whilst I learned a lot, I found the role slightly limiting, and though I expanded it in some ways, after a year I gave myself permission to look for other roles. That’s when I joined UCL as the Doctoral Skills Development Manager, managing the huge programme of training offered to PhD students, which allowed me to draw on all of my past experience. The role was great, and also from a personal perspective being so centrally located in a large institution suited me more, and made a huge difference to my overall satisfaction levels. I was in that role for two years. Then a new Director proposed a re-shape of the entire Organisational Development team. In the restructure I decided to apply for a promotion to the job I’m currently in – Academic Development Lead, a move away from operational oversight of a large programme and towards finding innovative solutions supporting researchers.

I’ve also, perhaps surprisingly even to me, kept up some research and writing. Since leaving academia I’ve given talks here and there about my research. I have also occasionally been invited to write something. Usually I haven’t had time or it hasn’t been the right project. But recently I was approached to contribute to a really fantastic-sounding book and I felt much more established in my main day job, so I said yes! And it’s been a struggle but really life-affirming. Writing gives me such joy! I certainly want to write more, and to reach new audiences.

What does the new role look like on an average day?

It’s very project led. I’m interested in developing more inclusive research cultures, including in doctoral education, I lead a working group for the UK Council of Graduate Education that aims to improve our understanding of this area, and what’s possible. In that vein, recently I spoke at the Black in Academia lecture series to encourage prospective black research students into research and knowledge-based careers. My talk will be available as a podcast.

I am also working on a project to explore what hinders principal investigators and what development opportunities and support services they need; another to encourage and make provision for early stage researchers to dedicate more of their time to skills development and to track this skills development. Another big project is Postdoc Appreciation Week, an annual festival to celebrate and nurture early stage researchers at UCL: as well as saying a big thank you to them for their contribution to research and discovery, we are creating opportunities for researchers to influence positive change in their environment and focus on their professional development. My aim for next year’s festival is to introduce more co-creation and ensure – as far as possible – no barriers to participation, so for instance providing more help with childcare and encouraging leaders to release their staff from projects so they can participate.

What are the best bits?

I’ve enjoyed staying within the university environment. I love to be surrounding by brilliant thinkers and contributing my piece to solving problems, I’m just doing it in a different way now. UCL is a great place to expand beyond the apparent limits of your role, and become recognised for your expertise, including in professional services areas. I like the creativity inherent in the UCL environment. And I like that I’m still using my research skills: going out and establishing what the problem is, then working collaboratively towards delivering a solution. I like that the projects are contained and defined, so once something is done I can move on to the next thing – again, as would a more conventional consultant. I get a lot of satisfaction from helping and developing people. I also enjoy developing and leading others within a team setting.

The best bits of my day are meeting and collaborating with people across the university, dreaming up and then realising ideas, leading events, inspiring others, giving the occasional talk and polishing things off, reports, papers etc.

And the worst bits?

Working in a really huge airless open plan office isn’t my favourite thing! But we do have flexible working so if we really want to get our heads down and concentrate on something quietly we can work from home or off-site.

Is a PhD essential?

In recent roles it hasn’t been exactly essential, but certainly desirable (on the person specification) and an asset. I have gravitated towards roles where a PhD has been a recognised benefit. And in cases where the job/employer hasn’t required a PhD grad, I nonetheless beat the drum of all the great things they’re getting because I’ve had that doctoral research experience. So it’s been an asset, in terms of ways of seeing, ways of approaching problems, and in this role in terms of building empathy with researchers.

What’s the progression like?

Increasingly I believe Researcher Development is a recognised area of expertise within a plethora of careers for Higher Education Professionals.  Certainly at UCL there are many educators and developers situated around the university with a range of valuable experience and expertise. People in Researcher Development may move into wider Learning and Development roles in literally any organisation, whatever the mission of that organisation. They might also choose to rise through the ranks of Doctoral Training or indeed senior leadership in Higher Education.

Top tips?

It may be an obvious thing for me to say, but nevertheless true: people don’t realise the transferable skills they’re acquiring in academic practice: in research, teaching, admin, project management, leadership, problem solving, public engagement. And after seeing a huge project like a PhD through, the sense of responsibility and commitment you’ll have, which you can bring to everything you do, is invaluable to employers. Really recognise the wealth of diverse skills you’ve likely accrued. For example, if you’ve done a tiny bit of budget management by organising a conference, you need to value and sell that skill. Because that little bit of experience will set you up for any role that requires you to do more of the same, and once you’ve had a taste of something you can scale that experience up. Also PhDs can be excellent at taking calculated risks. Having known nothing at the start of your PhD and just got on with it, you’re likely to throw your hat in the ring for lots of things that might worry others!

Also, I hear a lot about having the awful sensation that you’re breaking up with academia. But it’s important to remember that if you like the university environment, there are great ‘alternative’ careers you can forge within a university. It takes a lot to create a thriving university environment and there are many different roles you can play.

Enhancing university teaching for a living

uczjsdd19 August 2019

Dr Alex Standen has a PhD in Italian Studies, and now works at UCL as Associate Director, Early Career Academic and Research Supervisor Development, in the Arena Centre. Alex helps researchers every day as part of her job, and she kindly agreed to help you even further by telling us her career story.

Tell us about your current role and organisation.  

I work here at UCL in the Arena Centre for Research-Based Education. We work across UCL to support colleagues to enhance their teaching and improve the student experience in their departments. I am one of three Associate Directors and have oversight of all our training and development of PhD students who teach, new Lecturers and Teaching Fellows, Personal Tutors and Research Supervisors.

How did you move from academia to your current role?

During my writing up year I was also employed as a Teaching Fellow in my department, a role that I continued for a year post-PhD. I loved teaching and working closely with students in departmental roles such as Admissions Tutor, Year Abroad/Erasmus Coordinator and Personal Tutor, but it left no time for research. By chance, my partner was offered the opportunity to spend a year in New Zealand and we leapt at the chance: I had been at the same institution since I was an undergraduate and, while I loved my department and role, I needed a change of scenery and to give myself some time and space to focus on my research. Only that wasn’t what happened! I found I had little enthusiasm to re-visit my PhD research and no new projects I wanted to pursue; instead I was gravitating back to roles involving students. Back in the UK I got a job here at UCL as Education Officer in the Faculty of Brain Sciences which gave me so many valuable insights into HE administration, student support and wellbeing, quality assurance and enhancement, and the wider HE landscape. It was also in a Faculty whose research was so far removed from my own that I got an amazing insight into disciplines I had previously known nothing about. Working in the Faculty offered me a chance to get to know lots of the central teams at UCL and as soon as I got to know and understand about the work the Arena Centre was doing I knew that was where I wanted to be!

What does a normal working day look like for you?

It is a complete mix! I am rarely at my desk, and more often to be found delivering sessions, talking to colleagues and departments about their teaching, supporting them to gain professional recognition for their education-related roles, or  liaising with other teams like the Doctoral School and Student Support and Wellbeing. Since becoming Associate Director, I also now manage a small team and am involved in finance and strategic planning conversations which has been a big learning curve!

What are the best things about working in your role?

Meeting so many inspiring colleagues from across the institution and feeling like the work we are doing is actually having an impact on students.

What are the biggest challenges you face in your work?

Not everyone is keen to hear from us! Lots of colleagues, understandably, have so many competing pressures that they just don’t have time to think about their teaching role on top of everything else. But when we do manage to convince them to make even a small change it makes it all worthwhile!

Is a PhD essential for your role?

No, but lots of experience of teaching in HE is essential, and so is a broad understanding of the HE environment. My PhD gave me the confidence to present in front of a range of audiences, to consume large amounts of information quickly and critically, to be persuasive, and to manage my time effectively – all of which are absolutely key to my role.

What’s the progression like?

There is an absolute wealth of roles in HE beyond teaching and research and I have been able to progress quickly. Centres like ours exist in all universities so there are also opportunities to move between institutions. But I have no intention of going anywhere anytime soon!

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

Treat every job with the seriousness and commitment that you give to your research role, and carry it out to the best of your abilities as you never know where it will lead. When I first came back to the UK after New Zealand I wasn’t getting shortlisted for professional services roles in HE, which I now see is because I was still presenting myself as a teacher-researcher. But at the time my main concern was financial, so I joined a temping agency which specialised in HE roles and the first role I was placed in was here at UCL as an admin assistant in the Faculty of Brain Sciences…

 

Facilitating research – helping bring money to a university

uczjsdd1 August 2019

By Jana Dankovicova

 

Dr Jennifer Hazelton has a PhD in Civil Engineering  from Newcastle University, and now works as a Senior School Research Facilitator in the BEAMS Research Coordination Office at UCL. She is talking in detail about her role, highlights and challenges, as well as giving tips for researchers who would like to follow a similar path.

 

 

  • Tell us about your job.

I really enjoy my job, as I work closely with researchers and feel I can make a real difference to their chances of having successful applications for grant funding. I am Senior Research Facilitator in the Office of the Vice-Provost (Research), covering the BEAMS School (Faculties of Built Environment, Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences). I lead a sub-team within the BEAMS Research Coordination Office with responsibility for providing support for Fellowship applications, Global Challenges Research Fund and Doctoral Training across BEAMS, and the Environment Research Domain across UCL. My job is very varied, often hectic with short deadlines and competing pressures, but I have a lovely team and really enjoy the buzz of helping people with proposals and contributing towards UCL’s targets for research income. I am also co-Chair of the Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) Operational Group, where we share best practice and common or specific issues in global research projects, then report and make recommendations to academic and senior leadership committees.

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

I never intended to join academia, but after a job as a Research Associate led to my PhD and postdoctoral role it looked as though that’s where I might be headed. I hated the uncertainty of short term contracts, however, and realised that I had most enjoyed supporting our funding applications and writing, rather than the research itself. I applied for a Research Coordinator job within a virtual institute newly set up at my previous university, which was a crossover between academia and application support, and offered the permanent contract I needed. I gradually did less and less research, and found that I didn’t miss it, so I knew this was the right career direction for me. When I moved on, it was to a full Professional Services role as a Strategic Research Facilitator at UCL and I moved up to my current role after a spell of maternity leave. I recently observed that I am working at Associate Professor equivalent, and doubt whether I would have made it to this level by now if I had stayed on an academic path.

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

I do a weekly surgery giving 1:1 support for researchers submitting applications for funding, so have to schedule in time to read those applications. I try to avoid doing them at my desk, so work from home once a week to read or write, and otherwise go through the proposals on the train during my commute. I am responsible for overseeing internal procedures to limit numbers of fellowship bids where schemes have institutional caps, which can take a lot of coordinating – particularly for new schemes. My team are experienced and increasingly manage these processes on their own, but we go through the details and try to assess whether we are working in the most effective way to give the best support to applicants. We provide training for researchers on applying for funding, so I deliver sessions for individual departments, faculties and the careers service. I really enjoy facilitating workshops and delivering training, but we try to target advice for the audience and give bespoke insights, as well as responding to feedback to continually improve our service, so quite a lot of preparation is required. As line manager for my team, I take their professional development very seriously. I meet fortnightly, and I like to be well prepared for those meetings. I meet fortnightly with our Director to report back and plan ahead. On a daily basis we will get requests for help with very short turnaround, whether that might be to draft a letter of support from the Vice-Provost Research, set up a mock interview or give feedback on a response to reviewer comments. We always try to fit these activities in, often pooling resources as a team to find time. I very rarely have two days the same in a week, as I work flexibly to fit around childcare, but that certainly keeps things interesting! There are members of the team who work set hours in the office and don’t take any work home, which they really appreciate, but for me it works better to have less time at my desk and finish my work elsewhere when I need to. As long as we get the work done, working patterns can be flexible, which I really value.

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

The variety of people and subjects I get to work with is fantastic, because of the breadth of the BEAMS School. The RCO team is also varied, but we work together really well and each bring different perspectives and expertise so are always learning from each other. The atmosphere in our office is very collegiate, and we share a lot of our work but also personal experiences which has helped us form a close knit unit. I think personally that the flexibility, visibility and security of the role are valuable. A lot of the researchers we work with are very appreciative of the help we give. As someone who thrives off supporting others, this is a great bonus for me.

  • What are the downsides/challenges?

There are some regular tasks which involve a lot of emailing around academics to request help with mock interviews or reviewing, often at very short notice. Academics are generally extremely busy and it can be very difficult to keep asking them to do extra work when you know how much they already have to do. We also have to be very resilient to failure, because the reality is that only a small percentage of research applications are funded. Most academics will only submit a few applications each year, but we are working on new applications every week. When you have worked extremely hard with someone on an important proposal that they (and you) are strongly committed to, it can be difficult to take the news that it hasn’t been funded. Similarly, but almost harder, when we run internal selection panels we have to tell unsuccessful applicants that their application hasn’t made it through the internal stage, which can be difficult. Finally, we are often working under pressure to tight deadlines, which are not always easy to predict. So this job wouldn’t suit someone who needed a very structured and predictable workload.

  • Is a PhD essential for your role? 

Having a PhD (or equivalent) is an essential criterion for this role, but not because of the subject-specific expertise. We all review grants in all areas, not just our own subjects. Having a PhD helps us to be more credible in the eyes of the academics we support. I don’t actually think it is or should be a necessary requirement for applying to do the job, because the skills I need for my role were not learned doing my PhD, but it is one indicator of academic experience which definitely helps.

  • Where would someone go in their career from here?

Research support is a rapidly expanding field in Professional Services. I think the skills are very transferable to research in other sectors, but the university sector is UK and worldwide so there is a lot of choice. There are currently roles across 4 pay grades in our team, so plenty of scope for progression. UCL has 3 Research Coordination Offices across its 4 Schools, so there are often secondments or jobs available. I am also going to do a secondment at EPSRC, one of our key funders, for 6 months which will give me some insight into how our grants get reviewed and assessed – which I am really looking forward to.

  • What top tips would you give a researcher interested in this type of work?

Do some shadowing – we have set up shadowing opportunities with our team for people interested in research facilitation, and this has proved very helpful. Also, there are often secondment roles across the three RCOs, so keep an eye out for those. Get as much experience as you can reading and reviewing applications from your peers, and contributing to applications to different funders.