UCL Researchers
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    The UCL Careers team use this Blog to share their ‘news and views’ about careers with you. You will find snippets about a whole range of career related issues, news from recruiters and links to interesting articles in the media.

    We hope you enjoy reading the Blog and will be inspired to tell us your views.

    If you want to suggest things that students and graduates might find helpful, please let us know – we want to hear from you.

    Karen Barnard – Head of UCL Careers

    UCL Careers is part of The Careers Group, University of London

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    PhDs gone creative

    By S Donaldson, on 18 September 2017

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

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

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

    The Actor

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

    The Author

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

    The Musicians

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

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

    The Designer

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

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

    From Ivory Tower to City Hall

    By S Donaldson, on 14 August 2017

    city-hall-1333532_1920

    Dr Katherine Drayson’s PhD explored the treatment of ecology in the English planning system. After leaving academia, she worked for nearly three years in the think tank Policy Exchange. During this time she presented at the 2015 British Ecological Society Careers Conference, and we wrote it up! If you want to learn more about work in a think tank, check it out here. Since then Katherine has moved into local government. She’s now a Senior Policy and Programme Officer in the Greater London Authority. She spoke at our Government and Policy Researcher Careers Forum in February, and now she’s been kind enough to tell us about her career journey for our blog.

    How did you move from academia to your current role?

    I was lucky enough to gain funding for interdisciplinary PhD research from my university. But unless you work on a few select topics, like climate change, it’s really very difficult to obtain funding from Research Councils for interdisciplinary research. I didn’t like the idea of having to justify my research every three to five years. I also didn’t like the fact that my work would likely never be read by anyone who could make a difference (let’s be honest, no-one reads theses, and very few policy makers have access to paywalled journal articles), so I decided to leave academia, initially for the think tank world.

    How did you find out about the sector? How did you go about applying/selling yourself to employers?)

    I always knew about the public sector as a career, mainly because the Civil Service advertises very effectively. But I wasn’t so aware of opportunities outside the Civil Service, i.e. in local government. This developed while I was working at a think tank. London is unique in being the only form of regional government left in the UK. This means we can work more strategically to help change things for the better.

    Whilst I was working at Policy Exchange, I was lucky enough to be invited to join the Green Infrastructure Task Force, which was chaired by the Deputy Mayor for Environment & Energy. Through that, I got to know some of my current colleagues and became interested in the work they were doing. By speaking up in Task Force discussions and contributing ideas, I was able to make a good impression.

    What does a normal working day look like for you?

    There’s no such thing as ‘normal’! For the past seven months I’ve been working mainly on the London Environment Strategy, which is a big project bringing together eight existing separate strategies into one coherent (and shorter!) document. It’s involved a lot of learning (not least coming up with concepts for infographics) and some long hours. But it’s one of the best opportunities in recent times to improve London’s environment – it’s very exciting.

    Apart from the Strategy, I also work on smaller projects, some of which I designed myself. For example, I am working with the GLA’s GIS team to develop a map that will help decision-makers better target funding for green infrastructure improvements. Shortly after I arrived, I was also responsible for managing a £450,000 programme of sustainable drainage retrofit projects across the city, and on my own initiative created some webpages to highlight the good work that was done (more learning required!).

    What are the best things about working in your role?

    The fact that you can get involved with almost any project or programme that takes your interest. And if you make a decent business case, you can create your own. The flexible working environment is also great. I also love that there’s a continual learning curve, whether it’s creating and editing webpages, or improving your GIS skills. Although I don’t need to take advantage of it, I understand that the support for parents is also outstanding.

    What are the biggest challenges?

    It’s a perennial challenge to avoid siloed thinking and working (as with any organisation, large or small), both in your team and others. The environment cuts across many different topics, so we have to work hard to make contacts and connections across workstreams. A challenge with any role is the deadlines that you have to meet. In the case of the public sector, these can be unusually challenging, as you not only have to respond quickly to new situations, but your briefings and reports also have to go through several layers of sign-off, which means even less time is available for writing them.
     
    Is a PhD essential for your role?

    A PhD is inessential for my role. However, the skills I developed during my PhD are either useful or essential. For example, I am now the ‘go to’ person in my team for Word and Excel questions because of my experience in formatting a thesis, and in managing and analysing a spreadsheet database (e.g. using Pivot Tables). I taught myself GIS during my PhD, and so also create maps and analyse spatial data for others in my team. Setting up a twitter account during my PhD also helped, as I was asked to help manage the Environment team twitter account when our comms lead was on leave.

    I’m lucky in that my thesis topic is relatively relevant to my work. Although it was more specialist than I need, the PhD gave me a good understanding of many of the issues that local government faces when it considers the environment as part of the planning system.

    Where do you see yourself going from here?

    I really enjoy working for the GLA – I’d like to stay in the Environment team as long as I can (with a new Mayor, there are always opportunities for progression). But I’m also curious about working in the Civil Service and utilities companies at some point in my career. Though since my career so far has mainly been a series of lucky opportunities, who knows?

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

    Develop the art of writing under pressure and to a tight deadline! Also work on distilling messages down as far as possible without losing their meaning – this is a useful skill whatever role you go into. Very few people are interested in the minutiae or in nuance. It’s important to understand the political context of the organisation you’re working for – both internally and externally. Read the news, sign up to the organisations newsletters, scope out the website (you can pick up a lot about an organisation from how it’s structured and how easy it is to find information). Try and talk to people who are already working there to get an idea of what the work and working life is like. Attend conferences and events on the topic you’re interested in, and make a beeline for the relevant public sector attendees (good events will have an attendee list). And make sure your social media profile is clean and professional!

    Want to gain work experience while studying for your PhD? This is one way of doing it.

    By Vivienne C Watson, on 20 July 2017

    CeyhunHave you ever thought about getting into consulting or want to gain some practical experience whilst you are studying? We asked Ceyhun, a PhD student, who has been working as a freelance researcher through Freshminds recruitment consultancy (a boutique recruitment agency resourcing candidates for consultancy projects) for the last 3 years, to share his experience. Whilst completing his qualification, Ceyhun has worked on more than 30 short term research based projects, using his analytical and quantitative skills to build an impressive profile of commercial experience, before making the official transition into the working world.

    Hear what he had to say about managing the study/ work split and the skills he’s gained.

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

    I’m still in the process of moving as I’m currently finishing up my PhD. I was surprised by how welcoming the consultancy job market is towards PhD graduates and that they really admire the research skills and the analytical thinking.

    What does an average working day look like?

    It usually starts with an overall plan that gives me a good idea of what the goals are of today’s work and how I can organise the tasks of the day. These can include meetings with colleagues or checking on the outcome of yesterday’s work. In most cases the overall plan doesn’t work out and it’s is important to have the ability to be flexible and adapt. The job is not just sitting in front of a computer but includes a lot of collaborative thinking and collective activities, such as developing ideas through open discussions.

    How does your PhD help you in your job?

    My PhD in Food Policy is very practical and focuses on real world problems rather than abstract theoretical models. This is particularly relevant when you have to understand the scope of problems and the value chain on a process or product. The methods I use are very useful to understand how data has been collected and can be used in project. My PhD skills also include practice in having strong evaluating logic and drawing clear conclusions, which is transferrable to convincing clients about the research outcomes of the project.

    What are the best things about your job?

    The best thing is the variety and breadth of work. For example, today, you may be working on the South American window market, and next week it’s about a struggling chocolate factory in Italy. There are no limits and there is no set daily routine for projects. You learn so much every day, and it’s not just about the products, but also about the culture of certain markets and countries. In this sense, the work stays interesting and never gets boring.

    What are the downsides?

    As mentioned earlier, you need to be flexible and you need to be able to adapt to the needs of the project and team. This can also include days where you can’t just leave after 6 or 7pm, and that’s something I was totally aware of. So far, from my experience, there are times where you have to stay late to get the project done which is not always ideal.

    What tips would you give researchers wanting to move into the same, or similar, role?

    If you want to go towards consultancy, it is important you can demonstrate that you have some degree of relevant experience. In my case, employees were keen on my practical research and communication skills, as well as my analytical approach to problems, but less about the number of articles I have published or the number of conferences I have been to.

    Instead of working for many months on one publication, I use my time constructively and may split my time by working on a short term project role at a consultancy.

     

    Ceyhun obtained his Master’s degree in Human Geography at Eberhard Karls University Tubingen in Germany and is now undertaking his PHD in Food Policy at London City University. Through this he looks at governance and policy structures for methods of boosting food sustainability policy.

    You can also have a read at his PhD page for more details: http://www.city.ac.uk/arts-social-sciences/sociology/centre-for-food-policy/phd-students/ceyhun-gungor

     

    Freshminds is an award winning boutique recruitment consultancy, placing top talent across different levels of experience into a range of strategic and commercial roles, either on a permanent, or a freelance and interim project basis.

    Our specialised Research Projects team works on an advisory and consultative structure, helping to connect leading businesses or small boutiques with top candidates on a short-term basis to find business solutions. Projects can range from 1 day, to 6 months across a variety of industry sectors.    

    Interested to find out how Freshminds can help? Visit www.freshminds.co.uk to find out more, or get in touch with Emilie at Emilie.Pain@freshminds.co.uk    

    Engineering solutions for businesses: a careers case study

    By S Donaldson, on 1 June 2017

    Simon ChildDr Simon Child has a PhD in Space Physics and is now a Solutions Engineer at Tessella, an organisation that “uses data science to accelerate evidence-based decision making, allowing businesses to improve profitability, reduce costs, streamline operations, avoid errors and out-innovate the competition”. Simon spoke at one of our Careers in Technology forums for researchers, and then kindly agreed to chat about his career again for our blog.

    How did you move from academia to your current role?
    My PhD was in Space Physics, working primarily with data taken by the Ulysses Spacecraft. As that mission was coming to a close, to stay in academia would have required a shift in research focus. Also, I was not sure if the nomadic life of a postdoc was something I was truly interested in doing long term (a couple of years here and there, moving where the research funding takes you). As such, I started looking for a career in industry. I started my job search with a clear idea of what I was looking for: something that would challenge me, somewhere I would have interesting problems to get my teeth into and continue learning and developing and, if possible, somewhere I could retain some level of contact with the space industry.

    I put my CV on Monster and was contacted by a couple of recruitment agencies who put me forward for a range of different roles. Knowing what I know now, that approach had both benefits and drawbacks. On the positive side I was made aware of companies and opportunities that I hadn’t uncovered on my own and the consultants helped me to improve my CV. However, I now realise that the majority of companies do not use agencies for their recruitment and have their own internal recruitment teams, especially for graduate and postgraduate entry level roles. Tessella is one such company.

    Early on in my academic career, I had flagged up Tessella as one of the companies I was interested in applying to. I was attracted by their focus on training and development and the opportunity to work across a wide range of technologies and sectors, including the space industry. After I applied, I was delighted to be invited to a first interview and then a second interview assessment day. During the recruitment process, I was impressed to find out about the company’s portfolio of clients and projects, as well as the similar mind-set of the people I met. When a job offer came through, it was not a hard decision to accept it.

    What does a normal working day look like for you?
    I am currently a Solutions Engineer at Tessella and what I do day-to-day depends on the project I am working on. My typical activities include: systems engineering (engineering trade-off studies, producing technical requirements specifications, designing algorithms to be used in a Radar DSPU); systems architecture (how the algorithms will talk to the rest of the real-time software within the system during flight); simulation and modelling; data analysis/machine learning; control engineering; software engineering. Ultimately I am helping our clients solve some of their really difficult technical challenges.

    The majority of my work is computer based and I also regularly attend technical meetings, with both clients and colleagues. Depending on the project I could be working full time in the Tessella office in Stevenage (where I am based), or spending some or all of my time working on client sites alongside their engineers and scientists.

    My role does not involve much long-distance travelling – each Tessella office tends to work predominately with organisations in close proximity. However there have been opportunities for colleagues to spend extended periods of time working with clients in France, Germany and Spain, as well as with colleagues in our offices in the Netherlands and USA.

    What are the best things about working in your role?
    I really value the relationships I have built up with both colleagues and clients. Tessella recruits graduates and postgraduates from science, engineering and mathematics, so my colleagues are all like-minded, intelligent people. That said, everyone has expertise in different areas, from different domain knowledge to various technical skills, so there is a lot of collaboration and innovative thinking to solve clients’ problems, which is also one of the best things about working here. I also enjoy the work that we do – projects are always challenging and interesting and I am always learning something new.

    What are the worst bits?
    To some people, the prospect of starting out on a project with an unfamiliar, complex problem to solve may seem daunting, but I relish the challenge. Starting from scratch and building up a solution by employing my knowledge and skills within my team is really satisfying, especially when what I have created is successfully delivered to the client.

    Is a PhD essential for your role?
    A PhD is not essential to work at Tessella; we also recruit people with MSc and BSc qualifications. However, it certainly helps to have a PhD. I use a lot of the skills that I developed during my PhD, including data analysis, programming, computational modelling, data visualisation, verbal and written communication, problem solving, time management, mentoring, networking, and more. The reason over half of the company have PhDs is because all of those skills, which have been developed further during postgraduate studies, are invaluable in solving the complex challenges facing our clients. The ability to build relationships with clients is arguably just as important as your technical skills, so confidence and communication skills are also important.

    Where do you see yourself going from here?
    Every year, I have an appraisal with my manager, part of which includes reviewing and updating my career development plan. This contains things like my long term career goals and what I need to do in the short term in order to achieve them, as well as what training I need to undertake for my immediate project needs. The appraisal is also a review of my performance – good and bad – over the previous twelve months so that I can identify what areas I need to work on in order to guide my career in a particular direction. Feedback for appraisals is sought from all areas across the company, from directors to any technical or head office staff you have worked with.

    Over the course of my career, I have chosen to stay on a broadly technical career path, from a junior developer to leading project teams. However, I have also taken opportunities to take formal training in other areas, including, project management, technical sales and business analysis. I have also had the opportunity to spend some time working in those roles, to give me an idea of what is involved should I wish to transfer into one of them in the future.

    I am also a line manager, currently to one junior technical member of staff. I really enjoy this part of my role: working with him early on in his career, helping turn all those ideas and thoughts into a career plan, then helping him reach his goals. I am looking forward to managing more staff in the future.

    What top tips would you pass on to a researcher interested in this type of work?
    Unless you are looking for a job that will specifically utilise your PhD research, it will be your transferable skills that make you valuable to an organisation, for example, problem solving, teamwork, presenting complex ideas, debating issues, etc. Identify your strong and weak areas and take advantage of opportunities to develop and improve them. You can also make yourself more attractive to potential employers by developing yourself outside of your PhD, for example, building your confidence, public speaking, leadership, etc., so get involved with new hobbies and extra-curricular activities.

    Sparkly technology pic taken from Octavio Santos Neto

    Taking subject expertise into industry: a case study

    By S Donaldson, on 19 May 2017

    Dr Stephen Hassard has a PhD in Human-Computer Interaction from UCL, and is now a User Experience Researcher at Garmin. We asked him a few questions about his career journey so far.

    Hassard

    Tell us about your job.

    My PhD was in Human-Computer Interaction through UCLIC (University College London Interaction Centre), a joint venture between the Psychology and Computer Science departments of UCL. Five years ago I moved from academia into the field of User Experience Design as a User Experience Researcher at Garmin International. To provide a little context to what kind of work I do; I work within a multi-disciplinary team that builds in-car systems that are easy, and safe to use, while driving. Within my role as a UX Researcher I have two major focuses at my job: design work and research. On the design side of things I’ve done work on mobile apps, dash-cams, navigation systems, and infotainment systems. The design work I do is mostly creating wire-frames, developing prototypes, and testing proposed designs with users to make sure they are easy to use. On the research side, I run the driver distraction lab here at Garmin where I use a driver simulator and eye-tracking to make sure that the products we develop adhere to government guidelines for what is, and what is not acceptable, levels of distraction while driving. So in a nutshell I design apps that are as safe as possible for you to use while driving.

    How did you move from academia to your current role?

    To be honest it was a slow transition. While I was working as a Psychology Lecturer at the University of Winnipeg I started a consulting business that focused on providing user experience services to smaller companies who couldn’t afford a full-time UX staff member. When I decided to move into industry full-time the skills and experience I had built in my consultancy were invaluable in proving I had real-world experience when I went to apply for jobs in industry.

    When did you decide academia wasn’t for you?

    Two main factors came together to convince me to move from Academia to Industry. The first was the nature of the work I was doing in Academia felt so disconnected from the industry I was trying to help. I was feeling like it was becoming too theoretical and insular. The other was job stability. Working in academia involves long hours and an uncertain future. I wanted something more long-term and stable than what the soft-money of academia could provide.

    How did you find out about the sector?

    Working in the field of UX was something I had always wanted to do. My undergrad degrees were in Computer Science and Cognitive Psychology, and my PhD was in Human-Computer Interaction, so this was an area I was aware of from early in my development.

    How did you go about applying?

    This was I think the trickiest thing about moving from academia to industry. There were some jobs I applied to where having a PhD was almost a liability in that they assumed I wanted to be in academia and treated me with suspicion when I was looking for jobs in industry. I think this was based on the fact that some people just assume that everything you do in academia is simply navel-gazing and hence you have no real world experience that would apply to this job. The trick was really driving home the practical nature of my research and how it could help them, as a company, be more efficient and effective. Having a portfolio of concrete examples of my work really helped breakdown those assumptions.

    What does a normal working day look like for you?

    A typical day is probably doing a design review with the development team, working on some wire-frames in Adobe Illustrator, having a team-meeting to coordinate work across our team, and then prepping for the latest eye-tracking study I am hoping to start soon.

    What are the best things about working in your role?

    I love that my job is always different. Some days I’m doing creative work, like creating a new in-dash music player, and other days I’m running detailed and highly controlled experiments.

    And what are the worst bits?

    I would say the biggest challenge is the juggling of multiple things. As I am usually doing several different projects in tandem I rarely get the time to sit down and work on things that require more focus like writing up research for white papers or submission to journals.

    Is a PhD essential for your role?

    Strictly speaking no, as many UX researcher positions only require an MSc, but I have found that having a PhD makes it easier to jump into senior roles in bigger companies.

    What skills do you use from your PhD in your current role?

    The most important skills I use from my PhD are critical thinking, experimental design, and effective communication techniques. Doing a PhD forces you to learn how to break down a big problem in to smaller manageable chunks to tackle, run studies to better understand each of those sub-problems, and then communicate complex ideas to people who may not be as familiar with the nuances of your area as you are. Being systematic in how I understand complex problems, running replicable studies to understand the problem space, and effectively communicating those findings to stakeholders are key to what I do everyday.

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

    For academics looking to move into the field of UX I would say make sure you know the fundamentals of design that you are not likely to learn in academia (so know how to use the adobe suite of products, and at least one prototyping package like Axure) and work on selling yourself, with an emphasis on how your work and skills are applicable to the work being done in industry. It may be helpful to prep a portfolio of your work showing what you did and the direct results of your work. Also, look for your closest UXPA (User Experience Professionals Association) chapter and start attending their monthly events. These are great places to network and learn about job opportunities.

     

    What’s working in a think tank actually like?

    By S Donaldson, on 21 April 2017

    ParakilasJacobCrop_0Dr Jacob Parakilas has a PhD in International Relations, and is now Assistant Head of the US and Americas Programme at Chatham House, an international affairs think tank. Jacob contributed to our Careers in Government and Policy forum for researchers in February. For those who couldn’t make it in February, Jacob also kindly agreed to give us an insight into his career path, below.
     

    How did you move from academia to your current role?

    I moved straight from my PhD programme into policy work, first at an NGO and then to Chatham House. It was always basically my intention to go back into the policy world; academia wasn’t really the goal for me. I’d previously worked in think tanks and government in Washington, DC, so I had some lower-level experience in the field and good sense that it was where I wanted to be.

    When I started applying for jobs in think tanks towards the end of my PhD programme, I heavily emphasised my research background, since it was what I was currently working on (and excited about). After a string of rejections, I re-focused my applications and balanced out my research background with my professional skills, which made all the difference in terms of being taken seriously.

    What does a normal working day look like for you?

    It depends enormously on the time of year, what’s happening in the world, and a variety of other factors. As a whole, my job involves roughly equal measures of fundraising, administration, management, research and public-facing work, but the balance isn’t consistent year-round. During the US elections, I spent a lot of time on public-facing work (TV and radio appearances, giving lectures, being on panels, etc.); at the end of financial years I tend to spend more time on management and fundraising activities. It’s almost never the case that my day involves just one category, so I’m rarely if ever bored.

    What are the best things about working in your role?

    We have a pretty direct line to policymakers – when we put out a piece of research, we can generally get it in front of relevant policymakers relatively easily. We also tend to be the first point of call for media when they need analysis on political developments, which means we have opportunities to speak to a much wider audience on a regular basis. Finally, my subject area means that I get to work on an amazingly broad range of topics – everything from US defence strategy to trade agreements to the potential role of artificial intelligence in geopolitics.

     
    What are the biggest challenges?

    We face a fairly constant pressure to fundraise to support our work. My institution is funded from a broad range of sources, which is the right approach for all sorts of reasons. But it also means that we have to develop and maintain relationships with corporations, governments, foundations and individuals – all of which require slightly different approaches, and which requires significant time commitments.

    It can also be difficult to balance long-term, strategic goals against the need to respond to daily events. That’s been especially true in my role over the last few months, since things have been moving so quickly and unpredictably in US politics & foreign policy.

    Is a PhD essential in your work?

    Not absolutely essential but very useful. Many junior think tank researchers don’t have doctorates, and in mid-career research posts/middle management it’s a mixture of people with and without them. At the highest levels – research directors, directors of studies, institute directors – it’s much closer to universal.

    The research skills are largely transferrable, though the style of writing is more different than you might think (I wrote a very policy-oriented PhD and it still took more than a year before people stopped telling me my writing was ‘too academic’). The biggest transferrable skills are fundraising, time management and project management, which all look a bit different inside and outside academia but rely on the same fundamentals. Finally, it’s not the biggest consideration, but having a PhD is also a helpful mark of credibility when you’re dealing with senior figures.

    What’s the progression like?

    Think tanks tend to be pretty flat hierarchies, which is good in terms of getting opportunities to do a range of different types of work, but less good in terms of offering a clear, predictable path upwards. On the plus side, they tend to be extremely well-connected, so from a think tank it’s pretty easy to make the jump to government, the private sector, self-employment as an independent consultant/researcher, or to NGOs. There are some examples of people who start out at the first rung of the think tank ladder and climb straight up to heading a programme or institute, but most people move up through the various sectors adjacent to think tanks. In other words, it gives you a lot of options.

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

    Talk to people! On the whole people, in this sector are friendly and open to polite requests for informational interviews. It also gets you on their radar, which helps when it comes to applying for jobs or finding consulting opportunities.

    I can’t stress the importance of administrative skills enough. A large portion of my average day isn’t directly research-related (despite the fact that I’m a researcher). That’s true throughout the think tank world: almost no one has a pure research job, so you have to be able to capable of doing a whole range of work – and to show that in your applications.

    A PhD’s experience in Healthcare Data Science

    By S Donaldson, on 10 April 2017

    MaheenAs part of her PhD, Maheen Faisal undertook a three month placement at uMotif, a digital healthcare company. This type of hands-on work experience is great for career exploration, and Maheen learned lots about herself and the industry. She’s kindly agreed to share her experience, below, so you can learn from it too!

    My background is in Mathematics – I have a BSc Mathematics degree and an MSc Applied Mathematics degree. Data Science was a field that I was always interested in exploring but the context never seemed very interesting to me. When I came across a Data Science role in a healthcare company, it was almost like a fusion of two things I was quite interested in and decided to go with the placement.

    My placement was at uMotif which is a digital healthcare company that provides a patient data capture platform in the form of a mobile phone app. In 2016, uMotif launched a global study “100 For Parkinson’s” where people with Parkinson’s disease and without tracked their health on their smartphone for 100 days. This resulted in the generation of a large complex dataset consisting of over 2.2 million data points and 4218 participants.

    My role at uMotif was that of a Data Scientist and it involved using advanced statistical analysis techniques and machine learning to analyse the 100 For Parkinson’s dataset and to explore hidden patterns in the data. Various questions were posed by uMotif to use the dataset to a) understand the Parkinson’s population better and to discover potential digital biomarkers of Parkinson’s and b) to utilize the dataset to understand how uMotif as a company could improve participant/patient retention in future studies.

    Towards the end of my placement, I had the chance to convert a complex network graph into a powerful and engaging info graphic for the 100 For Parkinson’s end of study press release: http://umotif.com/news/the-dataset-from-100-for-parkinson-s-exceeds-2-2-million-data-points. This was quite fun and rewarding, to have a physical outcome of my work that was shared with the participants of the study.

    I gained a lot of experience working with “Big Data”. The first thing I learned was MySQL which is a database management system, in order to be able to query the data that I needed to work with. I completed a Machine Learning course to grasp the basics of Machine Learning. I then learned how to use the Machine Learning and Statistics toolbox in Matlab, R and the Amazon Web Services Machine Learning console. I also learned how to use Tableau – a brilliant data visualization software program, which helps visualize complex data.

    Honestly, at times the work placement felt extremely challenging and I felt as though I would not be able to accomplish much or meet the expectations of my placement supervisors. Persevering through it however, I learned that I sometimes underestimate myself and can actually pick up difficult concepts quickly and meet expectations.

    When thinking about whether the placement influenced my career decision I would say yes and no. Previously, I was pretty sure that I would stay in academia as I quite enjoy research. I also wasn’t sure whether there was anything out there for me that I would actually enjoy. At the moment I’m still not sure whether I would like to stay in academia or not, but I do know that if I ventured out, that Data Science is a field that I would enjoy working in.

    Top Tips for other researchers?

    1. Make sure you sit down and think about where exactly you would like to work or what you would like to do. It may not be immediately clear so start with something really basic and build from that. For example, if I had not gone down my current career path, I would probably be a doctor or be working in healthcare in some capacity. With that in mind, when I was brainstorming for my PIPS, I tried to look for healthcare related roles until I found something that interested me.
    2. Don’t be shy when contacting companies, the worst that can happen is that they won’t reply. I got my work placement by sending a message through a generic “Contact Us” form on the company website!

    Leaving academia but not Higher Education

    By S Donaldson, on 22 February 2017

    Dr Eliza Burton studied for her PhD at UCL’s Institute for Ophthalmology and now works with us at UCL Careers as a Placements, Internships and Vacancies Administrator…which made it nice and easy for us to share her PhD careers case study with you all.

    eliza_picHow did you get into your current role?

    Towards the end of my PhD I began looking for roles within higher education but outside of academia. Although I always enjoyed carrying out research, I had moved on a lot since the start of my PhD, having a baby and acquiring a mortgage along the way and was keen to pursue stable, permanent roles. I had always enjoyed the University environment and working with students, so pursuing a career in this sector seemed like a great choice.

    I had taken on a variety of responsibilities during my PhD, aside from straight research and this had allowed me to gain experience in university administration and student facing roles. When it came to applying for jobs I looked for opportunities which matched these skills.

    What does your normal working day look like?

    I am currently in a part-time position working 3 days a week. My role varies from week to week and has evolved over the course of my time here as I have taken on new responsibilities. A typical day might see me liaising with external employers, over phone, email or in person; preparing student careers newsletters; planning and hosting careers events and promoting job opportunities to our students. No two days are the same and the varied academic calendar means that the role changes throughout the year.

    What are the best bits?

    The role has allowed me to develop and take on new responsibilities since I started, setting me up well for future job opportunities. UCL has a great training and development scheme and although I am in the office less regularly than full-timers, I do not feel overlooked for openings. The team atmosphere has been a real change from doing a PhD which is often quite a solitary pursuit. This means the work is less high pressured than research, with a more collaborative focus.

    And the biggest challenges?

    Compared to a PhD the hours are much more structured. I was always fairly regular with my working hours whilst studying but if you are the type to prefer more autonomous working arrangements the shift to a 9-5 role could be challenging.

    Did you need your PhD?

    A PhD is not essential for the role but equally it is not uncommon, and you’re unlikely to be the only Dr. There are many transferable skills you can develop across the course of a PhD as well as commercial awareness of the higher education sector. The key is learning to identify these skills and applying them to non-research roles. For example, my PhD involved clinical research and many of the people skills developed during this have now been applied to dealing with external clients who approach the Careers Department wanting to engage with UCL students.

    Where do people go from here?

    The progression opportunities in higher education in general are good. There is a structure for career progression and it is common for people to move across departments with transferable skills. There is a lot of support and working within a large University means that there are constantly new opportunities arising.

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

    I would recommend taking on additional responsibilities during your PhD/ post-doc aside from pure research. By taking on opportunities such as supervising students, assisting in events and aiding in departmental administration you can come out of PhD with a broad range of skills on top of valuable research and analytical knowledge. Make use of the contacts you have within your department whilst still a student to find out as much as possible about the type of roles available.

    A UCL PhD grad talks being an IBM data scientist

    By S Donaldson, on 7 February 2017

    Rebecca PopeDr Rebecca Pope has a PhD in Clinical Neuroscience from our very own UCL and now works as a Data Scientist at IBM. Rebecca sat on one of our Researcher Careers in Technology panel events and kindly agreed to give us even more of her time by answering a few questions for our blog.

    How did you move from academia to your current role?

    As a data scientist at IBM, I do not feel that I have fully ‘left’ academia strangely. I still publish in academic and non-academic settings; use my doctoral skills (clinical neuroscience) in Watson Health; and a must of this job is knowing that the more you read the less you know! So very similar to an academic post. However, there is a divergence in my responsibilities compared to my doctoral and post-doctoral experience, in that I am regularly meeting with clients and developing business opportunities. Thus, I have needed to develop and enhance my soft skills. My audience are usually non-technical and it is my job to relay the complex in an ‘actionable’ way for my client, which mean they need to fully understand IBM’s findings – that is the ‘art’ within data science.

    I found out about the sector due to my neuroimaging experience, which is really a big data time-series problem. This led to investigating ‘big data’ and reading popular science books on the topic. I then upskilled myself by doing a number of online free courses and decided that this was a space I wanted to apply to, and just did.

    What does a normal working day look like for you?

    My days are quite similar. In the morning, I will work through early morning emails, as IBM’s clients are worldwide. Then have a daily sprint with the team, discussing project statuses and any immediate blockers to a project’s success. However, the majority of my day, involves diving into some data (exploratory data analysis and applying machine learning algorithms, whilst keeping in mind the client’s business problem(s)). I may also have a number of client-facing meetings in driving healthcare, life sciences and pharmaceutical opportunities into IBM.

    What are the best things about working in your role?

    The team I work in has a great ‘work and play’ ethos; tackling real-world problems across different industries, although my passion is within health and life-sciences, and the endless pursuit of innovating and developing myself.

    What are the biggest challenges you face in your work/what are the worst bits? (Please think about elements that might put others off, even if you don’t mind them.)

    It can be challenging ensuring that all stakeholders within a project are 100% fulfilled by my work, as often a CEO has a different agenda to a CFO, for example. However, this is a talent and skillset that I need to keep developing and have the space and mentorship to do so at IBM.

    Is a PhD essential for your role?

    I don’t think so. In fact, the variety in our team of educational backgrounds is one reason I feel we are successful. This gives the team different lenses to view the same problem.

    But the PhD skills I use on an everyday basis include: being comfortable with not understanding things, quantitative numeracy, and domain expertise for Watson Health engagements.

    Where would someone go in their career from here?

    I think this is entirely up to you, I am a firm believer that you make your own doors in life to walk through.

    The great thing about being at a company like IBM is the breadth of opportunities and business units. This means that as your personal/professional interests change, you are likely to find an aligned role within the business.

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

    My top tips would be to invest heavily in your communication and team work skills.

    Most people with quantitative PhDs can crunch numbers, program etc., these are skills that do not set you apart, in my opinion, from other candidates. More important is how you come across and your manner. You spend most of your life with your colleagues and so you want to like the people you work with. Developing yourself in this way, and knowing this is half the journey; the rest I leave to you. Best of luck.

    Read all about it: life as a magazine features editor

    By S Donaldson, on 1 February 2017

    Will has a Philosophy BA, a Philosophy MA (from UCL – whoop whoop!), and a PhD in Computer Science. Will is now a Features Editor at New Scientist Magazine, and he kindly chatted to us about his job and career path.

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

    After my PhD I worked as a post-doc for 3 years. I enjoyed research, but it became increasingly clear that I was less drawn to the things that I would need to do to progress – i.e. find my own niche area of research and be able to ‘sell’ it.

    In the back of my mind I also always thought I wanted to be a writer or a journalist rather than a computing researcher, so I started freelancing with games and technology writing, and while I was post-docing I went to an event about science communication. I had fun, and I learned about the university’s Science Communication Masters program. I applied to the course partly because it looked great, but also partly to bide time while I continued to get more freelancing experience. It worked out well; the course was fantastic, and at the end of it I got a 6-month traineeship at New Scientist in the news section. After that I worked there on a rolling contract as a news reporter for a year, and then applied for the features editor job, which I’ve had for two years.

    What does your job involve?

    A huge part of the job is generating ideas that might make a cool feature for the magazine. Coming from a research background, it can take time to get your head around what makes a good story. We’re trying to sell this magazine, so a good feature has to not only be informative, but entertaining enough to compete with other magazines, and also anything else that might take your attention, boxsets and games etc.

    I specifically work on technology features, so I’m always keeping up to date with that field, to see which new developments and ideas might fit together to make a great story. When I think I’ve got something, I’ll put together an outline of the narrative of the feature, along with key people it would be worth speaking to, and that will be the basis of a commission. I’ll then find a writer for the story – editors usually have connections with regular writers – and there will probably be several rounds of edits back and forth once they’ve written it. We’ll also work with picture editors to choose the artwork that accompanies the story in the magazine, and increasingly we’ll work with people on putting together a package to accompany the story online, which might be videos or even an animation or interactive app for the reader. I sometimes do some writing myself, but that’s a small part of my role.

    The role is different to the one I had in the news team. I was writing a lot more in news, and my features role is more similar to doing a PhD in a way; You get to interact with lots of different people, but ultimately you’re working on your own project and you’re left to get on with it until it’s due. The news desk is faster paced, as you’re part of a team contributing each week to the news section.

    Is a PhD essential for your current role and what are the skills gained from your PhD that you use now?

    A PhD isn’t essential but it’s useful. It probably gave me an edge when applying for the traineeship at New Scientist. Having a PhD in tech stuff is extra helpful because finding people who are techy and are not just good writers, but are able to write well about technology in its broader social context, i.e. technology’s relationship with us, how it changes us (which is what makes technology interesting to most readers), can be especially difficult.

    The PhD can help in other ways too. The experience of doing independent research and of being confident enough to pursue an idea on your own is great for work as a features editor. And having an insight into what research actually is helps in science journalism.

    What are the best things about your role?

    The ability to have an idea pop into your head and then be paid to spend time pursuing it is brilliant. Then there’s the satisfaction of seeing your initial idea grow to something that can finally come together on the printed page. And there’s a nerdy satisfaction in the final tweaks that need to be made to make the feature work, making the language as punchy as possible and playing with the article layout, which I personally really like.

    What are the worst parts?

    There’s a lot of pressure. As a writer on the news desk there was an intense pressure day-to-day to get your story done. But as a features editor there’s a different kind of pressure. There isn’t such an immediate deadline, so you have to be a bit more organised with your time to make sure everything gets done, which might not suit everyone. And the features are the powerhouse of the magazine, they’re what make most people subscribe to New Scientist or pick up the magazine and buy it in a shop. So there’s a pressure to come up with something that will be good enough to really grab people. And there can be a lot of dead ends when you’re coming up with ideas – you always want your ideas to work out, but a lot of times they don’t. You also don’t really do much writing as an editor, which may be disappointing for some people.

    What’s the progression like from here?

    New Scientist is relatively small and people love their jobs so may stay for a long time, so there isn’t a huge amount of movement in the staff. There are places to move up from here, one could move to being a section head, managing a whole section like features or news or digital content, but of course that’s dependent on people leaving. Some people move on to being freelance, like many of the writers I’ll commission for features.

    What are your top tips for researchers wanting to move into your field?

    Try it. Write. I wish I’d done more of this when I was a researcher – just get writing, for a blog or for your university magazine, and pitch some ideas to editors to see if you can get something commissioned. To get writing jobs you’ll need a portfolio of writing to show people. Plus it’ll tell you whether you like it. And I’d advise you to keep doing it, because you might like writing the odd thing, but if you end up as a journalist you’ll have to write and write and write, so it’s worth seeing whether you’d like that. It’ll also get you used to having your pitches rejected. As a journalist you’ll get lots of rejections, and in time you get better at picking and pitching ideas so that they’re less likely to (but of course still sometimes do) get rejected.

    Doing a science communication or journalism course isn’t essential, but it can help. The courses have a good reputation in the field. They can help you hone your craft, but also open your eyes to other types of communication/journalism that you may not have thought about.