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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    From academic research to translating in the arts

    By S Donaldson, on 2 August 2018

    Ingrid Chen has an MA in Comparative Literature from UCL, and she studied for a PhD in Humanities and Cultural Studies at the University of London. She left the PhD behind for a role in Sotheby’s, and is now Deputy Director, Head of Translation Department at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong. We managed to coordinate ourselves across time zones and have a chat bout Ingrid’s career journey. Here is what she told us:

    What are you up to now?

    I’m currently Head of the Translation Department at Sotheby’s. When Sotheby’s wants to promote Western art to a Chinese audience, the catalogue, the essays, and the condition report need to be translated into Chinese, and that’s what my team deals with.

    I joined Sotheby’s in 2010, starting in London with customer service, because there was a lot of interest from Chinese collectors wanting to buy non-Chinese art. Then an opportunity arose to join the Hong Kong marketing department, working on copywriting and translation. I moved to Hong Kong, and since then the job has grown into a department with a seven-person team responsible for translating over 60 catalogues per year, as well as all the corporate materials to show our Chinese clients.

    I don’t actually translate anymore in my current role. I oversee the team’s work, making sure it’s all consistent and there’s a Sotheby’s style to it.

    How did you move from academia to your current role?

    I did a Masters in comparative literature at UCL. I went on to Birkbeck’s London Consortium with the Tate Museum for a Masters of Research, and continued there with a PhD. During my early years of study I assumed I would stay in academia and become a lecturer and then eventually a professor. But in the second year of my PhD I started having doubts, wondering where else I might possibly end up. Because the London Consortium had lots of curators it sparked my interest in art, and I started attending gallery openings and auction previews. Through these events I met people in the art industry who said you don’t have to be an art historian to work in the sector. So I started to do part-time work in galleries.

    I didn’t finish my PhD in the end. I became lost in my thesis and wasn’t sure if it was something I really wanted to do. It’s like a relationship, after a while I was kind of tired of it. And then towards the end of my PhD, when I was already in two minds about finishing it, the Sotheby’s translation job came to me. I took it as a sign from God saying this is your chance to decide whether you want to stay in academia or not. And I chose to come to Hong Kong.

    What does a normal working day look like?

    My day is divided into three different time zones. I start by picking up emails from New York. Then I’ll move on to what’s happening in Hong Kong, then later in the afternoon or evening I’ll deal with what’s happening in London.

    On any given work day I might look at the seasonal auction calendar at what’s coming up and what needs to be translated. The material I receive will often be full of new terms I’ve never seen before, and that requires a lot of research, and we have an archive of technical terms involved in conservation and the painting techniques etc. which we maintain to ensure we use consistent Chinese terms.

    My work also involves people management. It’s a seven-person team and the translators are at very different phases in their career, so they may come to me for advice, either translation or career-related, and I’m a head of department who always listens, so I will try to be a good listener and help them with their problems.

    We have to follow tight deadlines and there’s a lot of communication with the Specialists, who are writing the descriptions and documents in English that we will translate into Chinese. The Specialists are experts and perfectionists, they are honing their craft, which is great, but if they’re late that will delay our schedule, so we all have to compromise in order to achieve the goal assigned to us. So there’s a lot of management, communication, and research in the role every day.

    What are the best bits?

    I have intimate access to incredible masterpieces. For example we’re selling a Modigliani in New York and it travelled to Hong Kong, so before anybody else sees it I got to examine it up close. That’s something you cannot do as a visitor in a museum. Also, when you go to a museum show you usually don’t see the back of the painting. But the back of the painting holds information; the provenance, the condition, the artist’s signature, maybe a dedication. Because we have to describe items in a condition report I get to see all of this. It’s like there’s a separate exhibition for us, we get to see other angles. So if you’re an art lover it’s a great job for you to look at a variety of different things, not just paintings: we have a very strong Chinese ceramics department here so they’re usually very kind and they’ll let us touch these amazing pieces in pristine condition. There’s a lot of hands on experience. And sometimes there are the weirdest things for sale, like dinosaur egg fossils or a skull of a mammoth.

    Anything that interests our Chinese clients we need to become sort of an expert it in, and that’s fascinating and unpredictable. So I get to be a semi-expert in many different fields, which I think is why I chose to work for Sotheby’s in the first place, because in academia you have to focus and specialise, but I almost want to be a renaissance woman rather than specialising in any one thing.

    It’s also great to be producing something tangible – I’m not just building a castle in the clouds, churning out something that doesn’t mean anything to anyone other than me, which I sometimes felt I was doing in academia. Every time I see a catalogue I feel like they are my babies, I have something to show for my work, I can say I made this.

    And what are the challenges?

    The communication. There are so many different parties involved in producing one catalogue or brochure and time difference can be a big issue. One of the disadvantages of being in Hong Kong is that if we want to communicate with our global colleagues either we have to come in really really early or stay really really late. There have been times, especially in my first year or two of working here where I was leaving the office at 1am in the morning because we were waiting for something from New York and we had to finish it before going to bed. The good thing is that these days with cloud technology you can do a lot of the work from home, but for me personally I still prefer to come to the office for my work, and I prefer to work early than stay very late.

    Has your research experience been useful?

    When I left my PhD my parents were saying that if I only did another year or two I could finish it, why was I leaving it behind? Part of the reason was at that point I feared all of the things I’d learned through the PhD would not be very useful in my future, so why had I spent so many years before that acquiring these skills?

    But funnily enough, the further I’ve got into this job, the more I’ve realised that the research skills I acquired have been really useful for my current role. A lot of the phrases and terms I’m working with have never been translated into Chinese before, so I have to do a lot of research. For example, I didn’t know anything about African art, but today I’m working on an African sculpture and I have to research what it’s about and how I can best describe it and its historic context. So research skills can be transferred into many different jobs, and they’re invaluable to me here.

    Also some of the theories I learned in my Masters are useful for understanding contemporary art. Now I’m in the workplace, theories are not just theories. When I’m reading something from an art critic or an art historian, it all comes together and makes sense. I’ve received compliments from my supervisors who’ve felt that my translation brings more depth than outsourcing to an experienced translator because I understand the style required – so it becomes more persuasive, it becomes more intellectual in a way, and I do try to make sure that everything that we translate into Chinese reads as elegantly and as knowledgably as possible. So I think having my PhD degree experience, though I didn’t finish it, in the end was very helpful to me.

    What does the future hold?

    That’s a question I’m asking myself at the moment. Sotheby’s have never had a translation department before, so I don’t have a mentor to tell me where this type of role could lead me. And there are not many similar roles in the art world or auction industry, so in a way I’m in a unique position, but I don’t know whether that uniqueness is a good thing or not! I’m hoping I’ll progress to more of a creative role because we do publish some magazines at Sotheby’s, so there may be opportunities to write things or become an editor, and decide the direction of the magazine for the Chinese audience. I’m also taking courses exploring digital marketing, content creation and management. So this or next year may be a turning point for me where I decide the next step.

    Would I consider going back to academia? Maybe, after all of these years and the distance they’ve given me, maybe I can go back and finish my PhD.

    What are your top tips for getting into this industry?

    Think broadly when exploring options. Humanities grads often limit themselves to working in ‘traditional’ humanities graduate roles. But these days there are a lot more opportunities. For example content creation is a big deal right now. And people with a humanities background can often create great content.

    Something I lacked when I was studying was business acumen, which has to be acquired by getting experience outside academia. You have to know what’s going on in the marketing world or in a certain industry. Reading the Financial Times or other relevant industry publications is helpful.

    Build a portfolio of writing examples, so employers can see what kind of employee you will become. Don’t just say you will be a great translator or a great writer, provide evidence. Create a blog, show you are consistently building something that has become your personal brand.

    Networking is crucial. I approached Sotheby’s about the work I started doing for them part-time. If you just blindly contact an organisation there’s a high chance they won’t get back to you. So networking is quite important. I met some people from Sotheby’s who recommended me. Large organisations will receive many CVs and applications, so if someone from inside the organisation whom the recruiters trust recommends you, it makes a big difference.

    Moving from a PhD to Life Science Consulting

    By S Donaldson, on 19 July 2018

    Dr Roumteen Keshe has a PhD in Biochemical Engineering and Bioprocess Leadership from UCL, and is now a Consultant at Kinapse, an advisory and operational services provider to the global Life Sciences industry. Roumteen contributed to our 2018 Life and Health Science Biology and Business careers panel, and kindly agreed to help out those of you couldn’t make it to the panel by telling us about his career journey for our blog.

    Tell us about your current role and organisation.

    Kinapse is a specialist advisory and managed service provider trusted by 19 of the top 25 pharmaceutical companies in the world, as well as some of the fastest-growing contenders, to design, build and operate critical business processes. Our Advisory services team supports the design and implementation of improvements or transformational changes to operating models across multiple areas ranging from R&D operations to Market Access.

    As a consultant within Kinapse my role consists of researching and writing thought capital around the pharmaceutical industry, scoping out potential work with existing and new clients, writing project proposals, and planning, managing and contributing to small and large projects. I have worked on a number of strategic and change management projects across Medical Affairs, R&D, and Clinical Operations. The work involves first understanding the client’s requirements before presenting recommendations based on the collective experience of your team to collaboratively develop a vision for the future state of the business unit/process. One of the fun bits is then figuring out how to introduce these changes in large, traditional organisations before finally executing the plans you have developed.

    How did you move from academia to your current role?

    My doctorate was sponsored by MedImmune (the biotech division of AstraZeneca), so I got to spend nearly half my 4 year programme embedded within an R&D team at their site in Cambridge. Working within the team at Medi, I liked the immediate applicability of the work that was being done. What I didn’t like was the thought of being “stuck in the lab” for the next 10 years, so I set out to gain an understanding of the business around the science. This began while at UCL, taking advantage of the ties UCL Advances had to London Business School at the time, to take three electives around change management and business growth, and trying to take as many internships as possible to gain an understanding of how different areas of business worked (law, marketing, consulting, programming). This actually included an internship at Kinapse, where I work now. After university I moved into a business development position within a private equity tech company before switching to a similar position for a biotech company that was developing scale down, 3D human organ mimics with collaborators across the world (including DARPA at the US Department of Defence!). Having learnt a great deal during my time in Business Development, I reached out to Kinapse again and joined the consulting team to get to work on bigger projects with bigger teams and continue the learning journey.

    What does a normal working day look like for you?

    My day depends on the client, the project and the stage of the project… it can vary widely. It could include taking multiple calls with different project teams, for each one we need to prepare the approach, action any matters arising, and develop the outputs of the meetings (this is the part of the job where you have to really put in the time and that people don’t often acknowledge). Alternatively, you could be flying off to a client site anywhere around the world (literally), meeting new people, and running really interesting workshops or interviews trying to collect data and plant the seeds for the eventual change the organisation is implementing.

    What are the best things about working in your role?

    Firstly, every day is a learning opportunity, working with highly experienced consulting and client colleagues and using their knowledge to get a better understanding of the Pharma industry.

    Secondly, the variety is never ending. If you want to learn or do something different, you can definitely work towards it at any point. The company is very supportive and happy to give more responsibility if you show you can handle it.

    Thirdly, but probably very best of all, is the colleagues, who are all driven, motivated, highly intelligent and supportive. They are like a big extended family who are all going through the same journey, albeit at different stages.

    What are the biggest challenges?

    One of the biggest challenges is time pressure; there can be a lot of work at times, and you need to really be able to prioritise your tasks for different stakeholders. Although I enjoy the aspect of constant learning, some might find the constant self-improvement and openness to learning a challenge. Another challenge is that most projects involve a new team. This always presents the usual challenges associated with team formation before you get to optimum working dynamics.

    Is a PhD essential for your role?

    No, but it helps. It adds a level of credibility to you as you go into big companies and begin offering advice to senior managers who have been in their jobs for 20+ years. I also use the core skills I developed during my PhD on a near daily basis, such as the ability to determine what information I need, plan how to find and collate it, and use that to synthesize findings. I was lucky in that the Biochemical Engineering department at UCL had such a big focus on presenting your findings to big groups of people, because that is also a big part of the job.

    What’s the progression like?

    The progression is what you make of it. If you are focused and know how you want to develop, you can quickly climb the ranks. It is a very flat meritocracy here at Kinapse, and that seems similar across the consulting industry. That is not to say there is not a huge learning curve, but that is nothing that knuckling down and putting in the hours does not fix! I am fairly open to the direction my career can take, I know I like to be challenged by my work, I know I enjoy working with multidisciplinary teams, and I know I enjoy helping to define and implement business strategy. For now I am happy where I am, but we will see what the future holds.

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

    If you want to get into consulting, find an internship and try it out! Consulting has always been viewed as a glamorous job, lots of travel, different projects, working with senior clients… and it can be, but there is a whole load of hard work, attention to detail, and late nights behind that. It is definitely not for everyone, but it is very rewarding if it is for you.

    To get that internship, first-off do your research. Find a consultancy that fits your interests and your profile, then reach out. Find a connection into the company, whether through your existing network, by attending networking/recruitment events, or just sending a message on LinkedIn. Explain who you are, what you want to do, and why you think the consultancy is a good fit for you.

    A media and tech career

    By S Donaldson, on 7 June 2018

    Alys Donnelly has an MPhil in Multidisciplinary Gender Studies and is now Head of Business Process at Xaxis, a media and technology company. Below, Alys tells us about her career journey, and offers tips for those wanting to take a similar route.

     

    Tell us about your current role and organisation

     

    I currently work for a media company called Xaxis as the Head of Business Process. I make sure that our business is running as efficiently as possible and that we’re working to improve the way we deliver results for clients. Xaxis itself is a media and technology company that runs digital ad campaigns for clients who are looking to drive a certain outcome, such as a sale or download.  

     

    How did you move from academia to your current role? 

     

    During my undergrad degree I interned at Google in the Corporate Communications team. I really enjoyed the experience and learned an awful lot, so when I finished my MPhil and decided that I didn’t want to move on to a PhD I decided to apply back to Google and managed to get a job in their Dublin office. There was quite a lot of serendipity in my getting my internship, I responded to a flyer and was in the right place at the right time, but that was how I got my foot back in the door for my first job.  

     

    What does a normal working day look like for you? 

     

    I don’t really have a normal day as such, as I’m lucky in that the projects I work on change pretty frequently. However, on the whole an average work day for me usually involves a lot of meetings and talking to people about the work they’re doing and how it affects my teams and the outputs we’re trying to drive. I work very closely with stakeholders from across multiple business units to make sure that everyone’s expectations are managed and that our projects are on track to deliver what we need them to. I also deliver certain elements or entire projects on my own depending on the size, scope, and expertise involved. 

     

    What are the best things about working in your role?   

     

    One of the best bits in my role is that I get to work with some smart people on some pretty cool products. The media/tech businesses I’ve been in have also put a lot of emphasis on work/life balance, more so than I’ve seen my friends experience in other industries, so that’s been a definite plus!

     

    What are the biggest challenges?    

     

    All the usual things I suppose! Admin things like a bit too much email sometimes, and all the usual things that go along with working in offices, but there aren’t all that many downsides to a career in media I’ve found so far. 

     

    Is a PhD essential for your role?

     

    Absolutely not! Though that being said, my degrees certainly helped me win my first role, from which the rest of my career has stemmed. So attending a very good university for my BA/MPhil really did set me up for my subsequent career. Also, I think the discipline, intellectual rigour and approach to working with data that I learned during my BA/MPhil were crucial to my being successful in my roles in each business or team I’ve worked in. 

     

    What’s the progression like?   

     

    Media/tech is a very dynamic and fast-paced environment so predicting where you’ll be in a five years time is pretty hard. But that’s also a bonus in that people do move roles, companies, and sectors of the industry quite regularly and that’s not necessarily frowned upon! If you put the work in and know where you want to go, with a bit of luck you should be able to get there or find something relatively close. I’m not sure that’s the case in all other industries. 

     

    What tips would you give researchers interested in this type of work?

     

    I know ‘networking’ can be seen as a bit of a dirty word, but it really does help. Even if it’s just to work out what you don’t want to do. Talking to people about what their job actually entails is invaluable, especially in the media and tech sector where people can use the same words but mean totally different things and the lived reality of a role/business can change very rapidly. Asking around if anyone you know also knows someone who might be open to a coffee can really be useful in giving you a steer in the right direction. 

     

     

     

    Getting paid to drink wine: from academic to wine buyer

    By S Donaldson, on 10 May 2018

     

    Dr Nicholas Jackson has a PhD in Theology and Literature from Cambridge and is now a Wine Buyer for Sotheby’s Wine in New York. Nicholas kindly took time out from wine tastings (!) to share his career journey.

    Tell us about your current role and organisation.

    I am a buyer for a retail business. Specifically, I buy all the wine for Sotheby’s Wine retail store in New York. Sotheby’s is most famous for selling high value items at auction (including wine). But we also have a wine retail store, and that’s what I focus on. I select, source and ship the world’s finest and rarest wines for sale in our shop.

    How did you move from academia to your current role?

    I enjoyed academia very much but ultimately found it frustrating. I wanted to be an intellectual but academia forced me to be an academic. That’s the difference between being a thinker and a writer of footnotes (I’m exaggerating! But I always felt there was some truth in that kind of formulation!).

    I attended the wine society at Cambridge when in the second year of my PhD and was quickly taken with the whole world of wine. I was lucky insofar as just as my commitment to academia was wavering, this new interest came along. I started gaining professional qualifications even while still a student, and during the last year of my PhD I worked at a wine shop in Cambridge (I actually asked to work for free just to get the experience, but they insisted on paying me).

    I was really committed to wine when I finished my PhD; so much so that I would have been willing to work for a tiny salary if it meant working in wine. I didn’t apply for any academic positions. That refusal to equivocate made me really focus and become committed. That was invaluable. You don’t want to have any doubts when making this kind of change otherwise you’ll never do it. And I manufactured some self-confidence: I always thought someone would give me a job because I was intelligent and hard working. I wouldn’t starve. I got my job by writing to my now boss and asking for it. It took a while to work out all the details, but I think he appreciated the initiative. My previous wine shop experience was vital, my new boss said he would not have considered me without it.

    What does a normal working day look like for you?

    A lot of my job involves working out whether wines represent good enough value to purchase. So I look at a lot of spreadsheets of wine prices! But I am also responsible for writing content about the new wines – for our retail emails, for the website or for special offers. And then the tasting: I taste wine virtually every day. Either in the office (from samples sent by suppliers/producers), in person with those same people visiting me, or I go out to large portfolio tastings, where I taste 100-200 wines at a time, all with the aim of trying to find the best to stock in the shop. Reasonably often I have evening events where I present wines at tastings or at dinners.

    I also sell wine to some of our more important clients. Working in the buying role helps me know exactly what is coming in and what I can sell to those clients.

    What are the best things about working in your role?

    Combining aesthetic appreciation with a commercial perspective. That means: tasting wines well and identifying quality, then being able to sell those wines to our clients, and then have them come back and tell you how much they love the wine. It’s very rewarding to have people appreciate your judgement in matters of taste! Otherwise: travel to wine regions; opportunity to taste the world’s greatest wines on a regular basis.

    What are the biggest challenges?

    The hardest part of coming from a PhD background is moving into a corporate environment. It can feel impersonal compared to the very individual work you can do as a PhD student (particularly in the humanities). But of course there are also many benefits to working for a large, well-financed company such as job security and benefits.

    Is a PhD essential for your role?

    It’s totally unnecessary! But I do think it has helped me. For instance, I have recently taken (and passed) the Master of Wine exams, which is the highest qualification in the wine world (there are about 380 MWs worldwide). The discipline and self-motivation required to work for two years on that definitely came in part from doing a PhD for three years, where every day could be construed as monotonous: going to the library, reading some pretty abstract stuff and writing a little bit. But it certainly gave me the discipline and study methods to succeed.

    The other aspect of it is the creative one: I write a lot for the job and after my PhD experience, it’s second nature. The ability to write well in today’s business world is increasingly rare and valued.

    Also, I think anything requiring appreciation (in my case of wine) borrows from the same skill set used in humanities PhDs – the ability to recognize the distinctiveness and worth of one specific thing within a sea of very similar items.

    Where do you see yourself going from here?

    Hopefully I will receive the Master of Wine qualification soon which (rightly or wrongly) brings with it a reputation for knowledge and expertise. So I have to remain committed to learning and gaining experience. Ultimately, the whole field is about serving the consumers who drive the whole industry. An interesting way of posing the question is: how can I best serve people? How can I add value to their (wine) experiences? And that’s where I think we can be creative: using social media, video etc. to inform and engage people. So I’d be interested in exploring those possibilities.

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

    Never apply for a job! If it’s advertised, you don’t want it and in any case, there will be too much competition. Your unique skill set should be matched to a unique job – so create it! Figure out who you want to work for and get in contact with them, explaining your particular interest and skills and how you can add value for them. Of particular interest are companies which are expanding/launching new ventures. They will need new staff.

    Be commercial. There’re very few jobs out there which don’t involve the requirement to make money for your employer in some way. PhDs generally don’t teach that. Employers think that PhDs (especially in the humanities) are ‘dons’ in ivory towers. It’s up to you to prove them wrong. Read everything in the media about the companies you’re interested in; everything about the field you’re interested in. If you do that for a month, you’ll end up learning more about the work than 90% of people who have worked at the company for ten years.

    Get work experience. It makes employers realise you are serious about their industry. Offer to work for free. If the job involves writing, write for publications for free in order to build your CV. Ask significant people in the field to meet for coffee and talk to them about their experience. Do whatever it takes!

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

    By S Donaldson, on 20 March 2018

    Dr Sayeda Abu-Amero has a PhD in fungal virology, and until recently was a Senior Teaching Fellow at UCL, as well as working part-time at a (very very tasty) local restaurant – Hiba Express. When we spoke Sayeda only had a few days left at UCL. She has now started working full-time at the restaurant, and hopes to open a coffee shop in the near future. We couldn’t resist adding such an inspirational interview to our case study collection! So if you’re interested in either Higher Education teaching roles, or in entering the restaurant game, read on…

    Describe your current role

    Currently I have two jobs. One is three and half days a week as a programme tutor for a UCL Masters course in Genetics of Human Disease. I’ve been working on the course for seven years, and as a programme tutor for the last two years. This is purely a teaching-focused academic role, looking after the organisation and timetabling of the whole course, and dealing with any student issues that may arise. What I teach on the course is something called Core Skills. I teach students how to present, write scientific essays, talk to their peers and to the public, write for blogs, and conduct themselves in interviews; life skills they will use to communicate their work, very much in the context of genetics and human disease. This sort of training is an essential part of ensuring that the work of scientists isn’t misrepresented or misunderstood outside of the scientific community, equipping future scientists to be the ones who can convey their own science confidently, clearly, and accurately.

    The first term is very busy, as that’s when I do most of my face to face teaching. I also teach on several other courses, and have a number of students as my tutees, as well as project students in the lab and literature review students from other courses.

    The other two and a half days a week I work at a Palestinian and Lebanese restaurant, Hiba Express. We have three branches and a stall. My main duties have been to look after their social media and emails, arrange bookings and catering, work on promoting the restaurant, and look after any issues that may arise. I also cover the legal aspects pertaining to running a food business, such as training staff according to food standard agency regulations. So although I have worked front of house on busy evenings, I’m usually found working behind the scenes.

    What led you to become a Senior Teaching Fellow?

    I did my first degree at UCL in Genetics then moved to Imperial for my PhD in Dutch Elm disease, using the same molecular biology techniques I’d been learning about, but applying them to plants. When I was looking for a post-doc there was very little funding in London to do plant work, so I took up a one-year research post researching children with growth restriction with Professor Gudrun Moore at Queen Charlotte and Chelsea Hospital. That was the beginning of a 22-year working relationship with her, which exposed me to some clinical work, which I’d always been quite interested in.

    I left UCL for a bit of that time, spending three years working in a hospital in Saudi Arabia on several Mendelian disorders, where I had my first taste of the business and coordination side of science, as I was involved in setting up core facilities for the whole hospital. When I returned to the UK as a single mum, I contacted Gudrun, and was able to take up a part-time role with her. In some ways being part-time was perfect at that stage as I was able to spend more time with my daughter and to slowly get back into the science I had left for three years.

    Gudrun had always wanted to set up a biobank. So in 2009, back when biobanking was still relatively new, I stepped away from lab work and moved into setting up and coordinating the ICH’s Baby Biobank (https://www.ucl.ac.uk/tapb/sample-and-data-collections-at-ucl/biobanks-ucl/baby-biobank). This was a very steep learning curve, getting to grips with clinicians and red tape and managing staff across multiple sites with many logistical challenges. Towards the end of my five to six years of working on this project the role became very much about analysing large amounts of data and computing. Wonderful in terms of the research, but there’s nothing worse than asking me to sit in front of a computer and look at numbers all day! It took about a year of feeling this way and expressing it to Gudrun before I stepped down as Manager of the Baby Biobank.

    Throughout my time at UCL I had always been teaching alongside doing research and the Biobank. The teaching opportunities started with me taking on lectures and marking that my supervisor was unable to take on, and then the opportunities grew from there. So when I wanted to move away from the Biobank, I wrote a business case for a 3.5 day/week role working on the Genetics of Human Disease Masters MSc. I’d already been contributing to the course alongside the biobank, and in many ways I was quite keen to focus on teaching, which had always been another passion. So I wrote the job description for that person. At that time it was a bit of a struggle to put a business case together for the role, to justify the number of hours that good teaching actually takes – it’s not just the face-to-face teaching time. But especially with the Teaching Excellence Framework coming in I think this sort of teaching-focused role is on the increase.

    And how did you get into the restaurant business?

    Towards the end of my time at the Biobank I started taking my daughter to improv class in Marble Arch. While she was there I would visit a restaurant I liked in Holborn to get something to eat while I caught up on marking and other work. One day I went to pay the bill and the owner asked me why I ate there so much. Although I could have taken this as a comment that I ate a lot (!), actually he was really interested in exactly why I liked the food. So I told him: I loved the food! There are many Lebanese places in London, but not of this standard. The quality is exceptional. Shortly after, I organised my birthday lunch there, which ended up being more like a full-day event! It was great. I wrote a positive online review, for which he thanked me.

    So I got to know the owner this way, and I continued to eat and drink as usual. I guess the owner would often see me on Facebook, and so one day he asked me to help him with his restaurant’s Facebook as he was too busy and not very familiar with it. So I started helping him with that, and then with a few emails. And as my daughter was in Marble Arch for three hours every Saturday morning, I suggested that rather than spending that time hanging about and shopping, I could spend it helping out at the restaurant. He said yes and that they’d pay me for those hours. When I realised I was going to be moving to the part-time teaching role, he offered me some proper days working at the restaurant because he was looking at expanding. At that time I thought this may be just what I need to start entertaining the idea of leaving academia and eventually setting up my own coffee shop, which is something I’d been considering for over a decade by then!

    What prompted your current move to focus on the restaurant full-time?

    Both of my current roles are not 9 to 5 jobs you can leave behind at the end of the working day or on the weekend. They both mean you’re constantly thinking, answering emails, on the phone etc. I don’t mind that, as I have a flexible approach to work, but to have two such jobs can only really be sustained for so long. Also, the Core Skills module took a long time to set up and get running the way I wanted it to. I think I achieved that three years ago, and since then it’s been running much the same. Obviously you can tweak and update things, but I was starting to get twitchy feet as I’m not someone who likes to do the same things again and again. So I decided I could have a mid-life crisis and just leave! I’d been murmuring about it for a while, so it didn’t come as a huge shock to people, but a lot of family and colleagues were still concerned, asking whether I was really sure I wanted to do this, moving from a well-paid academic position to something so new and potentially less stable. For me it is an adventure. My child is a little older so it’s a good time to take up this opportunity. And if it all goes pear-shaped? So what? I’ll start again. I’ve started from scratch before, I can do it again.

    And the truth is a lot of people are having to leave academia, even later in their careers. When I first started studying for my undergraduate, having a lifelong career in academic research seemed like a very realistic prospect. But things have changed. Certainly the wider environment has changed. The workload is going up, funding is being cut or stretched, there are more and more PhDs being produced, and advanced researchers are expensive. So obviously a lot of PhDs are not going to be in academic research forever. We’ve even held many farewell dinners for colleagues leaving academia at Hiba!

    What will you be doing in your new full-time role?

    My boss was originally a film-maker, and one day just decided he would run a restaurant. He knew nothing about the industry, but he learned. And he learned so well that he now has three restaurants and a market stall. We’re now looking at a concept that will be bigger. He’s Palestinian and he’s a social activist. So what he wants to do is to help people, the people who are stuck and in refugee camps. People who are capable and can create. He wants to help them do these things, help them sell their products here in the UK, which as a rule is a place that is very supportive of the Palestinian people. He also wants to connect with sustainable farms, to make sure the produce he’s using is bought from them. So I’m going to be working on making these visions a reality.

    The catering is a very lucrative part of the business, we do office catering, events, weddings – we had our first gay wedding in August! It was beautiful. So I’ll also be pushing on the catering side. And I’ll be doing two or three evenings a week front of house. Interestingly enough, my daughter has now taken over running the social media for the business for some pocket money. She’s very good with technology and it means we can have interesting discussions over dinner.

    What are the best bits about your teaching role?

    The best thing is the interactions and meeting people from so many different backgrounds and cultures. You may be the teacher, but there’s still so much you can learn from the students. Getting to know them, seeing how they are at the beginning of the course, perhaps starting off shy; and then you take them through the year and you see how they’ve progressed, confidently booming out presentations. That’s very rewarding. Getting students to work together, students who will potentially one day be scientific collaborators, is also a high point. We recently had a reunion for graduates from the course, and seeing how people had grown and progressed was something I really enjoyed. Teaching is always an exciting and rewarding activity as it means you’re having to keep up to date, and you know that someone is going to directly benefit from it.

    And the worst bits about teaching?

    The only negative point I would say is the marking. The amount of hours spent marking is never truly calculated or appreciated. It’s so hard to know how long marking will take, it really can suck up a lot of time!

    What’re the best things about working in the restaurant?

    That’s much the same as the teaching really. Meeting so many different people, and being able to help them, albeit in a different way.

    And the worst?

    It never ends. It’s 24 hours, 7 days a week. Even when the doors are shut, the restaurant is still working. It needs to be cleaned. The butcher comes in at 4am in the morning and needs to work there alone. Then everything needs to be cleaned again before the veg etc. are prepared. And we have a big menu, so that’s a lot of prep. It’s never ending!

    And on top of that there are so many challenges I would never have imagined but for me it’s all new and exciting!

    What skills developed during your PhD are useful in your current roles?

    I think the PhD can be useful in many ways, for whatever you go on to do. It gives you a specialism, an expertise. And it teaches you how to think. You’re left alone for years to get on with something, so you learn to solve problems on your own and take ownership of your work. I think people who come out after doing a PhD are changed. I’ve seen it. They’ll come in as students, behaving like students throughout their PhD. But they walk out of their viva with a new confidence. The award itself can instil a confidence that should’ve been there before but often wasn’t.

    Although I personally don’t think you need a PhD to be a good teacher (people who have been in research for many years without getting a PhD would be just as good), for most university teaching fellow roles like mine a PhD is a requirement on the job description.

    Even though you obviously don’t need a PhD to run a restaurant or a coffee shop, I certainly don’t think I’ll be the first PhD to make the move. And I’ve used lots of the things I’ve learned during my time in research, especially the organisational and time-management skills. I present what I’m doing in excel spreadsheets, PowerPoints, and graphs. I use my analytical skills to keep track of the business over years, scanning the data to analyse how the business is doing, looking at improvements year on year, and daily and seasonal variations. I use my experience of teaching to train restaurant staff, for example bringing social media and customer reviews into their awareness. And now that we’re looking at implementing a larger concept, I’ve done a lot of research for the restaurant around similar initiatives. And I use the writing skills I’ve developed in academia to put together business proposals. I also use the networking skills, resourcefulness, and proactivity I’ve needed in academia. If I want something from someone I will go and ask them. Those face-to-face communication skills that get things done are valuable in any setting.

    Where does it go from here?

    My last day at UCL is this week. Ideally I will work at the restaurant for the next two or three years. I want to see the restaurant stabilising and becoming more comfortable during that time. And I do still want that coffee shop! I’ve already seen one or two potential spaces. I like the idea. But I don’t want to abandon the restaurant I’ve grown to love. So I think perhaps the two can be married, and the coffee shop could become part of Hiba. That would also mean I can do the bit I’m interested in – running a coffee shop – without the setting-up-a-business bits I’m not so interested in.

    I’ve always wanted to live abroad. I keep trying to leave! Originally the coffee shop was meant to be abroad, in Spain. I don’t speak Spanish. But I love listening to it. So maybe that’s not the most practical move, which is why the restaurant/coffee shop dream is happening here. It’s more practical but it’s still a risk. The economy here is very unstable. Business rates are rising. I keep walking around Tottenham Court Road and the Brunswick area and passing places I thought were very good that are shutting down, so anything can happen.  That’s why I’ll wait a few years before branching out with a coffee shop.

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

    You just have to go out there and do it. Whatever ‘it’ is! I always tell my students not to wait for opportunities, you need to go and get them. Talk to people. Build relationships. My own career has revolved around networking. When I decided I wanted to do a PhD, I didn’t apply for adverts, I just emailed the people I thought were interesting, and I got a response. People are often still writing grants, so whether it’s a PhD or post-doc place, if you get in at the right time you can be a named person on their grant. And when I went to Saudi I contacted people, told them what I could do, and they created a position for me. Even with the restaurant they didn’t ask me to come and work full-time! I really liked working there, I could see there was a need for a full-time person, and I put that to the boss. Hopefully he’s ok with it!

    It may seem that in a structured environment like academia this wouldn’t be possible but you’ll be surprised how easy it is to become invaluable. If you find something you like to do, just go out there and do it. You will end up sometimes being overloaded. But that’s academia, you always end up giving more than what’s on your job description. But if what you’re doing is useful, you’ll become the best person for the job and give it an identity. It’s what happened with my teaching role. You also have to be creative, flexible, and adaptable. Especially when it’s not just you in the picture – when you have partners, kids, parents you need to care for. All of which I’ve had to juggle with work. Sometimes that’s inevitable. But when my father was ill and then eventually passed away from stomach cancer, it taught me that we never know when it will be our time to go, so there’s no point in waiting. I’d been putting off the coffee shop idea for various reasons, once my daughter’s older etc. But at that point I realised it was something I really had to start pursuing, even if only slowly at first. So find something you like and just do it!

    Careers in Government: key messages from our Beyond Academia Event

    By S Donaldson, on 19 December 2017

     

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

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

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

    Government careers can be great

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

    There are downsides too

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

    If you have a numerate background, the government wants you

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

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

    By S Donaldson, on 11 December 2017

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

    What are you up to at the moment?

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

    How did you move from academia to your current role?

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

    What does a normal working day look like for you?

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

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

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

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

    Is a PhD essential for your role?

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

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

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

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

    By S Donaldson, on 25 October 2017

    Wellcome

    Dr Dev Churamani completed his PhD in Cell Physiology at UCL (whoop whoop!) and is now a Senior Portfolio Developer at Wellcome Trust. He’s spoken at two of our careers events for researchers in the past, and now he’s kindly agreed to give us a careers case study for our blog.

    Tell us what you’re up to now

    I work as a Senior Portfolio Developer within Wellcome’s Science Integration, Structures team. We manage, oversee and co-ordinate some of our major initiatives and schemes. We also lead on cross-Science and cross-Wellcome projects, for example the Francis Crick Institute.

    How did you move from academia to your current role?

    I think I decided academia wasn’t for me during my PhD, which is a little ironic, because after my PhD I spent 6 years as a post-doc in a UCL lab! I enjoyed working at the bench, but I realised early on it wasn’t something I wanted to pursue long term. So for me it was always more about when was the right time to get out. I was enjoying the job and the lab. But after a few years it felt that if I knew academia wasn’t the career for me, that was the point I had to leave and move on to something that was. So I started looking for new challenges.

    My first non-academic job was with the Food Standards Agency. The role was part funding, part policy, but it was a fixed-term post, and a microbiology role, so didn’t fit perfectly with my background. From there I saw an advert for a role within Wellcome’s Cellular, Developmental, and Physiological Sciences team, and my skills and experience seemed to fit what they were looking for. I first joined Wellcome as a Science Portfolio Adviser, predominantly looking after the cell biology portfolio. In that role I had a science remit, looking at science grants, and doing portfolio analyses to spot gaps and trends. After three years, I moved to my current position, which is broader in remit, rather than focusing on a specific area of science.

    What does your normal working day look like?

    I’m sure most interviewees say this, but there is no normal working day. In my first role with Wellcome, a typical working day would involve answering some emails, and maybe shortlisting some grant applications, or having a discussion with an applicant – either pre-application, post-application, or post-decision. Pre-application would be offering advice. Post-application might be explaining the next steps. Post-decision would either be an easy conversation with a successful and happy applicant, or a more in-depth conversation explaining the committee’s decision-making process, and offering advice for how the committee thought the application could potentially be improved.

    In my current role a typical day involves less talking to applicants. More often I’m speaking with external stakeholders such as other funding agencies and collaborators, and I’ll be involved in writing reports.

    What are the best bits?

    The people are fantastic at Wellcome, and although I’m in a small division, it’s a very collegiate atmosphere. My current role has given me exposure to larger projects and allowed me to work in a very self-directed way – for instance I’m currently working towards a review of the Francis Crick Institute. In my original role, it was rewarding speaking to applicants. From my experience working in academia I had seen the struggles academics faced in trying to get grants, so it was nice feeling as though I could help with that process.

    And the challenges?

    One of the biggest challenges is keeping on top of a very wide range of science. To get my head around really diverse subjects that are quite removed from my background is tough. It’s helped by the fact that I have great colleagues, who can give me their perspectives from their areas of science.

    It’s also not working in the lab. So if you’re someone who really enjoys the lab, a transition to this type of role may be difficult. Also, in academia you have a lot more ownership of your work, you have first author publications you can say are yours. This role doesn’t lend itself to that; you’re part of a much bigger picture. Although you may own your work at a local level, once it goes from you it’s no longer yours. Any report submitted at higher levels may have had many eyes on it, and may not resemble what you started with. You have to be comfortable with that.

    Does having a PhD help?

    Within our division certain roles, including mine, require a PhD. I think this can vary between research charities, but that’s the case for Wellcome. In terms of day-to-day, most useful are the clear and concise communication skills I developed during my PhD. I work with several people, of varying levels of seniority, on multiple projects, and have to convey myself clearly, especially when working with external stakeholders. I also give presentations to different audiences – varying from lay to very specialist – so that’s a skill I regularly use.

    What’s the progression like?

    People move around within the organisation, or they may move into other related organisations like universities, other charities, or the civil service. It’s possible to progress within the organisation but that depends upon building a network and seeking out opportunities. Within the division, because it’s small, progression can be harder, although I have now moved up to Senior Portfolio Developer from my initial role.

    What are your top tips for researchers interested in this type of role?

    Talk to people. Seek out employees within research funders and ask them about their experiences. You’ll be surprised that many people will be happy to have a discussion. Attend careers fairs and networking opportunities – I know UCL Careers has people like me speak at events for PhDs. This will give you a really good idea of what the role is like, which will help you work out if you’ll like it, and help you show your motivation.

     

    Photograph from Matt Brown.

    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!