X Close

UCL Researchers

Home

Find Your Future

Menu

A career in researcher development

SophiaDonaldson4 December 2019

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

What are you up to now?

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

Talk us through your career journey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are the best bits?

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

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

And the worst bits?

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

Is a PhD essential?

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

What’s the progression like?

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

Top tips?

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

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

Enhancing university teaching for a living

SophiaDonaldson19 August 2019

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

Tell us about your current role and organisation.  

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

How did you move from academia to your current role?

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

What does a normal working day look like for you?

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

What are the best things about working in your role?

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

What are the biggest challenges you face in your work?

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

Is a PhD essential for your role?

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

What’s the progression like?

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

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

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

 

Facilitating research – helping bring money to a university

SophiaDonaldson1 August 2019

By Jana Dankovicova

 

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

 

 

  • Tell us about your job.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • What are the downsides/challenges?

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

  • Is a PhD essential for your role? 

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

  • Where would someone go in their career from here?

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

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

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

How can you use your research skills in Academic Publishing?

SophiaDonaldson1 February 2019

Anouska Bharath is completing a PhD in Mechanical Engineering and is now a Market Intelligence Research Analyst at Springer Nature. Here she kindly shares her career journey, and some useful tips she’s picked up along the way.

Tell us about your current role and organisation.

My role at Springer Nature is not what I assumed before joining the firm actually. Being in academia for some time, and especially in research, my view of this industry was much like that of a fan-girl! I was in awe of the glamorous and intelligent work that scientific editors and analysts do in big publishers, and my academic career fed increasingly into this vision. Having started as a research analyst, I couldn’t progress to an editor’s role until my PhD was complete (and this is still in completion stage). As my first year passed however, I realised that my analyst role in scientific research is actually exactly what I love! Dealing with data, finding trends, and ultimately discovering stories that really propel our position as a global research hub.

How did you move from academia to your current role?

I love the academic environment, and furthermore I love the journey that I had from my BSc in Statistics to my (almost) PhD in Engineering. Academia is an industry that you really cannot describe to others who haven’t themselves experienced it. It’s a rollercoaster of emotions and you constantly question how “good” you are at what you do every day. It definitely built me to withstand those emotions when they pop up outside of work. The application process wasn’t easy, nor was it straightforward. While UCL has lots of support services for career moves, as a PhD student you really don’t have any time to put toward even thinking about life after thesis submission! Well I didn’t anyway. I decided that I needed to experience something other than academia however, as it just felt healthier to branch out into one of my “passions” for a bit. My passion has always been writing, so this company seemed ideal – mixing science with writing. The problem of course was that without my PhD complete, I was disadvantaged applying to a publishing firm like Springer Nature. Many applications, LinkedIn stalks, interviews, and cries later, I secured a role as a research analyst here. The process was gruelling, but so worth it.

What does a normal working day look like for you?

I don’t get to do much scientific writing. I focus a lot more on creating analytical reports that go out to help keep our journals in universities and hospitals. I analyse scientific papers and themes, funding streams, and big institutional users, in order to create reports and critical analyses for business strategy. A typical day would be me interacting with my sales team to figure out what strategic move to make analytically in the regions I cover, catching myself up on the latest trends in science, and keeping an eye on new data streams in scientific funding, publications, journal usage, and submissions.

What are the best things about working in your role?

I have to say the best part of being at Springer Nature is the support I get every day. Academic settings truthfully aren’t as conducive to such cohesive support; just because of the nature of your goal in academia. My team here has always been so supportive and accommodating as I transition from “student” to “analyst”. Otherwise, Springer Nature is also a very diverse platform in itself – allowing me to be a part of the “larger picture” in the research industry. As a big player in scientific research, we have a scheme called Grand Challenges whereby we target research features toward tackling the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. I recently actually set up a fruitful relationship with UCL’s Grand Challenges committee as they are also doing the same. Watch this space I guess! I love how much the company invests in employee wellbeing – it’s like being on a really cool “bridge” between university campus and industry. We actually even call it the Springer Nature campus! The amount of clubs and societies is amazing, and the initiatives taken toward personal and professional development are unmatched. There’s even a wellbeing committee (of which I am a member) that ensure we maintain interactive wellbeing schemes – like sports challenges, bake sales, on-campus movie screenings, and charity events. I feel so lucky!

What are the biggest challenges you face in your work?

The biggest challenge I faced when starting, was the added element of time pressure to my work. Being a research student, the time pressure was always from my own clock (so to speak). My deadlines impacted no one else but myself. In an environment where the deadline affects the next person in the process chain, the need to be accurate yet timely became very important – but this was new. It took a while, but I think I finally started to strike the balance! Of course the need to get up at the same time every day was also new and never became easier…. J I also had a hard time communicating in way that non-academics would understand. In fact, communication in general was never a big part of my academic journey. For me specifically, the added commitment in the evenings/weekend of my thesis write-up remains. The strain here however will not be applicable to other new starters.

Is a PhD essential for your role? What skills do you use from your PhD in your current role?

For my “role-on-paper”, a Masters would suffice. But for what my role has become, my PhD has been invaluable. From increasing my speed/capability in analysing large datasets, to just knowing the science industry – it’s been really useful. Of course, the qualification itself would help more in editing arms of the company.

What’s the progression like/where do you see yourself going from here?

The progression in this role would take me into more top-level business strategy, and probably further away from the science! PhD-telling, this will be decided once I qualify 🙂

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

Hmm tough one…there are so many things! But you know what? Learning as you go has never been more accurate for skills like these. Communication, team-work, presentation, listening….they’re all the standard “application fillers” we all used! But they mean nothing until you really have to put them into practice. If you’re looking to work in an industry like this, I would apply to Springer Nature purely because I have had such a wonderful time so far (unbiased I promise). Network yourself crazy – even just online. I remember I followed lots of Springer Nature employees, and even reached out to one who helped me prepare for the interview. Building a network was invaluable when preparing. Also be prepared to get a few rejections – I even got one from this company at first! But realise that it’s all part of the process, and it WILL make the next one even better. Good luck!

 

Taking a PhD into Clinical Trials

SophiaDonaldson17 December 2018

Dr Mariam Al-Laith has a PhD in immunopharmacology from UCL, and is now a Clinical Trials Manager at King’s College London. Many PhDs speak to us about moving into clinical trials, so we asked Mariam to give us the lowdown on her role and how she got there.

Hi Mariam, what are you up to now?

I manage a large multi-site (30 hospitals in the UK, 3 in the Netherlands) CTIMP clinical trial. As part of the study we collect samples to analyse and store in a biobank, therefore the trial also involves five university labs. These labs are based in different areas of the country because the samples need to reach the lab within four hours of being taken from a patient.  Part of my role is to coordinate all of the logistics.

Walk us through your journey from PhD to your current role.

After my PhD, I was awarded a one-year Royal Society fellowship which allowed me to conduct research in France, and this was then extended by 6 months with a French fellowship.  When I came back to the UK, I was a post-doc for three years in the Department of Pharmacology at Cambridge.  After that I started a family, and at that point gave up lab research. When I returned to work less than a year after having my first child, I took up a desk job as a Research Development Officer at UCL’s Department of Oncology. The role was part-time, three days a week, which worked well for me with my new family. After another break to have my second child, I moved into a Campus Manager role at the Whittington Hospital for UCL’s Medical School. I was in this post for seven years and then I worked for a year as an Executive Researcher for UCL’s Department of Speech and Language Therapy, all part time.

When I decided to start working full time again, I decided I also wanted to move into clinical trials. It was quite tough to get into because everyone was asking for experience. I had a lot of work experience of course, of management and research, as well as finance management, but none in clinical trials directly. It might have been easier to get in as a Trial Administrator or an Assistant Clinical Trial Manager, but because I had so much experience I wanted to go in at a more senior level.  So, to upskill, I attended courses that were offered to staff at UCL about clinical trials and Good Clinical Practice (GCP). I made a lot of applications and eventually, helped by the extra courses as well as my experience in management, research, universities, and the hospital environment, I was luckily able to secure my current role. I have been in post for five years now. I joined the team from the start of the project, so I had to amend the protocol, submit the ethics and MHRA approval documents, and prepare all of the associated paperwork for running a multi-centre clinical trial.

What does an average day look like?

It’s very busy and varied, as I’m entirely responsible for all aspects of the trial management, including the finances. At the beginning of a trial there is a lot of documentation to prepare. Now as the trial is underway, I’m monitoring progress, making sure the data is clean, organising training sessions for sites to help them follow the protocol, liaising with people working on the trial, arranging for samples to be stored at the biobank, managing the trial medication and the randomisation system, documenting what is happening on the trial, writing reports for the Trial Steering Committee meetings, and managing the trial assistant and trial monitor. It’s never boring!

What are the best bits?

I like that the work is very varied. And the most rewarding part is when people come back to me and comment that the trial documents have been well written, that everything has been well run and explained, and that the sites have been well supported. People are appreciative of what I do, which feels very nice.

What are the downsides?

At times it can be overwhelming, so a good trial manager must keep calm. Sometimes people do the wrong thing over and over again, or College Finance Departments are under pressure and so they don’t process invoices for payment on time, making hospitals and other stakeholders complain because they haven’t been paid. All of that can be very frustrating, but you must keep a cool head.

Is a PhD required for this role?

It’s preferable for you to have a science background so you understand some of the terminology. A PhD is not required, but it does help you develop a range of skills, such as analytical and writing skills, writing documents, manuals, SOPs etc. – as well as a good understanding of how research works, which you need for this role. For these reasons, a PhD graduate can likely enter clinical trials work at a higher level, maybe an Assistant Trial Manager, than someone without a PhD, who may have to begin by processing samples for clinical trials in the lab.

Whether you have a PhD or not, you must be dedicated in this role, and you must have a good eye for detail. You have to be a careful reader, and be able to write very clear, logical, precise, accurate documents that people can follow. You have to submit a lot of documentation to various bodies, and the information you submit has to be accurate. A single small mistake, even just a typo, can lead to you having to revise and submit again.

Where do people tend to go if they move on from a Clinical Trials Manager role?

There are a lot of opportunities in the pharmaceutical industry, contract research organizations (CROs), university clinical departments, Clinical Trials Units, hospital Research and Development Departments etc. You could move on to a senior role, manage several trials, or manage a clinical trial unit.

What tips do you have for researchers wanting to move into Clinical Trials Management?

It’s a really good idea to learn more about clinical trials. There are loads of courses, and especially if you’re already in the university sector they should be easy to access. The first thing you should seek out is a Good Clinical Practice (GCP) session, for which you get a certificate. And ask to follow/shadow someone who is running a clinical trial. There are many people out there who are quite willing to mentor or at least have a one-off conversation to offer advice. And if you don’t feel you have enough experience yet to get in at the manager level, then try for an assistant level, or a sample processing or administrative role, and work your way up from there. You should also try to gain relevant experience while in your current role, such as project management, management of people, and finance management experience.

What’s a Medical Science Liaison and how do I become one?

SophiaDonaldson12 November 2018

Dr Rachel Greig has a PhD in Immunology and is now a Medical Science Liaison (MSL) at Incyte, a pharmaceutical company. We know a lot of you are interested in MSL roles, so we asked Rachel to tell us all about her job and how she got there.

What are you up to now?

I’m a Medical Science Liaison at Incyte, so I build and maintain relationships with key healthcare professionals in my therapy area, which is oncology.

Walk us through your journey from PhD to your current role.

At first I loved my PhD. But after 18 months, I became disillusioned with the fact that you can be plugging away at things for a really long time and they can still not work. I also saw colleagues who were really good scientists getting knocked back for grants, and that seemed an incredibly hard path to follow without much gain. So I started to think academia wasn’t for me, but I had no idea what else was out there. I finished my PhD without a plan, and it was 2008 so the recession had hit. I decided to just try to get any job in any office, but I couldn’t get anything because there were no jobs going. It was quite a weird time for me.

I ended up getting a job temping in an office for an organisation called the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC), who regulates certain healthcare professionals such as paramedics and physiotherapists. I started off answering phones, but because I got on well with them and they could see that I was ready for more, I secured a higher level permanent role in the Education team. I was visiting universities that offered relevant healthcare courses and ensuring they were good enough to produce a professional in that field.

After a year I wanted a new challenge, so I took a job at the charity Breast Cancer Now. The job required a PhD, as I was evaluating science to help inform everything the charity said and did, including commenting to the media, giving health information to the public, or putting together political campaigns. It was very varied, I did a lot of work with the media, I met patients, and I went to events at the House of Commons for policy work. But after a few years there I wanted to try a new environment, and I focused on pharma. I’d been working alongside the pharmaceutical industry for a while, and I’d always been interested in drug access. Plus, to be frank, I was at a stage where I was interested in earning a higher salary than charities can pay, so that was factor.

I was drawn to MSL roles as they would use my PhD, are very science-focused, and need someone personable who likes being out and about talking to doctors. So I applied for lots of MSL roles within Contract Research Organisations and Pharmaceutical companies, but I kept getting turned down because I didn’t have experience as an MSL or within pharma. In the meantime I went to a meeting with the ABPI, the body that represents the UK pharma industry. There I met a woman who worked at Lilly who was running a corporate affairs project in the cancer team, which seemed like much the kind of work I had been involved with at the charity – working with different groups involved in cancer-related policy. She mentioned there would be roles coming up in her team soon and asked for my CV, and they took me on as an Oncology Public Affairs Manager. I loved that job, I worked with different charities and the ABPI, with NHS England and the Department of Health, trying to find sustainable ways to fund cancer services and medicines. I’m pretty political anyway, so I really enjoyed the role, however, policy work can be frustrating, as ultimately the government doesn’t have to listen to the campaigning of charities and companies, and can make decisions based on other political factors.

After three years I felt it was time to have a different kind of conversation, so when my Medical Director offered me the opportunity to move into the MSL role at Lilly, I took it. The MSL role is far more about scientific conversations; talking about the data behind drugs, the benefit drugs provide versus the risks; talking about research that’s needed and how doctors and researchers can help with that, and how you can offer your drugs to fund their research projects. I did that role for about a year, at which point some restructuring changes at Lilly prompted me to find a new opportunity, and led me to my current MSL role at Incyte.

What does a normal working day look like for you?

One of the good things about the MSL role is there is no normal day. Today I’m in the office organising an Investigator Meeting for a clinical study Incyte are sponsoring.  We’re hoping to have 50 or 60 investigators there so together we can share and discuss data from our study so far. Yesterday I went to a one-day conference in central London about graft-versus-host disease. Last Wednesday I was visiting a hospital in Cardiff, talking to a team working on one of our clinical studies. Last Thursday I was at another study site in Cambridge. Next week I’m going to a large cancer conference in Munich, and in preparation I’m reaching out to investigators on our clinical studies to see if they’ll be there so we can catch up. Last week I organised for one of the doctors we work with to speak at a range of hospitals in Dublin, which benefits the hospitals to hear from an expert speaker, and benefits him and us in sourcing potential collaborators for his research. Tomorrow I have a meeting at another hospital to propose an add-on to a study an investigator is already doing. So there’s always different conversations you’re having. I also need to keep on top of the literature, and there is support for that internally.

What are the best bits?

For me it’s that I’m always on the go, often out and about chatting to people. And because Incyte is a small company I get lots of opportunities to travel, so I’m abroad at least once a month. That wouldn’t necessarily happen in a large company as they have more employees doing similar jobs. I’m also constantly learning, and I’m doing a job that helps cancer patients get access to medicines.

What are the downsides?

The amount of travel would put some people off, although I personally enjoy it. Another difficult aspect is doctors are very busy people, and sometimes we need data and updates but we can’t get in touch with them. It’s not nice to feel you’re bothering people who are doing such an important job, and sometimes no matter how much you chase you just can’t get what you need, and that’s tough. There is also a lot of compliance in pharmaceutical companies, as we’re a heavily regulated industry. That’s obviously for a good reason, but it can take a while to get used to, especially if someone comes in straight from academia.

Is a PhD Essential for your role?

It depends on the company, but you usually either need a PhD or to be a doctor or nurse, because you’re talking about science at a high level with key consultants, often leaders in their fields. In terms of skills, the PhD teaches you how to manage projects, understand data, and critique studies, which are all skills I use as an MSL.

What’s the progression like?

I’m not a very good person to ask, because I’ve never planned far ahead, but rather taken opportunities as they come! But in general, some people love the role of MSL and will stay with it. Or, depending on how the particular company is structured, someone could become a Senior Medical Science Liaison, and even a Medical Director. Or people might choose to move around. One of the good things about the pharmaceutical industry is once you’re in, they provide opportunities for trying different roles, and my movement from corporate affairs to the medical team is an example of that. For me, long-term I think I’d like to try something a little more strategic, something where I may be on the road a little less eventually.

What tips would you give to researchers who want to become MSLs?

If you’re sure an MSL role is for you, then probably relax out of that! The way I got into this, along with every other MSL I’ve met (bearing in mind they’re all in the oncology therapy area), is by transitioning from a different role within pharma. Most companies want to know their MSLs understand their company and the pharma industry. Now I’m an MSL with experience, I get emails about new MSL roles almost every day – so there are a lot out there, but you just need your break to get in. If you’re sure you’d like to be an MSL, obviously still try for the MSL role, but you might want to widen the net a bit too, and focus on getting into pharma first.

In terms of getting into pharma, I had a bit of luck, but I also put myself in positions where I could capitalise on that luck. For example, I went to a pharma networking event, and within my charity I was pushing for more pharma-related work. So I’d advise doing the same. There’s an MSL conference that a lot of aspiring MSLs attend, as getting to know current MSLs can be very helpful, so you might like to attend that. You should also recognise how important relationship-building qualities are to the role. If you can work in roles within academia, the NHS, or charities where you are building relationships with doctors, you can use that evidence to sell yourself for MSL roles.

Finally, if you’re a PhD or post-doc and you’re reading this because you’re considering MSL roles and your wider options, then rest assured you’re going to be ok! I left academia not knowing what I wanted to do, and without even knowing what an MSL was, so you’re doing the right things – well done!

A PhD’s experience in Life Science Consulting

SophiaDonaldson18 October 2018

Dr Xun Yu Choong has a PhD in Neuroscience from UCL’s Institute of Neurology and is now a Life Sciences Strategy Consultant at IQVIA. Xun had some great insights to share when we sat down and chatted about his career.

What are you up to now?

I’m an Associate Consultant working for IQVIA, which was formerly known as IMS and Quintiles before these companies merged. IQVIA as a company offers a whole range of services for the healthcare industry from R&D to commercialisation, and as part of Consulting Services we do a broad range of strategy consulting work relating to Life Sciences and Healthcare. This could relate to anything from early stage product development all the way to understanding the best way to commercialise and launch a product around the world.

How did you get here?

I realised at the end of the second year of my PhD that I didn’t want to continue in academia, for a bunch of reasons, but mainly because I wanted to try something outside basic research that may translate more immediately to impacts in the shorter term. As one of the preparations  I started going to UCL’s grad school courses, and my first role I took was actually a direct result of UCL Careers’ Focus on Management which had brought in four major employers, one of which was GSK. During the course I found out about GSK’s Business and Technology Consulting Future Leaders Programme, which was looking for people to bridge the technical and commercial needs of the business, without needing a computer science background. That appealed to me as I wanted to see different parts of the business and learn about different aspects of technology in a large healthcare company.

During my year or so in GSK I learned a lot of seemingly obvious things that as a PhD student I hadn’t learned, such as what it’s like to work in a large open-plan office, and how to reply to emails in a business setting. It might sound silly, but these are habits and states of mind that are quite different between business and academia. For instance when you’re in academia there is less distinction between what is work and what isn’t, all the work is tied very closely to you, whether things move forward or not are frequently down to you to try pushing. Whereas in a large company everyone had an ascribed role, you are a part of a larger process, and it takes time to learn how to be part of that process. Naturally in my role as a Business Process Analyst I also learned a lot about the digital platform and how to be part of a team rolling out large scale programmes to a tight timeline.

However, at that point I realised I was again becoming a bit more specialised than I would have liked, and part of why I’d wanted to move away from academia was to try jobs that allowed a far broader view. So I started to look into other jobs, including consulting, and after going through rounds of applications again I fortunately ended up with three quite different job offers. Apart from consulting, one offer was in a smaller firm largely providing competitive intelligence services to pharma, which meant finding out information about the competition in a regulated way, while the other  involved internal risk auditing where I would have been part of a team visiting different parts of the business to assess how ready they were for different forms of risk. I went for IQVIA because it was the broadest and most commercial role, while I also had a good impression about the workplace, culture and opportunities to develop.

What does an average day look like?

In consulting, the “products” you deliver are the knowledge and recommendations present in your powerpoint slides, reports, spreadsheets and so on. Most of the time as an associate consultant I’m conducting primary or secondary research, creating project documents or helping to coordinate activities needed to deliver projects. The projects you have been assigned will define what the research part looks like, and these projects can last anything from a couple of weeks to 6-7 months. If you’ve got a project involving mostly qualitative research, say if a client wants to understand how payers in the NHS might think when faced with a certain drug’s performance data, then you might be on a phone call with an expert who used to make such decisions, interviewing them with a set of questions your team had devised. So these projects might involve more interviews, surveys,  transcription and analysis to understand what stories it presents. If you’re doing a more quantitative project, for example you may want to understand which regions in Italy we should focus on for a certain initiative, you might want some sort of quantitative data to collect and analyse, for example data on hospitals in the region. In those cases you’d be doing more analysis on Excel – nothing extremely technical – but the research you need to do for projects would depend on the questions posed. There are a broad range of other project types as well, such as organising and conducting workshops, expert panel discussions, mock negotiations and so on.

Generally speaking as a new joiner you would mostly be focusing on project delivery – conducting research and creating materials, for example – while a more experienced project manager will be the main point of contact with the client. Nonetheless, you are fully involved in contributing to the thinking and discussion on how the solutions eventually shape up, and you’ll often be on the client calls and have a chance to offer input. For some projects I have travelled to client offices to present, but so far I’m usually supporting on the phone when needed – this may vary between different projects and indeed between different companies.

What are the best bits?

The work is genuinely very interesting – if it weren’t an important problem for the client they would unlikely have paid for consultants to advise on it. I am happy that my role is focused on Life Science and Healthcare as that is where my interest lies, and within this industry there is still a huge variety in scopes of work, which consulting allows you to broadly explore. My colleagues are great, they come from varied backgrounds, are highly capable and most importantly are very lovely people. There are also very experienced principals whom you can learn a lot from. After a while you get used to switching between project teams, and it always makes for a very dynamic environment.

What are the worst bits?

Classically in consulting, schedules are less predictable as they depend on deadlines set by the client’s needs, and by how the research goes. In IQVIA we work on multiple projects at a time –  usually two, occasionally three – so sometimes it can get very busy if you happen to be on two projects with the same peak periods.

Saying that, from what I understand life sciences and healthcare-focused consulting generally offers more stable hours than some other forms of consulting. There’s also not a culture of showmanship in the sense where working longer is perceived more favourably – the main focus is to deliver project work on time and to a high quality. But because we often can’t fully predict when we will have to stay late, there needs to be some flexibility involved, though any challenges would be dealt with as a team. On the plus side, it also means that if you book time off way in advance it is most likely you can go as you are unlikely to have started a project yet, and your staffing can be built around those leave dates.

Do you need a PhD?

I think PhDs are undervalued. The technical expertise and in-depth knowledge doesn’t even cover half of what they can do, and PhDs often don’t realise how much more developed their PhD has made them in multiple ways. The classic selling points are that PhDs are analytical, they’ve been involved in problem-solving and can conduct research. Because of this most consultancies recognise the value of PhDs, and some consultancies, including IQVIA, accept PhDs  at a higher entry level that undergraduate or Masters students.

But I also think the softer skills developed in PhDs is important, and the challenge with most PhD students is being able to articulate this. For instance PhDs are incredibly resilient because research fails all the time, and you get used to failing and dealing with it. Consulting involves thoroughly addressing client questions, and sometimes these change quickly given new developments and you have to go back to the drawing board; PhDs will likely be able to deal with that situation.

One thing PhDs may struggle with if they enter consulting, and probably a lot of other non-academic workplaces, is the concept of things being “good enough”. There are more deadlines and more acute pressure to deliver, so you can’t be obsessed with doing everything absolutely perfectly, but rather learn to deliver projects that are of an excellent standard within the  limits set. It’s important to think about the big picture as well instead of getting bogged down in every detail, which can take time to adjust to.

What’s the progression like?

One of the good things about consulting is the clear frameworks for how consultants progress. Loosely speaking the more junior levels focus on project delivery and analysis, middle levels get involved with day-to-day project management of increasing complexity, while the more senior roles provide strategic leadership and advice. You are expected to progress within reasonable timeframes, with an industry average of around two years per level. If you demonstrate the qualities required consistently, there is little reason for you to be held back, so the progression opportunities are clear. In consulting in general there is a relatively high turnover of people who join for a few years and then move onto other roles. After being exposed to so many different projects, areas, and companies, part of the reason may be that you may hit upon an area that really appeals to you, and decide to focus on that as a next step.

What are your top tips for researchers wanting to get into this career?

Look at your CV as a character profile rather than a list of things you’ve done. The STAR [Situation Task Action Result] model is pretty useful, use it as a guide for each trait that you would like to tell an employer about. This involves not just describing what was actually done, but also the impact of your action, and what this shows about you.

It’s also useful to consider all the things you do as potential evidence of different abilities. There are no specific technical requirements for consulting, and there is a strong emphasis on transferable skills such as working in a team and being able to communicate effectively, which you can draw upon from any experiences that may be relevant. But because “anything goes” in a consulting CV, if justified, you need to be very clear about the profile you’re building up and what different items in your CV are meant to achieve in portraying your abilities. In other words, what does this item show about my abilities and are they combining to meet what the position is looking for?

As an example, I enjoy going to the theatre a lot and occasionally write assessments for shows, so I made the argument that writing these assessments requires conveying what was worthwhile in a show, without spoiling the plot, and this honed an ability to communicate opinions succinctly. So think about what your pursuits bring to your character, and you may be surprised how much can go in your consulting CV. On that note, it may be surprisingly useful in terms of supporting a future career to do stuff that you enjoy and that you find meaningful, instead of constantly tailoring what you do depending on what you think is “constructive”. So although to some degree you should cover the bases, you should also do what you enjoy, and figure out how to tell the story in the CV along the way.

A PhD working in Biotech Venture Capital

SophiaDonaldson25 September 2018

Dr Jonathan Tobin has a PhD in Molecular Medicine from UCL, and is now an Investment Director at Arix Bioscience. Here he tells us about his current role and career path.

What are you up to now?

I’m a Biotechnology Venture Capitalist. That basically involves finding interesting and novel ideas for new drugs and therapeutics, and either building a company from scratch – finding a management team, and putting money into the company, and helping to develop the products; or finding a company that already exists, with a management team in place, and leading an investment into the company. Some of our investments are in very early pre-clinical work from academia, some are already in patients – phase II or phase III testing. We work in the UK, Europe, Israel, Australia, US, and Canada, and we have an office in London and one in New York. We’ve got about £250 million to invest with. A part of my role is helping raise capital, but that responsibility mostly falls to the CEO. Our capital comes from a variety of sources, including pharma companies, institutional investors, mutual funds, family offices, and wealth managers who manage money for clients. We’ve invested in 15 companies in the last two years, and four of those we’ve started from scratch ourselves.

How did you get here?

I’d always been interested in business, partly because my family have always been in business – they own a firm of chartered surveyors founded by grandfather in 1930. When I was growing up all the dinner table conversation was often about business, few in my family had really been to university or been academics. I was the first person to show a strong interest in science and research, but at the same time I had been imbued with a business mentality. If I hadn’t been so interested in biology I might have joined my Dad’s company, like he joined his Dad’s company in the 1960s.

Instead I did a PhD with Prof Phil Beales at the Institute of Child Health. Phil was an excellent mentor and helped me a lot. I was quite lucky that UCL were generous with training programmes for graduates. I took advantage of a lot of courses; at that time they had one at London Business School for PhDs, and there was an entrepreneurs training course called the London Entrepreneur’s Challenge. There were courses in writing and presenting and professional management skills, a residential course in Wales for a week – and it was all totally free, which was amazing. I don’t think many people really took the time out of their PhDs to do that stuff because they didn’t realise how useful it would be. I always had one eye on something beyond working in the lab, but I knew that I wanted to do science. I thought I might like to work in venture capital from when I was a graduate, but obviously I had to train first in the science before I could do that. So it was on my radar from the beginning, but it takes a while to build up the skills to do it.

After my PhD, which I finished just as the credit crunch started, I tried to get a job in the city as a pharma equity analyst. I had spoken to lots of people in the field during the second half of my PhD – people in banking and finance and consultancy, but no one was hiring in 2008 – it was impossible to get a job as everyone was being laid off because of the recession. So I did a post-doc thinking that I would continue my scientific training and I went into a much more basic scientific lab at what is now the Crick. I applied for a Henry Wellcome post-doc fellowship, and I thought if I got that and I could basically be independent from the beginning then that would be an interesting way to be a scientist. I didn’t want to work in someone else’s lab at the bench, as I was much more interested in designing experiments and thinking about the big picture, and a bit sloppy at the execution in the lab!

I didn’t get the fellowship. I think I failed largely because I was unconvincing about my motivation and passion to stay in academia. So I decided that tech-transfer would be a good stepping stone out of academia and into venture capital. I got a job at MRC Technology finding and assessing new drug discovery opportunities. They were very supportive of helping me learn. I spent a year there and it was really interesting because I learned loads of stuff; they sent me on courses about drug discovery and development, IP, licensing, negotiation, all sorts that I had never learned in science. I learned how to do due diligence in a really thorough way, and my job was doing due diligence on hundreds of biotech projects. But there were no career progression opportunities there, and I didn’t want to stay in tech transfer, so I signed up with a bunch of headhunters and got contacted about a job at Imperial Innovations who had just raised £140 million to do biotech investing – it was transitioning from being a tech-transfer office to a venture capital fund. They had decided they wanted someone with a PhD and science background, so I was lucky, I was in the right place at the right time. I spent five and a half enjoyable years working there on lots of interesting companies. And then I decided that I wanted be part of something new, where there wasn’t already a hierarchy, and I wanted to look at deals outside the UK, so I got the opportunity from a headhunter to join this new start-up, and helped build Arix Bioscience from its early days.

What does a normal working day look like for you?

I’m probably in the office about half to two thirds of my time. On a day when I’m in London I generally meet companies that are pitching, several companies a week in person or on the phone. I go to board meetings of companies I have already invested in. I’m often involved in executing deals, reading documents, and having conference calls to discuss terms of deals. There’s quite a lot of due diligence too, which involves quiet reading to research an area and figure out if it’s interesting or not, and as part of that I might talk to experts in the field to get their advice. I also manage an associate in London and one in San Francisco, and we have shareholders I often meet and present to. I’m generally travelling a few days every other week. This might be around Europe for conferences or to meet companies, I’m on the board of two companies in Israel so I travel there, we have an office in New York, so I’m in New York four times a year, and I’m on the board of a company in Boston, so I also go to Boston, once a year we go to the JP Morgan conference in San Francisco, and we have a shareholder in China that we visit as well. So quite a lot of long haul, of meeting people, and talking about their ideas.

What are the best bits?

Finding really cool projects and helping to turn them into companies is the best part. When you see really good results it’s very exciting. It’s the same sort of feeling as getting a great result in the lab. Even though I haven’t done the lab work, I have facilitated it, and I can see it will directly translate into new drugs which are helpful to people, which is quite satisfying.

Another reason a lot of people want to enter venture capital is because of the work-life balance and being in control of what you do. I work very hard and a lot, but it’s mostly on my terms. I largely come and go as I please, and I travel a lot to interesting places meeting very intelligent and interesting people, talking about fascinating things. Typically I get into the office after dropping my children off at school, and usually leave the office around 5.30pm. I do work at home a lot, and I do have to be “on duty” the whole time, so it’s a different mentality to being able to completely switch off when you’ve left the office. The work is completely proactive – I have to find work, no work just comes inbound. So if you’re not busy, you’ll be stressed about not being busy! And if you’re doing a deal you have to be on hand, for example I was on holiday last week and a deal was going on so I had to be on call the whole time. It was a bit stressful because we were camping in the New Forest and the signal was terrible. That’s the flipside for the freedom I guess, you’re always on duty.

For many people the compensation is also a draw. It’s generally well paid, and with the upside that if in the long run your companies are very successful then you can do phenomenally well. Obviously that’s an appealing feature of the role, especially if you want to live somewhere as expensive as London. But the interesting thing about this industry is that because everyone’s a scientist and a bit nerdy at heart, people tend to be more interested in the science and the excitement of developing new drugs that can help people, than the financial side which is just a very nice bonus.

What are the worst bits?

There’s a lot of pressure. In the short term there are pressures to find good deals and get them done. And in the long term, there’s a pressure to generate returns. Our business model involves raising money from shareholders and investing it in companies, then ultimately selling those companies to big pharmaceutical acquirers for a profit. Typically we’re looking for five to ten times the cash invested returned to compensate for the risk, as there’s a high failure rate. But it might take five to ten years for any given company to mature to the point you can sell it. If after ten to twelve years of being in the game you haven’t returned any money it’s like, what are you doing? It’s a bit like being in academia for twelve years and not publishing a paper – your career becomes a little limited at that point. If that happens, you might find you don’t have tonnes of transferrable skills as you’ve spent all your time being a critic rather than a chef. We’re not actually operators of businesses, I’ve never run a company myself, and I don’t necessarily have the skills to set up my own company and run it. So that’s the long term stressor in this industry I guess. And it’s fairly binary, a bit like academia, you just need one huge win to make your career. One major breakthrough is much better than having five or six tiny successes, which is fairly high risk in the long run.

The other thing that’s a bit frustrating is you’re dealing with a lot of different stakeholders; academics, tech transfer offices, pharmaceutical companies, lawyers, other investors, and there’s a lot of different motivations. Some people are motivated by money, some by the science, some by the politics, some by risk reduction, and that makes things interesting but tricky, it means you’ve got to deal with people who have very different views of the world, but you’re trying to achieve the same thing together.

Is a PhD essential for your role?

It’s not essential to have a PhD, but it improves your chances of getting in. I’ve just hired someone with a PhD in neuroscience followed by three years of consulting experience. Most people – maybe 75% – in this industry have a PhD or an MD. People who don’t have a PhD will have more operational or consulting experience.

My years in research have helped me in the role. I spend a lot of time looking at companies’ data and trying to interpret if the results are interesting and kosher, and I think I’m actually probably a better scientist now than I was because when you’re doing experiments that could lead to a drug, you have be super rigorous about controls and reproduction and having experiments done in a blinded way in multiple labs and under multiple conditions again and again and again. In academia you would never do that, because as soon as you see a result you move onto the next experiment and you don’t really, personally at least, question validity (though you’d hope eventually the community would produce enough repetitions to check validity, but that could be over a long period of time). In one of my companies we’ve spent a year and about $4 million repeating two experiments hundreds of times in five different labs in different conditions because we want to be 100% sure that the findings are legitimate. There just isn’t the money, the personpower, or the necessity to do that in academia. If you’re going to put something into humans though you have to be pretty careful. Also these projects are very expensive, so you want to make sure you’re spending your money wisely.

What’s the progression like?

Venture capital in Europe is a tiny tiny pool. There’s probably fewer than 20 high quality firms, and each might employ five or six investment professionals. There’s also low turnover because of the duration of the projects and the way the incentive structure works, as you get rewarded once your companies do well. So the further you are into your career the more upside there is.

Generally people start off as an Analyst or an Associate which is somebody who basically does due diligence, so they do a lot of reading and talking to experts, and they also go to conferences and start to source opportunities. Then next level up is a Principal who might have three or four years of experience and is starting to learn how to lead deals, but is not fully independent. And then there’s Partner or Investment Director who basically does the transactions, takes responsibility for the deals, is part of the investment committee that makes the decisions and ultimately has the responsibility for that investment, taking the credit or punishment for the success or failure. Then the highest level will be the Managing Partner who has started the fund and is more responsible for raising the capital. They would typically be a very experienced individual with a track record of success.

What tips would you pass on to researchers wanting to get into this area?

Enrol in as many courses as possible; business courses, biotech courses, go to events and get to know people. Do a lot of reading about the other elements of the job – intellectual property, finance, company law, entrepreneurship, management. There’s a lot of things you have to know about, not at an expert level, but enough to have a conversation with an expert. It also demonstrates a commitment to and interest in the area. There are lots of podcasts you can listen to about the subject matter. Also start to network, because generally people hire through their networks; the person I just hired was a recommendation from someone else who had met them. So start as early as possible to put out feelers and ask people – most people are happy to have coffee for 20 minutes and share some advice or ideas. And also if you can find a mentor early on in your career that’s quite helpful. Someone who cares about and takes an interest in your journey and can help you if they hear about openings or opportunities. Because otherwise if you’re stuck in the lab and you’re a bit insulated from the rest of the world, where are you going to find out about these things? And how are you going to demonstrate an interest and passion for the area? You may also have to play a long game. It’s possible that straight out of research, if you’ve been on courses and networked, you might get a job in venture capital at the most junior level. But more likely you will need a couple of years of non-academic experience first, maybe in consultancy for instance, where you have learned the rigour of doing work for somebody else, and have learned the macro picture of the industry, not just how to load a gel.

From academic research to translating in the arts

SophiaDonaldson2 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

SophiaDonaldson19 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.