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What’s working in a think tank actually like?

SophiaDonaldson21 April 2017

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

How did you move from academia to your current role?

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

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

What does a normal working day look like for you?

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

What are the best things about working in your role?

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

 
What are the biggest challenges?

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

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

Is a PhD essential in your work?

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

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

What’s the progression like?

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

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

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

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

A PhD’s experience in Healthcare Data Science

SophiaDonaldson10 April 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top Tips for other researchers?

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

Leaving academia but not Higher Education

SophiaDonaldson22 February 2017

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

eliza_picHow did you get into your current role?

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

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

What does your normal working day look like?

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

What are the best bits?

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

And the biggest challenges?

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

Did you need your PhD?

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

Where do people go from here?

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

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

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

A UCL PhD grad talks being an IBM data scientist

SophiaDonaldson7 February 2017

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

How did you move from academia to your current role?

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

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

What does a normal working day look like for you?

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

What are the best things about working in your role?

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

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

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

Is a PhD essential for your role?

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

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

Where would someone go in their career from here?

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

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

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

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

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

Read all about it: life as a magazine features editor

SophiaDonaldson1 February 2017

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

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

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

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

What does your job involve?

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are the best things about your role?

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

What are the worst parts?

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

What’s the progression like from here?

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

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

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

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

 

Double doctor: from PhD to DClinPsy

SophiaDonaldson17 January 2017

Double eggToday’s careers case-study interviewee has a PhD in Psychology and is now in the final year of training to be a Clinical Psychologist.

How did you get into Clinical Psychology?

Pursuing a career in clinical psychology is something that I’ve been passionate about since A-level. When I finished my psychology degree I was very fortunate to go straight into an assistant psychologist post, which confirmed my love of clinical work. However, at 24, I wasn’t sure I was ready (personally or professionally!) for the demands of clinical training. Instead, I spoke with several people about pursuing a PhD as a first step. One Professor was particularly enthusiastic, explaining that, as a psychologist I would help perhaps 8 people a week, but as a researcher, I had the potential to help millions. Although I’m not sure I have ever agreed with his statement, it was pretty compelling! I was offered the chance to complete an MSc/PhD with a leading researcher in their field. As well as providing excellent research training, the role involved meeting families and carrying out diagnostic and cognitive assessments. This clinically relevant experience was really helpful later on when applying for clinical training.

After my PhD, I was very keen to pursue a post-doctoral position in the US. I wrote to several people who I had cited in my thesis or met at conferences to see if they had any appropriate vacancies. A professor was looking for a post-doc to work as a ‘research therapist’ on a large autism-focussed RCT – it was a perfect fit! I worked there for 18 months, and during that time I applied for clinical training. I had to fly back for the interviews, which were pretty tough. I was on the reserve list for two courses, and when a place became free, I came back to study in the UK.

What does an average day look like to you?

I’m currently training, so an average week is probably easier to describe. On Mondays and Fridays I have either lectures or time set aside for research. From Tuesday to Thursday I have my clinical placement. Over the last three years, I’ve had six different placements, working with a wide range of client groups (e.g. in child services, oncology, addictions, neuropsychology). My current role is at a specialist child OCD clinic, working as part of multidisciplinary team, carrying out assessments and CBT treatment with children and their families. I’ll generally see around 3 families a day, write up notes, attend meetings and have a weekly ‘clinical supervision’ hour. I also have an opportunity to observe other members of the team as part of my training.

What are the best bits about your role?

I love working as a therapist, it’s different to anything else I’ve done before. It is really rewarding to meet so many different clients who are experiencing such a range of challenges. At my current placement, the children often make amazing progress fighting their OCD and it’s wonderful to help them with that journey. I also really enjoy working as part of a multidisciplinary team, working alongside other professionals and liaising more broadly with schools and other services. Although I do feel like I’ve been a student for a long time, I love being part of a learning environment and attending lectures from leaders in the field. I’m also very lucky to have a lovely, supportive cohort of course-mates to study with, who all have such varied backgrounds and experiences to share.

What are the downsides?

It’s a lot of hard work. I suppose I may have thought that after doing a PhD I’d be ok, that perhaps the clinical doctorate wouldn’t be as hard, but in fact it’s harder. Clinical skills are new, and there’s a lot more responsibility when you’re working therapeutically with clients. Plus you’re still having to do research and attend lectures, but you’re doing that alongside holding down a busy job within the NHS, so there’s a lot of juggling to do. Taking exams again is also a bit of a shock to the system!

Where do you see your career going from here?

I finish my course in a few months so I’ll be looking for a job very soon. Ideally I’ll still be working clinically, but if I can combine that with continued research that would be perfect. I think balancing clinical work and research can be difficult at the moment, particularly in the changing and challenging environment of the NHS. However, as ‘scientist-practitioners’, I think it’s so important that psychologists continue to conduct relevant research to expand our evidence-base for treatment. I’m hoping that I can find a post within a research-oriented team – but we’ll have to see what happens!

In terms of career progression, the NHS system is fairly clear. You start at a certain grade after training and work your way up steadily over the years. Over time, your responsibilities increase and you tend to become more involved in supervising others, leading teams and service development. In the current financial climate, seeking and maintaining funding for services will also become increasingly important.

What are your top tips for anyone thinking of becoming a Clinical Psychologist?

It’s a very competitive course to get onto, so make sure you get as much clinically-relevant experience as you can from early on. Try to get a breadth of contact with different client groups if possible and make sure that you also have an understanding and interest in current research. I would highly recommend talking to current trainees, and seeking guidance with the application form, because nailing that is key. Being aware of current issues in the NHS is also really important for your application and interview. I think it helps to get to know the differences between the different Clinical Psychology courses, so you know which course will suit you best. Different courses differ in their entrance criteria and tend to ask different types of questions at interview – for example some courses ask a lot more personal questions than others. And most importantly don’t give up! Plenty of people apply multiple times before getting in and everyone has a very different career journey before they get accepted.

Image taken from Abraham Williams

Moving into pharma: a case-study

SophiaDonaldson14 December 2016

graphs

Today’s interviewee has a PhD in Molecular Genetics and is now a Senior Health Economist at a major pharmaceutical company. We spoke to him about his career path and current role.

Tell us about your job.

I demonstrate the value of drugs we produce to the NHS. That involves assessing the clinical evidence, but also looking at things from an economic perspective. I work in respiratory medicine, so I deal with inhalers for asthma and COPD. If our inhaler keeps people out of hospital it has the potential to save the NHS money.

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

I really enjoyed my PhD, but as I entered my final year I realised that my work wasn’t going to turn up anything particularly earth-shattering so there wasn’t much of a future in it. I also sensed that the academic environment could become quite cutthroat, and one of the reasons I’d originally entered academia was I thought it wouldn’t be very cutthroat, so I decided I should find something else to do.

I went to a careers fair and I came across a stand for a health economics market access consultancy. I didn’t really know what that was but it sounded interesting from the description, so I looked into it a bit and ended up getting a job with that consultancy.

Our clients were usually pharmaceutical companies, and the job involved reading a lot of clinical trial reports and summarising them, both in written summaries and using meta analysis. I was at the consultancy for four years before moving to my current employer – a pharmaceutical company.

What does an average working day look like?

I often have to meet with the rest of the brand team working on the drug – which will include a medical team, a marketing team, a patient advocacy team, myself, and occasionally some sales people – to discuss strategy. But I also get to do a lot of analysis and writing on my own, which I quite like. After my PhD it took me a while to get used to working with other people, and to build my confidence to speak up in meetings and deliver presentations, but over the years I’ve got much better at it.

How does your PhD help you in your job?

A PhD isn’t essential for my job (a lot of people will have an MSc in Health Economics), and for my previous consultancy role it was enough that I just had a life sciences undergraduate degree. But although I don’t use any of the detailed knowledge from my PhD, many of the skills I picked up have helped me to get jobs and progress in my career. Those skills include being able to use statistical methods, and scientific reading and writing.

What are the best things about your job?

One of the things that concerned me about my particular PhD is it felt quite distant from anything that helped someone with the diseases I was researching. Now that I’m working with medicines it’s easier to see how what I’m doing can help people. And although it wasn’t the case at first, now that I’ve progressed to a more senior role I have quite a lot of autonomy, so I plan my own projects.

What are the downsides?

I went the route of working for a consultancy before moving into a drugs company, and that’s the route that a lot for people will take now, as pharmaceutical companies often require previous experience. The way consultancies are set up is that they make more money the more work they give you. So the deal is that you’ll get lots of great training because you’ll have a variety of clients and projects, but it can be quite hard work on entry-level pay. The hours still weren’t the worst, maybe 9am to 7pm, and a bit of work on the weekends, but it was difficult to fit all of the work into regular 9 to 5 hours. The experience I gained in consultancy was invaluable though as it helped me get my current role. And apart from the occasional very busy period, the work-life balance is very good here.

What’s the progression like?

I would say that progression to the level I’m working at can probably happen at a lot of companies. But the next step will be to a management position, and because there are fewer management jobs, the opportunities to progress from this point will be dependent upon senior people leaving and vacancies coming up. So moving up a position may require moving companies.

What tips would you give researchers wanting to move into health economics?

If you have a life sciences PhD there are lots of market access consultancies that will be interested in you. To make yourself appealing in interviews make sure you’ve thoroughly researched the industry and the company, and can tell them why you want to enter the sector and what you’ll bring.

Find out what it’s like going from a Neuroscience PhD to being a Management Consultant at McKinsey & Company

Vivienne CWatson21 October 2016

MckinseyMatej Macak studied Psychology for his undergraduate degree and Neuroscience for his Masters and doctoral studies. He tells us what it’s like being Management Consultant at McKinsey & Company.

Tell us about your job

I work as a management consultant for McKinsey & Company. My work is to help companies to improve their performance which can take many different forms, from helping CEOs design new business strategies to working on the factory floor helping to improve one process at a time. Typically, the work I do for a client is very short by PhD standards, generally up to three months. Every project is unique and brings new challenges and problems to solve.

How did you move from a PhD to your current role

I studied Psychology for my undergraduate degree followed by Neuroscience for my Masters and doctoral studies. I love my subject and I find the human brain to be an incredible challenge. Up until now, I enjoy learning about the latest research and I have stayed in touch with my colleagues. At the end of my PhD, I wanted to work on something that I could feel had a tangible impact in shorter time frames. The very first project that I worked on actually drew on my knowledge in Psychology to help devise new strategies for bank clients to control their spending and save money. As that project drew to a close, I could see the results of my team’s work presented in the news. One year on, I have a few such examples of real change I contributed to during several client engagements and look forward to new challenges each project brings.

What does an average working day look like?

Each project is different and so there is no such thing as a “typical” day. As a management consultant, I am often asked to solve problems that my clients struggle with despite of years of experience in their industry. That means unexpected challenges, tough puzzles and new problems to face every day. The job can take forms ranging from organising a workshop with senior clients to undertaking quantitative analysis of financial performance to devising a strategy for introducing a new tech product to the market. The work is different every day but always interesting.

How does your PhD help you in your job?

I use skills developed during my PhD every day. During my PhD I improved my ability to break down complex problems, to analyse and interpret large data sources and to present my findings in a structured way. These skills are incredibly useful in the daily life of a consultant and I feel I have been drawing on them during every project so far.

What are the best things about your job

I love the feeling that I am changing the way how people work almost every day. It can be very fulfilling to see the real impact of “my” consultancy project for our client. The learning curve has been quite steep – I face new problems, industries and different client interactions on each study. Coming up with solutions as a part of a team is exciting, collaborative and rewarding at the same time. People I work with are warm, intelligent and supportive. One year on, I feel like my work has had a real impact and I have formed many friendships in the process as well.

What are the downsides?

The work is challenging and sometimes a bit of a roller coaster, fast paced with tight deadlines. However, looking back, I can see that the most difficult problems often spark ideas we become the most proud of.

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

Consulting is a career that is highly rewarding and I would recommend it to anyone who likes to solve problems in a collaborative environment. I think that the best insight into consulting comes from simply speaking to consultants – friends or employees at career fairs. Whilst interest in business and strategy are useful, do not underestimate how much you will learn on the job and how steep the learning curve will be. Talk with the consultants about their experience and industry and see if the problems they face would fit well with your interests and goals.

If you want to take Matej’s advice and speak to a consultant, you can at the UCL Careers ‘Careers in Technology Employer Forum for PhDs and Researchers’ event on 27th October. A PhD representative from McKinsey will be sitting on the panel. Further information about the event and how to make a booking can be found here: http://courses.grad.ucl.ac.uk/course-details.pht?course_ID=2193 

How a PhD can lead to patent law

SophiaDonaldson15 July 2016

­­­ProfileDr James Egleton has a PhD in Organic Chemistry from Oxford University, and is now a trainee patent attorney at J A Kemp in London. James attended our Life Sciences Researchers Careers Fair on behalf of J A Kemp, and kindly gave up a few moments over lunch to chat to us about his career.

 

How did you move from academia to patent law?

I was always interested in law, and as an undergraduate I undertook placements at city solicitors’ firms in their intellectual property (IP) departments. Although I liked the office environment, I didn’t feel the job of a solicitor in IP was strongly connected enough to basic science for me. After doing a bit of googling I found out about the patent attorney profession, which combines law with a much more technical understanding of the inventions underlying patents, which sounded perfect for me. I applied for patent attorney roles alongside PhDs and was actually offered both, but I chose the PhD. By the end of my PhD I felt my time in research had come to an end; although I enjoyed the project I worked on, lab work wasn’t what I wanted to do long-term. I wanted to be more office-based, and also to get involved with a wider breadth of projects than academic research allows. When looking for roles outside of academia, my mind immediately went back to patent law, although I also considered consultancy.

As a patent attorney, you can either work in private practice, or within industry as an “in-house” attorney. The majority of trainees work in private practice, in specialist patent attorney firms. I applied to firms during the Autumn recruitment season, and had interviews around January/February. I was then offered a place as a trainee with J A Kemp, who take on roughly 4-6 graduates across their three sectors (chemistry & pharmaceuticals, biotechnology & life sciences, and engineering & IT) per year.

Some firms have structured graduate recruitment schemes, whilst other firms hire new graduates on a more ad-hoc basis. Look out for any upcoming deadlines advertised for recruitment schemes, but bear in mind that many firms also welcome prospective applications through their HR departments. If in doubt, it is always worth sending a speculative CV and cover letter to a firm!

 

What does your normal working day look like?

One of the beauties of the job is that there is no such thing as a completely normal day. But I’ll try to describe some of the things that might comprise a typical day: I’ll come into the office, check through my emails, and see what requests have come in from clients overnight. That’s particularly likely given that we work with clients all over the world in different time zones. Subsequently I’ll prioritise my jobs for the day. These might involve preparing a draft response to an examination report from a patent office. That’s where we’ve filed a patent application and the patent office has raised some objections, for example they might have found ‘prior art’ that they think destroys the novelty of our client’s invention. We’re likely to have spoken to our client about how best to respond, and so I may spend a morning drafting our reply. Over lunch I could attend an internal training session with the other trainees in my cohort, on a particular topic relating to patent law. In the afternoon I may have a meeting with my mentor to discuss a piece of work I’d drafted earlier in the week; my mentor will make comments and suggestions. I might then finish my day by going along to a client meeting with a partner, or I may be drafting an email giving advice to one of our international clients. Every so often we also get to attend evening networking events to get a broader perspective on business and foster new business relationships. More senior attorneys attend such events quite regularly.

 

What are the best bits?

One of the things I love is the blend of technical science, which has fundamentally always interested me, with legal work, which is quite specific and in essence, argumentative. You’re framing arguments about science. I also enjoy the element of language use – translating the science from the clients into legal language for the patent office, and then the legal language back into terms the client can understand. The variety of the work is also very interesting; I work with clients from biotech and pharma right the way through to petrochemicals, polymers, and medical devices. I prefer this array of work to the focus on a very specific subject that comes with academia. I also enjoy the variety of the types of clients we work with: they may come from all over the world, and can be really quite different, from small start-ups to large corporations. Tailoring your approach depending on the client is a challenge that I find quite fun!

Some of the partners, especially if they’re involved in business development, will get to visit our clients all over the world, and many qualified attorneys will attend international conferences too. I don’t travel much as a trainee, but there are still occasions where, if a third party has opposed your client’s patent, you might get to accompany a qualified attorney to a hearing at the European Patent Office which will take place either in Munich or The Hague; I’ve been once so far and it was a great experience to see the more contentious side of things. The fact that I was able to assist at a hearing so early in my training also exemplifies another ‘best bit’ – the profession is small enough that even in a larger firm like J A Kemp, you’re able to work and communicate with really senior people on interesting projects from very early on. Having a support network of four other trainees going through the same things at the same time as me is also really beneficial.

 

And what are the challenges?

The biggest thing that might put someone off the profession are the exams. You’re coming in as a scientist with no legal training or background, so you have to get qualified. Any UK firm will train you to be both a British and a European patent attorney, and most of the work we do is European-level work. There are two main stages of qualification: after about a year into the job you have to take foundation level exams, either by taking CIPA (the professional institute) exams or through a university course – at J A Kemp, trainees go on a four month training course at Queen Mary University, where we’re working only part-time in the office, and at the end of that we sit the foundation set of exams. Two years later you have to sit two sets of exams, both the European and the British final set; you have to study for those exams in your own time alongside working full-time. There’s a lot of support in the firm, with an internal tutorial system. But for a lot of trainees this will be the least enjoyable bit, as it’s very hard work.

Coming from academia, there is some adjustment needed in terms of pace. There are lots of deadlines that need to be met. Although that might be challenging at first, at J A Kemp partners will only give you the amount of work you can handle, so you never feel overwhelmed. Although the pace is faster, on the flipside the hours are much better compared with academia – I work fewer hours than I was working in academia, but I’m much more efficient in that time, and so I have a better work-life balance.

 

How does the PhD help you in the role?

A PhD is not essential but I personally have found it very helpful in three ways. Firstly, having conducted scientific research, I really understand the R&D process, so I can understand where our clients are coming from. Secondly, I gained experience in presenting scientific findings, whether that was presenting at conferences, writing papers, or writing my thesis. The skill of taking data and presenting the key parts is important when putting together an argument in letters to the patent office and drafting new patent specifications. Thirdly, and this is perhaps not true of all PhDs, but I got a lot of experience teaching undergraduates and mentoring students in the lab over the course of my PhD, which was beneficial to my communication skills, being able to put a point across to an audience with a different level of understanding to me. An extra bonus is that the ‘Dr’ title can give you a certain amount of credibility with clients, even as a trainee.

 

What’s the progression like?

Career progression is very good in the patent attorney profession, and can be quite rapid. There’s no pyramid system as in some other graduate schemes, where there’s an expectation that a large proportion of trainees will leave after the scheme finishes. By employing a select number of people, J A Kemp makes a large investment of time and money in individuals, and so it’s quite common for people to stay at the firm for a long time. If you work hard and are keen, and get involved with other parts of the firm like business development, then the opportunities are there for you to progress right up to being a partner.

 

What are your top tips for someone wanting to become a patent attorney?

The best thing you can do is try to find out as much about the profession as you can. Look on firm websites (many of which have sections dedicated to graduate recruitment), and read the excellent Inside Careers guide to patent attorneys. Go to careers fairs and talk to people who do the job. Some firms also offer open days, so check around the websites of the largest firms and sign up to one if you see one on offer – they are very informative days. There are very limited opportunities for internships and work experience, but if you can get one, that would be a great experience. But beyond that, just give it a go and apply. Put your CVs and cover letters before employers, and get experience of the interviews. The interviews are actually quite fun, and I think you really know whether or not you want to be a patent attorney after them – they’re very technical, rather than corporate; a typical task might be to describe the key features of a simple object, such as a kitchen implement or a bicycle, or to briefly sum up your PhD project in terms someone with an A-Level or basic undergraduate knowledge of your subject could understand.

Life as a quantitative analyst

SophiaDonaldson2 June 2016

Joe StainesDr Joe Staines has a PhD in Financial Computing from UCL’s UK PhD Centre in Financial Computing, and is now a quantitative analyst at a large bank owned asset management firm in New York. We spoke to Joe about his transition from academia to banking.

Tell us a bit about your role

I’m both a quantitative researcher and a portfolio manager. Research in the context of our business is faster moving than academia and requires a very different style of communication. Combining research with portfolio management affords insight into the practical application of ideas. Much like how excellent medical research is often done by practicing medical doctors, “quants” can have a foot in both camps: as a practitioner and a researcher.

How did you move from academia to your current role?

I first found out about the sector by chance. I was lucky enough to have a supervisor during an unrelated internship who recognised that it might be something that would interest me. It took a lot of dead ends to find the career that appealed, and even then the inspiration came from a serendipitous meeting in an otherwise failed summer of work (I didn’t get offered the job, and indeed didn’t want it).

Once I was aware of the sector, I applied for entry level roles. This led to more opportunities and meant that my CV instantly stood out. I trusted that a good employer would recognise my contributions and give me opportunities as I proved worthy. This is not a path for everyone, it can feel like a retrograde step to enter a peer group of fresh graduates, but has ultimately worked exactly as planned for me.

What does a normal working day look like for you?

A normal working day is split between coding, writing, absorbing external research and market data, and the day-to-day mechanics of portfolio management (checking and double-checking everything, attention to detail is paramount).

What are the best bits?

I like the variety of challenges: technical, intellectual, interpersonal.

And the worst?

The hardest part is trying to maintain a high standard in areas of weakness, an unavoidable consequence of the breadth of skill-set required.

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

Not essential, but it certainly gives you an edge. It’s a signal to colleagues and clients about how you might be useful. This can be frustrating if you don’t want to be pigeonholed as a technical person.

What’s the progression like?

Progression is very business dependent. Responsibility takes three forms: investment decision-making responsibility, responsibility for communication, and management responsibility. The first two are what interest me, so I hope to grow in that direction.

Any top tips for researchers interested in this type of work?

Quant finance encompasses a wide variety of roles and teams. Be sure that the job you’re being hired for is the one you’re passionate about. Unlike academia, finance doesn’t necessarily prioritize innovation. Doing simple things well and minimizing error and risk are paramount, so prepare yourself for a shift of mind-set if you’re interested in making the switch.