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What’s Academia like in the US? – Dr Nelson Y. Dzade

uczjsdd13 July 2022

Dr Nelson Y. Dzade gained his PhD from in Computational Materials Science from UCL, and is now an Assistant Professor at Penn State University. He kindly took the time to tell us about his current role, his career journey, challenges and about any useful tips for researchers wanting to pursue a similar career.

Tell us about your current role and organisation.

I am currently a Tenure-Track Assistant Professor in the Department of Energy and Mineral Engineering (EME) at The Pennsylvania State University (Penn State). I am also a co-funded faculty of the Institutes of Energy and the Environment (IEE) and an Associate of the Institute for Computational and Data Sciences (ICDS). I lead the Materials and Minerals Theory Group, which sits on the interface of Physical Chemistry, Applied Physics, Machine Learning, Computational Materials Science and Mineral Engineering. My research group specializes in the development and application of advanced theoretical methods (including first-principles electronic structure calculations and atomistic simulations) to unravel structure-property-performance relationships in solid state materials that are of interest for many practical applications in renewable energy generation, including but not limited to photovoltaics, heterogeneous catalysis, and high-capacity battery materials.
Regarding my current organisation, I would say that Penn State is a world class academic powerhouse and an R1 (Very High Research Activity) University in the United States. It is often considered as one of the “Public Ivies”: i.e., a publicly funded institution that is deemed to provide a standard of education comparable to that offered by the elite Ivy League institutions (like Yale and Harvard). Located across 24 campuses in Pennsylvania and globally online, Penn State is one of the largest universities in the US with over 100,000 students and 17,000 faculty and staff. I work at the University Park campus in State College, which is the largest campus and serves as the administrative hub.  The Department of Energy and Mineral Engineering where I am based is a unique department with world-class faculty experts in science, engineering, economics, and statistics as applied to the energy and mineral resources sector. In contrast to traditional disciplinary departments, EME faculty encompass the range of disciplines required for the energy and environmental challenges of today and for the next century.

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

I have always wanted to work in academia, where you’re constantly learning, researching, publishing quality and difference making research works, teaching, and training/mentoring the next generation of professionals –teachers, scientist, engineers, policymakers. My motivation is derived from a quote from Albert Einstein that says “A hundred times every day I remind myself that my inner and outer life are based on the labours of other men and women, living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give in the same measure as I have received and am still receiving”.

To prepare myself for this, after my PhD at UCL’s Department of Chemistry in 2014, I took a postdoc position at the Department of Earth Sciences, Utrecht University, The Netherlands, where I worked with some distinguished scholars: Professor Nora de Leeuw, Professor Bert Weckhuysen, Professor Emiel Hensen and ‪Professor Jan Philipp Hofmann‬ on a Dutch Research Council (NWO) funded project. These projects led to several high-impact publications, in particular a high impact paper in Advanced Materials, and in ACS Energy Letters.‬‬‬‬

In 2018, I was awarded the EPSRC Innovation Fellowship for my proposal entitled “Computer-aided design of zinc phosphide heterojunctions for efficient solar energy conversion” which was hosted in the School of Chemistry at Cardiff University, UK. With this award I became an independent researcher and established a high-calibre computational-experimental research programme, delivering breakthrough insights into the surface and interfacial phenomena in semiconductor heterojunctions and composite materials for green energy conversion and storage. Through the EPSRC Innovation Fellowship, I developed my leadership and supervision skills (mentored 2 Postdocs, 1 PhD candidate, 2 MChem and 3 BSc project students), created relevant research networks and established strategic collaborations with leading groups nationally and internationally both in academia and industry and produced some high-quality scientific publications. I also received the DUO-India Professor Fellowship Award in 2020, which enabled me to establish high-profile collaborations and exchange with leading Indian Scientists.

All these experiences and skills prepared me for my current position at Penn State. During the last year of my 3-years Innovation Fellowship, I begun to apply for faculty positions mostly in the UK and the US. I was shortlisted for a couple of them in the UK but even though I did not get them, I learned from the feedback I received and improved myself for the next one. The Penn State interview process was a whole new experience for me, it happened during the thick of the COVID-19 pandemic, so everything occurred via Zoom. The last phase of the interviews occurred over two days, including giving a research seminar, a teaching talk, research vision talk, and interviewing with Department Heads, Institute Directors, Deans and Faculties across the department of energy and minerals engineering and the Materials science and engineering department.

Did networking help? 

Although I did a lot of information gathering online, it was always better to speak directly with someone working at the institution that could share their personal experiences with me and other information that I could not find online.  So, I had to first identify potential people I could speak with for informal interviews. I started with people with whom I already have a connection: mentors, people I’ve met at conferences or professional networking events and also on LinkedIn who work at Penn State University. For those I do not have any direct connection with yet, I wrote to them introducing myself and requesting if they have time, I’d appreciate the opportunity to learn more about their research work and their department, and take suggestions they might have for someone like me who is interested in joining the department and the University. Luckily for me most of the faculties I reached out to were very responsive and supportive. That helped a lot!

What experience did you need? 

Experience, they say, is the best teacher. The tenure review evaluates a professor’s contributions in three areas: research, teaching, and service to the university, so right from the onset the search committee will be looking out for evidence of experiences you’ve acquired over the years that would enable you excel at the post most especially in the areas of research and teaching. You need to demonstrate evidence of publishing high-quality scientific papers, delivering invited scientific talks at national/international conferences, independent grant acquisition, teaching skills, training/mentoring experiences, etc. You will also have to demonstrate your ability to attract or establish collaboration with leading groups across the world.

In terms of selling yourself to employers, it is important to know that the most important part of the job search – the interview, can make or break an opportunity. To do well at selling yourself to employers, it is crucial that you get comfortable talking about yourself. Give yourself permission to talk about yourself positively and to take pride in your accomplishments! Do not appear braggadocious, but you certainly don’t want to sell yourself short or shoot yourself in the foot. In order to sell yourself very well, (1) be a storyteller – Think of an interview as an opportunity to tell your personal brand story. Be animated. Be enthusiastic. Above all, be authentic. (2) Show, don’t tell – Use examples to illustrate the story you’re sharing. Don’t just use buzzwords like “collaborative”, but demonstrate with practical examples. (3) Tailor your accomplishment, expertise/skills, and experiences to meet the hiring department’s needs. Why are you the best fit for the post and what do you bring on board that other candidate may not have.

What were the most challenging parts of the recruitment process?

The difficult bit of the interview process for me was preparing for the research vision talk, as it is quite difficult to know whether the research directions you are proposing fit into the hiring department’s overall strategic research vision. You’ve also got to demonstrate how you are going to fund the proposed research. To overcome this, and prepare an excellent Research vision talk, I had to carefully read the job advertisement again and again to find what lines of research they were intending to strengthen, so I could tailor my talk to address that. I also had to gather information about the different research themes in the department and make sure I demonstrated clearly how my research activities are going to be uniquely different, but can strengthen/complement existing research portfolios in the department.

What does a normal working day look like for you?

My job is supposed to be 40% teaching, 40% research and 20% service. In reality, it’s more like 60% research, 50% teaching and 30% service, and yes I realize that adds up to more than a hundred percent! But my typical day looks like a mixture of these three things.

Firstly, teaching: I love teaching and that’s why I am a professor, instead of working in industry. Teaching loads vary from semester to semester. In my first semester (Fall) at PSU, I co-taught the course EME 301: Thermodynamics in Energy and Mineral Engineering and in Spring semester, I taught the course EGEE 437: Design of Solar Energy Conversion System and co-taught the Thermodynamics in Energy and Mineral Engineering course again both at the undergraduate level. Basically, the things that I do related to teaching are teaching, i.e., being in front of a classroom, preparing for teaching, i.e., things like reading stuff and setting up discussion documents, creating slides, setting up course materials, and also grading course and answering questions from students, and giving feedbacks. To be clear, I always endeavour to deliver high-quality and well-organized lectures; I care a lot about my students, thus I also do care a lot about the materials I teach my students.

The next part of my job, arguably the most important part, at least in terms of things like job performance, is research. It’s a big deal and I love doing research, which is another reason I am a professor. I work with my graduate students and collaborators on innovative and transformative research projects and publish a lot of high-quality papers with them. This means mentoring and helping my students, a lot of editing, a lot of feedback, and a lot of meetings. There are a lot of things that come after the research, giving presentations and talks. I really care about publishing scholarship, so I tend to tweet about or share our research results on LinkedIn. Finally, grants drive research, so a big part of my job is asking people for money in increasingly complicated ways. The most complicated way involves spending many months and hours of work writing proposals to ask funding agencies like the National Science Foundation (NSF) or the Department of Energy (DOE) to please give me money. In my discipline, not only is bringing in grant money a big part of my job performance and determines in part whether I get tenure, but I also need grant money to pay PhD students.

Finally, service to my department, to my college, to my university at large, and to my scholarly slash professional community: At the local level, this involves things like attending faculty meetings, serving on communities, e.g. the graduate committee or qualifying exams committee, which I currently serve on. And then, there is service to my scholarly slash professional community, for instance, I serve on the Editorial Board of Modelling, Theory and Computational Catalysis, for Frontiers in Catalysis Journal and as Guest Editor, for Engineered Science, Materials and Manufacturing. I also peer-review manuscripts for several of the top-ranked scientific journals.

What are the best things about working in your role?

A tenure-track position at a top-ranked University like Penn State University is often highly coveted not only because it offers job stability and higher pay, but because it offers academic freedom. One of the things I love about my job is you get to pick what kind of research to do and you get to choose your own research team (graduate students and postdocs) and collaborators. I also get to train/mentor and inspire my research students to become the next-generation of experts and professionals. Our students come to us with a considerable amount of talent, and I think my role as a supervisor/teacher is to help them translate those talents into creativity. I try to do this by sharing my passion for knowledge and curiosity with my students, inspiring their creativity, developing their critical thinking ability, and preparing them for the complex world they will face after stepping off campus. I strongly believe in the saying that “Education is what survives when what has been learnt has been forgotten.”

What are the biggest challenges?

As with any new adventure, the first few years of the tenure-track position, in particular can be very challenging as you must learn to manage the new divergent responsibilities/demands and the escalating expectations. Thus, one of the biggest challenges is the time pressure, which increases the stress and anxiety levels. You are evaluated on teaching, research and service, and you are expected to meet a certain bar for all three of these criteria and be exceptional in one at least. So as a new faculty member, setting your priorities right and finding time to do the most important and most rewarding things can be very challenging. In higher education, especially in a totally new country with completely different cultural background to the one I was used to, one of the most significant challenges I face is being able to engage with the students individually and what I mean by that is knowing them both as individuals and also the culture and background that they come from. It also involves understanding the different learning abilities and capacities of my students. And because the student numbers can be very large in a place like Penn State, this is quite challenging at least for now. But I strongly believe it will get better with time.

What’s the progression like in the US?

The tenure track is a professor’s pathway to promotion to the promised land and academic job security. It’s the process by which an Assistant professor (Lecturer in the UK) becomes an Associate professor (Reader in the UK) and then a Full professor. A professor who is on the tenure track is expected to go up for a tenure review 5/6 years after starting the position, where his/her contributions in three areas: research, teaching, and service to the university will be evaluated.

And is the working culture different in the US?

I’ve worked in the UK and the Netherlands, and now the US, and there are always cultural differences when you go somewhere new, so you have to learn the new rules of engagement. Generally, the US system is incredibly forward-focused. People are very proactive and they are always thinking as big as possible; like, always thinking, what next? It’s great because it keeps you at the top of your game too. But it does feel like everything is faster here, everyone is an early bird in the office. It’s just the nature of the US system really, it kicks things up a gear. Don’t get me wrong, everyone works extremely hard in the UK and the Netherlands too, but I think this does feel like an even faster march! And in Rome, you must do as the Romans do. So I’ve adjusted to the culture, and who knows, maybe I’ll even speed beyond them!

Also, if you’re used to the grant system in the UK, you will find things a bit different here. Of course there are huge similarities, in that funding will always go to cutting edge science that is innovative, risky, but rewarding. But things can be a bit different (depending upon the funding organisation). For instance, in the UK I noticed that for the most part, for fellowships and grants they are largely judging the quality of the research proposal. Whereas here it feels more like fellowships and independent early-career grants are judging not only the research, but also the education proposal. So if you’re used to writing only about the science and how you will develop as a scientist, here you may have to shift the focus slightly. It’s a lot about the science of course, but it’s also about how you are going to use that to educate other people, how are you going to engage with people, even to the secondary school level. How is that research going to start changing people, building people, educating people? So if you write a very excellent research proposal without a very excellent education proposal embedded within it, you may find yourself completely lost.

And there are other small differences in terms of style that it would be good to recognise when putting together US applications or talks. Here, they like things to be very direct. In the UK, people are perhaps a bit wordy, but here, they want you to get straight to the point and be very precise: what is it you want to do? What’s your hypothesis? No flowery build up as there might be in the UK!

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

It is always very important that you:
Take ownership of your project: Your research project is your baby. There will be loss of sleep, and growing pains, but you will develop a special bond with it. You should know more about your research project than anyone else. Get the help you need. Take full advantage of group meetings, other faculties and others in your lab.

Network and find good mentors: No matter what you want to do with your life, networking is extremely important. Networking isn’t just about getting a good job, it’s about positioning yourself to be successful in that job. Identify the scientific community that you want to be in, and get to know that community. Know the leading figures in that community. Attend free local meetings and present posters/talks and attend national/international meetings and engage/speak with potential mentors or collaborators. It is always vital to find good mentors because the best way to accelerate your career growth is by finding great mentors who can help guide you through your early career and beyond. I have been blessed enough to have some amazing mentors such as Professor Nora de Leeuw and Professor Sir Richard Catlow (my PhD advisors) and many others who have been instrumental in shaping me as a person.

Position yourself to get good reference letters: Strong recommendation letters are more important to your future than anything else. Good reference letters can get you an interview at least! You need at least three strong reference letters, so take every opportunity to network with collaborators (send regular progress updates, for example), and talk about your research in front of other faculty. Also, speak at joint group meetings or your collaborator’s group meetings.

Develop your soft skills: Note that your PhD/Postdoc position would expand your scientific skill sets, but the most important skills you must gain to secure a faculty position at any University are the soft skills, like effective communication, effective writing, leadership ability, engaging teaching skills, networking, and mentoring skills. Mastering these skills will serve you well no matter what kind of job you want. For instance:

Learn how to write quality scientific papers, and how to give engaging scientific talks: No matter what you do with your life, it is important to know how to do these two things. Take the lead in writing papers based on your research. Take every opportunity to practice giving talks. Whether you are applying for industry or academic positions your job seminar is extremely important. Good letters get you an interview, a good talk gets you the job.

Learn how to write grants and apply for your own funding: Pitching your ideas for money is a very useful skill to acquire. Learn how to write research proposals by applying for your own funding or joint grants. Help your PI write a grant, even if it isn’t on the topic of your research. Ask others to see copies of their successful grants (sometimes they will even give you the critiques). Good grant writing skill is something that can be learned. If you are applying for faculty positions, you will need to write research proposals, and thus you will need new and innovative ideas. Read the literature broadly and attend seminars/conferences.

Learn how to train people: If you want only to do research with your own two hands, you shouldn’t have got a PhD. People with PhDs lead research teams (either in industry or academia). They rarely work in isolation. So, help in training/mentoring undergraduate research project students in your group. Take the time to show others in the group how to do something. Also, take courses in mentoring and teaching.

For postdocs specifically, plan for what comes after your postdoc: Once you’ve established where you’ll do your postdoc and who will be your mentor, it’s a good idea to do some self-reflection about where you want to go when you’re finished. I think it’s important to start that exploration early on. I personally worked very hard to make sure that I was making progress on my postdoc project but at the same time I was preparing the required materials to apply for faculty positions and Independent Fellowships. The first thing to plan for when you start your postdoc is when to leave it. Postdoctoral fellows need to be strategic, once you get beyond a certain number of years doing postdoc, it’s not a training position anymore—it’s a job!

Are there any specific tips you would give to people graduating into the current uncertain climate?

If you are a new graduate feeling uncertain about your future, you are not alone. Several other graduates may also be experiencing similar significant and unexpected disruptions to their plans due to the emergence, spread, and long-term impact of COVID-19. Uncertainty about job opportunities and disruption to regular routines can make an already stressful job search feel even more challenging. However, there are several actions you can take to empower yourself and make informed decisions about your future.

Consider short-term or unexpected work in the interim: Depending on your financial situation, it may be necessary to consider short-term work or work outside your area of expertise whiles you continue to search for your dream job. Some of these jobs may not be the type of work you may have anticipated, but having an extra income can help you navigate this uncertainty after graduation with more confidence. Learning to work remotely or in-person during this time could add a rich experience to your resume and give you an advantage in the long run. Showing employers that you were able to adjust to this challenging situation could make your application more competitive. When looking for job opportunities, prioritize transferable skills and soft skills that could support you in your chosen career path. Even if a job is not in your ideal industry, there may be opportunities to develop skills that you can leverage later when applying for future jobs. For example, complex problem solving, remote software use, defusing conflict and communication are experiences that could be added to your resume in the future.

Continue to enhance your skills: As the saying goes “education never ends”. With your university/college courses completed, now is the perfect time to continue enhancing your skills and certifications to ensure that you remain a desirable candidate. This is particularly true if you’re in a field that evolves rapidly. However, no matter what your chosen profession is, continued education demonstrates that you aren’t ready to just wait for an opportunity to happen—you’re making things happen. This type of self-motivation is an incredibly desirable trait for employers (more so now than ever before), and it will definitely help you gain an advantage over the other candidates.

Update Your Information: When the perfect job opening comes along, you want to be ready. Remember, the saying “The early bird catches the worm.” Constantly update your resume and cover letter so you can submit them quickly when you do find a prospect. You should also update and develop your LinkedIn profile, which can increase your chances of being contacted about an opening. Be sure to highlight your skills that are essential for remote working arrangements, such as great communication, adaptability, technological proficiency, self-motivation, time management, and remote collaboration. These skills are particularly valuable to employers in today’s environment.

The UCL PhD grad helping to bring us COVID-19 vaccines

uczjsdd25 October 2021

Dr Ranna Eardley-Patel has an EngD from UCL in Biochemical Engineering and Bioprocess Leadership, and is now a Bioprocess Engineering Consultant. Ranna kindly took the time to tell us about her current role and her career journey so far, and offered tips for researchers looking to follow a similar path.

This interview forms part of our series speaking with PhDs who graduated during the last recession.

  • What are you up to now?

I am a freelance bioprocess engineer, working through my own company (PTF UK Ltd) to provide consulting and specialist engineering services. One of my current contracts is as an advisor to the UK Vaccines Taskforce. I am one of ten Tech Specialists seconded from industry, supporting deployment of COVID-19 vaccines to UK and Northern Ireland. My main tasks are as the overall and technical lead for a multimillion-pound investment project involving onshoring of vaccine manufacture, including development of variant vaccines. I also represent the UK VTF to explore partnerships with other international government / public health bodies.

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

I did an EngD involving >50% of my time with my sponsor companies, so I felt that I was transitioning out of academia at the outset. My department has a fabulous industrial network, and I grew my own whilst doing the courses open to the wider sector. I spoke to people in my network once I’d decided that design and consultancy appealed to me more than R&D or manufacturing, and I got my first job with an alumni. I did have to answer technical questions, mainly about my own research; I quickly worked out that this was not a test of my intelligence, but as a way to find out if I had the right work ethic and personality to work in a small team on problems that there may not be an obvious answer to as the field was new!

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

No such thing as a normal day, and working patterns continue to evolve with mobile devices and remote working. I am not a morning person, so I tend to do my best work in the evenings – a plus when working with clients in e.g. the USA.

  • What are the best bits?

Being part of a highly capable, diverse and multi-disciplinary team to support the UK government to bring technological advances in vaccines manufacture to the public at a time of great need. It has been amazing to carry on the work I did to bring the AZ COVID-19 vaccine from tech transfer to commercialisation and leverage that experience to other vaccines and infrastructure investments. I am now seeing life slowly returning to pre-pandemic days, feeling proud and privileged to know that I had a part in making that possible via the vaccination efforts.

  • And the challenges?

Engineers need to go to where we are needed to be involved in initiatives that make a global impact. That may mean a compromise between work and home-life, for example, living away from home for long periods of time. This is still not so typical for females, so it is good to know the coping strategies with regards to downtime when being the only woman contractor on site. I chose to become a contractor so I can be free to work on projects that really mean something to me and are worth the trade-offs of being away from my family. Mentors can be found in many guises, and there’s always a handy life-hack to learn from colleagues as well as friends.

  • Is a PhD/EngD essential for your role?

No it is not essential, but it certainly helps a lot! It is called a PhD for a reason no matter what the subject – it trains you in a way of thinking and communicating in ways, that no other experience will, to solve unknown problems, and it often tests the limits of your imagination and perseverance.

The main skill I continue to develop is to be able to communicate complex scientific and engineering concepts to different audiences. Some people need all the detail, but in a language that they can understand from other engineers, architects, politicians, investors and students;  some only need the high level consequences of decisions without the background, but not losing any nuances of the key contributing factors.

  • What’s the progression like?

The biotech sector is booming right now, and there is plenty of scope for progression. Personally, I feel like I have achieved where I want to go, and plan to do this for the rest of my career. I am financially free and can chose what projects I do, and where I work. This freedom happened sooner than I expected; it took me a while to recognise that I had reached my career goals and to feel the confidence that I could say no to work that I did not want to do. My ultimate aim is to leave the world a better place i.e. a legacy beyond my work. Being part of major vaccine initiatives is a significant part of fulfilling that desire.

  • What are your top tips for researchers looking to enter bioprocess engineering?

Please do – we need more talented people like you now to be ready for future pandemics! You will recognise many concepts from other branches of chemical engineering – the fundamentals of mass and energy balances, component specification, process flow diagrams and P&IDs still all apply. There are lots of directly transferable skills from sectors requiring high containment (semiconductor, volatile solvents, nuclear) that are core to working with vaccines, so experience from other sectors is all valuable.

The biopharmaceutical industry has some specific terminology and concepts that takes some time getting used to, as well as a necessarily onerous regulatory compliance landscape. ISPE good practise and baseline guides provide a great overview of these along with practical examples of where they are used. Always keep the customer i.e. the patient, in mind in whatever you design/specify/build/validate. There are lots of resources out there to upskill via the IChemE and the ASTSN Home | AT Skills Training Network.

  • Any specific insights for those graduating into a recession?

I graduated into a recession twice and did not get any of the jobs that I applied for from both the milk-round or speculative applications. First time, I discovered the EngD, which was the perfect mix of working and academia.

Second time, it was whilst I was struggling to write up my thesis, getting married to someone who was not geographically mobile, and only sure of what I did not want to do i.e. work in the finance sector.  It was only when I wrote down what I wanted my ideal career goals and potential paths to be, then communicated that to my network, that I got my first job. It was not quite what I wanted on some fronts, but I asked a trusted mentor and we agreed that it would be a great steppingstone to get me to the career goals I had envisioned.

 

Profile portrait courtesy of Geraldine Curtis, Women-in-Engineering-Photography-Booklet.pdf (skillsandlearningace.com) taken at UCL ACBE in 2019

Working in sustainable development

uczjsdd12 October 2021

Dr Guy Bullen has an EngD in Decision Making from UCL (2009). After working at a large international company for 25 years, he founded ToBeToAct, to promote sustainable development for organisations, teams, and individuals. Guy told us about his career journey, and passed on tips for researchers looking to follow a similar path – including those graduating into a tough and uncertain economic climate.

  • Tell us about your current role

I have created my own small company in coaching, consulting, and training. The focus is to help emerging businesses develop and grow sustainably. For me, the picture is quite clear: given the facts on climate change, the exhaustion of natural resources and the collapse of biodiversity, we’re heading for an extremely complicated time. In my work I present the latest research to people – which can be scary for them. I encourage them to think about how they are going to create a thriving enterprise in this environment where everything is changing. I believe the key is to cultivate the better part of our human nature in any way we can–and this applies, perhaps especially, to business. This may sound idealistic, but in fact it is a pragmatic (maybe even selfish) approach: the only way to survive when things get really tough is to create oases where there is mutual respect. Otherwise we simply go back into tribalism.

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

I took a bit of an unusual route into academia. I already had significant management responsibilities when I started my doctorate. I was selected, as part of a talent initiative, to do a Masters degree. The course leaders appreciated my Masters dissertation and suggested I go on to do a doctorate on the same subject. I did, but as I was doing 60+ hours a week alongside the EngD, it wasn’t easy! If there’s one lesson I could pass on to people thinking of doing something similar, it would be to negotiate beforehand with your employer that they give you the time to work on your doctorate, and make sure they give you the days off that they promise you. Be far more firm than I was about protecting your doctorate time!

Had the perfect opportunity presented itself to stay in academia I would have taken it. However, I was already on a good salary, and post-doc wages were not appealing, especially as I had a family. So I stayed in industry after I graduated, writing the business plan for the company’s operations division (12,000 people), and then taking on the additional responsibilities of managing volunteering and implementing the company’s sustainable development into its operations. After leaving the company, this experience set me up well for delivering training in sustainable development.

  • How did graduating into the last recession impact your career path?

As I was already in work, at first it didn’t impact me personally. However, I was doing the business plan for the company’s operations, and saw the impact in the financial cuts and headcount reductions due to the crisis. Furthermore, although the decision-making model I devised within my doctoral studies could have been very useful to them, I was going through a tough time personally with a divorce, I was under pressure at work, and it was not the best time in the company to bring in innovative approaches to decision making. Eventually the cuts hit me, and four years later my role was cut and I took redundancy.

  • What does a normal day look like for you?

In July and August there is little happening for independent consultants, and I usually use this time for research and attending training courses. During the rest of the year there are four types of typical day:

  • Teaching start-ups about business and sustainable development. Normally they are classes of about 15 people who are creating their own business. These will be two-full-day sessions where I share the latest facts on climate change, the economy, resource depletion and biodiversity collapse. I provide tools for them to build a collaborative business and to do their risk analysis in view to equip them to build resilient businesses.
  • English classes for Masters students at a Paris university. Instead of giving a typical English lesson, I run workshops on leadership, decision-making, conflict resolution, and get the students to discuss those issues, which are of high interest to them, in English. I don’t teach grammar – I hate grammar!
  • Doing research on the collaborative economy, sustainable development and where society is heading.
  • Days full of administration and accountancy. When you own your own business you spend inordinate amounts of time doing the things that the finance or legal departments do for you in big companies!

 

  • What are the best bits?

The best bits usually happen on the courses I deliver to start-ups. They’re two days long, and towards the end of the second day, when people realise they can build a business without necessarily being “nasty” people, that’s amazing to watch. It’s a message that goes against a lot of what we have been taught. In the States in the 1980s it was sometimes fashionable to state that “Greed is Good”. But the research I have encountered (for example Elinor Ostrom’s work on the Commons, Axelrod’s “The Evolution of Cooperation” or Pinker’s “The Better Angels of our Nature”) shows that when you create the right context, altruistic behaviour comes “naturally”; and that collaboration and respect for those who work with you are actually the levers for high performance, which leads to profitable and sustainable businesses. It’s a wonderful moment for me when I see the penny drop and attendees realise they can make money and be a force for good in the world. When people thank me afterwards for helping them to see business in a completely different light, those are the most rewarding times for me.

  • What are the challenges?

One of the biggest challenges came from leaving a huge company; moving from being part of a team of 100,000 people to being a single lone person trying to start a business. For a number of months I was a little disoriented, so I didn’t do anything productive, which I think would be common for many people in this situation. I’ve moved on from that now, but it was a challenge. The administration that comes with running your own business is also challenging, especially as I was used to relying on a lot of support functions in a large company.

  • What skills from the PhD do you use now?

I’m not the best salesperson, so I didn’t really use the fruit of my doctorate inside the company. More recently, I put the model I devised on my business’ website, but I didn’t get any clients asking about it, perhaps because it was still too academic. So really the way I use it is for myself, and my own business, and sometimes when I’m coaching I use it to help people think through their decisions.

However, as I open up a new area for my activity (helping communities of ecovillages), I believe I will be able to use my research, twelve years after completing it!

  • What next?

Given the current context I will be orienting my business more towards support for alternative communities such as ecovillages. I’m helping a friend and colleague who teaches at Paris University in his research into the functioning of ecovillages. He will also help me in my research project on the parameters that generate contexts that generate the higher part of human nature. Alongside this, I feel I am at last in place and in a context (alternative lifestyles) where I can put the model I created during my EngD into practice. Linking the use of my model into my vision of cultivating our higher nature gives me the opportunity to put it to work for a really worthwhile purpose at last! There is an association of ecovillages in France, and I’m linked into the central network of people who finance ecovillages, and so the different levels of reflections on decision-making that I can bring to bear could help at that level, as well as within an actual ecovillage. This will be a totally new path for me, but that is where I want to go, and that is where I would use the results of my research to enable these groups of people to make better decisions and to live better together.

  • What are your top tips for our researchers?

If you want to get into a big company, connect your research or your wider skills to a business problem, and connect to a person whose “survival” depends upon resolving that problem. There’s a distinction between addressing a generic business problem, and somebody whose heart and guts are on the line to resolve the problem where your research can help. From the first you’ll get lip service, from the second you’ll get 300% support.

Also, learn from my mistakes: when I first went into consulting, I thought I had the best thing since sliced bread with my doctorate and I tried to convince people to buy my research. But I was so full of what I could contribute, I didn’t listen to what the needs of the potential customers were. You need to connect to the business and personal needs of the people you’ve identified as your potential customers.

  • Any specific tips for researchers in the current uncertain climate?

My doctorate was about decision-making in uncertain and complex environments, so hopefully I have some tips! Firstly, consider targeting smaller businesses. You’ll probably earn less money, but you’ll have more impact. My time in big business was fantastic in many ways, and I’m proud of what I achieved there, but if you want to bring substantive change it’s easier to do it in small companies.

Secondly, have a vision of what you want your contribution to the world to be, and be flexible about how you do it. One of the pieces of research I came across in my doctorate (the Cynefin model, developed by Dave Snowden, formerly of IBM) shows that in a complex and chaotic environment, those who succeed are not those who get their ducks in a row and then follow a predefined plan. Instead Snowden talks about “sensing” what is happening, then acting into the environment, and then adjusting. Use rational analysis, but when all is said and done, rely on your intuition and your sensing of the environment and the path you need to take to achieve your life vision. My research on decision making showed that our major life decisions (such as our life partner) are made intuitively.

 

How can you use your research skills in Academic Publishing?

uczjsdd1 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!

 

Elpida’s career journey from a PhD to becoming Engineering Education Developer & Coordinator at UCL

uczjvwa19 April 2016

elpidaElpida Makrygianni has a PhD in Computer Science and Electronic & Electrical Engineering and now works as an Engineering Education Developer & Coordinator at UCL. Elpida spoke to UCL Careers about her post-PhD career.

Tell us about your job.

My job focuses on developing and managing a comprehensive suite of engineering engagement and education programmes for children and young people aged 5 -19 years old from London and across the UK. Central to my role is the development of a Pre-19 engagement strategy, which increases access and widens diversity in every sense, where engineering is seen as intrinsically worthwhile and relevant to young people from all walks of life. Through our programmes we seek to change the stereotyped perceptions of suitable choices and careers in young people – both girls and boys – their teachers, parents, carers and youth workers, by raising awareness of the exciting and wide-ranging careers in engineering.

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

After studying computer science and engineering with genetics, social science and economics at undergraduate and postgraduate levels, my passion for research led me to a PhD in Artificial Intelligent Systems mapping China’s economic growth. In the first year of my PhD, I took on a role as a teaching assistant for undergraduate students and research assistant on EU projects. Being a doctoral student was one of the most exciting, transformative yet stressful periods of my life. When I finished my PhD, I took a six-month break and travelled around Europe. In 2008, I returned to the UK and started working for the Gates Foundation and the Hewlett Foundation on science and technology educational projects in the UK, US and China. In 2011, I was offered a job opportunity as a consultant for the UK Department for Education to design training and educational materials for school pupils with autism. Before moving to UCL, I worked at Cambridge University researching the role of STEM education in schools across the country in rural and urban areas.

What does an average working day look like?

Each working day is very different, from visiting schools, to running activities and events, to designing new programmes, working with staff and students on existing and new activities, talking at conferences, writing articles and grant proposals, meeting and working with industry partners to supporting schools with bespoke tailored programmes. Most of my time is spent out of the office. My schedule is usually quite demanding and I am always on the move so maintaining a happy, healthy work life balance is extremely important for me.

How does your PhD help you in your job?

My doctoral studies allowed me to develop good project management, communication and writing skills but also knowledge on engineering education. The choices made during my PhD and throughout my career path, also tested my ability to adapt, achieve and be effective with different teams and work environments. In addition, it encouraged me to be brave when selecting exciting new roles – that might have seemed out of my reach at first – greatly increasing my self-confidence in the process.

What are the best things about your job?

The most fascinating part of my job is working with staff and students to create exciting activities based on cutting edge research conducted at the labs with a strong social context or environmental focus. I am constantly given a unique opportunity to learn about advances in areas of engineering while meeting extraordinary individuals conducting research in our faculty. Inspiring pupils about engineering and enabling them to develop their problem-solving skills, knowledge and self-confidence, while sparking their creativity and curiosity around STEM careers and degrees is what makes my job very special.

What are the downsides?

There are no real downsides or big challenges in my role, but working with a network of over 400 schools, thousands of pupils and 500 academics and students can be quite overwhelming and extremely busy at times. This pace of work can be invigorating for some people and discouraging for others.

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

Researchers wanting to move into this field will need to be quite entrepreneurial, independent, good time-managers and communicators as well as qualified and experienced in the fields of engineering and social science. Work experience or working as an assistant can be an excellent way to find out if a role is for you or not.

Being a Research Scientist in Schlumberger

uczjvwa24 March 2015

peter-SchlumbergerPeter Johnson, Research Scientist for Schlumberger, completed his MEng and PhD in Engineering at UCL and tells us about his experience working for Schlumberger.

How did I get the role I am in today:

I am a research scientist for Schlumberger in Cambridge, UK. We supply technology to oil & gas companies (e.g. exploration, drilling, production), in 85+ countries and invest ~$1.2bn annually in research.

I found a job advert on an online jobs board (jobs.ac.uk), I emailed my C.V. and then went through 5 stages of interview to get the job. I wanted a career in renewable energy, but applied for this job as an exception because of the great research infrastructure, the opportunity to travel and get practical experience (my first 18 months was spent on oil fields in Siberia), and the focus on fluid machinery, which is my area of interest, and the good impression that the people made on me.

What I like about working in my role:

Travel, industry exposure, interesting technology, challenging real world problems, funding for real research, the infrastructure to really bring a technology to market, smart people, great lifestyle (genuine 9-5), good pay/benefits.

What are my biggest challenges?

Large companies (126,000+ people) are chaotic and confusing; is extracting natural resources motivating?

To what extent do I use my specialist knowledge and/or higher level skills obtained from my PhD?

I don’t use my very specialist knowledge, but I do use my grounding in physics and engineering, which was enhanced by my PhD. Lots of analytical skills are also transferable (e.g. after learning fluid mechanics, electromagnetics is quite similar!). My practical experience during my PhD is very valuable, and above all my ability to analyse is essential to my job (including to the level of peer reviewed journal papers). 

My top tips:

The most important thing is to do your best at the job at hand, as this will allow you to show how capable you are. You cannot plan your career, so while you may aspire to particular jobs, don’t restrict yourself when you’re actually searching, because there’s so much out there that you don’t know – embrace the uncertainty as it is very exciting!

Peter will be running the following Employer Led Skills Workshop for Researchers this Wednesday 25th March:

Interviews – Communicating with Impact

More information can be found here

Research students book here

Research staff book here