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Who wants to hear about working at WHO?

uczjsdd19 May 2022

Dr Sarah Paulin gained her PhD in Pharmaceutics and Microbiology here at UCL, and is now a Technical Officer in Antimicrobial Resistance at the World Health Organization. Sarah kindly took the time to chat to us about her career journey and current role, and shared tips for researchers wanting to follow a similar path.

What are you up to at the moment?

I work at WHO headquarters in Geneva in the area of antimicrobial resistance, which was the topic of my PhD. Now I focus less on the microbiology and more on supporting countries in their efforts to contain antimicrobial resistance, primarily focusing on lower-income countries, in all regions, but largely the African region.

How did you get from your PhD to here?

My PhD was laboratory-based, and while writing up my thesis I realised I was motivated by working with people and building capacity in under-resourced areas. Lab work can form part of that, but it’s one small aspect of the larger picture, and I really enjoyed working with that larger picture. For me, that meant moving into Public Health. Knowing this, I took every opportunity to ensure my thesis had a focus on the public health aspects of my work. I also took advantage of UCL courses, in particular for PhD students wanting to move out of academia, where I gained insight into what was possible, and learned more about my personal skillset and what was transferable from a lab-based PhD. I also attended a UCL CV session, which helped me get my CV ready. And I started talking to people within UCL and externally, trying to understand my options.

WHO was not the first or only place I applied. I also applied to The Clinton Health Access Initiative, for a role straddling lab work and public health. In the end I didn’t take the job, but it was a great experience in trying to sell myself outside academia. Then I saw a consultancy role based in a WHO regional office in the Philippines. I tailored my CV, sending it to a few peers to check it made sense, and I was given an interview. They were looking for someone specialising in antimicrobial resistance, and at the time few people had completed a PhD in that area, so my background helped. It meant relocating to the Philippines, but that fit in ok with my life at the time. And the role was only for three months, but everyone has to start somewhere, so I went for it!

I was a consultant for one and a half years after they extended the consultancy from its initial three months. It didn’t have the permanent nature or safety net of some other options, but I was willing to stick it out and wait for a staff position, and when it came up I won it and stayed in Manilla for three and a half years, travelling around the 39 countries and areas the region covers. After that I was recruited to move to headquarters, where I have applied and moved up into two different jobs, and that’s where I am now.

What were the toughest parts of the transition?

Going into the unknown was challenging. Once you go outside of the academic path, it’s hard to get back in, so it’s a difficult decision to make. I was also unsure I would even be accepted into a public health role – and I was actually willing to take a volunteering role to begin with because of this. But taking the classes UCL Careers offered, and meeting others who were also looking to make the jump beyond academia, was incredibly helpful and reassuring, because then I knew I wasn’t alone or crazy in wanting to get off the academic path. It’s only when you start talking to others and go to these presentations of others who have made the transition successfully, that you realise you can do it as well. I realised I just needed to try and believe in myself, which is not always easy! But one of the qualities you can learn during a PhD is to be able to believe in yourself.

It was also challenging financially at times, and it helps if you have a bit of a safety net as well, which not everyone has. Volunteering and internships are often unpaid or low pay, consultancy can be poorly paid (I lived in a tiny studio in Manilla when I first started), but at the end of the day I felt it was worth it.

Thankfully, things are slowly getting better for people wanting to enter the field, as today there is a small stipend for WHO interns, and of course Geneva is a more expensive place to live, so people should also look for options in WHO regional or country offices, which can be more affordable. There are also many opportunities for scholarships once you start looking into them. It takes longer to apply, but there are possibilities to get additional funding to the stipend for these opportunities.

Is it normal to start as an intern at WHO?

Definitely. In non-COVID times, WHO offers internships, which is something I had done during my undergrad. Mine was a very short internship, just to get an insight into public health before going into the lab side, and at the time I didn’t think I was coming back, but now I’ve come full circle! So people usually join as an intern, maybe during the summers of their Bachelors or Masters programme. Internships are anywhere between 6 weeks and two or three months, so some people may be able to fit it in during a PhD if that can be agreed upon with a supervisor etc., and then you’d have some public health experience on your CV by the time you graduate. Then an appropriate consultancy opportunity might arise, and once you’re a consultant you get to know a region and technical area, so of course your CV is much more favourable if a relevant staff role becomes available. If you want to move into global public health, getting to know the realities on the ground through in-country experience is a great place to start.

What does a normal working day look like for you?

Currently, I’m creating a new global guidance document to support countries in developing their policies around antimicrobial resistance. This covers technical innovations that need to be brought in, labs and diagnosis being one of the facets, but it also looks at infection prevention control, and at appropriate treatments. So you might find me working on that. But I would also have regular calls with different regional offices to organise training within countries; most recently we’re supporting Jordan for a leadership and governance training in this area, and I had a call with a regional office based in Egypt and the country office based in Jordan, and spoke to the country counterparts to organise the planning.

I would also probably join a webinar series and present on my area of work, and an external meeting with other implementing partners to offer input and advice into what they’re doing. And I would also do very normal admin, such as putting out a request for a proposal because the WHO needs support in technical assistance in country “X”. For example, in Sierra Leone we need someone to fly in and support them in the costing of their national policy, so I must run through the recruitment process and competitive bidding and get the contract in place, and then manage the resource mobilisation and financing for the role. So in any one day, or maybe week, there’s a big spectrum of work, from global technical to very country-specific support, and from bigger picture work to more fiddly admin work that supports all of it.

What are the best bits?

Definitely seeing the public health changes at the country level. When you organise and deliver a successful training to countries, be it in how they more effectively use their resources in terms of interventions, or ensuring their plans and policies are comprehensive and fit for purpose, and then you see that put into practice, it’s great. For example, if in two or three years down the line from your work, you see a reduction in inappropriate use of a certain antibiotic, that’s the most rewarding part for me. I also personally enjoy working in different locations and getting to know different cultures and health systems, I find it exciting, even if others might find it challenging, so that’s been one of the best bits.

Also, although no one works in public health because they’re chasing money (!), the UN does have quite a few benefits; there is great pension, child education, and health insurance for example. So if you view it as a whole, it’s a good package from an employer.

And what about the worst bits?

Admin, admin, admin. Working in a large UN organisation can be very bureaucratic. There are a lot of processes we have to adhere to and lots of forms to be filled out. This is all for good reason, but it makes putting things into practice rather slow, so that’s probably the most challenging thing. Another challenge is having to be careful about representing the organisation appropriately, because when I speak in my role, I represent the WHO.

Is a PhD an advantage in your role?

The PhD wasn’t asked for as a consultant, but for my most recent position, having a PhD was a desired educational background. So the further up you go at WHO or other public health agencies, the more advanced educational experience, such as a PhD, helps. And at the next level up from me it may be basically mandatory. I think there’s a mixture of reasons for that. There’s the very specific technical expertise that can be useful. There may even be slightly added credibility that the title brings. But there is also the transferable skill-set a PhD develops. I did my PhD in a very specific bacteria with a very specific resistance-mechanism, but it gave me the foundational science for the big-picture global and technical planning and policy work I do now. And as immediate results are rare in public health, the self-motivation, self-discipline, and perseverance a PhD instils is also extremely useful. And the communication skills, gained from writing papers and a thesis and presenting at conferences, are key.

What’s the progression like?

There aren’t many levels at the WHO, and it’s not automatic that one would progress through them. You have consultancies and staff positions. As a staff member at WHO we have “P” levels, from P1 to P6. I started as a P2 in my first contract after the consultancy, which I think was because of my PhD, I suspect if I hadn’t had that I would have started at P1. Where you start is based on years of experience generally, but you’re not automatically promoted as the years pass, you have to look for new opportunities as and when they arise, and then re-apply. I was in the P2 staff role for two and a half years and then moved to Geneva for a short-term role and then applied for my position at P3 level, usually requires five years of experience plus the educational qualification, usually a Masters, and then as of one year ago I applied for a P4 position, which is usually seven years of experience in the relevant area. The PhD usually counts partially as experience if it’s related to the area, and if say, you also had teaching responsibilities, that would partially count, so anything you did away from your pure research will count towards your years of experience. And then you can keep applying, and the goal for me is to eventually work in a country office again. So there’s not so many levels, and you do have to constantly re-apply. There is also not a great deal of job security – nothing is forever – but that also keeps it interesting because you’re kept on your toes, looking for work that continues to intrigue you.

So you’re not on a permanent contract?

No, the concept of a permanent position does not exist at WHO anymore, we generally have one to two year contracts that will be extended based on availability of funds and need. So even though it seems like it might be more stable than academia, sadly, it’s really not. People do tend to find new jobs if they want them though, so it’s a bit different to the precarity of academia in that way – and especially if you’re willing to be more flexible and move location, there will always be opportunities. I was flexible in moving to Manilla and Geneva to get these roles. I now have a family so the next decision will probably be to move again to another country, but that will be a decision I have to make with my family. But for me, I love the work and the travel, it works for me, but I know it wouldn’t work for everyone.

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

  • Find opportunities to volunteer or learn more where you are, and add those types of experiences to your CV to set yourself apart from others. For example, I took part in the Brilliant Club, developing educational materials based on my PhD area and supporting and educating pupils from underprivileged areas in London, which strengthened my communication skills and my CV.
  • Take any opportunity you can to test out whether public health is even something that would interest you – it’s not for everyone. Of course, those opportunities will also help build your CV.
  • Talk to people. And start that as soon as possible. UCL has many opportunities for networking, and LinkedIn and other online platforms are increasingly useful for this. And in the world we’re now in, there are so many opportunities to join webinars and virtual conferences and listen in and then reach other to speakers or other attendees.
  • Don’t just wait for the recruitment process to take its own turn, be proactive. One of the things I’ve learned through getting the consultancy role and later positions is that sending a personal email to the person recruiting may be helpful. They may not respond, but they may, and either way they may remember your name as someone enthusiastic with good questions.

Any extra advice for people graduating into an uncertain climate?

There definitely aren’t fewer opportunities in this field at the moment, and it actually may be that our more flexible and balanced working environment – with more people being able to work remotely and not necessarily having to immediately change country – means that these opportunities are open to more people. So I think it’s actually an exciting time to get into the job market. And as the world is a lot more virtual now, gaining additional skills to suit the world we’re living in will be beneficial for any area of work.

Working in a learned society

uczjsdd9 November 2021

Dr Curtis Asante has a PhD in Neuropharmacology from UCL and is now an Associate Director at the Microbiology Society. We caught up with Curtis to hear about his career journey, and to get his advice, especially for those moving out of academia during uncertain economic times. 

  • Tell us about your current role and organisation.

I am the Associate Director for Members’ Programmes at the Microbiology Society, which is a membership charity for scientists interested in microbes, their effects and their practical uses. It is one of the largest microbiology societies in Europe with a worldwide membership based in universities, industry, hospitals, research institutes and schools. I’m part of a senior management team that includes 4 others (including the CEO) overseeing all work that goes on within the organisation. A large part of my role involves leading on the development, implementation and evaluation of activities that support the microbiology community with a focus on building communities and maximising their impact and influence. I mainly work across conferences and events, journal development and policy and engagement.

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

This is the forth role I’ve had since I left the lab as a postdoc back in 2012. I actually always wanted to be an academic, which was the reason I embarked on a postdoc after my PhD. My postdoc studies took me to Columbia University and the City College of New York and it was during this time that I realised my heart wasn’t in it enough to commit to the traditional academic career path. I started applying for roles that would still keep me connected to academic research without having to do any actual lab work or apply for grants and I managed to get a role as an Editor at Nature Communications, which at the time wasn’t even 2 years old.

The first job out of the lab was definitely the most difficult to obtain – I sent a lot of applications! I did reach out to a friend of a friend who was in publishing to ask them about the different roles in order to get a better understanding of the sector and so I could be as prepared as possible when going through the different interview rounds. For editorial roles, particularly at Springer Nature, you need to get into the habit of reading papers quickly and efficiently, picking out the key pieces of information, and making decisions as to whether the submitted manuscript is in scope for the journal and meets the editorial threshold. You also need to get used to reading papers well outside your area of expertise and try to think about what expertise you’d need to bring in from external peer reviewers.

My recruitment journey included a telephone interview with the Chief Editor to establish my motivations, interests and knowledge about the journal; an assessment which required me to read three scientific papers within an hour, identify the key points from the paper and have a discussion with the interviewers where they could ask me questions to see if I had the right skills to become an Editor. I also got to meet several members of the team. It was quite a tough process because I did not feel comfortable at any stage during the process and although I know I didn’t ace the interview, what did get me through was that I was able to explain my reasoning behind all of my statements and I didn’t rigidly stick to my position when challenged with new information, which are really important attributes for all editors.

After my role at Nature Communications, I moved on to become a Project Manager for the UK Regenerative Medicine Platform Immunomodulation Hub based at King’s College London. After this role, I moved to Cancer Research UK where I was a Research Programme Manager. The interviews for those roles required me to deliver presentations on my approach to the roles, followed by competency questions to demonstrate that I’d be effective in my role.

  • Did graduating during the credit crunch have an impact on your career path?

Honestly, I don’t think it did at all. I was aware of what was happening around me and the uncertainty due to the economic climate but I knew what I wanted to do and I had an opportunity to do it so that’s what I did. I think its also quite telling at I moved into my current role during the midst of the pandemic when lots of people were facing uncertain futures with their jobs. Again, I saw an opportunity and I went for it because I knew I’d regret it more if I didn’t.

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

Every day is different but I do a lot of talking! I manage three Heads of Department and I’m in contact with each of them many times over the course of a week, checking on progress and sorting issues. I’m also part of lots of project groups where I help to ensure that they are aligned with everything else going on the Society. Whenever I get downtime, I’m always thinking about what’s next, forward planning and making sure that things get reported to or signed off by the right stakeholders within our governance structure at the right time so that as an organisation, we can deliver against our ambitious strategy.

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

This is the most strategic role I’ve had to date so I never get bored and I work with a lot of super committed and talented individuals, which definitely makes my job easier. Also, everyone is just really nice.

  • What are the biggest challenges?

I’m having to have more honest and sometimes difficult conversations than I’ve ever had at any time during my career with all levels of seniority in order to solve issues and keep things moving in the right direction. It’s really encouraging when these discussions lead to progress but it often takes a lot of work to get there because problems never get solved overnight. I’ve definitely had to get comfortable with being uncomfortable!

  • Is a PhD essential for your role?

Not at all. However, what the PhD has provided me with is a really good understanding of academics and the pressures they face as well as a very good understanding of the research landscape. I learned the value of good, clear communication from my time as a PhD student, mainly because my supervisor at the time was such a great communicator. I also developed skills in distilling complex information and drawing conclusions from presented data. My PhD studies also made me more resilient due to failed experiment after failed experiment and constantly having to defend my research. In hindsight, I think my PhD also made it much easier to interact with people with different personalities because of the diversity of characters I encountered.

  • Where does one go from here?

I honestly don’t know. I actually don’t have a plan and when I applied for this role, I wasn’t looking to be an Associate Director of anything, but the job description was exactly what I was looking for. However, now that I’m in this role I do see myself continuing to be in leadership roles, although at some point before I retire, I think I would like to experience working in a non-scientific organisation – perhaps one that focuses primarily on social issues.

  • What are your top career tips for our researchers?
  1. Don’t underestimate the value of mentors. I have one formal mentor and several more informal mentors. My mentors are people that I can get advice from that don’t work at the same organisation. These are people that give critical advice on how to approach issues. These are people that can ask difficult questions and while not all of them are more professionally experienced than me, they all have something to offer.
  2. If you’re not sure what you want to do career-wise, get into the habit of writing your thoughts down on paper (or e-notebooks). The point is to make sure you have some kind of written record of your likes/dislikes, the reasons why you want to do things, the areas you want to specialise in, the work environments you want etc. I’ve found that there’s something about seeing written words that really helps to hone the decision-making process and it helps me to be more objective because it forces me to internally challenge why I’m making certain decisions, and if those reasons are the right reasons.
  3. I know plans really work for some people, and I’ve heard some really impressive anecdotes about speaking goals into existence, but you really don’t need to have every aspect of your life planned out to be successful, no matter what your situation is. Life is very changeable, and sometimes it’s really important that you’re able to adapt by making decisions that aren’t part of the plan.
  4. Make sure your decisions are driven by a combination of emotion and logic. It was really hard for me to admit to myself that I no longer wanted to be an academic. I felt like I’d let my field down and that I was in someway giving up. Whilst I have no regrets about doing a PhD, I don’t actually see myself as a scientist despite the qualification and it’s taken a long time for me to be ok with that. If I had stuck to what was expected of me logically, I think I’d be pretty competent as a postdoc or staff scientist somewhere, but I know I wouldn’t be truly happy. For me, my happiness has always been most important.

 

Making a career of careers

uczjsdd3 August 2021

Dr Alice Moon has a PhD in Biochemistry, and now works here at UCL Careers as a careers consultant for the Engineering faculty, working with departments to offer careers support to their students. Alice kindly told how she got here, and shared her top tips for researchers considering leaving academia.

How did you move from your PhD to this role?

I did my PhD for the classic terrible reason that I didn’t know what else to do. I performed well in my degree, and I had a tutor who said I should do a PhD, so I did. I hadn’t done much of the careers thinking I now recognise as so important. Despite this, I quite enjoyed many aspects of research, and I found myself wanting to be an academic. However, after my PhD I did a couple of post-docs which generated pretty unexciting results, so it would have been a bit of a battle to stay in academia. And at the same time I felt like my values were changing. I looked around at work and didn’t see any role models I wanted to be. It still seemed really difficult in academia even at the supervisory level, with constant applications for funding, a need to move around to get jobs, and being impacted by larger institutional decisions.

So I left my post-doc, but again I did it without doing much careers thinking. I simply knew I no longer wanted to be an academic, and had a feeling there must be something better suited to me out there. I didn’t know what my options were with a PhD, and I’d always used and been interested in science, so I tried to get into intellectual property, but I wasn’t hearing back on my applications. My partner at the time was a scientist and wanting to leave, and he was applying to accountancy grad schemes. I felt like that wasn’t for me, but then he told me about the National Audit Office because I was interested in society, and encouraged me to apply. I sort of applied on a whim, but then I made it through the various application stages, and I ended up in an accountancy graduate scheme.

I probably went into that role thinking I had it all sussed. I didn’t feel I needed to be the best at it, so I thought I could just do enough to get through the exams and it would be fine. But it was so difficult, in fact one of the most difficult years of my life. Graduate schemes want 150% from you, so I was studying and taking exams as well as doing the work. Probably from week two I had doubts about accountancy as a career path for me, but there was so much momentum – for example, in week four I had two exams which I had to pass or I’d be asked to leave – so I didn’t have the brain capacity to think about whether it was right or wrong for me, I just had to focus on the work. I took 11 of 12 exams, and passed 10 of them. I stayed for just over a year, and then I left. It was definitely valuable to learn about financial reports and business models, which I’d had no understanding of as a researcher. But it wasn’t the right step for my career, and it was so full-on that afterwards I had to take time out to recover.

So for about three years I was focusing on personal rather than professional development. For me, that meant a mixture of travel and working in a café start-up, and temping. I wanted to keep things light, and not take on anything too new and serious, because I wanted the next step to be more considered. I did a lot of networking as part of the career exploration process, and took an interest in other people’s jobs and what they liked about them. That was essentially the first time I was reflecting on what I wanted and liked in a job. And during those conversations, a friend of mine inspired me. She studied drama/dance as her degree and now works as an office manager in a media company. When I asked her how she chose her path, she told me she’d thought about what she liked in a job, and she realised she didn’t want to have to wear stiff smart clothing, she wanted to work in a pretty environment with nice lighting and furniture, and she wanted people to thank her lots and appreciate her. And that’s what she gets from her current job. It was a bit of a revelation for me, as it was the first time I’d ever encountered someone thinking about the more day-to-day factors involved in being at work.

As she is one of the happiest people I know in their job, I tried to take the same approach of thinking about what I wanted day-to-day. I realised I didn’t want the output of my work to be a report. And I started to recognise that my strengths were in interpersonal understanding, and that I wanted to work with people. I wanted to work more flexibly than a post-doc – I didn’t want my field and skillset to be so narrow that it dictated where in the world I could work, I wanted flexibility to live life on my terms. I wanted a sense that my skills were innate in some way, they were part of me. I didn’t want to have to have technical expertise, for example, using a very specific piece of machinery. All of this led me to gravitate towards coaching, but I didn’t want to take a coaching qualification without knowing it was the right next step for me. And then I met someone who worked at UCL Careers, and she told me about her job as a careers consultant, which entailed one-to-one guidance and groupwork. There was a qualification involved, which definitely wasn’t a draw for me as I didn’t really want to commit to another qualification, but the employer would pay for it, and I got to start the work and see if I would like it before embarking on that study. It sounded good, and so here I am!

What does an average day look like?

It’s really varied, and often depends on the time of year. Seeing students is a big part of the role – offering guidance and practice interviews. In the Autumn and Spring terms delivering workshops is a key feature, so is the planning and preparation for those workshops. I also work closely with academics and academic departments, figuring out what they want for their students. In our team in engineering there’s also someone who looks after employer engagement and someone who looks after sourcing internships and vacancies, so I’m often liaising with them and informing my work through their knowledge. I also work closely with colleagues on projects, which can take various forms, from putting together new events to thinking about online content.

What are the best things about the role?

I find working with students massively rewarding. I enjoy the conversations we have, I feel like I learn a lot, and I feel I have (usually) helped them move on by the end of our conversation, so there’s a tangible immediate value to my work. Thinking back to my days as a post-doc, it would take a long time to see the impact of what I was doing, so it’s refreshing to see the impact there and then, and especially reflecting on my own journey, I know this career thinking is important. I also enjoy being in a university setting, where I get to work with so many stimulating ideas; whether that’s the most innovative teaching and coaching methods, or the engineering innovation that impacts employment and careers for the students I support. I also enjoy working with my colleagues and getting to be creative in how we approach the task of helping students.

What are the challenges?

The role is incredibly varied, which I really like, but I also know it’s a very different way of working to when I was in research or accountancy. I have to do lots of different things well now, so there’s a lot of time and quality-management involved. I’m no longer focusing on one thing and making it perfect. Instead I need to get lots of things done in a way that’s high quality but efficient, and allows space for a broad range of tasks. There’s also a lot of managing a busy calendar, and managing it around lots of colleagues who are also managing busy calendars themselves.

Is your PhD useful in the role?

A PhD isn’t essential for the role, although I have several colleagues who also have PhDs. There are definitely some similarities between my research years and this role; I get to work with ideas, and I have a fair amount of autonomy, I’m always learning and can take a scholarly approach to my work. And an ability to research means you can stay up to date in innovations in teaching, coaching, employment and recruitment processes etc. Having the PhD experience also helps me when working with students considering moving to PhD study, or with PhD students thinking about what to do next.

What’s the progression like?

It’s great to be in this sector as it feels there are loads of opportunities to progress in different directions, which is refreshing compared to my time in academia. For me personally, I really enjoy our core practices of guidance and coaching, so that’s something I want to develop, and perhaps take that on as an area of expertise if I move to Senior Careers Consultant level. There are also ways to move upwards if you want to take on managerial roles – Team Leaders, Deputy Heads, Heads. And in Higher Education more widely there are lots of opportunities to move around and support students and/or research in different ways, and movement between roles isn’t unusual.

Some careers consultants will go freelance at some point and work with private clients. I have considered having more of a portfolio career in that way, and if I did ever want to do that, this is a great platform to start from. So I feel very positive about the opportunities, and I feel very strongly that I have control over what I want my role to look like in future. I’m the one getting to choose.

Tips for researchers

If you think you might like to be a careers consultant, get involved in talking to the careers team at your university, and see if there are any opportunities for you to work shadow, or to get involved in helping at events. Also take on opportunities to support students, such as teaching or personal tutoring or supervising.

And for researchers thinking of leaving academia more generally, in my experience of talking with current researchers and those who’ve left, I notice there can often be a sense of disempowerment –a feeling they don’t have any useful skills and they won’t be valued outside of academia. But there are so many opportunities for you to be valued in the world. So I would encourage you to take each and every chance to explore what else might be out there for you.

A Teacher’s Tale

uczjsdd14 July 2021

In the first of a new series looking at how to navigate your career during uncertain times, we speak to a Biological Sciences PhD who graduated during the last recession, and is now a Science Teacher in a private secondary school.

  • Tell us about your current role and organisation.

I work in a private school as a science teacher. At the higher levels I cover just biological sciences, but at the younger ages I sometimes cover more subjects. I also take on additional responsibilities for sports and arts clubs I’m interested in.

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

I’m not much of a planner, and I’d been so wrapped up in my research that I hadn’t looked ahead and thought about how to progress in academia. When I did, towards the end of my PhD, I realised I didn’t have any teaching experience whereas other PhDs did.

So I contacted people in my department who let me do a few guest lectures on their courses to fill the gap. I also got involved with a charity that puts researchers into schools. I was doing it just to have some more teaching experience on my CV, but I found I really enjoyed the whole process! I realised teaching in schools would offer me the stability and people-contact that academia wouldn’t, so I started to consider that as my plan A and academia as my plan B.

While researching teaching, I was surprised to learn that private schools didn’t always need their teachers to take a teaching qualification, which was appealing as I didn’t fancy more study at that time. So I applied to private schools, and after making me deliver a teaching demonstration, one of them took me on.

  • Did graduating into a recession have an impact on your career path?

I think there might have been something about the stability and recession-proof nature of teaching that appealed to me because of the credit crunch. Maybe that wouldn’t have meant as much to me if the world had felt more stable at that time. Also, I probably would have found the PGCE teacher-training route a bit more appealing if I’d felt more secure in getting a job afterwards. During that time it felt important to be earning money and not to go back and study again.

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

My days are very full. I’m up early and teaching students most of the day, and then a lot of evenings are taken up by marking or prep work, and some by extracurricular activities I run for the students. I like to think of creative ways to teach, which is fun, but it adds to the prep time! Obviously adapting to online teaching over the past year or so also took a lot of prep.

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

There are lots of great things. I like working with people, I find it really energising. I missed that in academia, and so that’s probably the best bit for me. I also like still being in touch with science, and in a broader way than academia allows.

I went to a state school myself, and I never imagined I would work in a private school. But there are some particular perks to it that are worth mentioning. The pay is very good, and as I’ve progressed and taken on more responsibilities – both extracurricular and within the science department – it has increased. It sounds gauche to talk about, but I’m earning a lot more than my colleagues who remained in academia – even the very successful ones. Some private schools even throw free accommodation into the package! The holiday is also unbeatable. Of course all teachers get lots of holiday, but private schools often have even more holiday than state schools, so that’s been really nice, especially for those teachers who have young families. And just like academia, travel is one of the unexpected perks! Outside of pandemic conditions, some private schools send their pupils on fantastic field, sporting, and social trips, which always need teachers to supervise, so I’ve managed to travel to some amazing places for free – although obviously I’ve had to spend a lot of the time working!

  • What are the worst bits? 

The flip side to the amazing holiday benefits is that it’s difficult/impossible to take holiday during term-time, and during term-time the workload can be very heavy, especially if you take on extra responsibilities as I have. That way of working – very intense followed by long breaks – suits me, but it probably wouldn’t suit everyone.

  • Is a PhD essential for your role? 

A PhD isn’t essential, but the organisational and communication skills I developed during the PhD help. Having the PhD may well have helped me bypass the PGCE route too, and the teaching experience I had picked up during the PhD was obviously valuable. I also think it adds some extra credibility for the pupils and their parents, who often have very high expectations of the school.

  • What’s the progression like?

There isn’t quite the same pressure to “progress” as there is in academia, which I actually like. But there are still lots of opportunities. You can become a head of department, and then of course a deputy head/head teacher. And some people move away from teaching to work on the educational policy side or in educational charities.

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

If you think teaching might be for you, give it a go – you’ll soon find out! There are lots of opportunities to work-shadow teachers and deliver sessions in schools, so seek them out. Teaching experience at university level will help you too, but it’s fairly different, so you really should get a bit of experience in schools to see if you’d like it.

I’d also advise getting involved in as many different things as possible, especially if you’re not sure where you want to end up, because you never know where they may lead – look at how I ended up in teaching!

  • Are there any specific tips you would give to people graduating into a recession?

I think people have to go with how they feel. The recession made me nervous, so I went for a stable well-paid job to reduce that anxiety. Not everyone will need to do that though. I suppose when I look at all of my PhD peers who also graduated in the recession, they’re all doing fine. So maybe my advice would be, don’t worry too much about it. You have the highest qualification you can get, and you’ll have developed loads of useful skills along the way, so you’ll be employable even in a recession, you just might have to compromise for a bit depending on what you want to do.

 

 

Key takeaways from UCL’s Researchers Professional Careers Beyond Academia Conference

s.duran28 June 2021

This year’s Researchers Professional Careers Beyond Academia Conference took place over three days earlier this month, with a specific focus on Life and Health Sciences. We heard from a variety of great speakers, both PhD holders and employers, who shared their experiences, knowledge, and tips on moving into industry from academia. So, what did we learn from each session?

Careers in Life & Health Sciences across Industry

Covering clinical trials, medical communications, strategic consultancy and industry research, our keynote panel gave us a small flavour of the types of roles available to researchers in industry, and reflections on making the jump. Long before her role as a Senior Global Trial Manager at IQVIA, Fatima Farzana started planning her future career. Her advice to researchers? “Look at your values to help you map out potential career paths – then apply across the board”. Identifying the values that are important to you can help you narrow down your industry search, and target the types of roles you would excel in.

All four speakers discussed how they found that crucial first role of academia and their recommendations for making the leap. This included:

  • Accessing careers service advice – UCL Careers offers one-to-one appointments with Careers Consultants, CV reviews, interview prep, and a range of events and workshops dedicated to researchers.
  • Job advertisements – Sometimes the obvious answer is the correct one. You won’t find your next role if you aren’t looking for it.
  • Networking – Meeting and engaging with the right people can often lead to new opportunities.

Networking was consistently raised as a critical factor in landing an industry job – but how can you avoid common mistakes in your networking efforts? Matt Harms, Associate Principal Scientist at AstraZeneca, has experienced networking requests first-hand. His advice?  “Never say ‘I just want a foot in the door’ – always be genuinely interested in the role you’re applying for”.

What is the Future of Research?

This second session brough together individuals from a variety of backgrounds to discuss their thoughts on the future of research and researcher careers. David Bogle, Pro-Vice-Provost of the Doctoral School oversees Early Career Researchers at UCL. He sees the future of research as innovation, saying “we are training researchers to innovate within and beyond academia”. In response to a question asking if leaving academia is only for those who can’t ‘hack it’, David, who has worked both in industry and academia, said, “this attitude shows a lack of imagination in those who can’t perceive any other path.” – with agreement from panellists.

Across the panel, there was acknowledgement of the failures and identity issues researchers encounter. Jennifer McGowan, a recently appointed lecturer at UCL, shared a list of about 20 positions she was unsuccessful in securing, and commented that the full list is much longer. Sheona Scales, Paediatric Lead for Research and Innovation at Cancer Research UK, recalled questioning herself during her early days as a researcher and in industry. Nirmesh Patel, who was named as one of Forbes 30 Under 30 through his work with Cambridge Cancer Genomics concluded with, “Everyone is winging it, why not you?”.

What does a post post-doctoral career look like?

To spotlight the additional challenge that comes with moving from a post-doctoral career to industry, a dedicated Q&A session was added to this year’s programme to hear from people who have done just that. Below are a few key questions and answered shared by our panellists.

Question: Is there an optional time to switch?

Hannah Boycott, who is a Programme Manager for the Medical Research Council, was happy with her decision to switch from a post-doc to industry after 10 years. She built up skills, was able to travel, and work in a wide variety of places around the world. Diane Sutherland, Group Development Director at Fishawack Health commented that they hire people across the spectrum – both just out of their PhD and those with 10+ years of post-doc experience. Sarah Farrow, Recruitment Consultant at CK Science shared her perspective regarding one of the biggest challenges in moving from post-doc positions to industry. She cautioned researchers may need to have flexible salary requirements, especially when making the first move to industry.

Question: What skills did you need in industry that you didn’t gain from your PhD?

Beth Rycroft, an Associate Director for Global Medical Affairs, shared that she had to quickly upskill herself in simplifying the science, interpreting data that you didn’t produce yourself, changing presentation style to suit the audience, and working in a team. Hannah mentioned the importance of learning business language, such as ‘stakeholder’ and ‘funding landscape’, and getting over inferiority complex when in the room with big names. Diane commented that getting feedback on things can be quite daunting at first, as lots of colleagues will comment on your work, and you will be working with experts as it’s not your research. She also mentioned working to deadlines, as you’re charging out your time and getting past perfectionism – a trait common in many researchers.

Managing your Journey Beyond Academia

In the final session, UCL alumni alongside a UCL Careers Consultant spoke to current students and staff about what they can be doing now to prepare for their career journey.

Rebecca McKelvey, Founder and CEO of in2scienceUK, highlighted the valuable support she received from UCL Innovation and Enterprise when founding her charity, , and discussed that employability skills are exactly what researchers possess – problem solving, independence, resilience, communication skills and adaptability.

Tim Geach, Senior Publishing Manager at Springer Nature, states that his employer requires new hires to hold a PhD. They greatly value PhD experience, and even more so, post-doctoral experience­. He stated that he enjoys his ability to work across different subjects, and the various routes that were available to him within publishing.

Crystal Ruff is a Senior Executive in Life Sciences & Transaction Advisory Services at EY-Parthenon. She worked clinically for ten years before moving into consulting and obtained her MBA to support her industry career. However, she stated that an MBA is not a requirement to enter strategic consulting. The skills are needed, but how you got them isn’t important.

A Deputy Head at UCL Careers, Calum Leckie obtained his PhD in plant-based biology and spent eight years as a post-doc. He came into this role after reflecting on his values, and found he enjoyed mentoring and supporting people. He saw the confusion in career paths of others and found a role to help researchers with their own career journeys.

So what can researchers be doing now to developing skills outside of their research? 

Matt states you should be learning about the industries you want to go into. Don’t list what skills and attributes you have for a role without referencing what the role is and what you can offer and relate your skills to what’s needed. For example, if you want to write, then show evidence of writing. Rebecca recommended that you should look at what you want to go into and then find ways to develop those skills. For example, you could organise an event, support public engagement or outreach, or gain teaching experience. Calum recommended you do things within your research environment. Network to access the hidden jobs market – roles that aren’t advertised, or that may be coming up. Get work experience, and update your LinkedIn profile.

Welcome to our Researchers Summer Term Programme

uczjipo4 May 2020

This terms UCL Careers researchers events programme is now online

In the current circumstances we have adapted our events programme online to give you support, advice and guidance during this confusing time. Take a look at all our upcoming events and sign up today! We’ve got lots for you to get involved with across employer events, careers consultant workshops, 1-1 appointments via Microsoft Teams and plenty of online blogs.

Click here to view the full events programme

Coming up we have loads of great online employer led events including:

Tuesday 5th May, 12.30-2pm: Interviews, Group Exercises And Assessment Centres Panel

Started applying for non-academic roles but are concerned about interviews, group exercises and assessment centres? Want to know what to expect and how to make the most out of the experience? If you’re starting to get interviews for non-academic roles and want some advice and guidance, come along to this session. Not started? no worries – this is a great space to learn more about recruitment processes post academia. With Deallus and Scientific Education Support

Click here to sign up today


Tuesday 12th May, 5.30-7.30pm: Careers In Arts & Cultural Heritage Panel

Interested in the Arts? Want to use your research skills in cultural heritage? This panel explore careers in the arts, museums and cultural heritage sites to offer you a chance to explore a career in an industry where your research skills are highly valued.

Thursday 21st May, 12.30-2pm: Translating Research Skills Into Work

Want to learn more about how to reflect on your skills, explore what makes you unique and how best to present this to an employer? This skills beyond academia session will give you an opportunity to learn more about the transition from academia into work, how to explore your skills and demonstrate them and finding those key employability skills in your research experience. Hosted by Abcam.

Click here to sign up today


Tuesday 9th June – Wednesday 10th June: Researchers Professional Careers Beyond Academia Conference Now Online over Two Days!

This years life and health sciences conference will be held online! Featuring three panel sessions for you to participate in live! Our amazing global employers will be represented by speakers covering careers throughout the life & health sciences pipeline, not for profit research, research management and a special session covering the future of research careers. A must for all interested in research careers beyond academia.

Click here to sign up today


Follow us and keep up to date:

Keep up-to-date with events and read our latest interviews and case studies on the researchers’ blog. Check out our latest blog posts on the themed months to hear about what’s going on and read our reflections on previous months.

Find out what’s coming up with the latest information on our programme by following our twitter. Read more about who’s attending and what topics we’ll be covering by following us today!

One-to-one careers support online:

We still offer one-to-one appointments with specialist researcher careers experts – now online via Microsoft teams.
In these appointments you can discuss anything career-related, including exploring career options, career progression, and getting feedback on CVs and applications.
Book appointments via MyUCLCareers
If you have been invited for a job interview, no matter what the role, you can book a mock interview to practice for the real thing.
Book a practice interview

Internships and other opportunities, including remote ones

See all researcher relevant opportunities currently available, such as internships, part-time/full-time roles, and receive daily/ weekly alerts via MyUCLCareers. Once you have logged in, please tick the box for researchers. This can be found as part of the menu on the left side, at the bottom. This will filter by roles relevant for MRes/PhD/Postdocs. Find out more on our website here and keep an eye out on the UCL Doc Skills newsletter for the latest researcher opportunities!

 


What did we learn from our “Biology and Business” panel? | Careers in the Life Science Industry

uczjsdd17 March 2020

Do you want to use your scientific knowledge and interest in business to help commercialise new discoveries? Well, you really should have come to our Biology and Business event on Monday night, shouldn’t you? Don’t worry though, if you couldn’t make it along, we’ve collected together the key take-home points below.

Who were the speakers?

Matt Aldridge, a trainee patent attorney at Kilburn & Strode LLP, where he works at the interface between science and law. Matt has a biochemistry degree from UCL, and an MSc in cellular therapy from bench to market from KCL. Matt spent a year working in a lab-based role before moving into patent law.

John Cassidy, an investment associate at Arix Bioscience, a Biotech-focused venture capital group based in London and New York. John has a neuroscience PhD from UCL, and experience in life science consulting.

Mikhaila Chowdhury, a brand manager at GSK consumer healthcare, where she focuses on digital marketing across oral care and wellness products. Mikhaila has a clinical background in dentistry, completing vocational training at UCL’s Eastman dental institute. After leaving dentistry, she studied a masters in international health management at Imperial, then went through the Future Leaders Program at GSK.

Ismael Gauci, a senior consultant at Deloitte, where he helps clients solve problems across R&D and clinical operations. Ismael has a PhD in cardiovascular science, and before joining Deloitte, he worked at Deallus, a smaller life-science-focused consultancy.

Rachel Greig, a medical science liaison at Incyte, a biotech company, where she focuses on the clinical development of treatments in haematology and oncology. Rachel has a PhD in immunology, and experience in policy work in the charity sector, and in public affairs at the pharmaceutical company Lilly.

And Ella Nuttall, a manager in KPMG’s healthcare and life sciences division. Ella took up an internship at the Wellcome Trust during her Psychology undergraduate, then after completing her MSc in health psychology at UCL, she worked as a health psychology specialist for Lucid, a medical communications agency, before joining KPMG.

What do people like about combining life science with business?

The panel all agreed that the best things include working at the cutting-edge of science, and having access to people who are leaders in their field. For instance, Ella mentioned recent trips she’d taken across the world – notably to Japan – to speak with scientific experts to inform her consultancy.

Some pros were particular to certain sectors. Matt enjoys playing with language and arguing a point, and his role in trying to prove a new invention is original allows him to do that. Mikhaila enjoys the creativity involved in her marketing role. Rachel enjoys the variety that her role brings, as she finds herself visiting different hospitals and interacting with different experts each day. And Ismael and Ella both enjoy the problem solving aspect of consultancy.

Panellists also spoke about the added dimension of having to think commercially, not only scientifically, as appealing to them. Mikhaila and Rachel see the movement between roles and divisions that is possible within large pharmaceutical companies as a benefit – once you get in, you can try new things.

What are the downsides?

The downsides varied depending on the role. The working hours were mentioned as a potential downside of consultancy by Ismael and Ella, and John also commented on this from his past consultancy experience. Ella emphasised that considering what work-life balance means to you is important, but she and Ismael both enjoy the exciting projects they work on, which keep them engaged during potentially long hours.

Something John misses from consultancy is the teamwork and the structured development. Venture capital involves a lot more independence and lone working, and individuals must take more responsibility for their own development, which can be a challenge.

As a Medical Science Liaison, Rachel enjoys her frequent travel to different hospitals, however, she is London based, and so her travel is often simply a normal London commute. She noted that colleagues based outside of London who cover wide territories may spend hours in the car to visit hospital sites, which suits some people, but not everyone.

Matt is early in his training as patent lawyer, but he mentioned encountering more resistance to patent applications than he expected. When you’ve argued a case and it gets rejected, that’s a low point of the role.

Will my PhD help me get in?

Three of our speakers had a PhD, and one speaker was a qualified dentist. So if you have a PhD or MD in the life science industry, clearly you won’t be the odd one out.

The general consensus from the panel was it’s not worth doing a PhD just to get into the Life Science industry. But if you already have one, PhDs were mentioned as advantageous in patent law and biotech venture capital especially, to the point where some organisations may demand them. John certainly thought that many employers who understand what a PhD involves will appreciate the transferable skills PhD graduates bring to roles.

Should I get a business qualification?

The panel agreed that if you want to take a business qualification for your own benefit – so you can decide if you enjoy business, or so you can feel more confident in interviews – then go for it. Matt enjoyed his science and business MSc, which he applied for through genuine interest. However, the panel all felt that most employers think it’s easier to teach a scientist the principles of business than the other way around, and so your science knowledge and experience is likely to be more valuable than a business qualification.

So what can I do to enhance my chances of getting in?

  • Accept that confusion and rejection are normal, and keep trying. Every speaker shared stories of being confused about what direction to take, and then of being rejected once they’d decided on a direction. These are completely normal parts of everyone’s careers, and the panel encouraged everyone to keep ploughing onwards. 
  • Sometimes you need to take a job you don’t want to get to the job you do want. Sometimes rejection indicates there’s a gap in your experience that needs to be filled. So just as Matt worked for a year in a lab to gain hands-on science experience so he could get into patent law, and just as Rachel worked in public affairs to gain pharma experience so she could transition into a medical science liaison role, sometimes you may have to take a role you don’t particularly want in the short term, so that you can achieve your longer term goals. John too mentioned that it wouldn’t generally be possible to enter venture capital directly from science, as some prior business experience – perhaps in consultancy – would also be expected. And Ella mentioned that if you find it hard to get into larger consultancies, or if you don’t want to enter at the graduate level, gaining other work experience first – like her experience in a medical communications company, and Ismael’s experience at a smaller consultancy – will help.
  • Get networking! Our speakers provided examples of just how crucial networking can be, as Ella found her first post-MSc job through speaking to an academic, and Rachel found her way into pharma through a contact she met at a conference. So attend relevant events, chat to people, and reach out to professionals on LinkedIn.

Check out the other events forming part of Careers in the Life Science Industry Week here.

Taking a PhD into Clinical Trials

uczjsdd17 December 2018

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

Hi Mariam, what are you up to now?

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

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

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

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

What does an average day look like?

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

What are the best bits?

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

What are the downsides?

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

Is a PhD required for this role?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

uczjsdd12 November 2018

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

What are you up to now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What does a normal working day look like for you?

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

What are the best bits?

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

What are the downsides?

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

Is a PhD Essential for your role?

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

What’s the progression like?

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

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

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

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

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

A PhD’s experience in Life Science Consulting

uczjsdd18 October 2018

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

What are you up to now?

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

How did you get here?

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

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

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

What does an average day look like?

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

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

What are the best bits?

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

What are the worst bits?

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

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

Do you need a PhD?

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

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

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

What’s the progression like?

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

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

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

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

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