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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.