UCL Researchers
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    The UCL Careers team use this Blog to share their ‘news and views’ about careers with you. You will find snippets about a whole range of career related issues, news from recruiters and links to interesting articles in the media.

    We hope you enjoy reading the Blog and will be inspired to tell us your views.

    If you want to suggest things that students and graduates might find helpful, please let us know – we want to hear from you.

    Karen Barnard – Head of UCL Careers

    UCL Careers is part of The Careers Group, University of London

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    No nine to five job: working as a senior teaching fellow AND in the restaurant business

    By S Donaldson, on 20 March 2018

    Dr Sayeda Abu-Amero has a PhD in fungal virology, and until recently was a Senior Teaching Fellow at UCL, as well as working part-time at a (very very tasty) local restaurant – Hiba Express. When we spoke Sayeda only had a few days left at UCL. She has now started working full-time at the restaurant, and hopes to open a coffee shop in the near future. We couldn’t resist adding such an inspirational interview to our case study collection! So if you’re interested in either Higher Education teaching roles, or in entering the restaurant game, read on…

    Describe your current role

    Currently I have two jobs. One is three and half days a week as a programme tutor for a UCL Masters course in Genetics of Human Disease. I’ve been working on the course for seven years, and as a programme tutor for the last two years. This is purely a teaching-focused academic role, looking after the organisation and timetabling of the whole course, and dealing with any student issues that may arise. What I teach on the course is something called Core Skills. I teach students how to present, write scientific essays, talk to their peers and to the public, write for blogs, and conduct themselves in interviews; life skills they will use to communicate their work, very much in the context of genetics and human disease. This sort of training is an essential part of ensuring that the work of scientists isn’t misrepresented or misunderstood outside of the scientific community, equipping future scientists to be the ones who can convey their own science confidently, clearly, and accurately.

    The first term is very busy, as that’s when I do most of my face to face teaching. I also teach on several other courses, and have a number of students as my tutees, as well as project students in the lab and literature review students from other courses.

    The other two and a half days a week I work at a Palestinian and Lebanese restaurant, Hiba Express. We have three branches and a stall. My main duties have been to look after their social media and emails, arrange bookings and catering, work on promoting the restaurant, and look after any issues that may arise. I also cover the legal aspects pertaining to running a food business, such as training staff according to food standard agency regulations. So although I have worked front of house on busy evenings, I’m usually found working behind the scenes.

    What led you to become a Senior Teaching Fellow?

    I did my first degree at UCL in Genetics then moved to Imperial for my PhD in Dutch Elm disease, using the same molecular biology techniques I’d been learning about, but applying them to plants. When I was looking for a post-doc there was very little funding in London to do plant work, so I took up a one-year research post researching children with growth restriction with Professor Gudrun Moore at Queen Charlotte and Chelsea Hospital. That was the beginning of a 22-year working relationship with her, which exposed me to some clinical work, which I’d always been quite interested in.

    I left UCL for a bit of that time, spending three years working in a hospital in Saudi Arabia on several Mendelian disorders, where I had my first taste of the business and coordination side of science, as I was involved in setting up core facilities for the whole hospital. When I returned to the UK as a single mum, I contacted Gudrun, and was able to take up a part-time role with her. In some ways being part-time was perfect at that stage as I was able to spend more time with my daughter and to slowly get back into the science I had left for three years.

    Gudrun had always wanted to set up a biobank. So in 2009, back when biobanking was still relatively new, I stepped away from lab work and moved into setting up and coordinating the ICH’s Baby Biobank (https://www.ucl.ac.uk/tapb/sample-and-data-collections-at-ucl/biobanks-ucl/baby-biobank). This was a very steep learning curve, getting to grips with clinicians and red tape and managing staff across multiple sites with many logistical challenges. Towards the end of my five to six years of working on this project the role became very much about analysing large amounts of data and computing. Wonderful in terms of the research, but there’s nothing worse than asking me to sit in front of a computer and look at numbers all day! It took about a year of feeling this way and expressing it to Gudrun before I stepped down as Manager of the Baby Biobank.

    Throughout my time at UCL I had always been teaching alongside doing research and the Biobank. The teaching opportunities started with me taking on lectures and marking that my supervisor was unable to take on, and then the opportunities grew from there. So when I wanted to move away from the Biobank, I wrote a business case for a 3.5 day/week role working on the Genetics of Human Disease Masters MSc. I’d already been contributing to the course alongside the biobank, and in many ways I was quite keen to focus on teaching, which had always been another passion. So I wrote the job description for that person. At that time it was a bit of a struggle to put a business case together for the role, to justify the number of hours that good teaching actually takes – it’s not just the face-to-face teaching time. But especially with the Teaching Excellence Framework coming in I think this sort of teaching-focused role is on the increase.

    And how did you get into the restaurant business?

    Towards the end of my time at the Biobank I started taking my daughter to improv class in Marble Arch. While she was there I would visit a restaurant I liked in Holborn to get something to eat while I caught up on marking and other work. One day I went to pay the bill and the owner asked me why I ate there so much. Although I could have taken this as a comment that I ate a lot (!), actually he was really interested in exactly why I liked the food. So I told him: I loved the food! There are many Lebanese places in London, but not of this standard. The quality is exceptional. Shortly after, I organised my birthday lunch there, which ended up being more like a full-day event! It was great. I wrote a positive online review, for which he thanked me.

    So I got to know the owner this way, and I continued to eat and drink as usual. I guess the owner would often see me on Facebook, and so one day he asked me to help him with his restaurant’s Facebook as he was too busy and not very familiar with it. So I started helping him with that, and then with a few emails. And as my daughter was in Marble Arch for three hours every Saturday morning, I suggested that rather than spending that time hanging about and shopping, I could spend it helping out at the restaurant. He said yes and that they’d pay me for those hours. When I realised I was going to be moving to the part-time teaching role, he offered me some proper days working at the restaurant because he was looking at expanding. At that time I thought this may be just what I need to start entertaining the idea of leaving academia and eventually setting up my own coffee shop, which is something I’d been considering for over a decade by then!

    What prompted your current move to focus on the restaurant full-time?

    Both of my current roles are not 9 to 5 jobs you can leave behind at the end of the working day or on the weekend. They both mean you’re constantly thinking, answering emails, on the phone etc. I don’t mind that, as I have a flexible approach to work, but to have two such jobs can only really be sustained for so long. Also, the Core Skills module took a long time to set up and get running the way I wanted it to. I think I achieved that three years ago, and since then it’s been running much the same. Obviously you can tweak and update things, but I was starting to get twitchy feet as I’m not someone who likes to do the same things again and again. So I decided I could have a mid-life crisis and just leave! I’d been murmuring about it for a while, so it didn’t come as a huge shock to people, but a lot of family and colleagues were still concerned, asking whether I was really sure I wanted to do this, moving from a well-paid academic position to something so new and potentially less stable. For me it is an adventure. My child is a little older so it’s a good time to take up this opportunity. And if it all goes pear-shaped? So what? I’ll start again. I’ve started from scratch before, I can do it again.

    And the truth is a lot of people are having to leave academia, even later in their careers. When I first started studying for my undergraduate, having a lifelong career in academic research seemed like a very realistic prospect. But things have changed. Certainly the wider environment has changed. The workload is going up, funding is being cut or stretched, there are more and more PhDs being produced, and advanced researchers are expensive. So obviously a lot of PhDs are not going to be in academic research forever. We’ve even held many farewell dinners for colleagues leaving academia at Hiba!

    What will you be doing in your new full-time role?

    My boss was originally a film-maker, and one day just decided he would run a restaurant. He knew nothing about the industry, but he learned. And he learned so well that he now has three restaurants and a market stall. We’re now looking at a concept that will be bigger. He’s Palestinian and he’s a social activist. So what he wants to do is to help people, the people who are stuck and in refugee camps. People who are capable and can create. He wants to help them do these things, help them sell their products here in the UK, which as a rule is a place that is very supportive of the Palestinian people. He also wants to connect with sustainable farms, to make sure the produce he’s using is bought from them. So I’m going to be working on making these visions a reality.

    The catering is a very lucrative part of the business, we do office catering, events, weddings – we had our first gay wedding in August! It was beautiful. So I’ll also be pushing on the catering side. And I’ll be doing two or three evenings a week front of house. Interestingly enough, my daughter has now taken over running the social media for the business for some pocket money. She’s very good with technology and it means we can have interesting discussions over dinner.

    What are the best bits about your teaching role?

    The best thing is the interactions and meeting people from so many different backgrounds and cultures. You may be the teacher, but there’s still so much you can learn from the students. Getting to know them, seeing how they are at the beginning of the course, perhaps starting off shy; and then you take them through the year and you see how they’ve progressed, confidently booming out presentations. That’s very rewarding. Getting students to work together, students who will potentially one day be scientific collaborators, is also a high point. We recently had a reunion for graduates from the course, and seeing how people had grown and progressed was something I really enjoyed. Teaching is always an exciting and rewarding activity as it means you’re having to keep up to date, and you know that someone is going to directly benefit from it.

    And the worst bits about teaching?

    The only negative point I would say is the marking. The amount of hours spent marking is never truly calculated or appreciated. It’s so hard to know how long marking will take, it really can suck up a lot of time!

    What’re the best things about working in the restaurant?

    That’s much the same as the teaching really. Meeting so many different people, and being able to help them, albeit in a different way.

    And the worst?

    It never ends. It’s 24 hours, 7 days a week. Even when the doors are shut, the restaurant is still working. It needs to be cleaned. The butcher comes in at 4am in the morning and needs to work there alone. Then everything needs to be cleaned again before the veg etc. are prepared. And we have a big menu, so that’s a lot of prep. It’s never ending!

    And on top of that there are so many challenges I would never have imagined but for me it’s all new and exciting!

    What skills developed during your PhD are useful in your current roles?

    I think the PhD can be useful in many ways, for whatever you go on to do. It gives you a specialism, an expertise. And it teaches you how to think. You’re left alone for years to get on with something, so you learn to solve problems on your own and take ownership of your work. I think people who come out after doing a PhD are changed. I’ve seen it. They’ll come in as students, behaving like students throughout their PhD. But they walk out of their viva with a new confidence. The award itself can instil a confidence that should’ve been there before but often wasn’t.

    Although I personally don’t think you need a PhD to be a good teacher (people who have been in research for many years without getting a PhD would be just as good), for most university teaching fellow roles like mine a PhD is a requirement on the job description.

    Even though you obviously don’t need a PhD to run a restaurant or a coffee shop, I certainly don’t think I’ll be the first PhD to make the move. And I’ve used lots of the things I’ve learned during my time in research, especially the organisational and time-management skills. I present what I’m doing in excel spreadsheets, PowerPoints, and graphs. I use my analytical skills to keep track of the business over years, scanning the data to analyse how the business is doing, looking at improvements year on year, and daily and seasonal variations. I use my experience of teaching to train restaurant staff, for example bringing social media and customer reviews into their awareness. And now that we’re looking at implementing a larger concept, I’ve done a lot of research for the restaurant around similar initiatives. And I use the writing skills I’ve developed in academia to put together business proposals. I also use the networking skills, resourcefulness, and proactivity I’ve needed in academia. If I want something from someone I will go and ask them. Those face-to-face communication skills that get things done are valuable in any setting.

    Where does it go from here?

    My last day at UCL is this week. Ideally I will work at the restaurant for the next two or three years. I want to see the restaurant stabilising and becoming more comfortable during that time. And I do still want that coffee shop! I’ve already seen one or two potential spaces. I like the idea. But I don’t want to abandon the restaurant I’ve grown to love. So I think perhaps the two can be married, and the coffee shop could become part of Hiba. That would also mean I can do the bit I’m interested in – running a coffee shop – without the setting-up-a-business bits I’m not so interested in.

    I’ve always wanted to live abroad. I keep trying to leave! Originally the coffee shop was meant to be abroad, in Spain. I don’t speak Spanish. But I love listening to it. So maybe that’s not the most practical move, which is why the restaurant/coffee shop dream is happening here. It’s more practical but it’s still a risk. The economy here is very unstable. Business rates are rising. I keep walking around Tottenham Court Road and the Brunswick area and passing places I thought were very good that are shutting down, so anything can happen.  That’s why I’ll wait a few years before branching out with a coffee shop.

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

    You just have to go out there and do it. Whatever ‘it’ is! I always tell my students not to wait for opportunities, you need to go and get them. Talk to people. Build relationships. My own career has revolved around networking. When I decided I wanted to do a PhD, I didn’t apply for adverts, I just emailed the people I thought were interesting, and I got a response. People are often still writing grants, so whether it’s a PhD or post-doc place, if you get in at the right time you can be a named person on their grant. And when I went to Saudi I contacted people, told them what I could do, and they created a position for me. Even with the restaurant they didn’t ask me to come and work full-time! I really liked working there, I could see there was a need for a full-time person, and I put that to the boss. Hopefully he’s ok with it!

    It may seem that in a structured environment like academia this wouldn’t be possible but you’ll be surprised how easy it is to become invaluable. If you find something you like to do, just go out there and do it. You will end up sometimes being overloaded. But that’s academia, you always end up giving more than what’s on your job description. But if what you’re doing is useful, you’ll become the best person for the job and give it an identity. It’s what happened with my teaching role. You also have to be creative, flexible, and adaptable. Especially when it’s not just you in the picture – when you have partners, kids, parents you need to care for. All of which I’ve had to juggle with work. Sometimes that’s inevitable. But when my father was ill and then eventually passed away from stomach cancer, it taught me that we never know when it will be our time to go, so there’s no point in waiting. I’d been putting off the coffee shop idea for various reasons, once my daughter’s older etc. But at that point I realised it was something I really had to start pursuing, even if only slowly at first. So find something you like and just do it!

    Behind the scenes of science: working in science funding at Wellcome Trust

    By S Donaldson, on 25 October 2017

    Wellcome

    Dr Dev Churamani completed his PhD in Cell Physiology at UCL (whoop whoop!) and is now a Senior Portfolio Developer at Wellcome Trust. He’s spoken at two of our careers events for researchers in the past, and now he’s kindly agreed to give us a careers case study for our blog.

    Tell us what you’re up to now

    I work as a Senior Portfolio Developer within Wellcome’s Science Integration, Structures team. We manage, oversee and co-ordinate some of our major initiatives and schemes. We also lead on cross-Science and cross-Wellcome projects, for example the Francis Crick Institute.

    How did you move from academia to your current role?

    I think I decided academia wasn’t for me during my PhD, which is a little ironic, because after my PhD I spent 6 years as a post-doc in a UCL lab! I enjoyed working at the bench, but I realised early on it wasn’t something I wanted to pursue long term. So for me it was always more about when was the right time to get out. I was enjoying the job and the lab. But after a few years it felt that if I knew academia wasn’t the career for me, that was the point I had to leave and move on to something that was. So I started looking for new challenges.

    My first non-academic job was with the Food Standards Agency. The role was part funding, part policy, but it was a fixed-term post, and a microbiology role, so didn’t fit perfectly with my background. From there I saw an advert for a role within Wellcome’s Cellular, Developmental, and Physiological Sciences team, and my skills and experience seemed to fit what they were looking for. I first joined Wellcome as a Science Portfolio Adviser, predominantly looking after the cell biology portfolio. In that role I had a science remit, looking at science grants, and doing portfolio analyses to spot gaps and trends. After three years, I moved to my current position, which is broader in remit, rather than focusing on a specific area of science.

    What does your normal working day look like?

    I’m sure most interviewees say this, but there is no normal working day. In my first role with Wellcome, a typical working day would involve answering some emails, and maybe shortlisting some grant applications, or having a discussion with an applicant – either pre-application, post-application, or post-decision. Pre-application would be offering advice. Post-application might be explaining the next steps. Post-decision would either be an easy conversation with a successful and happy applicant, or a more in-depth conversation explaining the committee’s decision-making process, and offering advice for how the committee thought the application could potentially be improved.

    In my current role a typical day involves less talking to applicants. More often I’m speaking with external stakeholders such as other funding agencies and collaborators, and I’ll be involved in writing reports.

    What are the best bits?

    The people are fantastic at Wellcome, and although I’m in a small division, it’s a very collegiate atmosphere. My current role has given me exposure to larger projects and allowed me to work in a very self-directed way – for instance I’m currently working towards a review of the Francis Crick Institute. In my original role, it was rewarding speaking to applicants. From my experience working in academia I had seen the struggles academics faced in trying to get grants, so it was nice feeling as though I could help with that process.

    And the challenges?

    One of the biggest challenges is keeping on top of a very wide range of science. To get my head around really diverse subjects that are quite removed from my background is tough. It’s helped by the fact that I have great colleagues, who can give me their perspectives from their areas of science.

    It’s also not working in the lab. So if you’re someone who really enjoys the lab, a transition to this type of role may be difficult. Also, in academia you have a lot more ownership of your work, you have first author publications you can say are yours. This role doesn’t lend itself to that; you’re part of a much bigger picture. Although you may own your work at a local level, once it goes from you it’s no longer yours. Any report submitted at higher levels may have had many eyes on it, and may not resemble what you started with. You have to be comfortable with that.

    Does having a PhD help?

    Within our division certain roles, including mine, require a PhD. I think this can vary between research charities, but that’s the case for Wellcome. In terms of day-to-day, most useful are the clear and concise communication skills I developed during my PhD. I work with several people, of varying levels of seniority, on multiple projects, and have to convey myself clearly, especially when working with external stakeholders. I also give presentations to different audiences – varying from lay to very specialist – so that’s a skill I regularly use.

    What’s the progression like?

    People move around within the organisation, or they may move into other related organisations like universities, other charities, or the civil service. It’s possible to progress within the organisation but that depends upon building a network and seeking out opportunities. Within the division, because it’s small, progression can be harder, although I have now moved up to Senior Portfolio Developer from my initial role.

    What are your top tips for researchers interested in this type of role?

    Talk to people. Seek out employees within research funders and ask them about their experiences. You’ll be surprised that many people will be happy to have a discussion. Attend careers fairs and networking opportunities – I know UCL Careers has people like me speak at events for PhDs. This will give you a really good idea of what the role is like, which will help you work out if you’ll like it, and help you show your motivation.

     

    Photograph from Matt Brown.

    MRC created a tool to stop you missing funding opportunities

    By S Donaldson, on 25 September 2017

    Navigating the academic research landscape is tough. Knowing what is expected of you at each career stage, and scouting available opportunities, can sometimes feel like it takes up as much time as actually conducting your research! So for medical researchers, the MRC has made a handy interactive tool to help. It categorises career stages, and tells you what you should be up to when you’re in them, like so:

    MRC tool_crop

    On the tool’s funding view, it tells you the type of funding available at each stage. And even more helpfully, it tells you which funders offer each variety of award. That frees up a little more time for you to actually apply for them! Have a play with the tool and see what you think.

    MRC tool_funding_crop

     

    Moving into pharma: a case-study

    By S Donaldson, on 14 December 2016

    graphs

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

    Tell us about your job.

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

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

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

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

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

    What does an average working day look like?

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

    How does your PhD help you in your job?

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

    What are the best things about your job?

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

    What are the downsides?

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

    What’s the progression like?

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

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

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

    Bookings open for Life Science Sector Employer Fair for UCL Researchers

    By Vivienne C Watson, on 11 April 2016

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    Life Science Sector: Employer Fair and one-to-one sessions for PhDs and Researchers

    27th April 2016 from 11:00 to 16:00

    The aim of this event is to help PhD and other research students with their career planning by providing an opportunity to meet employers from the Life Science sector.

    The event will begin with an intimate fair which will have a few select organisations. Many of the employers present will be PhD holders themselves. The fair will be followed by one-to-one sessions that will allow you to discuss any questions you might have in further detail with a specific employer on a one on one basis.

    Companies attending:

    DDB Remedy

    Cambridge Healthcare Research

    Coulter Partners

    Ernst & Young (EY)

    Hays

    Immunocore

    JA Kemp

    L.E.K. Consulting

    Lucozade Ribena Suntory (LRS)

    National Institute for Biological Standards and Control(NIBSC)

    To find out more information about the companies attending go to:http://courses.grad.ucl.ac.uk/course-details.pht?course_ID=2234

    Research Students book here

    Research Staff book here

    Training to be an NHS Bioinformatician

    By S Donaldson, on 9 February 2016

    Rebecca HainesWith 2016’s NHS Scientist Training Programme application deadline fast approaching (this Friday), this is the last in our recent series of interviews with current trainees, with and without academic research backgrounds.

    Dr Rebecca Haines studied for her PhD at UCL’s Laboratory of Molecular Cell Biology and is now a second-year NHS clinical scientist trainee in Bioinformatics, specialising in Genomics, based in Nottingham. Rebecca spoke to UCL Careers about her career path and her top tips for anyone wanting to get into NHS healthcare science.

    Tell us a bit about your background

    After my PhD I worked in Singapore as a post-doc in the Institute for Medical Biology. Although my background is academic, in both my PhD and post-doc I was investigating the molecular basis for inherited disease. Now I’ve moved to the clinical side, using the results of past and present academic research to bring benefits direct to patients. My current role is to develop bioinformatics within Nottingham’s regional genetics department, advising on the best tools to analyse our data.

    What does a normal working day look like for you?

    There isn’t really a typical day, it’s a big mix of carrying out service work, and of professional and academic learning. The service work is really where you learn to do the job of a clinical scientist. This is the day-to-day testing of patients, analysing the results, and assisting in the writing of those results into reports that go to patients’ consultants. These results may help consultants to decide upon the next stage of treatment for the patient. Another part of the training involves taking a part-time Masters degree, so my days can involve reading and writing for that, and even revising for exams. Another part of ‘learning the job’ involves completing ‘competencies’. This may involve completing practical tasks, or researching a topic and writing about it, and is more like professional learning.

    What are the best things about your role?

    I love that I can see the impact my work has on patients. During my PhD and post-doc I was really interested in understanding the molecular basis of disease so that new treatments could be developed. But that’s a long process so my work was far removed from patients. Now the results I give have a direct impact on how a patient is treated, and genetics results can also have a wider impact on their family. It’s rewarding to know my work helps provide better clinical care for real people.

    The other great thing is the opportunity to bring new innovation into the NHS from research. It’s in the NHS constitution that the NHS should be at the absolute forefront of science, and as a healthcare scientist trainee you definitely are. I spend a lot of my time reading primary research and using that to inform the work I do every day in the lab, and to develop new tests and techniques that can lead to improvements in our work.

    What are the downsides?

    Well I’m thinking about this specifically in terms of the three years of scientist training, not about the job of a clinical scientist once you’re trained. The difficulty for me personally was going from an independent, confident, relatively senior post-doc to a trainee. As an STP trainee, particularly in the first 1 to 2 years of training, you’re totally dependent on colleagues around you for your training. I can’t write a report without it being checked by somebody senior, I can’t make a decision about an assay to do until I get an ok from somebody senior. Of course that’s a reflection of the seriousness of our work, the impact it can have on people’s lives, which is also what I like about the job. But coming from the freedom of academia, the loss of autonomy has been the biggest challenge for me.

    It’s also been difficult studying again. Doing a Masters degree means assignments and exams, things I thought I’d left behind a long time ago. It’s surprisingly hard to get back into the swing of that style of working when you haven’t done it for a while. And I miss some of the lab work; I do very little actual bench work now, most of this is carried out by technologists, while the clinical scientists work on the interpretation of the results. I only miss it a bit, but I know that some people miss it much more.

    What’s the career progression like?

    It’s changing slowly. If you’re in the life sciences there’s the option to take exams to enter the Royal College of Pathologists. These can develop your knowledge and allow you to move up the career ladder. But there’s also now the HSST – the Higher Specialist Scientist Training – which involves workplace training and assessments, a bit like the STP, and can train you to consultant level. In our department it’s the consultant-level scientists who do the most complex work. The HSST is a five-year training programme and is completely work-based. If you weren’t keen on getting to consultant level, there are other ways you could develop, such as taking on responsibility for training and managing other staff, or for improving quality of the department’s work.

    What are your tips for researchers wanting to get into the STP?

    The top thing I always say to people is “visit a department”. Use contacts, use anything you can, just make sure you visit departments. The first time I applied was to the Genetics STP. I was in Singapore at the time and didn’t even get an interview. I then applied for the Genomics Bioinformatics stream. I had been in the country for a while and I’d visited lots of labs and talked to as many people as I could. Understanding the work of the department is so important, it really comes across in your application.

    And perhaps a bit of a dull tip, but you should get familiar with the NHS constitution. The NHS is using values-based recruitment, meaning you not only have to show that you’re capable of doing the job, but you have to demonstrate that you believe in the values of the NHS and are prepared to uphold them.

    The third thing I would advise is to refresh some of your basic science knowledge; things you think you know but you haven’t really thought about for a few years. So in my field it might be inheritance patterns for genetic diseases. That’s the kind of thing covered in your first year at university, but in an interview you may be competing against people who’ve come straight from their undergraduate degree, so it’s much fresher in their minds.

    A PhD is not essential for getting an STP position, but we understand that many trainees do nevertheless have a PhD. What skills developed during your time in academia do you use in your current role?

    The biggest one is organisation. As a PhD and post-doc you have to manage your own time and projects, so you learn to work hard and plan your own schedule. The STP is work-based training and work-based competency completion, alongside a part-time Masters degree. In addition you’re also often carrying out other work for the service you’re training in, and there are opportunities to network and go to national healthcare scientist meetings. So there’s a lot going on – it’s not a 9 to 5 job – and you have to be able to balance the different demands on your time effectively.

    The scientific skills picked up from a PhD are obviously very useful too. Having experience in the lab and of reading scientific papers means you can hit the ground running. I also think the maturity that comes with being that bit older is helpful. The decisions made in my department profoundly effect people’s lives, you need to have some maturity to deal with that.

    From PhD to NHS Scientist Training Scheme

    By S Donaldson, on 26 October 2015

    Sara ReySara Rey has a PhD in interdisciplinary biology and is now in the third year of the NHS Scientist Training Program in Bioinformatics, genomics stream. We interviewed her about her career experiences, and her top tips for PhDs looking to become clinical scientists. You can read the interview here.

    Our chat with a Senior Life Sciences Editor at Thomson Reuters

    By S Donaldson, on 15 October 2015

    Jimmy HoDr Jimmy Ho gained a PhD from UCL in Biological Chemistry and is now a Senior Science Editor at Thomson Reuters, a provider of intellectual information. We spoke to him about his career and top tips for PhDs looking to move out of academia.

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

    It was towards the end of my PhD when I felt that a career as a research chemist was not for me, but I wanted to continue to utilise the skills I’d obtained. I applied for a number of science jobs, and was offered a job as a science editor at Thomson Reuters.

    What does a normal working day look like for you?

    My daily work routine typically entails the extraction, assimilation and content-integrity management of Life Science data from journals, patents and conferences. The data is subsequently updated in our multiple online databases, which are subscribed to by customers all around the world in both the pharmaceutical industry and academic institutes to aid them with their research. Other tasks will include assisting clients (who could be from industry or academia), supporting colleagues with various projects and ad hoc tasks.

    Which skills gained from your PhD are useful to you now?

    A PhD is not a prerequisite for my role, however I would say it is beneficial in the long run if you intend to make a career in Science or Healthcare. Most of my colleagues have either got a PhD or a Masters degree. The skills that I acquired from my PhD have come in very useful, particularly when it comes to analysing data, planning projects, problem-solving or simply coming up with innovative ideas for the business.

    What are the best things about your role?

    The best things are having the chance to learn different skills, from customer relationship management to leading and managing small departmental projects; as well as getting to participate in some international travel to conferences. On top of that, I feel the work I do is making a contribution towards science and medicine, and bettering society.

    There is also a good work-life balance since I work on a flexi-time system, and occasionally I have the option to work from home.

    What are the down sides?

    As with most companies nowadays, there are a lot of organisational changes which take place every so often, and that can lead to a sense of insecurity. Also, job progression is quite static at the moment. The work I do is routinely-formatted, which can be a good thing for some people, however at times it can feel like the role might lack challenge and you can start to feel complacent.

    The challenge I face now is to decide which direction I want to take my career, and whether I wish to advance in my role as a Science Editor, or to look for alternative positions within Thomson Reuters where I can remain with the company and transfer my skills and experience.

    Where do you see yourself going from here?

    Progression upwards is always possible however it can feel a little stagnant at times since there are not many openings at a senior level. But the advantage of working for a large firm like Thomson Reuters is you also have the option of applying for internal roles in different departments or business sectors. Otherwise if roles don’t come up internally then people may have to move to other companies when roles arise.

    What tips would you give our PhD students and early-career researchers wanting to get into your line of work?

    The competition nowadays is fierce, so with any industry I would strongly suggest that people research the area they wish to enter, so they know what they’re getting themselves into, and more importantly try to get some work experience through an internship. To enhance a CV, I’d recommend taking on extracurricular responsibilities, networking and making good connections is always a plus too. When invited to an interview, people should prepare well beforehand; have knowledge about the industry and the prospective employer. Engage with the interview positively and confidently; and always take it as an experience to learn from – regardless of the final outcome.

    Leaving a PhD to become a social entrepreneur

    By S Donaldson, on 12 August 2015

    Most of our researcher career case studies focus on people who have completed their PhDs. But what about those who leave before the end of their doctoral degree? Considering your career options is a big task for anyone, but it may feel even more daunting if you’re leaving a course early.

    I’ve worked with students who for a variety of reasons have given up on their PhD, and despite their concerns, it hasn’t hampered their careers. Although they may not have gained the title, they still gained the valuable transferable skills of a PhD-holder.

    Fiona Nielsen is a nice example of this. She left a genetics PhD in her final year, but used the skills and knowledge she’d acquired to set up Repositive, a social enterprise that aims to speed up genetic diagnostics and research through efficient data access solutions.

    Fiona came along to our Researcher Life Sciences Careers Fair, where she told us about her career journey. You can watch her interview here.

    Fione Nielsen

    A professor’s take on academic careers

    By S Donaldson, on 5 June 2015

    Professor Rajini Rao gained her PhD in Biochemistry from Rochester University before moving to Yale to obtain postdoctoral training in Genetics. In 1993, she moved to Johns Hopkins to take up a role as assistant professor in Physiology, and rose through the ranks to full professor in 2004. Currently, Rajini runs a research laboratory, teaches medical and graduate students, and directs a PhD program in Cellular and Molecular Medicine at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. We spoke to Rajini about her career, and how to succeed in academia.

    Professor Rajini Rao

    What qualities do you think academics must have to be successful?

    To be successful in an academic research career, you must think of yourself as an entrepreneur. Your research should not only be productive, as evidenced by numerous peer-reviewed publications in high quality journals, but also innovative and at the leading edge of the field. Research requires funds, and success in fund raising requires persuasive writing skills, and the ability to “sell” your project. Good communication skills are important for presentations at seminars and conferences and in teaching. Networking skills are critical for setting up collaborations and extending the reach of your influence. Because academics work closely with student and postdoctoral trainees, good mentoring and lab management skills are essential.

    What does a normal working day look like for you?

    My schedule is never the same from one day to another. That’s what keeps me from being stuck in a rut or losing motivation. In my lab, I interact with my students and postdocs daily, and keep up to date on their research. I travel often, to conferences or other universities, where I am lucky enough to present our work. Some days, I teach PhD or medical students. I may attend a thesis committee meeting, or be an examiner on an oral qualifying exam. Frequently, I advise students in the graduate program I direct, or work on program policy and administration.

    As a member of a journal editorial board I review many papers in my field. I also serve on study sections for the National Institutes of Health where I review grant applications. I organize conferences, and that requires planning and fund raising. I’m active in professional societies where I’m involved in developing opportunities for women and increasing diversity. All of this keeps me busy and I love my job!

    What are the best things about your role?

    The best things about my job are flexibility, the thrill of discovery and the opportunity to innovate. I am constantly learning, and growing my potential as a scientist and person. I keep flexible hours at work and I try to arrange my schedule to accommodate the demands of both work and home. I see my life as a mother, mentor and scientist as one harmonious whole. That’s why I don’t compartmentalize: rather, I try to move seamlessly from one role to another. For example, I’m just as happy to work from home as I am in my lab. I’m always approachable by email or online by my students regardless of the time of day or week. Conversely, I don’t feel guilty leaving work early when my family needs me at home. I recall one incident when my kids were young and my husband was called away to India on a family emergency just before I had to give an important presentation at a national conference. I took my kids to New Orleans, and a dear friend baby-sat them right outside the lecture hall. My talk went off well, and later I soothed my friend’s frazzled nerves over a glass of wine! It’s a system that works for me and I rarely find myself conflicted by multiple demands. Sometimes, family comes first and I drop everything to attend to demands at home. Other times, I may have a grant deadline and I completely ignore the laundry and the kitchen! Fortunately, my family knows me well and seemingly adapt to my schedule without too many complaints!

    What are the downsides of academia?

    What keeps me up at night is science funding. All the work that is done at academic research institutes depends on grants from government agencies or private foundations, which are increasingly competitive. These days, only one in ten grant applications is successful, and too many important research projects are abandoned because they are not funded. Rather than keeping up with technology advances, NIH funding has decreased in purchasing power by 25% over the past decade. It’s a heavy responsibility (not to mention, an ineffective use of my time) to constantly apply for funding not only for our research, but also for the salaries of my students and postdoctoral fellows.

    Where do you see yourself going from here?

    Potentially, I could take on leadership roles in administrative or organizational capacities, although I am not keen on giving up my research career at this time.

    What job do you think you might do if you weren’t a Professor?

    I’ve always wanted to be a scientist. But I love many forms of communication, so I could be a writer or public speaker. Secretly, I’ve wanted to be a stand up comic!

    What tips would you give our PhD students and early-career researchers trying to forge an academic career?

    I would advice them to build a strong support network of family, friends and colleagues, and to seek role models and mentors. They will need to have the confidence to keep a high bar of achievement, and the strength to accept challenges and make hard choices. It’s just as important to work “smart” as it is to work hard, so they should choose their battles wisely. Remember that an academic career is a marathon and not a sprint!

    Rajini is one of the three founders of STEM Women, a blog set up to address gender inequality in science. You can read more about the blog here.