UCL Researchers
  • Welcome

    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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    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.

    Engineering solutions for businesses: a careers case study

    By S Donaldson, on 1 June 2017

    Simon ChildDr Simon Child has a PhD in Space Physics and is now a Solutions Engineer at Tessella, an organisation that “uses data science to accelerate evidence-based decision making, allowing businesses to improve profitability, reduce costs, streamline operations, avoid errors and out-innovate the competition”. Simon spoke at one of our Careers in Technology forums for researchers, and then kindly agreed to chat about his career again for our blog.

    How did you move from academia to your current role?
    My PhD was in Space Physics, working primarily with data taken by the Ulysses Spacecraft. As that mission was coming to a close, to stay in academia would have required a shift in research focus. Also, I was not sure if the nomadic life of a postdoc was something I was truly interested in doing long term (a couple of years here and there, moving where the research funding takes you). As such, I started looking for a career in industry. I started my job search with a clear idea of what I was looking for: something that would challenge me, somewhere I would have interesting problems to get my teeth into and continue learning and developing and, if possible, somewhere I could retain some level of contact with the space industry.

    I put my CV on Monster and was contacted by a couple of recruitment agencies who put me forward for a range of different roles. Knowing what I know now, that approach had both benefits and drawbacks. On the positive side I was made aware of companies and opportunities that I hadn’t uncovered on my own and the consultants helped me to improve my CV. However, I now realise that the majority of companies do not use agencies for their recruitment and have their own internal recruitment teams, especially for graduate and postgraduate entry level roles. Tessella is one such company.

    Early on in my academic career, I had flagged up Tessella as one of the companies I was interested in applying to. I was attracted by their focus on training and development and the opportunity to work across a wide range of technologies and sectors, including the space industry. After I applied, I was delighted to be invited to a first interview and then a second interview assessment day. During the recruitment process, I was impressed to find out about the company’s portfolio of clients and projects, as well as the similar mind-set of the people I met. When a job offer came through, it was not a hard decision to accept it.

    What does a normal working day look like for you?
    I am currently a Solutions Engineer at Tessella and what I do day-to-day depends on the project I am working on. My typical activities include: systems engineering (engineering trade-off studies, producing technical requirements specifications, designing algorithms to be used in a Radar DSPU); systems architecture (how the algorithms will talk to the rest of the real-time software within the system during flight); simulation and modelling; data analysis/machine learning; control engineering; software engineering. Ultimately I am helping our clients solve some of their really difficult technical challenges.

    The majority of my work is computer based and I also regularly attend technical meetings, with both clients and colleagues. Depending on the project I could be working full time in the Tessella office in Stevenage (where I am based), or spending some or all of my time working on client sites alongside their engineers and scientists.

    My role does not involve much long-distance travelling – each Tessella office tends to work predominately with organisations in close proximity. However there have been opportunities for colleagues to spend extended periods of time working with clients in France, Germany and Spain, as well as with colleagues in our offices in the Netherlands and USA.

    What are the best things about working in your role?
    I really value the relationships I have built up with both colleagues and clients. Tessella recruits graduates and postgraduates from science, engineering and mathematics, so my colleagues are all like-minded, intelligent people. That said, everyone has expertise in different areas, from different domain knowledge to various technical skills, so there is a lot of collaboration and innovative thinking to solve clients’ problems, which is also one of the best things about working here. I also enjoy the work that we do – projects are always challenging and interesting and I am always learning something new.

    What are the worst bits?
    To some people, the prospect of starting out on a project with an unfamiliar, complex problem to solve may seem daunting, but I relish the challenge. Starting from scratch and building up a solution by employing my knowledge and skills within my team is really satisfying, especially when what I have created is successfully delivered to the client.

    Is a PhD essential for your role?
    A PhD is not essential to work at Tessella; we also recruit people with MSc and BSc qualifications. However, it certainly helps to have a PhD. I use a lot of the skills that I developed during my PhD, including data analysis, programming, computational modelling, data visualisation, verbal and written communication, problem solving, time management, mentoring, networking, and more. The reason over half of the company have PhDs is because all of those skills, which have been developed further during postgraduate studies, are invaluable in solving the complex challenges facing our clients. The ability to build relationships with clients is arguably just as important as your technical skills, so confidence and communication skills are also important.

    Where do you see yourself going from here?
    Every year, I have an appraisal with my manager, part of which includes reviewing and updating my career development plan. This contains things like my long term career goals and what I need to do in the short term in order to achieve them, as well as what training I need to undertake for my immediate project needs. The appraisal is also a review of my performance – good and bad – over the previous twelve months so that I can identify what areas I need to work on in order to guide my career in a particular direction. Feedback for appraisals is sought from all areas across the company, from directors to any technical or head office staff you have worked with.

    Over the course of my career, I have chosen to stay on a broadly technical career path, from a junior developer to leading project teams. However, I have also taken opportunities to take formal training in other areas, including, project management, technical sales and business analysis. I have also had the opportunity to spend some time working in those roles, to give me an idea of what is involved should I wish to transfer into one of them in the future.

    I am also a line manager, currently to one junior technical member of staff. I really enjoy this part of my role: working with him early on in his career, helping turn all those ideas and thoughts into a career plan, then helping him reach his goals. I am looking forward to managing more staff in the future.

    What top tips would you pass on to a researcher interested in this type of work?
    Unless you are looking for a job that will specifically utilise your PhD research, it will be your transferable skills that make you valuable to an organisation, for example, problem solving, teamwork, presenting complex ideas, debating issues, etc. Identify your strong and weak areas and take advantage of opportunities to develop and improve them. You can also make yourself more attractive to potential employers by developing yourself outside of your PhD, for example, building your confidence, public speaking, leadership, etc., so get involved with new hobbies and extra-curricular activities.

    Sparkly technology pic taken from Octavio Santos Neto

    A PhD’s experience in Healthcare Data Science

    By S Donaldson, on 10 April 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Top Tips for other researchers?

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

    A UCL PhD grad talks being an IBM data scientist

    By S Donaldson, on 7 February 2017

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

    How did you move from academia to your current role?

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

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

    What does a normal working day look like for you?

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

    What are the best things about working in your role?

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

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

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

    Is a PhD essential for your role?

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

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

    Where would someone go in their career from here?

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

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

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

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

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

    Read all about it: life as a magazine features editor

    By S Donaldson, on 1 February 2017

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

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

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

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

    What does your job involve?

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

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

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

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

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

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

    What are the best things about your role?

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

    What are the worst parts?

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

    What’s the progression like from here?

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

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

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

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

     

    How a PhD can lead to patent law

    By S Donaldson, on 15 July 2016

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

     

    How did you move from academia to patent law?

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

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

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

     

    What does your normal working day look like?

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

     

    What are the best bits?

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

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

     

    And what are the challenges?

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

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

     

    How does the PhD help you in the role?

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

     

    What’s the progression like?

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

     

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

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

    Working in R&D and Innovation consultancy

    By S Donaldson, on 20 May 2016

    AndreaDr Andrea Sanfilippo worked as a research assistant at UCL (whoop whoop!) and then gained a PhD in Theoretical Physics from the Fritz-Haber Institute of the Max-Planck Society. Now a Senior Research and Development and Innovation Consultant at Deloitte, Andrea talked to us about his career.

    How did you move from academia to your current role?

    I decided to move back to Italy for personal reasons and, at the same time, because the Italian government issued incentives for the “return of the brains” (R&D TAX incentives for researchers – and not only researchers – who studied at least 18 months abroad). Also, I was not willing to be part of the Italian academic system (pretty feudal unfortunately). Since in Italy there is a lack of opportunities in the Quantum Chemistry sector, I looked for other opportunities closely related to my scientific background. EU grants consultancy was one of them. Most university group leaders and professors apply for public and EU funding. I myself was awarded a Marie-Curie EU scholarship. Some general EU projects are made of consortia made of companies and universities. Hence, companies (EU consultancy or internal EU projects offices in companies) are often willing to hire people with a strong academic background (incl. PhD). During the interview I just provided my academic experience and willingness to support innovation.

    What does a normal working day look like for you?

    The daily activities consist of elaborating EU proposals (scientific, managerial and EU impacts parts), discussing with consortia or clients about new innovative project ideas, and setting up consortia made of universities and enterprises.

    What are the best things about working in your role?

    The fact you deal with many different realities, like SMEs and large enterprises, and you can experience the very different approaches to innovation and state-of-the-art technologies in various sectors.

    What are the biggest challenges? 

    The biggest challenges are that employer wants you to win as many projects as possible (consultancy companies get a “success fee” when the proposal is awarded EU funding, companies get the funding), no matter whether innovative ideas are good or not. For the same reason they may sign contracts with companies lacking skills and innovation potential. Sometimes you feel like a financial broker, since there is a certain level of uncertainty in the success of the proposals. These aspects can make this job quite stressful.

    Is a PhD essential for your role?

    A PhD is not essential, but it can make the difference. You have to write even 100-150 page proposals (in English language), and a person with a PhD usually has a much more organised modus operandi (they already organised their own PhD project for 3-4 years), expertise with academic English (incl. publications), a broader view on science, and stronger expertise in their own sector.

    Where do people go from here?

    Coming from a consultancy company, I see the following paths:

    1 (short term) – EU office in a large company. Certain companies have even 10 people dealing with EU proposals writing. Such positions allow you to focus more in detail on a specific sector, instead of dealing with a plethora of different companies and areas.

    2 (medium term) – Innovation Manager or Technology Strategist: you can manage R&D and Innovation activities, elaborate the best R&D avenues on a 5-10 years basis for the CEO, and manage R&D projects.

    3 (medium to long term) – CTO. You can manage the entire innovation and R&D activities of a company.

    What top tips would you pass on to a PhD student/post-doc interested in this type of work?

    1 Ask yourself: where do I want to be in 5 years? Am I really interested in leaving the academic sector, maybe forever (5 years out of your PhD or post-doc, universities or R&D centres are no longer interested in hiring you)? Do you prefer to work for consortia in many different sectors or to focus on your own sector of interest?

    2 Keep in mind there are a few companies in the EU grants sector, so it is a niche sector. A lot of people choose to become freelancers.

    3 If you would like to keep focusing on your sector of interest, you might want to apply to EU projects offices in specific (large) companies. The “con” about being in a consultancy company is that companies often do not appreciate people lacking strong expertise in their sector.

    Chris Penny’s Communications Internship at Portland Press

    By S Donaldson, on 25 April 2016

    Internships, placements, work shadowing….when it comes to selecting a career they’re all great ways to ‘try before you buy’. Some UCL PhD programmes contain a mandatory placement period, a few months where students must do something unrelated to their research. These prove invaluable to the students involved, so in this series of posts we hope to spread the career knowledge by speaking to three PhDs about their placement experiences.

    Communication

    Interview by Shadae Samuels, Placements and Vacancies Officer, UCL Careers.

    Image taken from Chris Garcia.

    Chris Penny is a current PhD student with the London Interdisciplinary Doctoral Training Programme.  He is based in Sandip Patel’s lab and his PhD project is studying the molecular physiology and signalling functions of an intracellular ion channel. Through Chris’ project he was able to experience writing papers and reviews, which piqued his interest in potentially pursuing a career in publishing. This made publishing the perfect option for his PIPS placement to provide him with the opportunity to gain new skills and find out as much as possible about the industry. Chris secured a 12 week placement with Portland Press, a leading provider of high-quality publishing and knowledge dissemination solutions. He was supervised by the Executive Editor, Clare Curtis.

    How did Chris secure his PIPS with Portland Press?

    Chris initially researched a large number of publishing houses, he speculatively sent his CV and cover letter; he would then follow up his application with a phone call to the organisation. He found this approach was quite time-consuming and did not yield a high response, so Chris reached out to his own network for contacts in the publishing industry. Luckily Chris had a friend who previously worked at Portland Press Ltd and they put him in touch with a member of the editorial team. Chris organised an interview, and he was offered an internship starting a few months later. Chris would advise anyone applying for internships to utilise their contacts and be persistent in following up with the organisation. Having a contact in the organisation really helps with getting your application noticed!

    What did the company look for in a placement student?

    Portland Press wanted someone who was enthusiastic, willing to learn, and able to ‘have a go’ at a variety of tasks, some of which were mundane and others that would be more challenging. It was good to have someone who had little or no experience in the publishing industry so that they did not arrive with any preconceived ideas. The only requirement they had was for the intern to have scientific knowledge.

    What did Chris do on his placement?

    Portland Press is the wholly owned publishing subsidiary of the Biochemical Society, and produces the Biochemical Journal and Clinical Science, among other titles. It is a really exciting time to work there, with both the Society and the Press going through a number of changes to their look, systems and processes. Chris’ role mainly consisted of qualitative and quantitative data analysis, building upon his lab skills in the context of publishing. This included carrying out extensive citation analysis, looking at which research is high profile and which areas could be improved. Helping with the peer review submitted articles, Chris was able to generate strategies for expanding the research that is published by Portland Press, and he helped with commissioning experts to write the hot topics of the week.

    What did Chris gain from the experience?

    The placement was an opportunity for Chris to experience the other side of academic publishing. From the placement Chris gained commercial awareness, which he found particularly useful as this experience is very difficult to come by during a PhD. He improved on his analytical skills, market research skills by soliciting reviews, launching new content and searching for peer reviewers. Chris broadened his scientific interests as he was exposed to research in areas he was almost completely unaware of previously.

    How did the placement contribute to Portland Press?

    Portland Press is going through a period of significant change both in organisational structure and in processes. The work Chris undertook provided some foundations for future development of the department, and helped the creation of an overall strategy. The Biochemical Society is committed to the advancement of science for academics and students. Part of its ethos is to foster education and student opportunities. Therefore being part of the BBSRC PhD placement programme was the perfect way to meet this for Portland Press.

    Has the placement influenced Chris’s career direction?

    Since the start of his PhD Chris always wanted to go into post-doctoral work, however he enjoyed the editorial and strategic aspects of his placement.  Therefore Chris would certainly consider joining an editorial board while in academia if possible, but would also consider working in publishing outside of academia. Chris has a better understanding of the publishing industry and hopes the experience will come in handy for articles he will publish in the future.

    If you’re a UCL PhD or researcher wondering how to secure work experience or a more permanent post, book an appointment to speak with one of our advisers. And for advertised opportunities check out UCL Talent Bank and JobOnline.

    Alice Lui’s Festival Experience at Science Museum

    By S Donaldson, on 8 April 2016

    Internships, placements, work shadowing….when it comes to selecting a career they’re all great ways to ‘try before you buy’. Some UCL PhD programmes contain a mandatory placement period, a few months where students must do something unrelated to their research. These prove invaluable to the students involved, so in this series of posts we hope to spread the career knowledge by speaking to three PhDs about their placement experiences.

    Science Museum

    Interview by Shadae Samuels, Placements and Vacancies Officer, UCL Careers.

    Image taken from Allan Watt.

     

    Alice Lui is a current PhD student with the London Interdisciplinary Doctoral Training Programme; based in Saul Purton’s lab her PhD project is studying the synthesis of fungible biofuels in cyanobacteria. Alice initially wanted to gain experience in science communications to reach the wider public beyond academia. The placement team brokered a relationship with the Science Museum who offered exclusive roles to PIPS students, one of which was the chance to work at one of their upcoming festivals. This was the perfect opportunity for Alice to gain experience in science communication to a wider audience, she applied and was offered the position after having an interview. She was supervised by the Assistant Content Developer, Pippa Hough.

    How did Alice secure her placement with Science Museum?

    The placements team was aware that Science Museum were interested in taking on UCL students as interns so we got in touch and informed them of BBSRC/LIDo programme. They were keen to host such students on a placement and offered two exclusive PIPS opportunities, Alice sent her CV and cover letter to Science Museum, and she was then invited to an interview and then offered the position to begin shortly after.

    What was The Science Museum looking for in their placement student?

    The Science Museum wanted a student who would be able to work to tight deadlines, has excellent research skills, and would be able to handle a lot of changes! Alice’s expertise in synthetic biology and bio-sciences in general really stood out in her application/interview as this would be helpful in translating complicated research papers.

    What did Alice do on her placement?

    The main focus of Alice’s placement was to research and develop the scientific content for the ‘You Have Been Upgraded’ festival on the topic of human enhancement technologies. Her time was spent mostly on researching the area of human enhancement and synthetic biology. She contacted academics, artists and individuals involved in this area of research and interviewed them about their work and whether they would be interested in being involved in the festival. Alice also researched possible demonstrations that could be shown during the festival.  During the week leading up to the festival, Alice helped with setting up the festival space. During the festival Alice supported the scientists and interacted with the public, she was also responsible for researching possible objects that could feature in the museum.

    What did Alice gain from the experience?

    The main thing Alice gained from her placement was the confidence to communicate! She improved on her communication skills as she was communicating with people outside the industry and therefore had to learn how to engage a lay audience. This was extremely valuable to her especially if she decides to embark on a career outside of academia. Alice learned the importance of being organised which improved her time management skills.

    How did the placement contribute to The Science Museum?

    Alice’s ability to think fast on her feet and problem solve on the go really helped the festival run as smoothly as it did. Alice also did general research around contemporary science topics that fed into events and small exhibitions the department produces. Her work on finding an object to represent a case on Ebola was particularly helpful! Overall she proved how valuable it is to have an intern which is something the team has not done before and there are excited to have their next LIDo intern.

    Did the placement influence Alice’s career plans?

    Although Alice is still uncertain about her future job prospects the placement has made Alice realise how important job satisfaction and your wellbeing is. She is therefore considering different types of opportunities. Alice may consider a role in Science Communication following her PhD as she gained a lot of confidence in communicating with a wider audience.

    If you’re a UCL PhD or researcher wondering how to secure work experience or a more permanent post, book an appointment to speak with one of our advisers. And for advertised opportunities check out UCL Talent Bank and JobOnline.

    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.