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United Nations career insight

uczjsdd27 September 2021

Dr. Sunday Leonard has a Ph.D. in Environmental Engineering from UCL and is now a Programme Management Officer at the United Nations Environment Programme. Sunday kindly told us about his career journey and offered tips for researchers looking to follow a similar path. As Sunday graduated during the credit crunch, he also offered insights for those graduating into an uncertain economic climate.

Tell us about your current role

I work in Washington D.C. for the United Nations Environment Programme – UNEP. My role entails providing scientific and technical advice to project implementers and policymakers on how to make our environment better. In my current role, I work in the Secretariat of the Scientific and Technical Advisory Panel (STAP) to the Global Environment Facility (GEF). The GEF is a fund established to tackle our planet’s most pressing environmental problems. It provides funds to developing countries to enable them to invest in nature and support the implementation of global environmental agreements including on biodiversity, climate change, chemicals, and desertification. The STAP provides independent scientific and technical advice to the GEF on its policies, strategies, programs, and projects, and also brings the latest scientific knowledge on environmental issues into the GEF Partnership, thereby keeping it up-to-date. I’m often working on new science-policy reports – for example, I just finished a report on the circular economy and climate change – to help guide the GEF to implement circular economy projects that can deliver climate change mitigation benefits and deliver transformational environmental change.

What’s the UN recruitment process like?

In the UN system, we have different staff categories including general service, national professional officers, field service, and professional and higher categories.  I am in the professional category. The  UN does not usually use CVs, instead, we use a Personal History Profile – PHP. You fill in your work, education, and personal information online to generate a PHP. It’s quite like a CV but with more set descriptions. In addition to the PHP, you’ll also have to submit a cover letter for the particular position. You will also need to answer some screening questions regarding required and desired qualifications, experience, and skills for the position you are applying for before submitting your application. These are usually “yes or no” questions and with written text to support your answer if yes. If you answer “no” to a required question, your application will not be screened further.

After the submission of your PHP and cover letter, your application is reviewed against relevant skills for the job. Long-listed candidates will usually be invited to undertake a written test. This can take different formats. I’ve seen written tests that are objective questions, but most of the time they are very time-limited technical essay questions. I’ve also encountered a test where I was given 72 hours to draft a concept note. The written test shows the recruiter your understanding of the technical issues related to the position. If you make it through that stage there is the competency-based interview, where you’re asked questions based on the competencies relevant to the role. If you do well there, assuming your references check out, you could be offered the job. In some instances where there are more candidates deemed qualified, the best candidate will be offered the position, and the rest may be “rostered”. It’s possible that when another similar position arises, a manager could select someone from the roster rather than having to go through that recruitment process again.

How did you move from your Ph.D. to your current role?

I went straight from undergrad to masters to Ph.D. with no break in between. So towards the end of my Ph.D.,  I was already tired of being in the academic environment and I was hoping to work outside academia, and my initial goal was to work in an Oil and Gas company. I interviewed with several companies, including BP and Shell. I received an offer from Shell, but for various reasons in the long run it didn’t work out. When I started looking elsewhere, things had become difficult due to the 2008/09 financial crisis; lots of graduate programmes were shutting down.

After seeing it wasn’t working out in the private sector I started applying for research post-docs, and I got one at the University of Greenwich. I did that for a year, while still applying for external roles.

I had a grad school friend who was already working at UNEP and he encouraged me to apply. When I looked at UN positions, I didn’t see how I was qualified. I had been working in the lab, training to be quite a technical engineering graduate, and UNEP focused much more on policy. But with his encouragement, I found a position I thought I could struggle to modify my CV to fit. It was a lot of work because the job was asking for applied experience and a history of influencing policy. I had to think about the policy aspect of my Ph.D. work, and the transferable skills I’d gained during grad school, and modify my CV to be convincing, at least to be shortlisted. And getting shortlisted at the UN is a big deal. After getting the role, I later discovered that more than a thousand people applied for my position, so for me to even be invited to the next stage was a big achievement. I passed the written test and competency-based interview, and I started with UNEP in January 2011 in Nairobi, where the organisation is headquartered. I moved to the Paris office on promotion in 2015, before moving to the Washington D.C. office in 2017.

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

On a practical level, I had to stay for a further year in academia, and I ended up on a different path than I might otherwise have been on. But more than that, it was a very discouraging period. When I started getting responses saying we cannot go ahead with you or with the recruitment process because of the recession, it felt demoralising. But I told myself I couldn’t let it get to me, and that I needed a role, for now, to give me the space to strategise, so I pivoted back to focus on academia, and I just kept trying, and I kept my options very open – applying to a range of role types and locations. The post-doc role really gave me the financial stability and space to calm down and assess my options and think about what I wanted to do. And in the end, at the time I was offered the UN role, I also had two other offers, one in Canada and the other in the UK. So the persistence and flexible attitude worked for me.

What does a normal day look like for you?

With COVID we have a new definition of “normal”: I’ve not been to the office for a year and seven months now. Everything is being done online, but the good thing is we’re still getting things done. In general, a typical day might involve a technical task, where I’m researching the literature or horizon-scanning for knowledge that needs to be applied. It could mean I’m drafting a report or a research article, and I do actually still publish journal articles as we want our knowledge to benefit the scientific community. Or I could be designing or delivering a presentation. I also might be doing administrative tasks, like being involved in recruiting and interviewing people for consultant or other positions. My past roles have also involved managing budgets. And there are lots of meetings – I’m always meeting with people to get perspectives from policymakers and so on. One important aspect, before COVID, was also travelling, meeting stakeholders, attending conferences or conventions related to my field.

What are the best bits?

The best bit is definitely seeing your work have an impact on decisions and policymaking. In contrast to typical academia, where you’re researching in the lab to get it published, often in the hope that in combination with lots of other research there will be a great impact in the future, in the UN you’re dealing with real-life immediate situations, which is very interesting. For example, in my first year in the UN, I was part of the team that developed two reports on hydrofluorocarbons, ozone depletion, and short-lived climate pollutants. The findings of the reports were influential to the creation of the Climate and Clean Air Coalition (which I ended up working for in Paris), which aimed to promote the identified solutions in the report. When you see policymakers making an intervention based on a report you helped put together, you know your work is actually effecting a real-life solution to a real-world problem.

What are the challenges?

In the UN there aren’t many “fresh grad” positions. Most positions require experience, so it can be challenging to enter without policy experience, and if you make it in it can be difficult to navigate the system. Another challenge is that in the UN promotion is mostly via a competitive process. This means if I want to move – like when I moved from Kenya to Paris, on promotion – it’s not like someone just assessed me as an employee, saw I was doing well, and promoted me, which is a process that can happen in many commercial companies, and even within post-doc roles in academia. Instead, you must look for a vacant position and apply for it in competition with many other people. Sometimes this means you have to be very flexible to move ahead. If I had for example not wanted to leave Kenya, it would have limited my chances to move ahead. I’ve had to be open to moving to where the positions are available – Paris and Washington D.C.

Also, things don’t move as fast as they do in academia, and you’re not as autonomous. When I was in academia, I woke up, decided what I wanted to tackle, and did it. But there are many other factors at play when decisions are being made in large organisations like the UN, and if you’ve been in academia for a long time, that can be frustrating. None of these things are problems, but people should be aware of them when entering the system.

Did you need your Ph.D. to get your position?

A Masters degree is generally the minimum qualification for most professional UN positions, or an undergrad plus two years relevant work experience (in lieu of the masters degree). So a Ph.D. was not required for my position, although I’ve seen positions advertised where it states that having a relevant Ph.D. is an advantage.

However, although it wasn’t asked for when I first applied, I believe my Ph.D. was one of the advantages that led to me getting shortlisted in the first place. And many of the skills I acquired during my Ph.D. have been very useful, not only in navigating the interview process but also in doing the actual job. For example, when I faced the written test during the recruitment process, the question I was asked was not something I could have had a ready-made answer for. But as a Ph.D. I knew how to do my research. In one hour I was supposed to respond with my answer, and I was able to do my research and writing on this unfamiliar topic – and not plagiarise in the process – convincingly enough to pass the written test. In the job itself, project management skills are key – and that’s one of the most important skills people develop during a Ph.D., even if they don’t realise it!  Experience of working in teams and written and oral communication skills, all of which were sharpened during my Ph.D., have also helped me in my role.

What’s the progression like?

As I mentioned, you have to apply for vacancies competitively to progress. But in the UN Secretariat, there are certain rules about progression. For example, at my current level, I must move laterally at this level before being eligible to apply for positions at the next level. It’s part of the administrative process of the UN; they want to see you’ve acquired a range of experiences and an understanding of the organisation.

The next position up for me is Senior Programme Officer. The good thing is that within the UN there are several opportunities to move and be trained, which can help you learn and progress. My goal is to move to that higher level, which may mean I have to acquire new skills. I may need training in relevant fields or management to improve my chances. It’s not unusual that to move higher you have to pick up new skills, but progression can be easier within some private or public sector organisations compared to the UN, which is something people need to consider when deciding where they’d like to work.

At the senior position, there’s more management responsibility, and you’re also dealing with people at the very top levels. If you’re at the Director level, for example, you may be talking to top government officials, and there are many challenges; countries can object to certain recommendations, and you need to be politically savvy to deal with that. So that’s very different from me looking at the science and putting policy recommendations together based on it. Convincing countries and leaders to actually make those changes needs a different skill-set.

What are your top tips for our researchers?

  • Assess the skills needed in the role ahead of you, and learn to recognise and sell those you’ve gained in your Ph.D./post-doc. These might include being able to research a variety of things, being able to understand, interpret, and present data, communication skills, and project management skills. And if you don’t have some of the skills needed already, proactively seek experiences that will build them. The Ph.D. years are the perfect time to volunteer or take classes. When I was in UCL, I took a course on business at London Business School and that was useful. There may be opportunities to take training courses free or cheaply while you’re a student, and you may never be more autonomous than you are in academia, so take advantage of that.
  • If you’re still doing research, try to direct it toward the interest of your desired job/organization. If you’re interested in business, direct your research to more of a business or commercial angle. If I’d known my future direction, I would have spent more time looking at the policy implications of my Ph.D.
  • Consider internships and volunteering in your field of interest. As I mentioned, you need work experience for most UN roles, my first position in the UN required 5 years of work experience. I combined my Ph.D. years at UCL, my work experience before starting my Masters, plus my one year at the University of Greenwich – which added up to 6 years of work experience. If you don’t meet the work experience criteria, you can’t be long-listed for a UN position. So take up internships and volunteering positions to accrue work experiences and build your skills.
  • Learn to write for a non-academic audience. In the UN, I need to prepare documents that busy policymakers can quickly understand, so the language has to be simple, concise, and persuasive.
  • In most positions – not just in the UN – employers are more comfortable hiring people they know to have the desired skill-set for the job, especially if they come by referral. They’re less of a risk. And networking provides you with useful insights and information, and the opportunity to be referred. So take opportunities to network with people through conferences, meetings related to the UN, and go to industrial-focused talks, seminars, conferences, etc. where you’ll meet people from outside of academia too.
  • Study industrial trends – whatever industry you’re interested in. That will be useful for you in interviews and on the job.
  • Be prepared you may not be treated as “special” compared to undergrad or Master’s colleagues. For most non-academic positions out there, an undergraduate or Master’s degree may be enough to get the job, so you may start on the same salary as new graduates. But the skills you have will speak for you later on and should help you move upwards. At first, though, you must keep an open mind.

 

Any specific tips for researchers navigating an uncertain economic climate?

My main tip is to be flexible. Things may not go exactly how you had hoped due to factors beyond your control. You may need to take positions available to you for now, and you can use that as a stepping stone to your next stage. It may take a little longer to get where you were hoping to go, and it may be frustrating to settle for “less” originally, but try to concentrate on getting a foot in the door of the industry you’re aiming at, and then see how you can navigate the system from there.

Bringing behavioural research into industry

uczjsdd3 December 2020

Dr Keith O’Brien earned his PhD in Experimental Psychology from UCL, and now works as the Global Behavioral Insights Lead for Simply Business. Keith kindly spoke to us about his role and his transition into industry.

Tell us about your job.

I am the Global Behavioural Insights Lead for a growing technology company called Simply Business (SB). Simply Business is an insurance broker with over 750,000 current customers in the UK. We have over 750 employees across offices in London, Northampton, and Boston (US). Our success to date has been a result of simplifying the insurance market for SMEs, (small businesses) helping customers find and buy the right insurance easily, with a strong focus on data-led experimentation. If you use price comparison websites in the UK to find insurance for a business (maybe your ‘side-hustle’) you are probably using our service.

My role sits officially in our ‘Digital Product’ organisation, which spans across teams in the UK and USA, reporting directly to our C-suite team (i.e. the Chief Product Officer). As our ‘in-house’ behavioural scientist, my role is to identify (and argue for) improvements to our organisation and products based on behavioural science/economics. This sometimes requires running ‘experiments’, which can range from quick pilots (or prototype tests) with customers (to test ideas/assumptions), to ‘lab-style’ studies (controlled experiments), to ‘scaled-up’ RCTs or ‘A/B tests’ with real-life customers.

While that all sounds very serious and rigorous, and it can be, if you visited our offices you might be surprised to see us all in jeans and t-shirts – playing a game of pool or table tennis in our open-plan offices. Or building some strange robots, like a guitar-operated drone. We pride ourselves on creating a place where we enjoy working – and we’ve experimented with new initiatives like ‘4-day work-weeks’, flexi/remote-working far before anyone else (or COVID19). Our unofficial motto is ‘Build Something Better’, and that includes in society; which is why we have been a certified ‘BCorp’ for the last 3 years due to our actions on climate change, racism, inequality, etc..

How did you move from academia to your current role?

I handed in my PhD in 2016 since joining UCL through the MSc in Cognitive & Decision-Sciences. In 2017, I was balancing teaching fellowships at UCL and LSE in psychology/decision-sciences and being the Assistant Director of the Centre for Behaviour Change at UCL. At the time I was trying to square my passion for understanding human behaviour, with applying that knowledge to tangibly improve people’s lives. Teaching was an outlet for that passion, a buffer against the reality that academia is rarely supportive or enabled to do real-world research.

I came to the realisation that the career I dreamed about, spending my days developing experiments and RCTs to improve people’s lives with psychology, was: a) about 20-30 years away, provided I landed a tenured professorship with ample funding; and b) highly improbable, if I insisted my path to that professorship would be via real-world (non-lab) research. I took a leaf from my MSc in Cognitive & Decision Sciences, and rather than calculate some Expected Value estimates of leaving academia vs staying, I tallied up the pros/cons. Written on paper, it was clear I’d be happier overall to leave.

I was headhunted for my role at Simply Business by a fellow academic who consulted for private industry, and knew more companies were eager to apply behavioural science. I took  the role gladly, being promised (literally), “you’ll get to think up interesting experiments to run to improve our organisation”. The left-wing firebrand in me never considered working in the financial services sector, let alone insurance (the least ‘sexy’ of the financial services). Yet I discovered insurance is a rich place for applying behavioural science. Insurance is founded on the concepts of risk and probability, requires decision-making under uncertainty and limited information, and ultimately is incentivised to make people safer (i.e. healthier, drive safety, etc.) – if only to improve the profit margins at least.

My key piece of advice for making yourself appear suitable to employers, is to: a) learn how your skills and expertise addresses their challenges in simple language; and b) explain clearly how you would go about actually doing the work. Too many behavioural scientists in interviews (not just graduates) are clearly gifted in what they do, but are unprepared to show how they would work with other people and teams to get it done.

Businesses want to know how you’d explain your role/approach to others in the business who have no idea what or why you do things in a certain way. They want to know how you’d demonstrate investing time/money/effort in something isn’t just to satisfy your ‘academic’ curiosity, but to satisfy often competing priorities of the business and people. For example, balancing business revenue, employee/customer satisfaction, etc. If you are convinced this would make a difference, how could you ‘create buy in’ for your idea? In academia we often convince others after we conduct the research, but in the private/public sectors you need to convince people before it.

What does a normal working day look like for you?

During these COVID19 times, I would want to tell you that I wake at 7am to prepare for a day in the City of London…but that is not to be. However, I do enjoy that remote working lets me have a lie-in and savour a morning coffee. I start work around 9am, logging onto Slack to greet our team and check what updates might have come through from our US team overnight.

I’ve an unusual luxury, hard earned, of having 9am-12pm most days dedicated to ‘deep working’. This is a time where people are not supposed to add meetings to my diary or distract me. During this time I work on designing experiments, or analysing data; or reviewing proposals from different parts of the business (e.g. Product teams or HR) to ensure they are addressing/changing customer/employee behaviours in the right way.

12pm-1pm, meetings will start to pop-up. I spend 2xhours a week mentoring people internally and externally (e.g. MSc students from UCL) in behavioural science. 1pm-2pm is lunchtime, or a group trip to the gym – provided by our work benefits scheme.

2pm-5.30pm is when the US ‘wakes up’. I’ll have a variety of meetings with teams from across Product, HR, and our operations teams, on the projects we are running to improve or completely redesign our services, products, or potentially our business strategy. Often this results in discrete research projects for our research (or ‘Insight’) teams, and I’ll collaborate with our Data Science/User Research teams to determine the best approach to get the right answers.

5.30 is where I’d normally ‘log off’, or jump on a Zoom call to do Yoga with some co-workers. There are times where the US offices will need some input (they are ~5 hours behind), but rarely this goes past 7pm. On Fridays, I dedicate 2 hours in the afternoon to self-directed learning, which could be upskilling in SQL/Python or reading academic journals or industry reports.

What are the best bits?

Working with a diverse group of colleagues, spanning multiple disciplines, and constantly being challenged to come up with ideas and solutions that are both a) realistic to implement but also b) based on scientific understanding and methods. It is enriching to work with designers, product managers, data scientists, user researchers, HR representatives, and senior leadership figures from the UK and the USA.

Co-creating ideas, with a team, to impact something tangible – while sticking to the core value of improving customer’s lives – that is what keeps me going. Every day is different – while writing this I’m submitting ideas on how to change both insurers and customer behaviour to be more environmentally sustainable in their choices and supply chains.

What are the biggest challenges?

Prioritisation of ‘what is important’, and being (more) reliant on others to get the work/research done. When I started my role I created a massive list of ideas and experiments – as there were hundreds of optimizations or improvements I could see through the lens of behavioural science, on both the customer and employee sides. Prioritising was hard, especially if something I believed was important wasn’t immediately clear to others. It is a skill, one I’m better at now. I also focus on more transformative pieces of work than ‘simple tweaks’ (e.g. how do create a product that improves customer decision-making; how do we create a system to improve employee wellbeing & performance?). Every week requires me to re-examine requests from teams, existing work in progress, timelines, and make decisions as to what is the most ‘valuable’ thing to work on.

A strange challenge I found was the reliance on others. As an academic, you get to be almost entirely self-reliant, self-directed, and you need to pick up nearly all the skills you need to conduct a piece of work yourself. You are the sole driver of your work, career, and success. In my role, your success is more reliant on others. If I need to access some data, I could either learn SQL and Python (which I did), or wait for our Data team to get what I needed. If I want to launch an RCT on our websites, I need to work with Product Teams and software engineers to both convince them it’s worthwhile and actually make it happen. You learn the invaluable ‘soft-skills’ of how to explain to others why your ideas are important, valuable, and can help them reach their goals etc. If Robert Cialdini was reading, he would say you learn the art of influence.

Some things can happen in days; other times it can take days, months, or even years. For example, a simple ‘presentation-order’ test on our prices has been in a ‘backlog’ for 3 years, but we designed and implemented a trial for employees around a 4-Day Working Week in a few weeks. That is reality for you!

There are positives to relying on others. More people involved means more input on what you want to do, how best to do it, and more support to get it done. We share in both success, and ‘failure’. Feeling ‘part of a team’ is something academia really fails at, while in good workplaces it is key to success.

Is a PhD essential? 

I get asked this question about once a week by graduates and those already in the workplace looking to ‘upskill’ into a pure behavioural science role. So I’ll disappoint you like I do them: it depends!

A PhD is a great signal to prospective employers about all the right things a PhD gives you: critical thinking and the ability to research, absorb and communicate information quickly and simply. If you do a science-based PhD, chances are you have learned how to think about the world and construct testable hypotheses to go (dis)prove, and some data analytical skills. You also are self-motivated and self-directed, with a deep understanding of a subject area. In short, you’ve proven you can excel given time, resources, and a clear goal. What employer wouldn’t love that?

Yet, a lot of people who have similar (and better!) roles to me hold an MSc, not a PhD. Some do not personally carry out data analysis/experimental research, but instead coordinate teams of behavioural scientists who have more research-driven roles. Some are more consultancy-based, versus data-analytical. What nearly all these have in common is ‘relevant experience’ – which is a silly industry term for having worked in a job that isn’t academia for a period of time.

For me, I use the critical thinking and communication skills I learned in my PhD to show the logic to my ideas and create ‘buy-in’; the experimental design skills to design/help teams build their tests the right way to measure the right thing; and sometimes my data skills to get/analyse/build models with our own data. And finally, PhDs are amazing at reading giant swathes of information, digesting, critiquing, summarizing, and generating recommendations in a clear manner (think of all those Introduction sections you’ve done). I turn around ‘rapid reviews’ on research or reports at a pace that baffles some of my colleagues – but any PhD can do it.

What’s the progression like?

The industry has completely changed in the last 5 years, and is continuing to evolve. In 2014 there were a handful of behavioural science units/teams/companies in the world, and graduates struggled to find a job opening. In 2017 there were over 202 behavioural science units in public-policy globally. In 2020, there are estimated to be over 650 teams globally, across various sectors. Roles are diversifying, like: ‘behavioural designers’, ‘behavioural scientists’, ‘behavioural marketers’, etc.

Until about 2016 there were no real careers to progress in, no different ‘career-levels’ of behavioural scientists. Now, in the public sector for example, you have Directors of Behavioural Science (such as Dr Laura de Moliere at the Cabinet Office), and Senior/Junior Behavioural Insights Associates. There are Chief Behavioural Officers in various industries (e.g. financial services, marketing, HR, consultancy), who coordinate a mix of insights and/or behavioural science teams. There are more ‘Head of Behaviour Science’ positions being created every day, indicating more roles are forming under them.

Progression at the junior/senior associate levels can be relatively quick, industry dependent, and easier if the team(s) are more established. This is where having a PhD might actually be a benefit, as they tend to accelerate up the career ladder faster and level out when reaching management level.

Personally, I am looking to move into a ‘Head of’ position, and managing a full behavioural science unit. Our parent company in the US is looking to hire behavioural scientists to work at all levels, so I hope to help them build their team there.

I would love to be a Chief Behavioural Science Officer someday, but I think there is a long way to go before the position is common in companies. A CBO role reflects companies’ acceptance of data-driven experimentation and the use of scientific knowledge to understand and change behaviour; or at least the aim to get there. We are still in a world where experimentation is scary for most, so it’s easier to do something without making sure it works. Other companies think they do experimentation well, but often have a highly fragmented approach to doing it well: one team could be off using AI to predict the best people to hire, while another team is struggling to understand why sample size matters.

What are your top tips for our researchers?

Reach out to people through your networks, or on LinkedIn. People like me love to help aspiring behavioural scientists, and we are all finding our way in this new field together. Offer them a coffee (classic persuasion psychology here) if Lockdown is lifted. Ask if you could shadow them, or if you could do a more formalised internship (even if for a few hours a week). Or if they’ve got any bits of work you could support pro bono (you might find they’ll try to reward you somehow).

You should try to get experience of conducting a project for a non-academic organisation as soon as possible. This doesn’t have to be an experiment – you can easily find organisations who are looking for a literature review and recommendations, which is something most MSc students and PhDs can do in a matter of weeks. The key bit here is recommendations, something that is actionable.

Organisations appreciate the in-depth material to refer to, and often expect it (typically because they want to show what they are paying for), but they really just want to know what they are actually supposed to be doing with it. If you always force yourself to think of providing recommendations, you’ll naturally start thinking about the company, the context of the research, what is the most important/least important thing you’ve found that is relevant to them. If you do this, you’ll be 90% of the way there on the skills you’ll need in any organisation – and you’ll be able to build a portfolio of examples where you’ve applied academic research to practical real-world issues.

Feel free to reach out to me on LinkedIn, I’m happy to talk to people and I offer the odd mentorship to help people in early-stage careers or those considering moves (so far, all have been successful).

Welcome to you, our new ‘prac-ademic’!

Researchers Guest Feature: Taking a Closer Look at Clinical Trials

uczjipo6 November 2020

Throughout the year we will be taking a deep dive into some key topics and career paths discussed in our events programme.

In these posts, we will be exploring what careers in a variety of different industries look like for a researcher. Each contributor will give us their key tips for following a non-academic career path whilst letting us in on the things they wished they’d known before taking the leap. Find out about the roles their organisation has to offer and get some key tips on applying.

This month it’s all about clinical trials…

Taking a deeper dive into the world of a full-service clinical contract research organisation, we have our contributor:

Andrea Flannery
Andrea is a Clinical Trial Manager at Medpace
Andrea studied at the National University of Ireland and has a PhD in Microbiology

Tell us about being a Clinical Trial Manager…

A Clinical Trial Manager oversees the day-to-day clinical operations of a trial. This involves acting as the project lead for multi-full service global clinical trials. The position interacts with sponsors and manages the timeline and all project deliverables.

So, who are Medpace and what do you do?

Medpace is a full-service clinical contract research organization (CRO). We provide Phase I-IV clinical development services to the biotechnology, pharmaceutical and medical device industries. Our mission is to accelerate the global development of safe and effective medical therapeutics through its scientific and disciplined approach. We leverage local regulatory and therapeutic expertise across all major areas including oncology, cardiology, metabolic disease, endocrinology, central nervous system, anti-viral and anti-infective. Headquartered in Cincinnati, Ohio, employing approximately 3,500 people across almost 40 countries. We have two offices in the United Kingdom, Central London and Stirling, Scotland.

Did you find any transferable skills from your PhD to your role now?

My PhD was in infectious disease microbiology and it investigated interactions associated with antibiotic resistant bacteria and the innate immune system.

There are lots of transferrable skills that can be applied to my job now. For example,

  • Collaboration/team work – working with other labs and co-authors to complete lab work, draft and publish papers
  • Project planning/organisational skills – you manage your own project. What needs to be done and when.
  • Time management – you manage your own time to get your research completed for key milestones and deadlines.
  • Coordinating Laboratory logistics – being responsible for certain tasks within the lab (product ordering, liaising with vendors to get equipment calibrated or ordered.
  • Problem solving – this what a PhD is all about!
  • Presentation skills – internal and conference presentations.
  • Adaptability – Often a result changes how you plan to proceed with your research, and you must adapt. Also learning new techniques, training on new equipment, learning new areas of science for PhD etc.
  • Computer skills – word, PowerPoint, excel etc.

What were the challenges transitioning from academia to industry?

It was challenging to multitask learning a completely new industry and taking on a role outside of the lab. There was good training and on the job experience provided at Medpace which meant this challenge did not last very long.

Is there anything you hoped someone had told you before leaving academia?

Network as much as possible! Reach out to alumni of your university or people on LinkedIn to have a quick chat about their day-to-day jobs and find out if that interests you. Once you decide on the industry you want to work in, you can start to reach out to more people in that area to ask for tips and advice for your CV and/or interview.

And any tips specifically for Postdocs…

Medpace hires people with postdoc experience and a few of my colleagues worked as postdocs. Use your years of experience and skills gained throughout the years and apply them to the industry you are applying to. I think it’s important to show that you are willing to learn and adapt to a new industry.

If someones interested in your organisation, are there any minimum requirements to roles?

At minimum, a bachelor’s degree in science is required. We welcome people with a PhD in life sciences, especially for one of the training programmes available where PhD graduates are employed and on an accelerated training pathway.

And finally, what kind of job titles should people be looking for if they’re interested in clinical trials?

Project coordinator (PC), clinical research associate (CRA), regulatory submissions coordinator (RSC) and data coordinator (DC) have entry level positions available at Medpace.

Thanks to Andrea for sharing your experiences! We hope you found this useful and keep an eye out for more of our guest blogs… If this has inspired you to explore a career outside of academia, come along to one of our events in this years programme – click here for more information

 

 

Facilitating research – helping bring money to a university

uczjsdd1 August 2019

By Jana Dankovicova

 

Dr Jennifer Hazelton has a PhD in Civil Engineering  from Newcastle University, and now works as a Senior School Research Facilitator in the BEAMS Research Coordination Office at UCL. She is talking in detail about her role, highlights and challenges, as well as giving tips for researchers who would like to follow a similar path.

 

 

  • Tell us about your job.

I really enjoy my job, as I work closely with researchers and feel I can make a real difference to their chances of having successful applications for grant funding. I am Senior Research Facilitator in the Office of the Vice-Provost (Research), covering the BEAMS School (Faculties of Built Environment, Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences). I lead a sub-team within the BEAMS Research Coordination Office with responsibility for providing support for Fellowship applications, Global Challenges Research Fund and Doctoral Training across BEAMS, and the Environment Research Domain across UCL. My job is very varied, often hectic with short deadlines and competing pressures, but I have a lovely team and really enjoy the buzz of helping people with proposals and contributing towards UCL’s targets for research income. I am also co-Chair of the Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) Operational Group, where we share best practice and common or specific issues in global research projects, then report and make recommendations to academic and senior leadership committees.

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

I never intended to join academia, but after a job as a Research Associate led to my PhD and postdoctoral role it looked as though that’s where I might be headed. I hated the uncertainty of short term contracts, however, and realised that I had most enjoyed supporting our funding applications and writing, rather than the research itself. I applied for a Research Coordinator job within a virtual institute newly set up at my previous university, which was a crossover between academia and application support, and offered the permanent contract I needed. I gradually did less and less research, and found that I didn’t miss it, so I knew this was the right career direction for me. When I moved on, it was to a full Professional Services role as a Strategic Research Facilitator at UCL and I moved up to my current role after a spell of maternity leave. I recently observed that I am working at Associate Professor equivalent, and doubt whether I would have made it to this level by now if I had stayed on an academic path.

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

I do a weekly surgery giving 1:1 support for researchers submitting applications for funding, so have to schedule in time to read those applications. I try to avoid doing them at my desk, so work from home once a week to read or write, and otherwise go through the proposals on the train during my commute. I am responsible for overseeing internal procedures to limit numbers of fellowship bids where schemes have institutional caps, which can take a lot of coordinating – particularly for new schemes. My team are experienced and increasingly manage these processes on their own, but we go through the details and try to assess whether we are working in the most effective way to give the best support to applicants. We provide training for researchers on applying for funding, so I deliver sessions for individual departments, faculties and the careers service. I really enjoy facilitating workshops and delivering training, but we try to target advice for the audience and give bespoke insights, as well as responding to feedback to continually improve our service, so quite a lot of preparation is required. As line manager for my team, I take their professional development very seriously. I meet fortnightly, and I like to be well prepared for those meetings. I meet fortnightly with our Director to report back and plan ahead. On a daily basis we will get requests for help with very short turnaround, whether that might be to draft a letter of support from the Vice-Provost Research, set up a mock interview or give feedback on a response to reviewer comments. We always try to fit these activities in, often pooling resources as a team to find time. I very rarely have two days the same in a week, as I work flexibly to fit around childcare, but that certainly keeps things interesting! There are members of the team who work set hours in the office and don’t take any work home, which they really appreciate, but for me it works better to have less time at my desk and finish my work elsewhere when I need to. As long as we get the work done, working patterns can be flexible, which I really value.

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

The variety of people and subjects I get to work with is fantastic, because of the breadth of the BEAMS School. The RCO team is also varied, but we work together really well and each bring different perspectives and expertise so are always learning from each other. The atmosphere in our office is very collegiate, and we share a lot of our work but also personal experiences which has helped us form a close knit unit. I think personally that the flexibility, visibility and security of the role are valuable. A lot of the researchers we work with are very appreciative of the help we give. As someone who thrives off supporting others, this is a great bonus for me.

  • What are the downsides/challenges?

There are some regular tasks which involve a lot of emailing around academics to request help with mock interviews or reviewing, often at very short notice. Academics are generally extremely busy and it can be very difficult to keep asking them to do extra work when you know how much they already have to do. We also have to be very resilient to failure, because the reality is that only a small percentage of research applications are funded. Most academics will only submit a few applications each year, but we are working on new applications every week. When you have worked extremely hard with someone on an important proposal that they (and you) are strongly committed to, it can be difficult to take the news that it hasn’t been funded. Similarly, but almost harder, when we run internal selection panels we have to tell unsuccessful applicants that their application hasn’t made it through the internal stage, which can be difficult. Finally, we are often working under pressure to tight deadlines, which are not always easy to predict. So this job wouldn’t suit someone who needed a very structured and predictable workload.

  • Is a PhD essential for your role? 

Having a PhD (or equivalent) is an essential criterion for this role, but not because of the subject-specific expertise. We all review grants in all areas, not just our own subjects. Having a PhD helps us to be more credible in the eyes of the academics we support. I don’t actually think it is or should be a necessary requirement for applying to do the job, because the skills I need for my role were not learned doing my PhD, but it is one indicator of academic experience which definitely helps.

  • Where would someone go in their career from here?

Research support is a rapidly expanding field in Professional Services. I think the skills are very transferable to research in other sectors, but the university sector is UK and worldwide so there is a lot of choice. There are currently roles across 4 pay grades in our team, so plenty of scope for progression. UCL has 3 Research Coordination Offices across its 4 Schools, so there are often secondments or jobs available. I am also going to do a secondment at EPSRC, one of our key funders, for 6 months which will give me some insight into how our grants get reviewed and assessed – which I am really looking forward to.

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

Do some shadowing – we have set up shadowing opportunities with our team for people interested in research facilitation, and this has proved very helpful. Also, there are often secondment roles across the three RCOs, so keep an eye out for those. Get as much experience as you can reading and reviewing applications from your peers, and contributing to applications to different funders.

How can you use your research skills in Academic Publishing?

uczjsdd1 February 2019

Anouska Bharath is completing a PhD in Mechanical Engineering and is now a Market Intelligence Research Analyst at Springer Nature. Here she kindly shares her career journey, and some useful tips she’s picked up along the way.

Tell us about your current role and organisation.

My role at Springer Nature is not what I assumed before joining the firm actually. Being in academia for some time, and especially in research, my view of this industry was much like that of a fan-girl! I was in awe of the glamorous and intelligent work that scientific editors and analysts do in big publishers, and my academic career fed increasingly into this vision. Having started as a research analyst, I couldn’t progress to an editor’s role until my PhD was complete (and this is still in completion stage). As my first year passed however, I realised that my analyst role in scientific research is actually exactly what I love! Dealing with data, finding trends, and ultimately discovering stories that really propel our position as a global research hub.

How did you move from academia to your current role?

I love the academic environment, and furthermore I love the journey that I had from my BSc in Statistics to my (almost) PhD in Engineering. Academia is an industry that you really cannot describe to others who haven’t themselves experienced it. It’s a rollercoaster of emotions and you constantly question how “good” you are at what you do every day. It definitely built me to withstand those emotions when they pop up outside of work. The application process wasn’t easy, nor was it straightforward. While UCL has lots of support services for career moves, as a PhD student you really don’t have any time to put toward even thinking about life after thesis submission! Well I didn’t anyway. I decided that I needed to experience something other than academia however, as it just felt healthier to branch out into one of my “passions” for a bit. My passion has always been writing, so this company seemed ideal – mixing science with writing. The problem of course was that without my PhD complete, I was disadvantaged applying to a publishing firm like Springer Nature. Many applications, LinkedIn stalks, interviews, and cries later, I secured a role as a research analyst here. The process was gruelling, but so worth it.

What does a normal working day look like for you?

I don’t get to do much scientific writing. I focus a lot more on creating analytical reports that go out to help keep our journals in universities and hospitals. I analyse scientific papers and themes, funding streams, and big institutional users, in order to create reports and critical analyses for business strategy. A typical day would be me interacting with my sales team to figure out what strategic move to make analytically in the regions I cover, catching myself up on the latest trends in science, and keeping an eye on new data streams in scientific funding, publications, journal usage, and submissions.

What are the best things about working in your role?

I have to say the best part of being at Springer Nature is the support I get every day. Academic settings truthfully aren’t as conducive to such cohesive support; just because of the nature of your goal in academia. My team here has always been so supportive and accommodating as I transition from “student” to “analyst”. Otherwise, Springer Nature is also a very diverse platform in itself – allowing me to be a part of the “larger picture” in the research industry. As a big player in scientific research, we have a scheme called Grand Challenges whereby we target research features toward tackling the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. I recently actually set up a fruitful relationship with UCL’s Grand Challenges committee as they are also doing the same. Watch this space I guess! I love how much the company invests in employee wellbeing – it’s like being on a really cool “bridge” between university campus and industry. We actually even call it the Springer Nature campus! The amount of clubs and societies is amazing, and the initiatives taken toward personal and professional development are unmatched. There’s even a wellbeing committee (of which I am a member) that ensure we maintain interactive wellbeing schemes – like sports challenges, bake sales, on-campus movie screenings, and charity events. I feel so lucky!

What are the biggest challenges you face in your work?

The biggest challenge I faced when starting, was the added element of time pressure to my work. Being a research student, the time pressure was always from my own clock (so to speak). My deadlines impacted no one else but myself. In an environment where the deadline affects the next person in the process chain, the need to be accurate yet timely became very important – but this was new. It took a while, but I think I finally started to strike the balance! Of course the need to get up at the same time every day was also new and never became easier…. J I also had a hard time communicating in way that non-academics would understand. In fact, communication in general was never a big part of my academic journey. For me specifically, the added commitment in the evenings/weekend of my thesis write-up remains. The strain here however will not be applicable to other new starters.

Is a PhD essential for your role? What skills do you use from your PhD in your current role?

For my “role-on-paper”, a Masters would suffice. But for what my role has become, my PhD has been invaluable. From increasing my speed/capability in analysing large datasets, to just knowing the science industry – it’s been really useful. Of course, the qualification itself would help more in editing arms of the company.

What’s the progression like/where do you see yourself going from here?

The progression in this role would take me into more top-level business strategy, and probably further away from the science! PhD-telling, this will be decided once I qualify 🙂

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

Hmm tough one…there are so many things! But you know what? Learning as you go has never been more accurate for skills like these. Communication, team-work, presentation, listening….they’re all the standard “application fillers” we all used! But they mean nothing until you really have to put them into practice. If you’re looking to work in an industry like this, I would apply to Springer Nature purely because I have had such a wonderful time so far (unbiased I promise). Network yourself crazy – even just online. I remember I followed lots of Springer Nature employees, and even reached out to one who helped me prepare for the interview. Building a network was invaluable when preparing. Also be prepared to get a few rejections – I even got one from this company at first! But realise that it’s all part of the process, and it WILL make the next one even better. Good luck!

 

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

uczjsdd12 November 2018

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

What are you up to now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What does a normal working day look like for you?

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

What are the best bits?

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

What are the downsides?

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

Is a PhD Essential for your role?

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

What’s the progression like?

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

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

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

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

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

A PhD’s experience in Life Science Consulting

uczjsdd18 October 2018

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

What are you up to now?

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

How did you get here?

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

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

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

What does an average day look like?

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

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

What are the best bits?

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

What are the worst bits?

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

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

Do you need a PhD?

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

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

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

What’s the progression like?

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

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

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

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

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

Moving from a PhD to Life Science Consulting

uczjsdd19 July 2018

Dr Roumteen Keshe has a PhD in Biochemical Engineering and Bioprocess Leadership from UCL, and is now a Consultant at Kinapse, an advisory and operational services provider to the global Life Sciences industry. Roumteen contributed to our 2018 Life and Health Science Biology and Business careers panel, and kindly agreed to help out those of you couldn’t make it to the panel by telling us about his career journey for our blog.

Tell us about your current role and organisation.

Kinapse is a specialist advisory and managed service provider trusted by 19 of the top 25 pharmaceutical companies in the world, as well as some of the fastest-growing contenders, to design, build and operate critical business processes. Our Advisory services team supports the design and implementation of improvements or transformational changes to operating models across multiple areas ranging from R&D operations to Market Access.

As a consultant within Kinapse my role consists of researching and writing thought capital around the pharmaceutical industry, scoping out potential work with existing and new clients, writing project proposals, and planning, managing and contributing to small and large projects. I have worked on a number of strategic and change management projects across Medical Affairs, R&D, and Clinical Operations. The work involves first understanding the client’s requirements before presenting recommendations based on the collective experience of your team to collaboratively develop a vision for the future state of the business unit/process. One of the fun bits is then figuring out how to introduce these changes in large, traditional organisations before finally executing the plans you have developed.

How did you move from academia to your current role?

My doctorate was sponsored by MedImmune (the biotech division of AstraZeneca), so I got to spend nearly half my 4 year programme embedded within an R&D team at their site in Cambridge. Working within the team at Medi, I liked the immediate applicability of the work that was being done. What I didn’t like was the thought of being “stuck in the lab” for the next 10 years, so I set out to gain an understanding of the business around the science. This began while at UCL, taking advantage of the ties UCL Advances had to London Business School at the time, to take three electives around change management and business growth, and trying to take as many internships as possible to gain an understanding of how different areas of business worked (law, marketing, consulting, programming). This actually included an internship at Kinapse, where I work now. After university I moved into a business development position within a private equity tech company before switching to a similar position for a biotech company that was developing scale down, 3D human organ mimics with collaborators across the world (including DARPA at the US Department of Defence!). Having learnt a great deal during my time in Business Development, I reached out to Kinapse again and joined the consulting team to get to work on bigger projects with bigger teams and continue the learning journey.

What does a normal working day look like for you?

My day depends on the client, the project and the stage of the project… it can vary widely. It could include taking multiple calls with different project teams, for each one we need to prepare the approach, action any matters arising, and develop the outputs of the meetings (this is the part of the job where you have to really put in the time and that people don’t often acknowledge). Alternatively, you could be flying off to a client site anywhere around the world (literally), meeting new people, and running really interesting workshops or interviews trying to collect data and plant the seeds for the eventual change the organisation is implementing.

What are the best things about working in your role?

Firstly, every day is a learning opportunity, working with highly experienced consulting and client colleagues and using their knowledge to get a better understanding of the Pharma industry.

Secondly, the variety is never ending. If you want to learn or do something different, you can definitely work towards it at any point. The company is very supportive and happy to give more responsibility if you show you can handle it.

Thirdly, but probably very best of all, is the colleagues, who are all driven, motivated, highly intelligent and supportive. They are like a big extended family who are all going through the same journey, albeit at different stages.

What are the biggest challenges?

One of the biggest challenges is time pressure; there can be a lot of work at times, and you need to really be able to prioritise your tasks for different stakeholders. Although I enjoy the aspect of constant learning, some might find the constant self-improvement and openness to learning a challenge. Another challenge is that most projects involve a new team. This always presents the usual challenges associated with team formation before you get to optimum working dynamics.

Is a PhD essential for your role?

No, but it helps. It adds a level of credibility to you as you go into big companies and begin offering advice to senior managers who have been in their jobs for 20+ years. I also use the core skills I developed during my PhD on a near daily basis, such as the ability to determine what information I need, plan how to find and collate it, and use that to synthesize findings. I was lucky in that the Biochemical Engineering department at UCL had such a big focus on presenting your findings to big groups of people, because that is also a big part of the job.

What’s the progression like?

The progression is what you make of it. If you are focused and know how you want to develop, you can quickly climb the ranks. It is a very flat meritocracy here at Kinapse, and that seems similar across the consulting industry. That is not to say there is not a huge learning curve, but that is nothing that knuckling down and putting in the hours does not fix! I am fairly open to the direction my career can take, I know I like to be challenged by my work, I know I enjoy working with multidisciplinary teams, and I know I enjoy helping to define and implement business strategy. For now I am happy where I am, but we will see what the future holds.

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

If you want to get into consulting, find an internship and try it out! Consulting has always been viewed as a glamorous job, lots of travel, different projects, working with senior clients… and it can be, but there is a whole load of hard work, attention to detail, and late nights behind that. It is definitely not for everyone, but it is very rewarding if it is for you.

To get that internship, first-off do your research. Find a consultancy that fits your interests and your profile, then reach out. Find a connection into the company, whether through your existing network, by attending networking/recruitment events, or just sending a message on LinkedIn. Explain who you are, what you want to do, and why you think the consultancy is a good fit for you.

Careers in Government: key messages from our Beyond Academia Event

uczjsdd19 December 2017

 

In November we ran a Beyond Academia event shining a spotlight on careers in government for PhDs. We had two great UCL alumni speakers discussing their current roles and career paths: Dr Patricia Idaewor, who has a PhD in Transport Studies, and is now Policy Lead on HS2 in the Department for Transport’s High Speed Rail Group; and Dr Sarah Livermore, who has a PhD in Elementary Particle Physics and is now the Modelling Lead on the Committee for Climate Change, as part of the Government Operational Research Service (GORS). Here are the take home points from the event:

A career path isn’t always a straight ladder, it can be a winding staircase.

Patricia’s PhD supervisor told her this some years back, and her and Sarah’s careers have reflected it. Both took their modelling skills into government, using techniques mastered in their PhDs, but in subject areas and settings that were new to them. Since then, Patricia found she enjoyed using her softer skills, and so has moved from modelling to project management, programme assurance, and now policy lead.

Government careers can be great

Patricia and Sarah were able to use skills developed during their PhD in their current roles; the technical knowledge and analytical skills, as well as softer skills such as giving presentations and project management. They spoke of the ample opportunities they are given to develop new competencies within government, with allotted time for skills training. They both loved the fact that their work was fuelling the decisions that can make positive impacts on people’s lives. They also commented on the good work-life balance and flexibility in many government roles.

There are downsides too

Patricia spoke about the slow pace of some government decision-making processes as a potential challenge. The checks and balances are necessary as massive amounts of taxpayers’ money are on the line, but it can still be frustrating. And Patricia and Sarah both discussed the unpredictability of civil service work as a downside. The modelling Sarah carries out, and the policy work Patricia does, are both dictated by the agenda of ministers. If they change their mind, Sarah and Patricia must change their direction. Even predicting whether you would be called to speak to a minister could be unpredictable day-to-day, and so Patricia always keeps a change of smart shoes in her office just in case!

If you have a numerate background, the government wants you

The civil service is a huge and diverse employer, and all sorts of skills can be transferred there. But Sarah particularly emphasised the desirability of highly numerate people. The Government Operational Research Service has a large intake every year, and they struggle to find enough candidates with great analytical/modelling skills. Their current recruitment round has just closed, but Sarah assured us they’ll be opening for applications again in January. And the Government Economics Service or Social Research Service may also be of interest to the numerate amongst you. Whatever civil service role you’re applying for, numerate or otherwise, both Sarah and Patricia advised focussing heavily on the civil service competencies called for, because this is how you will be assessed.

A pint of careers story with Pint of Science’s Elodie Chabrol

uczjsdd11 December 2017

Dr Elodie Chabrol has a PhD in neurogenetics, and spent 7 years as a postdoctoral researcher at UCL. She’s now a full-time event organiser and science communicator, and she kindly agreed to share her journey and top tips with us.

What are you up to at the moment?

I’m the International Director for the festival Pint of Science. I’m in charge of the international development meaning I help new countries to set up the festival locally.

How did you move from academia to your current role?

I worked voluntarily for the festival during 4 years while being a post doc. I created the French branch of the festival and developed it, so naturally when the Pint of Science founders earned enough to pay me to do that as a full time job I joined the adventure and left academia. I decided academia wasn’t for me a year before leaving. I was in a very competitive field and wasn’t very much supported by my head of the lab and I felt I was enjoying more science communication than academia. I finished my project and left.

What does a normal working day look like for you?

There is no normal day when you plan an event/festival because every day has a new challenge, especially now that I work with 10 new countries. But I’m basically on my computer, I have a lot of digital interactions (skype, emails etc) and I communicate a lot about the festival (Facebook, twitter etc). I talk to every country at least once a week to be sure everyone is ok and on track and no one needs special attention.
 
What are the best things about working in your role? 

I was there at the start of Pint of Science, I founded the French one and I get to see it spread in the world and it’s amazing. Also on a more practical note I work from home and that’s quite easy and I’m happy I get to avoid the commute!
 
What are the biggest challenges?

Working from home can be one. You are free to work wherever you want but you can also feel lonely sometimes and you need to be disciplined otherwise you end up watching TV in your PJs all day. I’m used to working on the festival from home since I was doing that on the side of my post doc, so for me it was natural.

Working with many countries can also have a downside: not everyone is in the same time zone so sometimes you need to have late skype meetings or early ones and need to rearrange your personal life around it.

Is a PhD essential for your role?

Not per se but the fact that I know the world of research is a big plus for me as my job is to help scientists share their research with the public. I also started giving some lessons on science communication for those who don’t feel confident enough for talks like Pint of Science. I know what it is so I can put myself in their shoes and help them better.
 
Where do you see yourself going from here?

Well for Pint of Science I’m pretty much as high as I can be. I see the festival growing and me helping all those countries, and once that’s done I think I will probably find other ways to help researchers do some communication. Either by creating some other initiatives or working as a consultant.
 
What top tips would you pass on to researchers interested in this type of work?

If you want to leave academia and go to that type of work you need experience so get as much as possible on the side. Try to take part in some science communication event organisation, Pint of Science or else to see if you like it. If you like it I’d say do more and more! How to take part? When you go to science events, talk to the organisers to see if they need volunteers. Maybe also start using twitter because nowadays a lot happens there.