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

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

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

    Karen Barnard – Head of UCL Careers

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

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

    By Sophia Donaldson, on 12 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

    By Sophia Donaldson, on 18 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

    By Sophia Donaldson, on 19 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

    By Sophia Donaldson, on 19 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

    By Sophia Donaldson, on 11 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.

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

    By Sophia 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 Sophia 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 Sophia 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 Sophia 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 Sophia 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.