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Using a science PhD to build a marketing career

uczjsdd12 June 2015

John Paul gained a PhD in Cell Biology from Manchester University. Here he tells us about his current role in pharmaceutical marketing, as an account manager at Circa Healthcare.

How did you move from academic research to marketing?

After my PhD I worked for three and a half years as a post-doctoral researcher. In the last year of my post-doc contract I started to weigh up my options. My boss had offered me a contract extension and future assistance in developing grant proposals to obtain my own funding so I could start the process of being independent/having my own projects and students. However, I was having reservations that setting up my own research group and constantly applying for grants wasn’t for me. Having an outgoing and sociable personality, I decided that I should look for a role that would use my scientific background but also allow me to interact with people rather than with plastic dishes and cells (I spent lots of hours in cell culture labs!).

I looked into many roles in which scientific knowledge would be useful in communications; advertising/marketing was just one. I was very lucky in that I obtained a job in a pharmaceutical advertising agency due to a family connection.

What does a normal working day look like for you?

I’m generally office based, although I probably travel to meet clients or attend extended brand meetings at least once a month. I work within the accounts team and am a point person for both national and global pharmaceutical brand managers. My roles include developing strategic (short and long-term) marketing plans for the products and defining the tactics that need to be developed to drive the marketing initiatives. I then work with my creative team (writers, designers, web developers etc) to create the tactics, on time and within budget, and liaise with our clients to ensure, prior to being released to market, the content created communicates the messaging they desire.

What are the best things about working in your role?

No two days are the same; working on a variety of products with different marketing campaigns and product life cycles ensures there is a variety in my workload, which keeps things interesting.

What are the biggest challenges you face in your work?

All clients have budget limitations and it is often challenging to manage expectations, or to explain to clients that when they change the project scope and we need to do something different to meet the new needs, that we most likely need to re-estimate the project or adjust timelines – although this may sound like what would be expected, it is often not the case. Ensuring projects stay on budget (and on timeline) is essential not only for clients but also for your team and your agency’s business – if you constantly go over budget you are a less profitable company, and if you constantly fall behind timelines your clients will not be happy for very long. As such keeping projects on budget and on timelines is challenging but essential to maintaining good business practice.

Is a PhD essential for your role?

No, although a scientific background has been very useful to help understand on a molecular level how products work/how they stimulate their effect in comparison to competition (helps to define differentiating factors). Although a science degree is not essential, all employees need a degree; most of my colleagues in the accounts team hold business and/or marketing degrees.

What skills do you use from your PhD in your current role?

The majority of the marketing managers I work with are doctors, and some are even specialists (e.g. cardiologists), who have transitioned into a business and marketing role. As such my degree allows me to engage in detailed scientific discussions on the products and the market competition with clients, which I believe they appreciate, as many account leads do not have a scientific background. Also being able to develop concise but detailed presentations (verbal and written) are skills I refined during my PhD studies and use regularly now.

Where do you see yourself going from here?

Becoming an account supervisor, and so being responsible for more strategic development projects/less tactical projects, leading pitch projects and presentations and managing a team of lower level account personnel. Following this, progression to director of client services – i.e. overseeing all account personnel and management of client relations.

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

More and more pharmaceutical and healthcare agencies are looking for people with science degrees when recruiting for new account team members so just apply! Be confident and direct; demonstrate your passion to join the organization and the ability to communicate scientific matters clearly. Although having a science background is great, having some knowledge of business practice and basic marketing would be very helpful and also very appealing for employers. If time permits there are great courses online which can assist with this, and there are some great books out there for people who need to know the basics.

Sticking up for STEM women

uczjsdd22 May 2015

Displaying Studies show that women leave academic research in larger numbers than men, and are poorly represented at higher academic levels. Initiatives like Athena SWAN have been set up to address the problem, but there are other sources of support out there too. One example is STEM women.

The site was put together by Dr Buddhini Samarasinghe, Professor Rajini Rao, and Dr Zuleyka Zevallos, three women with PhDs who wanted to generate open debate around how to improve the situation for women in STEM. Over the next few days, we will hear from each of these women about their own career journeys. Here, Buddhini tells us a little more about the site.

How did you first start the website?

Back in 2012, I think it was on International Women’s Day, someone on Facebook shared a list of female scientists whom you may or may not have heard of. Obviously Marie Curie was in it, and there were lots of other black and white photos of women who were mostly already dead. Great that such a list is being shared, but I figured I should put together a list of more current female scientists to whom people could better relate. I used Google +, which was pretty new at that time and had lots of female engineers and scientists who were posting publicly about their work. So I started compiling a list of their names and ‘shared’ them around, making a group of strong female role models who could inspire people. Off the back of that, I teamed up with two other female researchers and launched a website to celebrate females in STEM, and to comment on the current issues they face.

What kind of things does your website cover?

We profile successful female scientists, and host Q&As with them, to help inspire the next generation of female scientists. For example, we featured an amazing woman called Annika O’Brien who runs robotics workshops in disadvantaged areas in LA, and has her own company now. And we also talk to high-profile male scientists to try to get their input in how to improve the STEM environment for women.

And we call out and comment on current issues that are relevant to women in STEM, such as sexism. As an example, last year the journal of Proteomics published a paper on the sequencing of the coconut genome, and the picture that accompanied a link to the article featured a scantily-clad woman holding coconuts in front of her breasts, which was extremely inappropriate. One of my fellow website authors wrote to the journal’s editor to complain, and she received a less-than-satisfactory response from him, telling her it was all normal, and as a physiology Professor she should be familiar with female physiology!

The photo has since been taken down in response to a twitter storm involving outraged people like us. But I think this perfectly highlights why a site like ours is needed. Firstly, the picture went up when it absolutely shouldn’t have. But secondly, when it was taken down, the apology was far too wishy-washy; they were sorry we’re offended, but they didn’t really acknowledge what they’d done wrong. Which is why things like this keep happening e.g. The Rosetta-landing shirt controversy. Some people think it’s silly to focus on these things, that at least the situation today is better than it used to be. But these are the microaggressions that make women feel less welcome in the male-dominated scientific space. We want to shine a light on sexism within STEM, to help the women facing it know they’re not alone, and to try to move the field forward.

Picture courtesy of STEM women, taken from their Nature blog article.

Interview with a geoscientist

uczjsdd23 March 2015

James photoDr James Scotchman gained his PhD in Geology from UCL, and now works as a Geoscientist at Neftex Petroleum Consultants Ltd, a consultancy company that helps clients in natural resource exploration.

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

Prior to leaving academia in 2012 I studied at UCL, gaining an MSci and a PhD in geology. My postgraduate research focussed on the study of Eocene climate and its influence on the geological record. During my PhD I was lucky enough to be offered an internship with ExxonMobil at their research centre in Houston, Texas. Whilst there I gained an insight into the role research has within hydrocarbon exploration.

With my PhD completed I was confronted the choice of either continuing in research or entering into industry. I decided to apply for both.

Post doctoral applications – In the time between interviews I began to write up chapters from my PhD for publication as this would help toward post doctoral positions I was applying for. By the time I was invited for interview I had two draft manuscripts ready for submission to peer-reviewed journals. For me the upside of continuing within research was the ability to focus on my interests and possibly hang on to the student lifestyle! The large down side I could foresee was the need for periodical re-application for funding so that I could continue research and potentially move institutions. Such uncertainty did not sound like fun to me.

Industry applications – I applied for several graduate programs including BP, Shell, ExxonMobil and Statoil. With my focus on completing my PhD in the autumn/winter of 2012 I neglected to apply in time for many of the graduate programs, resulting in many of them being full for that year. For those graduate programs I was offered an interview the process was gruelling. Despite this, the hope was to enter one of these graduate programs with longer term employment prospects compared with postdoctoral positions. With applications to the larger hydrocarbon exploration companies being unsuccessful I turned to the smaller independent and consulting companies. Overall the interviews for these positions were more fulfilling with many valuable lessons learned from each one. The most valuable lesson learnt toward the end of my search was to highlight to the employers how I could apply my skills to what the company did and help them make more money/sales etc. Up to this point I had mainly described what I had done previously. Once I had realised this rather obvious lesson I was offered two positions that includes where I am today.

What I like about working in my role

My current role enables me to apply the skills (both geological and transferrable) gained from my undergraduate and postgraduate degrees to a range of problems. Overall the position is a great combination of research and industry.

What are my biggest challenges?

With the position being a combination of research and industry there is no real downside, except for having a fixed work day. The days of lazing around in bed are well and truly over!

To what extent do I use my specialist knowledge and/or higher level skills obtained from my PhD?

Within my role the specialist knowledge I gained from my PhD is used from time to time depending upon the project focus. General geological concepts along with transferrable skills developed during my research are used on a daily basis. These skills include the use of MATLAB and Excel for processing large datasets and general presentation skills.

My top tips

As I stated earlier the best tip is to sell yourself to the employer by stating how you can apply what you have learnt to their problem/business. Talk to your supervisor(s) about what you are interested in and chat to people at conferences. You never know what can happen through networking!

Moving from Research to Research Funding

uczjsdd27 February 2015

carolinedalton

Dr Caroline Dalton has a PhD in Cell Biology from UCL. In this interview, Caroline tells us about her decision to leave academia, and her current role as a Research Funding Manager at Cancer Research UK.

 

How did you move from academia to your current role?

I had a bit of an ongoing battle inside myself during my PhD. I really enjoyed being in the lab, and the whole concept of science; finding a question that I’d like to answer, and working out the best way to answer it. But as I got further through my PhD, I became aware of the realities of a life in academia – the poor work/life balance, the lack of stability, and the scarcity of permanent higher-level positions – and I realised that a research career probably wasn’t for me.

So alongside my PhD and post-doc, I tried to get a sense of what else was out there. I knew I wanted to get out of the lab, but I also wanted to stay in science somehow, and by doing internet research, and going along to careers talks and events, I found out I had lots of options. I also tried a few things out to gage what I’d like most; I did a bit of public engagement in the form of ‘I’m a scientist, get me out of here’, I volunteered at a science festival, I went to a science policy workshop at Westminster, and attended various policy debates.

It turned out that I enjoyed all of these experiences, so when it came to job-hunting, my applications were actually fairly broad. But trying new things helped me to better understand the job roles that I was going for, and it also looked great on my CV and in interviews, as it demonstrated that I’d investigated the world outside of the lab. My first job coming out of research was working in policy for Breakthrough Breast Cancer for just under a year and a half. I liked the policy aspects of that role, however, I found I wasn’t using my science background enough, as the role was more health-service-focused. That’s why I moved into my current role as Research Funding Manager at CRUK – to get back in touch with the science.

Is having a PhD necessary for working in your current role?

A PhD isn’t essential for becoming a CRUK Research Funding Manager, but as it helps to have an understanding of the research environment, many of my colleagues do have PhDs. The role involves reading, understanding, summarising, and critically appraising research proposals, so I’m using a lot of the scientific skills I picked up in research. I also communicate with many different people and coordinate a variety of activities, so I’m using the project-management, organisation, and communication skills I developed in research too.

What does a normal working day look like for you?

I work on CRUK’s Clinical Trials Awards Advisory Committee, so the bulk of my role involves processing funding applications, and organising the scientific committee meeting that determines how funding will be awarded. Exactly what I’m doing each day depends very much on where we are in the review cycle, but it will usually entail things like answering queries from researchers hoping to apply for funding, reading research applications and writing an office summary of each one, sourcing appropriate peer reviewers for each application, checking the peer-reviewers’ responses, getting reviews back to applicants so they can respond, processing those responses, then preparing for and coordinating the actual committee meeting, and writing to applicants with committee feedback. There’s a fair bit of admin involved, but we’re assisted by Grants Officers who deal with a lot of the more basic administrative elements of the process.

What are the best things about working in your role?

It’s exciting to see the latest developments in science before they’ve even happened/been funded, and to be privy to the high-level discussions that happen at the committee meetings, and the expert reviewer comments on cutting-edge science. That’s the main thing that attracted me to the role. I also enjoy using my writing skills to craft responses to applicants reflecting the committee’s feedback on their proposals.

This is probably more team-, or CRUK-specific, than a part of the role per se, but the working environment is great. Everyone’s really helpful and open to suggestions for new ways of doing things, whatever level they or you are at. And there’s a much better work/life balance in this role than I would have had in academia, and it’s a permanent role, which obviously adds an element of stability that was lacking in research.

What are the biggest challenges you face?

In research I was extremely independent. It’s actually quite nice being part of a team now that’s trying to achieve something, as opposed to a single person trying to achieve something. But it does mean that there are a lot more people and processes involved in decision-making. In research, you’re pretty much free to try new things, as long as money and your supervisor allows. But outside of academia there are usually far more levels of bureaucracy involved.

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

I don’t know if there’s necessarily a ‘typical’ career path in research funding – there are lots of options. You could progress upwards in the team by applying for vacancies when they come up, like my managers have done. Or some people go on to do similar jobs in other charities and research funders, while others move to universities to manage grant applications from that side. Some people move on to more research-policy-focused roles, and potentially that might be a future direction that I might like to take. It also seems to be fairly common for people to move around and try new things within CRUK – I think that’s positively encouraged here.

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

If you think you might want to work in research funding, I’d advise speaking to people in the area, and making sure you know what the funding landscape looks like. It can also help if you’ve been involved in the peer-review process before, so volunteer to review papers for journals, or ask your supervisor if you can help with reviews they’re doing.

And I’d definitely recommend using the UCL careers service! They made me far less terrified of the task ahead, helping me to identify and sell the skills that employers care about, which really boosted my confidence.

What happens to Biology PhDs?

uczjsdd20 January 2015

workforce infographic ASCB COMPASS

 If you’re a life sciences researcher wondering where your PhD could take you, have a look at the above infographic created by Jessica Polka for The American Society for Cell Biology. It’s based on US data, but paints a similar (although, to quote the infographic’s author, “not as dire”), picture as previous UK reports: perhaps surprisingly, most Biology PhDs end up working outside of academic research.

The Royal Society wants us all to take responsibility for your career

uczjsdd9 January 2015

UCL careers booklet picAt UCL careers, we’re pleased to see a growing recognition of the career development needs of PhDs. This is exemplified by the Royal Society’s recent publication of ‘Doctoral students’ career expectations: principles and responsibilities’. It’s clear that there are many more PhD students than there are academic jobs, so getting a PhD doesn’t necessarily set you up for an academic career. With this in mind, the Royal Society’s report sets out how PhD supervisors, and higher education careers professionals like us, can best help students prepare for the path ahead; universities have a duty to make PhDs aware of their options, and help them develop, recognise, and market skills that will be useful both inside and outside of university research.

But the report also outlines the active role that PhD students themselves must have in the process. There’s lots of information, advice and guidance available to most students, and it’s important that individuals make the time to seek it out. With quite specific and practical advice, such as “students should assess their own understanding of their skills and achievements every six months and discuss their aspirations with supervisors”, the short report is well worth a read, whatever your career stage.

You can access the full document here, and an interesting blog from one of the authors here.