As a fresh-faced 21 yr old, I did a one-year placement at a pharmaceutical company as a synthetic chemist – a position that involves a lot of what is remarkably like cooking but with ‘reagents’ (fancy word for chemicals) instead of ingredients, making potential drugs instead of cakes. I loved the placement, I loved the work and I loved the people so I set about on the pathway to getting back in to the industry. It’s eight years on, I have the qualifications to do the role, I’m applying for jobs and I’m starting to wonder ‘Is this what I want to do? and 'Can I use all the skills I've learnt elsewhere?’
This blog is going to cover my research into what scientists like me are qualified to do that’s not in the laboratory. I’ll do my best to reference websites and people that actually do these jobs and hopefully I can help some people out by sharing what I’m learning. It’ll probably be interspersed with anecdotes and rants from the lab so you can see why I'm leaving this ‘unique’ environment! If you read this, think it’s useful/funny/worth reading, pass on the link – I’d love to know if I’m any good at this writing lark.
Friday, 12 June 2015
I miss the students
During my PhD and PostDoc, I personally supervised around 30 students and I really enjoyed working with such an enthusiastic group of people. The constant flow of new faces, new ideas and new stories was a great part of academia. Not to mention the multi-cultural nature of every lab that I worked in meant that we'd have long, hilarious discussions with new students about the weird etiquette of Britain and the UK, and how that was different in China, Russia, Germany, Austria, Mexico, India, Portugal, Estonia...
I miss being someone that knows things other people don't know
This makes me sound like a bit of a tool but when you're the long standing PostDoc, you're time is taken up with people who need you. You fast become the go-to person for all the labs needs, scientific and pastoral.
Can't get your culture to grow? Ask the PostDoc, they'll know what to do. Jim is crying in the lab because his culture won't grow - Ask the PostDoc, they'll know what to do. I'm thinking of quitting the lab and becoming a sheep farmer in New Zealand - Ask the PostDoc, they'll know what to do.
I'm starting from the bottom again and it's not easy, but I hope that I'm building up my skills and reputation so that I can be someone knowledgable enough that people will one day turn to me for advice.
I miss the confidence
I could just write 'see above', but I'll elaborate. The pressure that comes with being responsible for so many decisions in the lab means that you also have the confidence to make those decisions, defend them and know when you need to change your mind.
As a newcomer, I think I'm sometimes a bit cautious, but I need to be. I often have no idea if what I'm about to say is completely wrong. It usually pans out and it bolsters my confidence for the future, but it's not the same as the confidence that comes from being in the same job for a while.
I miss the money
I'd love to say that changing your career is easy and doesn't have any repercussions. Maybe for some people, it doesn't. I've lost a large portion of my income and after a year, I still feel like I've taken a 25% paycut, rather than feeling proud that I've worked my way up in a year from what amounted to a 60% paycut.
Money doesn't matter when you have it. The rest of the time, it matters. I'm very aware that my decision to leave research meant that my husband and I had to change our plans for our first flat and that I probably wouldn't have been able to get by if it wasn't for his help. I'm very grateful.
I don't miss the crying*
In my last 3 to 6 months in research, someone cried every day. Every day. It was pretty grim and it was often me. And I'm not a crier.
My first Comms job out of research, I think I made it until 3 months of rose-tinted glasses before I was sobbing in a park on my lunch break. I couldn't take the demands of the job coupled with the pay. At the time, it was costing me money to work. My wages simply didn't cover my bills even though I walked several miles to work and back to save £5 a day. There are a lot of highly-qualified people doing similar low-paid jobs and internships because the job market is fierce and, like me, they don't have enough non-research experience.
[For the record, I'm nearly 9 months in to my new job and I've only had to hide in the loos to compose myself once. When I found out Terry Pratchett died.]
I don't miss lab-etiquette
Perhaps because of the high pressure nature of the lab and the crushing defeat that is ever-looming, the lab can be a bit of an etiquette minefield.
There are things that you MUST put back in their place, because Jo the PostDoc from the lab next door NEEDS the solvents to be arranged by strength and not alphabetical order, even though they're not his. Don't ask Lisa from upstairs for a favour on a Tuesday. I can't believe someone has dared to use the incubator that we haven't used in over a year - the cheek! Someone just asked Stores for something and it's early (pre 10 am)/nearly lunchtime (after 10.30 am)/lunchtime (12-2pm) just after lunch(after 2.30pm)/late (after 4pm).
Of course there are politics and difficult characters everywhere but academia seemed to almost encourage this sort of behaviour, as long as the research gets done.
I don't miss the research
Perhaps this is the most surprising of all - I don't miss the research itself. I was a good scientist. I was thorough and careful, and kept a very up-to-date lab book. But I just didn't like doing it in the end. Not enough, anyway.
Now, I get to read about all the successful research. I speak to scientists when they are at their most chipper - when they've just had something published or they've presented at a conference. I twist their arms and beg for their time to help promote their research or host a lab visit. I really enjoy the interaction with research and researchers, and I hope that my time in that environment gives me a real insight into the demands they have on their time. But I never think 'I wish it was me'.
I get to explain successful research to the public, the press, members of staff and the real people that these breakthroughs could help. So I'm getting the bit of research and science that I always loved - the learning - without the heartache. I leave that to our dedicated researchers.
I'm not sure if I'm done with this blog, it's more difficult to write about your job when you want to keep it, but I might pop back with some posts from time to time.
Good luck to anyone who decides to leave the lab, it's not easy and plenty of people won't understand why you're 'wasting your education' [Thanks, Uncle, for that one].
I won't say you should do something that makes you happy because, the reality is, there are plenty of dull jobs that simply get done to pay the mortgage, and that's fine. But you shouldn't do a job that makes you miserable.
*I wrote this before the #TimHunt fiasco. Lots of people cried in my lab - men and women. And I thought it worth adding these from 8 years of life in academia:
I don't miss:
-being in a departmental meeting with around 60 people and being told by the Head of Dep that a colleague only worked with me because they must want to sleep with me.
-being told by a colleague that women with PhDs were not 'proper' women because you couldn't have the attributes of a woman and succeed to PhD level.
-being asked to use my 'charm' to get someone to lend a piece of kit to my group as my boss was sure I'd be able to 'persuade' them.
-explaining to my colleague that my husband did not 'mind' that I had a PhD.
Wednesday, 28 May 2014
I’m sorry to break it to you, guys, (and this is something I only really realised recently) but there is no-one out there that will be able to tell you exactly what job you should be doing and how to get it: that includes careers consultants. (Clearly they can help with your thinking and the processes of applying and so on but read on….)
About a year ago I started to realise that maybe the career in industrial research that I’d planned for the last 10 years wasn’t what I wanted. I confess it was partly initiated by the difficulty in getting a job but the more and more I thought about it, the more I realised I probably didn’t want the jobs I’d been applying for anyway.
Phew. Bullet dodged. Now what?
Well, first I started to complain. "My supervisors have never talked to me about what other careers are available", "No-one wants to talk about jobs outside of research", "I haven’t been given the opportunity to do anything else", I whined to the very nice careers consultant at KCL. I was quite whiny at this point, looking back on all the missed opportunities during my PhD and PostDoc and basically blaming other people.
Then I went to the Nature Careers Expo last September and realised things had to change. Every presentation I went to seemed to start with, "So I created this forum..,", or "I started this blog" and I sat there thinking "I can barely use my phone for email, how the hell am I going to blog?". It was at this point that the penny dropped: if I wasn’t going to take responsibility for getting myself a new career path, why should anyone else?
So I started a blog on my career search. I write down what I found out and shared it with other people. Almost every link and image I uploaded for the first month was broken and I’m still convinced that only my mother reads this but it gave me a start that lead to a free place at a SciComm conference, new contacts (yes, networking), a new understanding of the field around research and the jobs therein, a chance to blog on Speakers of Science, involvement in ScienceGrrl, the opportunity to do some public engagement with schools, joining twitter…but not necessarily in that order. Fundamentally, if you don’t know what you want to do, that’s fine: but you’re the only one who can find out.
During your PhD you can easily feel like you don’t have time for extra things but you will never get less busy, I promise you. The wonderful thing about your PhD studies is that there are lots of things you can try for free and if you don’t like doing them, you can stop. Here are some examples of things you can try…
1. Offer to write your PI’s research paper or review, even if it’s not on your specific area of work. This will help you decide if you want to do medical writing, where you have to summarise other people’s work, clinical trials and even the inserts that go in medication. I’ve written (and published) two papers this year and have two more underway. This is helping me get the most out of my PostDoc and making me practise my scientific writing.
2. Enter writing competitions to see if you like writing about science for a mainstream audience. I entered Access to Understanding with an article on arthritis (not my area) and got lots of feedback from friends and family.
3. Write news articles about cutting-edge science and submit them to the university paper/a blog/your boyfriend to see if they’re any good, to see if you like doing this and to see how long it takes you. I wrote something on antibody-drug-conjugates (sort of my area) in application for an internship at The Economist.
4. GO ON COURSES They’re free for many students, you probably have to go on some and you’ll definitely never have access to so many experts. I did a public speaking masterclass, public engagement course with King’s, science journalism at The Guardian and science writing at OBR. I paid £50 for the Guardian course, but the rest were free and it was a great way to meet like minded people for advice and support.
5. Talk to new people at every conference, meeting and seminar. If you’re absolutely awful at this then a job that requires networking is probably not for you. If you’re good at this then you will have made new contacts that could be invaluable. I ended up at a ScienceGrrl brainstorm, teaching kids about oxidation and sitting in on meetings about Science Museum lates all because of ‘someone’ I met ‘somewhere’ – not through my supervisor.
6. Read some patents. Properly. Is this something you find interesting? Patent law is a popular and competitive choice for graduates. It’s not easy so you should know what you’re getting yourself into. (I worked for a patent company as a chemistry consultant for a bit as part of my PhD – I’m pretty certain I find this dull)
7. Seriously think about how much money you’d like to earn and how little you will settle for: this will have a massive impact on what jobs you will apply for. My current job (which I love) is less than half my PostDoc wage and less than my PhD stipend.
8. Start a Twitter account or blog for yourself or your research group This is a great way to see what’s going on outside your research institution. If you do this for your research group you MUST ask permission from your superiors/head of department.
9. Plan something complicated from start to finish. A work party, a conference, a hen-do, a football tournament. The organisation this requires will tell you if you’re cut out for planning or project management and if you like doing it. I got married during my work search. I’m pretty sure I can now organise the hell out of most things. (Disclaimer: I’m not suggesting you get married purely for the project management experience, maybe just an engagement party…)
10. Apply for some jobs. Even if you don’t know what you want to do. At least browse the job boards to see what’s out there. Some applications that I made steered me towards positions that I was better suited to. If you want a wake-up call, check out the picture below. It’s a screen shot of my ‘Applications’ folder. It doesn’t include those applications that were speculative or required only an online form…there are over 60 individual applications in less than a year. Don’t moan, just do something.
Any of the extra things on your CV will make you seem more well-rounded and not just another fed-up researcher. I was told on a forum that I was just another ‘desperate PostDoc that couldn’t make it in academia’ – you need to make sure your CV shows that that’s not the case and that you have other skills! And remember, if you try something new and you don’t like it or you’re rubbish at it, that’s fine, just stop and try something else. Then you can also add ‘perseverance’ to your CV.
I was ridiculously busy during all of this but I’m now at a job I love. I work for Sense About Science, a charity supporting projects that equip the public to make sense (get it?) of science. We create guides for the public, run events for researchers to train them in the best way to talk about their work, address bad journalism and put writers in touch with scientific experts whenever we can to make sure that science is clear, well-represented and useful for the public and policy-makers alike. It’s fast-paced, responsive, dead-line driven and no-one has cried for the whole eight weeks I’ve been here. So far, it’s wildly different to academia.
A version of this post was first hosted on the King's College London Graduate School blog. If you're affiliated with King's I strongly urge you to check them out as they are really helpful.
Wednesday, 21 May 2014
I was never naive enough to believe that co-ordinating two jobs would be easy but I don't think I thought it would be so 'consuming'. In order to keep tabs on both jobs (one new), I often have to plan for one, whilst doing the other. This has to be done carefully to minimise the impact on whichever role I'm doing, whilst planning for the time when I'll be at the 'other' job. If you're lost by this description of my problem, then you should try doing it!
Right now, I need the money that my second job gives me and I'm really grateful to the 'first' job for agreeing to the arrangement, so I'm doing my best to do both jobs well. I'm fairly confident that I'm managing to keep my end of the bargain (two ends of a four-sided bargain) but that's not to say that things have gone completely smoothly. For example, there was one evening where I had to leave a bar at 11.30 pm because boss number two hadn't read an email properly and I needed to quickly respond. Of course, I didn't really need to respond to an e-mail at that time but I am afflicted with a pathological need to please and therefore couldn't just say no (I probably should have thought about this before I tried to please two bosses).
Whilst a lot has been said of having multiple freelance jobs on Twitter recently (under #Scicomm14freelance), here are some of my tips to make life a bit easier if your juggling two jobs, particularly if they are in different places and you can't work on either from home.
I'm quite organised and like to think that I always plan ahead but with two jobs you really need to make sure that you know what you're going to be doing, when and where. Once you've decided where you plan to be, make sure that you tell the people who need to know at both locations. Then tell them again. Other people are busy sorting out their own jobs so a passing mention that you plan to be away a week next Friday won't stick. Remind them in writing and, if possible, get them to confirm that they have understood. I've had several occasions over the last few months where I've told boss two my plans only to be emailed with a list of things to do on a day that I've said I won't be working.
2. Be realistic
There are going to be weeks when you are busy at both jobs, juggling completely different deadlines, plans and objectives. If you're asked to take on something new, judge whether you're going to be able to actually manage it before saying yes. If you're doing a four day week, don't try and cram five days worth of work into four days. If you manage this, can you let me know how you did it?
3. Ask for help
I haven't found this easy an easy one, but juggling two roles is only made harder if you try to do absolutely everything yourself. If there are things that could best be done between your visits, ask someone else if they can help. They may so no but, quite often, shared goals will mean that they want to help and they may even just help out of kindness!
4. Be flexible
After all these tips about planning and organising, I would also try to allow some 'flex' in your plans. There will be times when you will need to e-mail someone about job one when you should be doing job two, or take a call for job two on your lunch break at job one. Sometimes dealing with the two jobs simultaneously is tiring but it's really the only way I've found to keep both posts moving.
5. Switch off
This is something I've really struggled with. It's so tempting to work longer hours, check your emails earlier and later, do unpaid work at the weekend to take the pressure off. I'm guilty of all of these things and not sleeping because I've forgotten to order printer toner, emailed the wrong person at the wrong time or not managed to fit in that paper redraft. I do, however, (hypocritically) recommend that you don't do any of these things and make sure that you allow yourself time to not be at work. Either of them.
I wanted to take a picture that showed the tricky nature of trying to be in two places at once so I chopped a lime in half (the only fruit I always have). Unfortunately it made me want to mix a gin and tonic (the only drinks I always have in). I had water - After all, I need to keep my head clear in case I need to reply to a work email!
Does anyone have two jobs in two locations, or more? Am I just not doing it right or does it get easier? What is your advice?
Wednesday, 2 April 2014
The job is an internship that results in a large pay-cut for me (something I'll write about later) so I thought about what I could do to make the situation a bit better for me. The original job advert stated:
"We can be a little bit flexible with hours, if the person is finishing writing up their thesis for example."
I also knew that my current boss wanted me to continue working for him in some capacity (even if that meant collating data and papers for free) so I went about approaching both parties with some ideas. After a week of back and forth e-mails I negotiated a contract that kept one day a week at my old job (which pays more per day) whilst keeping my full salary at the new job for four days as week.
It wasn't something I felt particularly comfortable doing at the start but it worked out really well in the end and here are some guidelines on how I managed it:
Be realistic. There are always going to be things that you want in a job contract: more pay, a larger bonus, better benefits, etc., but focus on what can realistically be done within the terms of your employment. For example, I knew that the salary for my new internship would be a financial struggle and I also understood from my interview that there would be no further funds in the charity's budget to increase my pay. Faced with this, I didn't ask for more money but, instead, asked if I could work for somebody else for one day a week and boost my pay. My new bosses were very understanding of my situation and have been very helpful in allowing me to arrange having two different jobs.
Be honest. My negotiations involved two other parties so there was no point or benefit to over-complicating the situation by not being completely honest. There's always the temptation to push your luck to get extra but I found it paid off to be completely open. I found this particularly important as I was discussing money.
Be focussed. I wouldn't recommend asking for more than one or two changes to your contract. If you're asking for more money, different hours, extra pension, every second Thursday off and a company car then I think you start to look a bit 'grabby'. Stick with what you really want and you'll usually be taken more seriously.
Time off. I wrote my PhD thesis in 6 weeks (pretty much from start to finish) in order to start my Post-Doc on time. I worked out that I could work on 5 hours sleep, didn't need to shower and my then-boyfriend-now-husband would bring me meals when I didn't have time to leave my desk. I submitted on a Friday in mid-November, started work the following Monday and took two days off to prepare for, and attend, my viva just two weeks later. In retrospect, this was a mistake. The PI had wanted me to start in September and I was so keen to get a job straightaway (I'd never not been enrolled or employed) that I gave myself very tight deadlines and started my Post-Doc exhausted. In the long-run, an extra week would've made absolutely no difference and I should have gone back to them and asked for a week later start date.This time, although I knew that my new employers could take me on as soon as possible, I made sure that there was a week in between my jobs. I still ended up replying to a few e-mails and had to dodge a thinly-veiled request to work for free for a few days (old boss, not new!) but it made a huge difference to me to start my new job fresh and ready to go.
Ask for advice. In deciding how best to approach this situation I approached the career's service at my institute for some guidance. I'm very lucky to have this resource and I know not everyone is so fortunate. Try not to 'straw-poll' your friends and family on if and how you should ask for something. Their likely to be on your side (you'd hope) and won't be the most objective. If you do ask someone you know personally, make it a manager or an employee that has had to deal with similar situations before. Advice like 'Don't ask, don't get' is fine when being dished out by a friend but being reasonable in a professional environment is a different situation altogether.
Keep in mind, you haven't signed anything yet. This goes both ways. Your new employers will learn a lot about you from this negotiation and, whilst it's unlikely that your requests will make them completely change their mind about employing you, it could affect how they think of you in the future. Going the other way, if a company reacts unreasonably to a fair request or a 'deal-breaker' for you, think about whether you're learning something vital about their practices and if you still want to work for them.
I'm aware I've been very lucky in finding two employers amenable to this situation but I was told recently by a friend I shouldn't feel too 'grateful'. I'm bringing something to both employers and simply trying to make the situation work for me, too. What I required from them was understanding of the situation and to have accepted less from them without a fair reason would have been selling myself short.
In short. In these situations, be prepared to fight your corner but just choose your fight carefully.
Tuesday, 18 March 2014
On the 19th February I applied for a volunteer role at the Natural History Museum only to find out that I'd mistakenly got the date wrong and applied one day too late! I was understandably miffed so I went into my flagged e-mail list to make sure I didn't miss any more deadlines.
I noticed that I still had one day to apply for two great internship roles at Sense About Science. Their name has come up a number of times when people were recommending employers to me so I wasn't going to let this one slip away. They make it their mission to help people understand the science they are bombarded with every day. This could be clearing up something confusing (or wrong) in the media, training scientists on how to best describe their own work or encouraging people to simply ask for evidence when given a piece of information.
|Look! Dara O'Briain thinks their Ask For Evidence campaign is great!|
I had to submit a form and a written exercise beforehand and the interview itself only lasted 45 minutes. Nonetheless, I felt really pleased with the way it went. I didn't 'fake' anything or pretend to be anything I'm not and we all got on really well. There was even an awkward, but nice, moment where I had to namedrop that I'd been on Newsnight a few weeks before.
The follow-up interview with the managing director was the next week, where we discussed the role and the company in a bit more detail. Again, I felt very honest, I felt that they were being honest with me and there was no pretence. I was very excited. I still am.
Today, I wanted to pass on the great feeling that comes when you get a job you want, a job you know you can do well and (although I was sick of people saying it to me) when it's the right job for you, you WILL get it. Also, my 'positive control' CV was tinkered with in 10 minutes and sent out with a cover letter in just 30, but I've spent 18 months writing dozens of applications so I think I must've got pretty good at it! When it comes to the interview process, I've learnt that if you feel under a whole amount of pressure to 'perform' and be someone you're not, then the job is probably not for you. If you get the job under the pretence of a skill you don't really have or a type of personality that isn't really you, then the job is going to be very very stressful trying to keep that up!
Anyway, it's been a couple of weeks now but my contract is signed and I'm due to start next week, just a month after I applied. The whole process has raised quite a few issue of job-seeking including contract negotiations, juggling two jobs (I'll be at King's one day a week sometimes) and starting at the bottom, not to mention taking a huge (-60%) pay-cut. I'm hoping to share how this is all going over the next few weeks, with honest advice and tips for such a big life change.
I've also got some research to share on (science) writing and journalism. Just because I've found my niche (I hope), it won't stop me sharing my science careers stuff with you!
Oh yeah, If you're interested in the science communication side of the posts I've written, I'm writing on another blog called Experiments in Communication on the Speakers of Science network. That's more about what I'm learning about scientific communication from courses and as I go through my new career (job?)- Feel free to take a look. The other posts on the network are pretty cool too - one has a see-through egg!
Monday, 24 February 2014
The seminars followed one another, week after week, so it was very easy to compare them. The very first thing I noticed was the atmosphere and general feel of the room. The difference was quite striking:
There are a number of transferable skills that you can take from your degree and/or PhD but there are some differences in how you'll apply them.
What else do I need on my CV
For the big 'profits' companies, the interview process is arduous and usually comprised of several different sections and online tests. Check out the website of the bigger companies: they usually describe their interview processes in detail. Expect online tests (which you can practice on-line beforehand), 'stress-days' - where they check how well you can prioritise by bombarding you with emails, face-to-face interviews with partners and high competition.
The consultancies and research firms that were discussed at KCL and formed the basis of this post were Deloitte, McKinsey, The New Economics Foundation, Social Pharma, Forum for the Future, Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion (CESI). I'm sure you can work out which camp each belongs to...
Updated 24-02-14:You can also get unpaid consultancy experience as a PhD student/graduate by working with Oxbridge Biotech Roundtable. They provide opportunities to get some work on your CV but the assignments are sometimes quite time-consuming and they aren't paid. I replied to a job advert for 10-15 hours a week that, in reality, was as much as 20-30 hours in weeks with big deadlines. Nonetheless, I think it's worth checking out if you can commit the time and want to get some experience.
Friday, 14 February 2014
|Can you guess what I'm making?|
|You can see where I tried to cut the dough in half |
with a scissors to see if it was cooked. It wasn't
|On the plus-side, the scraped off topping made |
quite a nice pasta dish
|Look at me! Doing sport!|
|I decided the best way to combat the cold was to ensure |
NONE of my skin was exposed.