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Alumni Career Profiles

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Ahmad Kamal – Team Leader, Cellular Pharmacology & Compound Profiling at MRC Technology


Post-doctoral research at Queen Mary, University of London, 2001-2004

PhD Pharmacology, National Heart & Lung Institute, Imperial College London, 1996 – 2001

What does your role involve?.

I work for the technology transfer company of the MRC, MRC Technology which has charitable status and is involved in translating early stage academic research in to potential human medicines, by partnering such entities with the pharmaceutical and biotechnology sectors.  I currently have a managerial role accompanied by active laboratory work.  It is a very active and dynamic role, stretching me across many different disciplines, both scientifically and administratively.  I manage a small group of 2-3 scientists ranging from undergraduate and post-doctoral backgrounds, leading on the development of high throughput and novel cell-based assays to enable profiling for both candidate discovery and target validation.  I am responsible for my own laboratory and I act as lead biologist on a portfolio of mostly collaborative drug discovery projects, encompassing both small molecule and therapeutic antibodies at different phases and degrees of development.  I regularly interact with individuals at many different levels and backgrounds including, scientists, clinicians, business managers, IP professionals and the pharmaceutical industry.

What background/experience/qualifications are required for the role?

The role requires a PhD qualification, and either a specific expert set of skills or a broad knowledge base gained through active experience in either a relevant academic or private sector role.  Previous experience in drug discovery was not an essential requirement when I started, but is now a prerequisite for entry at this level.  The role requires the ability to move seamlessly between different projects, techniques and applications, sometimes at short notice and thus requires a certain level of adaptability and flexibility, as well as having the capacity to operate collaboratively and efficiently in a team environment.  The work is milestone-driven and guided by relatively strict timelines and deadlines, which is not suited to everyone.

What are the highlights and challenges of your work?

Science and research are by their nature challenging fields and this has always been part of the attraction for pursuing a career in this area.  My current role is dynamic and diverse giving me the opportunity to be involved in many diverse areas of human disease.  Moreover, I am actively engaged in strategies by which we can understand and find solutions to such conditions by delivering potentially high quality therapies that have an impact on people’s quality of life.  I have the opportunity to be involved in early stage projects and see them develop in to potential partnering and licensing opportunities.  This translation of science is highly complex and fraught with pitfalls but one which still remains the ultimate challenge and gives me huge satisfaction.  It is refreshing for me personally to be part of a process that is independent of for example publication records, grant awards and academic teaching, the principal goal being the delivery of high quality science that has the potential to offer genuine solutions.  I have had an increasing interaction with the pharmaceutical industry which in itself can be a significant challenge to collaborate, yet not get caught up in their internal processes, at times frustrating, but yet equally providing a learning platform for how research is handled in such a significant profit-driven sector.

I have also had the opportunity to work intimately with colleagues from a Japanese pharmaceutical company and this has been challenging from various perspectives, including having to deal with a different culture and mindset that deals with ideas in a fundamentally different and arguably consensus-driven manner.  Nonetheless this has provided a valuable experience and has equipped me with dealing with other similar situations, such as certain external scientists, as well as internal conflicts with orientating projects to align with a business plan or process.

Why and when did you decide that you wanted to search for work that wasn’t within academia (if this is the case)?

I began my career as a junior scientist in the pharmaceutical industry and my desire was always to return to an environment that had the capacity to translate science in to genuine “real life” solutions.  I always wanted to be involved in something that could make a difference and drug discovery has provided me with just such a platform, despite the negative press that it sometimes receives.  As such my time spent in academia, whilst being invaluable in the training and broad experience it provided and the privilege of working with impressive individuals, always left me with a yearning for something more substantial and fulfilling personally.  I was fortunate enough to be involved in basic clinical research as a PhD student that brought me in direct contact with patients and consolidated my desire to be involved in strategies and enterprises that could benefit them.  As such, I always wanted to return to a drug discovery setting and towards the end of my postdoctoral work, I made an active decision to follow such a path.

What type of research (into the role/organisation) did you do before applying for your job?

I applied for the position at MRC Technology, initially to work in collaboration with Teijin Pharma, a Japanese pharmaceutical company with programmes in respiratory inflammation.  There was no information at the time available online about MRC Technology, as an organisation, but the MRC name was certainly an attraction, as was the area of research, which fell directly in my field of expertise.  Moreover, I would find myself in a drug discovery setting once more and this appeared to satisfy my aspirations at that time.  I was lucky and I fitted the role and position very well!  I was actively looking for work, as my funding was due to end for my postdoctoral position and the job was advertised on the common sources I was using at the time (predominantly New Scientist).

What do you think are the most important things to be doing during a PhD/Postdoc with regards to developing your future career?

My personal perspective, with the value of hindsight, is to have a relatively clear vision of what your aims, ambitions and aspirations are.  This is easier said than done and it often can take time and experience to arrive at a decision that has sufficient clarity to allow you to pursue it.  I would argue that if you have not achieved your desired goals or are frustrated by your career path, than avoid wasting time in positions that do not aid you further to fulfil your aims.  Having said this, the realities of life can rapidly consume such a vision and it is therefore important to make the correct decisions at key points in your career.  It is also helpful to have a bigger picture of your area at large and the context in which it stands: think of what your chosen discipline can do for you as opposed to how you can best serve that discipline.  A successful career is dependent on your motivation for a given role, which must also at times be crucially balanced against a career that supports you financially and not just intellectually.  You can consider yourself very fortunate if you have managed to combine the two.  Finally, a career in science need not be confined to the laboratory and it is the broad and diverse application of science in many areas and disciplines that should also be evaluated.

What advice would you give to with regards to developing a network of contacts within your industry?

It is important to engage with people at all levels early on in your career, build confidence in yourself and what you can offer, become a good communicator and at the same time listen to others.  Most importantly never ignore or bypass individuals because you think they will never be of use to you.  By communicating and interacting with people effectively, you will build up a contact base over time that suddenly covers a much broader range of disciplines and skill sets, than you previously envisaged.  It is a “small world” and you will meet the same people again in different points in your career that may be able to offer information or assistance that you require.  Create a degree of visibility for yourself by involvement in other subsidiary areas to your immediate work.  The internet and social media can also substantially help to increase your visibility and whilst I am not a huge fan, I have been surprised by the benefits that LinkedIn for example can potentially offer.

What skills and/or expertise do you use in your work that relates to your PhD/research area?

Basic technical and laboratory skills are still used and applied to my job on a regular basis, which are arguably core requirements.  I have found that my academic training at both postgraduate and postdoctoral level has given me the ability to analyse, question, critique and evaluate scientific ideas in a manner that has matured and developed substantially with time.  Such abilities are invaluable in my everyday working life, indeed they are regularly utilised by various members of my organisation.

How does your work/role differ from your PhD/PostDoc and how have you dealt with this?

During my academic experiences, I often felt hugely frustrated at being very much pigeonholed in a particular project, target molecule, laboratory, and supervisor and so on.  This one-dimensional perception was accompanied by a relative degree of isolation and lack of team involvement in your immediate tasks.  My current role is the complete opposite, it allows me, indeed expects me to work as part of a team, to trust those that I work with and to have the confidence to delegate work and not constantly want to be in control.  Academic life can also feel quite lonely and solitary in your chosen specific project, whereas now, I am not confined to specific areas and so for me this represented a very new, but also very welcome change in my work attitude and environment.  I nevertheless miss many of the interpersonal and social aspects of my time in academia, which in honesty is not easy to experience in my current position.

Becky Stewart – Founder Codasign

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Qualification: PhD under the supervision of Mark Sandler with the Centre for Digital Music in the School of Electronic Engineering and Computer Science in 2010.

Company: Codasign (an interactive arts technology studio in Hackney)

What does your current job involve on a day-to-day basis? We’re a company with only two people full-time, so my role encompasses many things.  I work with designers and artists to bring to life creative projects.  I build the hardware and software required to create interactive systems.  The projects can have quite uncommon requirements – I’ve created controllers that translate cycling on stationary bikes into coloured light and I’ve embedded GPS navigation into handmade leather shoes.

Along with engineering consultancy work, we hold workshops for those mostly from an arts, design, or advertising background that would like to learn technical skills like programming or electronics.  I design and deliver many of these workshops which are usually each 6 to 10 hours in total.

Outside the fun part of doing engineering and teaching work, there are many other more tedious but important duties.  With my business partner, we manage payroll and tax with HMRC, file accounts with Companies House, do accounting and bookkeeping, manage stock of items from electrical components to printer paper and many other day-to-day activities that are required of small businesses.

What background/experience/qualifications are required for the role? The technical skills that the role requires are a broad grounding in signal processing, software engineering, and electrical engineering.  You need to be able to choose and use the right tool for the job, whether that is a particular programming language or microcontroller, so it’s important to keep learning new technical skills.  We are also both musicians and have formal training or professional experience performing.  It’s important to be able to relate to those without an engineering background as you need to assess the technical requirements for a project from a non-technical description and understand the context that the project will be shown in.

As for transferable skills, the role requires multitasking skills along with time and project management experience.  I hadn’t fully anticipated how much you need to consider marketing and negotiating costs along with budgeting and watching cash flow.

Whether dealing with the technical or soft skills portion of the role, it is important that you know when to ask for help.  One person or even one organisation won’t know everything about every topic.  You need to be able to determine when a task is beyond your current abilities and then figure out where to get the help that you need.  That could be by reaching out through your network looking for mentors or it could be hiring professional services to handle particular aspects of the business.

What are the highlights and challenges of your work? A successfully completed project is the biggest highlight of my work.  I really enjoy working with designers that don’t fully know the limits of the technology we are working with as it can breed truly innovative ideas.

The biggest challenges are on the business side.  It is very difficult to determine how much to charge and what work to take on.  When working as a consultancy, you can’t easily anticipate how much work you’ll have from one month to the next.  You will always get requests to do work for free or at cost.  You need to be scrupulous when deciding whether the side benefits of the project will make up for the lack of cash.

You also need to become comfortable becoming a salesperson for your company – a role I still struggle with.  Work won’t come to you on its own, you have to put a lot of effort into making an impression on potential and current clients.  You have to pay attention to your presence on your own website, social media, in the press and branding on any products.

Why and when did you decide that you wanted to search for work that wasn’t within academia? Even before I started my PhD I never had a strong desire to stay within academia.  I loved doing research and thought that I might move to a large research lab in industry after my PhD.  While I enjoyed my PhD, I grew tired of writing papers and as soon as I finished, I wanted to only do shorter projects for a while.  Thinking about the same problem for over 3 years had burned me out a bit.

I also was very aware of the difficulty of securing a full-time academic post and knew how much work it would be to get from a postdoc position to a lectureship.  I just wasn’t drawn to the kind of work that I knew would be necessary.

I also had grown tired of existing within a large organization.  I wanted to start something of my own where I could control the brand identity, for better or worse.  Universities are large with many stages of permission to be sought.  While that provides certain safeties and freedoms, I wanted to take my own risks with my own rewards.  As I was nearing the end of my post-doctoral research contract that I had started with QM immediately after I submitted my thesis, I knew I wanted to start my own business, but knew I couldn’t do it on my own.  A discussion with a colleague from my research group revealed that he was interested in the same things as I, so we decided to make the jump together.

What type of research did you do before applying for your job? My research activities during my PhD and postdoc work centred around writing code that analyses and synthesises audio signals.  However, I participated in a lot of activities that got me away from my computer and did more to prepare me for starting my own business than my research did.  I started several student organisations which didn’t always get off the ground.  I learned from the failed ones that you need a team of people that share in your idea.  If you are the only one passionate about making something happen, you have to get others equally passionate or it’s not going to work out.  If you do manage to get others on board, you need to constantly make sure that new people are joining – especially important in a university context where students are only around for a few years.

I participated in all of the entrepreneurial programmes offered by QM that I could find. I won the Pitch Your Idea Competition which is a Dragons’ Den-style contest put together by The Learning Institute and a business plan competition for a grant to support commercialising my research after submission of my thesis from Queen Mary Innovation.  I also attended a conference for science and engineering PhD students interested in becoming entrepreneurs that was sponsored by the EPSRC.

Additionally, I talked with a friend that started a business several years ago after finishing his PhD.  Getting his perspective on his experiences was invaluable.

What do you think are the most important things to be doing during a PhD with regards to developing your future career? I think that most important thing to do is to get involved with something outside your research.  This could be outreach events in schools or a graduate student society.  It’s incredibly important to gain skills in managing events and working with other people.  During your PhD you have to work quite hard to interact with other students and faculty from outside your own research group let alone department, but being exposed to what other people are doing and how they do it can hugely benefit your career and research.  Employers will care about the quality of your research, but they will care even more about you ability to manage yourself and others.  We’ve just hired our first intern and went through our first series of CVs and interviews this past summer.  What you do outside your studies really helps your CV stand out from the pile.

What advice would you give to with regards to developing a network of contacts within your industry? Nothing is better than meeting in person.  Networking is a terrible, loaded word, but go places and meet people.  That could be to after-work social events, technical meetups and events like hackdays, or private views at galleries and museums.  Good things come from being in the same physical place as other people.  Volunteer to speak at smaller events and eventually you’ll be invited as a speaker at bigger events.  There aren’t many better ways of getting a room of people to notice you.

For us, paying for desk space in a shared studio directly brought in work.  Moving from working from our flats to a place with other people was one of the first big boosts our business had.  Though it wasn’t intentional at the time, being in a space where we are the only ones doing the kind of stuff we are doing has helped us meet people from other fields that we might not have had reasons to interact with otherwise.

What skills and/or expertise do you use in your work that relates to your PhD/research area? The work I do now isn’t as specific and focused as my PhD research, but I use a lot of the core technical skills that were central to my research:  programming; breaking down a problem into individual steps; and testing algorithms.  I’ve needed to generalise from the specific area of audio signals to other types of signals such those related to people interacting with technology, lights, and computer vision.

Of course, all those transferable skills have proven to be in fact transferable.  Project and time management are absolutely essential.

How does your work/role differ from your PhD and how have you dealt with this? My PhD was much more focused and had a much longer lifecycle than my current work, which is something I’m enjoying right now.  Deadlines appear and approach much quicker than I was initially used to.  I’ve had to learn that you can’t always thoroughly investigate a solution to a problem, sometimes you just need to run with the first thing that works well enough.

The first year of starting and running my own business has come with a huge learning curve.  You need to balance doing what you love with the tasks that will allow you to pay rent that month.  That includes constantly going out to events to meet new people.  In that respect, my current work doesn’t differ too much from my time at QM.  It’s just as important for researchers to attend conferences and talks to both keep on top of new research and to continue to meet potential collaborators.  The major difference is that if I don’t keep doing that, as an academic researcher it can impact your job in a year’s time, while when running your own business it can impact your income that same month.

Consultant – Shuxian Chen

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Qualification: PhD in Electronic Engineering (EECS)

Company: Deloitte

What does your current job involve on a day-to-day basis? I spent two years in Technology Consulting, now transferred to Actuarial & Insurance Consulting. Previously in technology consulting, I experienced a number of projects in different industries – finance, insurance and publishing, and worked with multi-national clients on a daily basis. My roles and responsibilities varied a lot in these projects, which gave me a good opportunity to experience different industries before deciding what I really wanted to do.

Why did you first choose this career? In Consulting, people come from various backgrounds (at entry level). PhD graduates have a number of advantages such as a good academia record, communication skills and problem solving skills. All of which are highly desired by the employer.

What are the highlights and challenges of your role? Highlights – travel to China on a project for one week, to interview an international magazine publisher. I had the chance to speak to people from all departments in the company and learn the process of magazine publishing. We had to come up with a suggestion on technology transformation strategy for their CTO in London.

Challenges – constantly learning new things, experiencing new industries. That’s why focus in one area is important.

Why and when did you decide that you wanted to search for work that wasn’t within academia? It was a personal choice; I always wanted to see how industry works and how it was different from the university.

6)  What type of research did you do before applying for your job? Researched the company, learnt what Deloitte did and what their business focus was; attended recruitment events and understood the recruitment process.

I would say it is important to show a good understanding of the type of work you will be doing if you are successful. This way you will not have many surprises or disappointments when you actually join the company.

What do you think are the most important things to be doing during a PhD with regards to developing your future career? Know what you want to do and stick with it. Develop your soft/transferable skills whilst in University. Within industry, you may not be able to apply all the technical knowledge that you have learnt but you will definitely need the ‘soft’ skills to work in a team, communicate with people and be able to learn new things quickly. Make use of the Careers Service, speak to the Career Consultants, they are really helpful!

What advice would you give to with regards to developing a network of contacts within your industry? Try to get on well with people you work with on the same project, attend some social events and of course, use LinkedIn.

What skills and/or expertise do you use in your work that relates to your PhD/research area? Mathematics, modelling. Structured thinking and project planning.

How does your work/role differ from your PhD and how have you dealt with this? It took time to get used to the industrial environment, things move a lot quicker and you need to juggle a number of things at the same time. You will also need to study for exams in the evening (for some industries), which is a lot harder when you have worked full time during the day.


Patent Attorney – Erik Scheuermann

Qualification: PhD in Chemistry, 1999-2003, Queen Mary

Company: Partner at Witte, Weller & Partners, German and European Patent, Design and Trade-mark Attorney

What does your current job involve on a day-to-day basis? Drafting and prosecuting patent applications – inventors apply for patents of their design to prevent other individuals from making, using, selling or distributing the patented invention without permission – liaising with my clients, giving advice on all things related to patent and trademark law, day-to-day running of the business side of a law firm.

Why did you first choose this career? The first time I was told about the profession was in France when my then supervisor suggested I apply with the European Patent Office.  She said that I’d be a very good candidate because I speak three languages.  I later learned that if I joined a private practice I could be my own boss while still earning a credible salary, which suited me.

How did your PhD prepare you to work as a patent lawyer? Apart from the usual ‘life-skills’ like time management and so on, I’d say it taught information search and retrieval as well as the ability to put abstract concepts into words in a structured way.

What are the favourite aspects of your job? Inter-parties proceedings, close co-operation with my clients and the fact that I’m my own boss.

What are your least favourite aspects? Hard to say, fortunately not too many.  It can sometimes be hard on your private life because deadlines need to be kept.

Any final advice for students interested in a career in patent law?Learn languages, the more the better.  Go abroad and live or work there, as it helps broadening the horizon.  Remember taking up this career means starting afresh.  You might have been the best PhD student but once you leave science it is a completely new game.  And yes one thing I had to learn is that once you join the legal professional answers are rarely yes or no: in law there are a lot of maybes.

Business Development Manager -Apostolos Siscoglou

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Qualification: PhD in Dental Biophysics, 2008, Queen Mary

Company: Biochrom Ltd

Briefly tell us what your role entails. I am in charge of direct sales of our AAA product range in the UK, distributor management for all Biochrom and BioDrop products in the UK, Nothern Europe and Africa as well as management and support of our BioDrop Manufacturer Representatives network in the USA.

What background/experience/qualifications are required for the role? Definitely a scientific background as our customers are found in academic institutions, biotech and pharmaceutical companies as well as hospitals. The role also requires Global sales/business development experience as well as sales/distributor management.

What are the highlights and challenges of your work? Some of the highlights are that you get to travel to well renowned institutions and companies around the world discussing with scientists about cutting edge research and how you can facilitate this. Challenges are that while business travel sounds luxurious, it is very tiring, you have very long days during which you need to be focussed in the work in hand and at the end of them you either have to catch up with office work that doesn’t stop or you have to get ready to get up and do it all over again – in a sentence, you need to constantly be able to motivate yourself.

Why and when did you decide that you wanted to search for work that wasn’t within academia (if this is the case)? Throughout my academic times, I was always trying to diversify my knowledge and skills. This led me to complete three somewhat relevant but at different degrees. Once I completed my PhD I realised that it was probably as far as I would like to go in Science, which I love, and it was time for me to start acquiring some “real-world” skills, ,or perhaps better phrased, apply and develop some of my PhD skills in a completely different setting.

What type of research did you do before applying for your job? Dental biophysics. Throughout the course of my PhD I developed a method using x-rays to measure concentration of specific ions within porous solids and in turn to determine diffusion coefficients at specific points within the solid. This was ultimately a technique to be used to model dental caries. 

What do you think are the most important things to be doing during a PhD with regards to developing your future career? Your PhD will take you down to a relatively confined field of study. This however does not mean that it will be the only thing you will ever do for the rest of your life. Try to learn new things irrelevant to your field of study but that you find interesting. You will probably find that whatever takes you the most outside your comfort zone will enable to find out of strengths/skills you never knew you had as well as give you a better grasp about your current skill-set and how this can be applied in different settings. this will be most helpful at the stage when you have finished your PhD and you are wondering what should you do next as well as perhaps help you take your mind of the pressures while carrying out your research.

What advice would you give to with regards to developing a network of contacts within your industry? It is much more important than what I had in my mind. Whichever the industry you end up working in, you operate within a confined environment and it is good to maintain your contacts as well ensure you have good/professional relationships with the people you work with. In my case, having worked and already knowing some people in my industry helped tremendously to get my current position as I had to once again work with them from a different company and post. Considering how long your career will be and the fact that you will eventually progress to a position of managerial responsibility, it is good to have a network of people that you have worked with in the past, you are fully aware of their skills and attributes and that you can perhaps either bring in on new prospects or recommend to customers.

What skills and/or expertise do you use in your work that relates to your PhD/research area? My scientific training has enabled me to understand working principles behind scientific instrumentation (whichever the discipline) and as my job is in sales, to be able to understand my customer needs. Giving presentations to large groups of people and being able to overcome any obstacle in the way are things that I use each and every day!

How does your work/role differ from your PhD and how have you dealt with this? Going into the commercial world straight out of a PhD is daunting, firstly because you immediately understand how many things you still have to learn (even though up until a short time ago you were an expert in your PhD research) and secondly because you almost have to re-wire your brain as to the purpose of your work and seeking outcomes that will give you a commercial advantage. Having hn that, doing a PhD is a challenge and if you enjoy challenges, for me, this is perhaps one of the most interesting ones to seek!

Science Communicator – Sai Pathmanathan

Qualification: BSc. (Hons) Biology, 1995-1998, Queen Mary; D.Phil in Neuroscience, 1998-2001, University of Oxford

Job title and company:Programme Director, Ignition* at Ignite!

Why did you first choose this career? I was always interested in science. I studied for a Biology degree at QMUL and it was here that I got my first taste of science communication, even if I did think it was the teaching profession I was falling for. I did a stint with what was then called the BP East London Tutoring Connection and loved teaching maths, science and English to primary school students. However following on from my final year research project, I wanted to continue in research (thinking I could always go into academia, become a lecturer and still ‘teach’). After finishing my degree in Biology at QMUL, I decided to do a D.Phil. (PhD) simply because I enjoyed my final year undergraduate research project and thought I would enjoy three more years of something similar. During my PhD I visited schools and helped my funder promote science education. I spoke to members of the British Interactive Group about how I could do this as a career. The rest is history: I moved into science education straight after my PhD, working for upd8, the Physiological Society, the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA) and Planet Science, working on all aspects of science education, external relations, events and project management as well as writing and developing educational resources. I began freelancing for various organisations, and also for Ignite!, co-ordinating a small pilot outreach project funded by the East Midlands Development Agency, Come Alive With Science – which is now one of the strands in the Ignition* programme!

What does your current job involve on a day-to-day basis? As a part-time Programme Director for Ignition* (a programme of creative approaches to the teaching and learning of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) in the East Midlands – http://www.ignitefutures.org.uk), and also freelancing on other science education and communication projects, I feel like I get the best of both worlds. On one hand I work with STEM professionals, creative practitioners (artists, filmmakers, actors etc.), funders and stakeholders as well as looking for various opportunities to collaborate with different organisations; and on the other hand I get to be involved in my own projects. My time is equally shared between project management (organising events for young people, training workshops for teachers and scientists, networking events), writing educational resources (in all sciences), writing and editing articles and the actual delivery of hands on science activities and careers work in schools.

What are the favourite aspects of your job? What I enjoy most about my job is the variety – the people I meet, the places I get to travel to, the events and the fact that every day and every project is different.

What are your least favourite aspects? What I don’t enjoy about my job is not always having enough time to do everything. Having a part-time job and freelancing isn’t easy. The downside to trying to create a ‘flexible lifestyle’, is that you need to be able to self-motivate to ensure that all deadlines are met but also find the right balance, so that you don’t end up working ridiculous hours (although that sometimes happens!).

Any final advice for students interested in a career in science communication? Science communication is such a huge and diverse field. Think about the area that you are most passionate about: education (working with young people in or out of schools), public engagement (general public, museums, events, science festivals), policy (government, stakeholder engagement), journalism (science stories in national/local press, or articles specialist journals and publications, educational resource writing), media (science radio, broadcast television). Then sign up to the appropriate networks dedicated to that particular field, go to science events, festivals and conferences, start speaking to experts in the field, find out what is out there and get yourself out there!

Medical Communication – Vilma Graupner

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Qualification: Diploma in Biology, Humboldt-University of Berlin (1998-2003); PhD in Biology, University of Düsseldorf (2004-2008); Postdoctoral Research Assistant, Queen Mary University of London (2008-2010)

Job title and company: Medical Writer, Health Interactions

Why did you first choose this career? During my PhD I realised that working in academia would not be my preferred long-term career goal. Having spent 9 years in laboratory-based research I decided that it was time for a career change. As I really enjoyed science I was looking for a job that allowed me to remain in close contact with research and clinical developments but without having to carry out the experiments! Furthermore, I wanted to find a job with a clearer career path that offered economic security. I learnt about medical communications by word of mouth and career events. I immediately developed an enthusiasm for this sector as I felt that this working environment would enable me to remain in close contact with science while combining my scientific background with the commercial and marketing aspects of the pharmaceutical industry. After being withHealth Interactions for 7 months I can already say that it was the right decision to move from academia to medical communications. The work is very varied and interesting, it allows me to apply my scientific knowledge but challenges me to think about and meet the marketing requirements of the client. In addition, I think that this job helps me to develop new skills that will be very valuable if I ever wanted to pursue a new career path.

What does your current job involve on a day-to-day basis? As a medical writer you are responsible for: 1) Writing manuscripts from clinical study reports. 2) Developing posters and power point slides for oral presentations at conferences for the client and key opinion leaders. 3) Providing on-site support at conferences/symposia/advisory boards. 4) Writing meeting minutes, performing literature searches, competitor monitoring, tracking down abstracts of interests for your client or other more administrative tasks.

How did your PhD prepare you to work as a medical writer? Apart from the obvious writing experience from writing up your PhD, it helps you to think analytically, analyse data critically, focus on the crucial aspects of your work and broadens your knowledge in a certain research area. I would say, however, that a PhD is helpful but not essential in this job.

What do you enjoy most about your job? The requirement to use my scientific knowledge and the development of expertise in a specific therapy area are aspects I really enjoy. Although the company is interested in having experts in certain therapy areas, this does not mean that you will remain in this area forever; as need arises you might be allocated to a different account within a completely different therapy area. Apart from the uncomfortable feeling of being moved out of one’s comfort zone, this gives you the chance to broaden your horizon. I also enjoy the commercial aspect of the work. You need to understand your client’s marketing strategy. This is interesting and challenging, especially when you come from academia where these aspects are less relevant.

What are the most challenging aspects of your work? You constantly have to meet deadlines and sometimes deal with unexpected tasks.  Clients can be demanding! Although this makes you feel that your work is important and that you contribute something substantial, one can quite easily feel stressed. I am sure that coping effectively with stress it is down to personality type but I find this aspect of the work the most challenging. In addition, you have to learn to use a certain ‘preferred’ language and to communicate your client’s key medical objectives in your work.

Do you have any final advice for students interested in a career in medical communications?Your education in academia equips you with the qualifications you need in medical communications. You will need to develop an understanding of your client’s marketing strategy and this can be developed ‘on the job.’ Of course, you have to enjoy writing texts, developing scientific content and discussions about grammar should not irritate you.

If you are interested in medical communications but you hated writing your PhD thesis, a role as Account Executive/Manager/Director might be more suitable for you. This does not mean that you never develop any scientific content but people working on the client services side focus more on client liaison, budgeting, management and administration.

Management Consultant – Samuel Pachoud 

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Qualification: PhD Computer Vision Lab, School of Electronic Engineering; BSc Engineering and Computer Science BSc, QMUL.

Job Title and Company: Management Consultant, Ernst and Young, London.

What does your current job involve on a day-to-day basis? In short: teaming, stakeholder management, travelling and long hours. In long: I am part of the Advisory service line, which provides services to a wide variety of clients from city councils to major utilities companies across theUKand internationally. I spend around 90% of my time on the client’s site, supporting them in going through big, or not so big, transformations of their business. Transformations range from cost reduction, to re-designing a client’s organisational structure, to improving its customer experience. The job involves being a team player as well as a team leader, managing clients’ expectations, analysing problems and providing solutions.

What background/experience/qualifications are required for the role? The basic requirement is at least 320 UCAS points at A level and a 2:1 honours degree. Apart from those minimum academic requirements, there are no specific experiences, subjects, degrees or qualifications needed to apply as a junior. Applying as an experienced hire is a different story and varies on a case by case basis. Thus, I am not going to develop this here but I am happy to discuss it in person. As a junior applicant, the recruiting process is lengthy and very competitive. 1 out of 100 applicants is usually hired. The key is to show you have plenty of transferable skills and that you can use them to differentiate yourself from the other applicants. Having a PhD can be a plus if you can demonstrate that you are able to transfer what you learnt into a business context.

What are the highlights and challenges of your work? The first highlight was to receive a contract to sign at home. My first job contract ever! Then every new project gives you some excitement as you will meet new people, work in a new environment and confront new problems. Every successful delivery to the client (e.g. workshop, meetings, documents) that gets positive feedback provides a great feeling of achievement and recognition. The challenges often come from partners in the firm (the ones who sell). They make promises to the client that we can deliver five times the work the client is asking for half the time. It is then up to the project team to deliver and even exceed expectations. So basically, you regularly end up working long hours and always have to surpass yourself.  

Why and when did you decide that you wanted to search for work that wasn’t within academia? My time as a PhD student was great. However there were elements of academia that didn’t suit me, namely the publication process and the salary. Additionally, I did not want to start my career jumping from one short-term position to another, as you are likely to do when you go for a post-doc. As I did not know what to do, I went to this exact same event about three years ago (last year of my PhD) and met a speaker who was at the time a consultant at Capgemi after having done a PhD in Computer Vision. I met with him a few months later to discuss his job further, did my own research on the consulting business, and started to apply for junior positions.  

What type of research did you do before applying for your job? From a technical point of view, none, as there is no subject matter required. However I spent several months working on my CV, engagement letter (with Tracy’s invaluable help) and researching the companies I wanted to apply to. It is important to show during the recruiting process that you know as much as you can about the company you are applying to. Additionally, you will be a stronger and more confident interviewee if you strongly believe this is the firm you want to join and you know why you want to join it.   

What do you think are the most important things to be doing during a PhD with regards to developing your future career? This is a difficult one. First, I think there are two different case scenarios: people who know what they want to do and people who don’t. I am not going to develop the former as it varies according to the job you’re aiming for. However if you’re unsure about what you want to do after a PhD – as was the case for me – I would advise to think in the first instance about what you like to do. Do you like spending time in front of your laptop debugging code, interacting with people, writing articles or point of view papers, analysing loads of data, solving problems etc? Then go and talk to as many people as you can to identify what their job entails on a daily basis, and whether or not you could see yourself doing it. Write down the jobs you like and do some research to identify what the implications of being in these different roles (location, working patterns, salary, development opportunities, diversity of work, etc.) will be. You will end-up with a couple of roles within a few firms.

What advice would you give with regards to developing a network of contacts within your industry? I would say that prior to joining a consulting firm having a big network in the domain does not make a huge difference, but it could help to go through (or skip) the first stages of the recruiting process. However from the first day in the firm, it is paramount that you create a network and the right one. It will impact on your career at every step.  

What skills and/or expertise do you use in your work that relates to your PhD/research area? I thought about this a lot in the first few months within Ernst & Young. At first, I thought none but I now realise I was wrong. I am using many of my transferable skills and some of the technical experience I gained during my PhD. Being a bit of a geek helps as I can easily impress people with shiny graphs and fancy tables. But the two key elements are how you approach a problem and how you structure the solution. Project management, problem solving, delivery structure, are all part of completing a PhD and these are essential skills in the business world.  

How does your work/role differ from your PhD and how have you dealt with this?The job is all about perception, not only the perception you want to foster, but more importantly, how your peers and clients perceive you. These can be quite different. The type of work you will be involved in heavily depends upon the relationships you have created with relevant people. The feedback you receive is extremely important, and you should always try to identify self-development points and work on them. It is also useful to have a mentor/coach/role model.

Business Development Management – Gioia Cherubini

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Qualification: PhD Genetics and Molecular Biology, University La Sapienza, Rome

Job Role and Company: Business Development Management, Queen Mary University

What does your job entail on day to day basis? The main purpose of the job is to develop the industry engagement and research activities of the SMD. To do this, we work closely with academics to understand their research strengths and the commercial potential of their projects. On a day-to-day basis we mainly help academics to secure research funding, especially industry-linked studentships, but also Research Council and EU grants. Besides helping with the preparation of research proposals we also identify industry partners for collaboration and negotiate the terms of this collaboration. We also work with the Technology Transfer Team to help with the identification and exploitation of research-derived intellectual property.  

What background/experience/qualifications are required for the role? A scientific degree and a post-graduate qualification are necessary because you need to have a good understanding of science. Since you work on multiple projects simultaneously you require very good organisational and project management skills and, of course, attention to detail. These are all skills that you develop during your PhD. Post-doctoral experience is not necessary (I am the only one with postdoctoral experience out of 4 colleagues in our team) but personally I found it useful to have gone through the process of writing several papers and grants proposals. Having business acumen and commercial awareness is also quite important but you can develop it on the job and you are also encouraged to go on training courses.

What are the highlights and challenges of your work? I like how varied the job is, not only for what you do (from writing research proposals to organising industry-academia workshops, from attending networking events to preparing business plans), but also for the breadth of subjects (from dental materials to heart attack, from spinal cord injury to tumour development). The challenging part is that, since none of them are your projects, you are less in control of when and how to do things. You are a facilitator, so you can suggest things, but at the end of the day it is the academic who decides. Another challenging part of the job is the juggling between academia and industry. Since the focus of industry is different from that of academia, you have to adapt your language depending on who you are talking to. For me it’s like learning a new language every time I get in touch with companies!

Why and when did you decide that you wanted to search for work that wasn’t within academia (if this is the case)? While I have always enjoyed research I have never been sure if I wanted to stay in academia. During my postdoc at Queen Mary, it finally became clear to me that I didn’t want to become a Principal Investigator and, since this is really the only career path for somebody wanting to do research in academia, I decided that it was time to look at other options.  

What type of research did you do before applying for your job? I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, neither was it clear to me what options I had, so I have taken advantage as much as I could of the career service at Queen Mary as well as the courses offered by the Learning Institute. I also used the Vitae website as a good resource for understanding what people with PhDs do. Thesehelped me explore what it is that is really important for me in a job and what my strengths are. After narrowing my options down to working in science administration I became interested in Business Development. I talked to a couple of people working within this role and finally contacted the Business Development office at Queen Mary, where I ended up doing an internship leading to my current contract.

What do you think are the most important things to be doing during a PhD with regards to developing your future career? I would suggest exploring alternative careers very early in your PhD to develop an understanding of the skills that you need for other jobs and to understand what you really like doing. Attend courses for training in skills other than research (communication, writing…) and participate in outreach activities. All this will be useful whatever jobs you want to do even if you decide that you want a career in research. And of course,don’t forget to talk to friends, colleagues, anyone, about their job!  

What advice would you give with regards to developing a network of contacts within your industry? Two very good organisations to keep an eye on are One Nucleus and the Oxbridge Biotech Roundtable (OBR). They both run events where members from both academia and industry participate and they are free to attend. They are very good occasions to meet people from industry and also to see what they look for in their collaboration with academia. The OBR is particularly tailored to PhD students since it is run by PhD students. Besides organising free networking events, they also offer internship opportunities. Participating in schemes such as Biotechnology YES (a competition where participants prepare a mock business plan to commercialise an idea) is also very useful not only to add a ‘commercial edge’ to your CV, but also to build contacts.  

What skills and/or expertise do you use in your work that relates to your PhD/research area? While my experience in research makes it easier to understand scientific proposals, I have rarely used the specific knowledge of my area of research. However, on a daily basis I use all the skills that I have developed through my PhD: project management, the ability to quickly learn new topics, organisation and writing skills, just to mention few.

How does your work/role differ from your PhD and how have you dealt with this?As I mentioned previously, you don’t own your project and, even though the academics you are helping are usually quite appreciative, you won’t get the recognition of a first author paper, for example. Most of the work you do is behind the scenes. I haven’t found it hard adapting to this because on a personal level I draw satisfaction from doing a good job and knowing that I have been useful without necessarily needing the “starring role”. Another big difference from working in the lab is that you rely heavily on your communication and in general on your soft skills. At first it is quite hard but with a bit of experience and a ‘tongue in cheek’ attitude it gets much easier.

Modeller for The Environment – Philip J Howard

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Qualification: PhD Applied Maths, Royal Holloway

Job Role: Modeller for the Enviornment

Company: Centre for Ecology and Hydrology

What does your job involve on a day to day basis? I work on the science of flood forecasting. It’s varied and interdisciplinary work, and I’m part of a team of 5. We liaise with people at the Met Office and Environment Agency to obtain lots of data on rainfall and river flows across the country. We develop mathematical models and computer software, which describe how the former transforms into the latter, as it falls over a river catchment. We evaluate how well models perform in operational practice, and identify areas for improvement. We advise people on how to sensibly interpret model outputs and provide support to the people who are on the frontline, helping the public. We also do all the typical research stuff like publishing papers and attending conferences to stay abreast of the latest developments in the field.

What background/experience/qualifications are required for the role? This role required a PhD in a technical subject, but not necessarily a hydrology background – I knew nothing about it when I started. Experience with programming and data management were important, as was an ability to communicate effectively. While those might seem basic, they’re valued skills! But you need to be able to demonstrate them at interview.

What are the highlights and challenges of your work? Our models are used every day to help produce the flood alerts that are issued by the Environment Agency, and one of our models has been estimated to be saving the UK economy at least £25million a year. It’s very satisfying to see the immediate impact of my work and to help save lives through science. Inevitably for such big projects there are political and technical complications that cause some frustration. It’s been quite a challenge to move from having a single well-defined research project over several years, to juggling lots of small projects that rarely fully answer a research question beyond ‘it’s better than what we had previously’.

Why and when did you decide that you wanted to search for work that wasn’t within academia (if this is the case)? I applied for fellowships towards the end of my postdoc but didn’t get very far. In retrospect, I don’t think I had sufficiently good or well-defined ideas that I was passionate enough about to cut it. Doing more of the same was the only work I knew though moving to industry seemed incredibly daunting, I had no idea what a ‘real’ job involved! But I was really stressed about the career uncertainty and some exposure to university admin and politics had opened my eyes to the traditional academic career not being the ideal I’d always aspired to. So I started talking to people I knew about their jobs more and discovered places like CEH, where the jump from academia didn’t seem such a leap into the unknown.

What type of research did you do before applying for your job? Actually, rather little – I used the interview as an opportunity to discuss the role and possible career paths and to talk to members of staff at the institution. I did talk to a colleague who’d worked at CEH before coming to Queen Mary so I had some idea that it would be a decent place. I spent some time browsing their website, reading their corporate strategy, and so on. But there’s only so much you can determine without experiencing it first-hand.

What do you think are the most important things to be doing during a PhD with regards to developing your future career? Thinking about it! You really don’t want to get to the end and have no idea what to do next. You don’t want to find out you’ve left it too late to apply for something or to build a relationship with the people that matter. Talk to your colleagues and friends, both in and out of academia, about their work; seize opportunities to get involved in different things – give presentations, help supervise other students, learn new techniques, volunteer for committees; broaden your horizons, it will make you better at whatever you end up doing and help you to make that decision.

What advice would you give with regards to developing a network of contacts within your industry? There are several government research centres that span the science & engineering spectrum. Visit their websites, identify areas that are of interest to you, read papers by their scientists, write to them. Seek out and talk to them at conferences and trade shows. Join the relevant professional bodies (e.g. British Hydrological Society) and attend their meetings. Visiting scientists are very welcoming; you could even initiate collaboration if your research overlaps sufficiently. Unfortunately, recruitment is very slow at the moment, but that should improve as the economy does!

What skills and/or expertise do you use in your work that relates to your PhD/research area? While none of my early research is directly relevant to my current work, all the technical skills, like paper writing and programming, are at the heart of my role. Many of the techniques I previously used to solve abstract problems turn out to have application in hydrology and flood forecasting; I’m often surprised to find something supposedly new is in fact strangely familiar!

How does your work/role differ from your PhD and how have you dealt with this?I’m more independent, which can be a blessing and a curse! I tend to have several different projects at once now, rather than focussing on one main research problem. Balancing their various deadlines and trying to negotiate so that I can do more of what I want to do rather than what someone else wants me to do is an interesting challenge. In academia, understanding the problem is most important, whereas now that competes with creating a product and delivering it to a deadline, incomplete or not. That can be frustrating, but it’s usually possible to highlight issues that don’t get fully resolved, and then come back to them at a later date. It certainly discourages getting too bogged-down with technicalities and favours pragmatic solutions to problems, which can be quite refreshing compared with the PhD grind, but does mean I miss the depth that pure research has. I keep a few more academic side-projects on the go for when I get a bit of spare time, or when everything else is getting on top of me!

Senior Scientist – Helen Groombridge

Qualification: PhD Synthetic Chemistry, School of Biological and Chemical Sciences (SBCS)

Job Role: Senior Scientist Chemistry

Company: Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (dstl)

What does your job entail on a day to day basis? Dstl is an agency of the Ministry of Defence. We provide the MoD and wider UK Government with impartial scientific and technical advice. I am part of the Chemistry and Decontamination Group and our primary focus is Chemical, Biological and Radiological defence. Although we are part of the MOD, we work very closely with other government departments, international partners, industry and academia. We also do the usual research things, such as publishing papers and attending conferences.

What background/experience/qualifications are required for the role? When I started at Dstl the role required a “good” degree in Chemistry, but not necessarily a PhD. Having the PhD however, enabled me to rapidly gain promotion and I am now a Senior Scientist. Experience comes with the job since it covers such a specialised area of chemistry, but you do need to be able to demonstrate good team working skills and the ability to communicate effectively.

What are the highlights and challenges of your work? I’m extremely proud that my work helps to save lives in theUK, overseas and on the frontline. But it can be frustrating when ideas are slow to come to fruition due to politics, funding or technical complications.

Why and when did you decide that you wanted to search for work that wasn’t within academia (if this is the case)? I started looking for jobs early -on in my postdoc. I didn’t disregard academia; it was simply that I wanted a permanent post (not a temporary contract like you have as a Postdoc). Unfortunately this was at the same time as a lot of the Universities were closing their Chemistry Departments and so good lectureships were hard to come by. Instead I looked at Industry and Government.

What research did you do before applying for your job? I didn’t research Dstl very much at all apart from browsing their website. However, I did go to lots of graduate Recruitment Fairs, CV surgeries, interview practise etc.

What do you think are the most important things to be doing during a PhD with regards to developing your future career? You need to have a good idea about what you might want to do after your PhD, so go to Recruitment Fairs, browse job vacancy websites, and talk to lots of people (both in and out of academia). You will need to develop your transferable skills too-give presentations, publish papers, volunteer for committees and consider joining an Accredited Professional Body (such as RSC if you’re a chemist).

What advice would you give with regards to developing a network of contacts within your industry? Look at the website, visit recruitment fairs or speak to representatives at conferences and trade fairs. Dstl has several visiting professors at QM (and they are always eager to talk). Many of the QM academics also have collaborative research programmes with Dstl and they might be willing to help you network.

What skills and/or expertise do you use in your work that relates to your PhD/research area? I still use all the practical chemistry skills that I learnt as a PhD student and a lot of the transferable skills too, like writing papers and giving presentations.

How does your work/role differ from your PhD and how have you dealt with this?I work on several different research projects at once now, rather than focussing on one main topic. The deadlines are much tighter and the projects are solution-driven rather than fundamental research. Balancing the various deadlines can be tricky, but I find that I work better under pressure. When I was doing my PhD I was only responsible for myself, but now I have to manage my own research and other peoples’ projects too. You need to have a good oversight of what’s going on and where you need to get to. This can be pretty challenging at times but it is also refreshing compared with a PhD where you do the same thing day-in, day-out.

Senior Scientist – Michael Salako

Qualification: BSc Biochemistry

Job Role: Senior Scientist

Company: Cancer Research Technology

What does your job entail on a day to day basis? I am Lead Biologist within the Target Validation initiative, which is the first and very crucial stage in drug discovery. My job involves three aspects. Firstly, to critically evaluate and identify through patent, literature, clinical data assessment and unpublished Cancer ResearchUKfunded work, exciting novel cancer targets that have the potential of being developed into small molecules or biological therapies. Secondly, I experimentally validate the candidate targets for efficacy and employ a personalised medicine approach, through bioinformatic modelling, to identify the patient population that may benefit most from the drug and aid future clinical trial success. Thirdly, I communicate my findings not only to internal project collaborators, but also to external Pharmaceutical partners.

What background/experience/qualifications are required for the role? The role requires someone with a PhD and experience in the latest cell and molecular biology techniques. In addition, you need to possess excellent communication and organisation skills and an ability to jump out of your comfort zone, as often a target may lie in a scientific area you know little about, which then requires a thorough analysis of the literature about this target and a detailed presentation to other members of the team. Further, you have to understand the science you are reading about to a high standard and be critical of the data, regardless of the journal it is in, as drug discovery is quite an expensive process and you need to be sure that the target that is taken forward has merit.

What are the highlights and challenges of your work? It is really exciting piecing together information from various sources about a specific target, that in isolation, may not appear to have an anti-cancer role, but which when pieced together, the information collectively suggests may have such a role. Using state of the art equipment to then experimentally validate this and prove your hypothesis is really fun as you bring theory and reality together. It is also enjoyable interacting with other members of the drug discovery team, such as the medicinal chemists, protein scientists, high-throughput screeners, crystallographers, business managers, as you get to see first hand how the novel target is progressing through the pipeline and the commercial aspect around it. This also allows me to get an insight into other areas of the ‘discovery’ cascade. In addition, travelling around the world to conferences or meeting key opinion leaders affords me the opportunity to get first-hand information, which may give us a competitive advantage. In terms of challenges, when you have to assess a target area, which you are not so familiar with, it can often make you pause for thought, however, once you have researched the area and presented your findings, you feel very satisfied. By doing this you broaden your scientific knowledge, which is always a good thing in drug discovery. Additionally, as my work is driven by milestones, deadlines are always looming, although this is something I personally thrive on.

What type of research did you do before applying for your job? I was fortunate that I undertook my Postdoctoral research in a translational lab focused on cancer, so I was exposed to how anti-cancer discoveries at the bench could be translated to the bedside for patient benefit, earlier on in my career. However, coming from academia, my knowledge of the drug discovery process was limited and this was the first area I focused on researching about. It was also important to research as much as I could about the company, to determine whether it would be the sort of place I would like to work at and if it was a forward-thinking organisation.

What do you think are the most important things to be doing during a PhD with regards to developing your future career? During your PhD, you build up a vast number of transferable skills and it can be easy to overlook these – don’t! Build on your communication skills, by taking advanced presentation courses, actively participate in lab meetings and also talk (in lay terms) to your relatives about what you do. Enhance your project and time management skills, as these are equally important attributes for the future.

What advice would you give with regards to developing a network of contacts within your industry? As drug discovery can be a small world and cancer drug discovery even smaller, other PhD students or Postdocs that you may have met in the past, in a lab or at a conference, may one day hold an appointment at an organisation you may need information from or even a job at. Thus, networking should start early on in your research career and also, it is always nice when you go to a meeting or symposia, and get a chance to catch up with old friends.

What skills and/or expertise do you use in your work that relates to your PhD/research area? A large proportion of my academic life was focused on oncology and many of the research skills I employed, I have transferred over to my current position. I regularly give PowerPoint presentations, analyse my data in Excel and write reports in Word. As I work on multiple projects I still employ strong time management skills to complete tasks efficiently. The ability to problem solve is crucial, especially when there is a paucity of information about a target.

How does your work/role differ from your PhD and how have you dealt with this? A significant proportion of my work involves meetings, which I did not have much of during my PhD. As I progress further, this will only increase and the amount of time spent in the lab will reciprocally decrease. Lab work is enjoyable but I find that whether I am doing it or directing others to do it, I still get the same buzz out of seeing the results. I am realising that regular meetings are beneficial, as they can often steer the research towards a faster outcome.    

Managing Director – Tom Sebrell

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Role: Managing Director

Organisation: American Civil War Experience Tours

Qualifications: MA (History), PhD (History)

What does your job entail on a day to day basis? My role has numerous requirements. The chief one is to select current undergraduate History students at QM to serve as tour guides for the project, which entails both classroom instruction and onsite training. I am also required to handle all tour bookings, assign students to tour duties, do all book-keeping for the tours in regards to sending invoices to customers, collecting earnings from students, handle any media-related events, and to promote the project.

What background/experience/qualifications are required for the role? As the tours focus exclusively on Britain’s roles in the American Civil War, and as this is an academic project hosted by a university, a PhD in this subject is both crucial and required. Good people skills also help, especially when dealing with both student needs and those of the general public who are our customers!

What are the highlights and challenges of your work? Making people aware that there are American Civil War walking tours in London, and that they are quite revealing and rich in substance, is a challenge alone! A number of people are sceptical as to why there are American Civil War walking tours anywhere in Britain, and so often eyebrows are raised. Therefore, the ultimate highlight is getting feedback from tourists who e-mail after the tours detailing how much they enjoyed the experience and, equally importantly, were surprised (‘shocked’ is often the term used!) to learn that there are so many crucial American Civil War sites here in the British capital. Customer satisfaction does feel quite good! Another highlight is the enthusiasm of the QM students working as guides – at first, they were all a bit nervous in leading 75-minute tours, which requires them to deliver a lecture of that length without the assistance of any notes, but after the early tours it was clear that a great deal of confidence has developed among the group. I’ve personally witnessed some of the tours, and the project’s benefits for students goes beyond their learning a great deal of a critical part of History (and getting paid for their work), but also a great way to develop their public speaking skills, and some of them have told me that they now wish to become teachers after graduation.

Why and when did you decide that you wanted to search for work that wasn’t within academia (if this is the case)? This project is an academic entrepreneurship, and therefore cannot function without certain roles being handled by a university – including website design, leaflet printing and distribution, finances, and access to students wishing to participate. In turn, the School of History reaps 25% of the project’s earnings.

What type of research did you do before applying for your job? My PhD was on this very topic, which was the cause of the realisation that such a project could easily be put together, should the necessary funding be obtained. With the help of The Learning Institute and Queen Mary Innovation, 3 grants were secured to ensure the project could be developed and sustain itself in the first year of its existence.

What do you think are the most important thing to be doing during a PhD with regards to developing your future career? In addition to learning as much about your subject as possible without having a stroke, network as much as possible – attend as many conferences as you can related to your subject, get to know other people in your field and, most importantly, make yourself known. Finding a way to gain media attention relating to your work is also highly-beneficial, and will often lead to continued media coverage of your work if you present it well enough. DON’T LET ANY  OPPORTUNITIES PASS YOU BY!!!

What advice would you give with regards to developing a network of contacts within your industry? Approaching The Learning Institute at QM is a perfect starting point – the staff there are very open, available, supportive, and will help you in any way if they, too, realise the potential of what you are trying to do.

What skills and/or expertise do you use in your work that relates to your PhD/research area? I was very fortunate in that I was permitted to teach undergraduate courses during each academic year in which I was an MPhil/PhD candidate, and this experience made teaching/lecturing seem, both, normal and fun. The skills learned from teaching at QM helped me with teaching and conversing with the students working for this project, and continues to do so. Presenting papers was also very helpful in preparing me for dealing with the media.

How does your work/role differ from your PhD and how have you dealt with this? The chief difference is what sort of people I am dealing with on a regular basis. As a PhD candidate and part-time lecturer in the School of History, I regularly had to deal with students, administrators, my supervisor, and occasionally the Head of School. My new role requires me to deal with all of the above (bar the supervisor!), but also with the Communications Office, the Creative Services Team, the Finance Department, The Learning Institute, and it’s been a wonderful way of gaining greater knowledge of how, exactly, QM functions as a College – I’ve branched out from the School of History. Also, I’ve had to deal with people in the media with very little notice, and frequently with members of the public. But I’ve grown used to this and welcome it.

Head of Strategic Research – Jeremy Anderson

Role: Head of Strategic Research

Organisation: International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF)

Qualifications: PhD Geography (QMUL)

What does your role entail on a day to day basis? The ITF runs campaigns for global organising rights in transnational corporations. The ‘strategic research’ model involves supporting these campaigns by analysing market-level dynamics, identifying campaign targets, and uncovering pressure points of particular companies. My role is to co-ordinate the strategic research programme across different sectors and regions, both in-house research and external commissions. We have a relatively small team so we each need to cover a number of regions and sectors.

What background/experience/qualifications are required for the role? The ideal background for a strategic researcher is a combination of academic training in a field such as political economy or economic geography, combined with practical experience in trade union campaigning or perhaps a business discipline such as financial analysis. However, critical thinking and research skills developed in other areas can also provide a basis for strategic research work.

What are the highlights and challenges of your work? I really enjoy the political immediacy of the work. My doctoral research was in the same field – transnational union organising – so there is a double interest really. Not only do I really enjoy being involved in the ITF’s work from a political perspective, in terms of being able to change the power dynamics in Transnational Corporations in favour of the workers, but I’m always fascinated by the minutiae of how different campaigns and strategies unfold. Over the past few years there have been some really big disputes that the ITF has been involved in, and in which workers have won, such as getting a first collective contract for workers in UPS Turkey after management had fired 162 workers, and getting recognition for independent Dockers unions in Egypt – despite management bringing in the army. The point of having a strategic research function in organisations such as the ITF is to make sure that unions have the best possible chance of victory when workers basic rights are attacked by management, and it’s been really exciting being part of that process. In line with this, another thing I really enjoy about my role is the opportunity to influence how research should be used and implemented.

Why and when did you decide that you wanted to search for work that wasn’t within academia (if this is the case)? It wasn’t really a conscious decision to leave academia. I was really enthusiastic about an academic career and always intended to pursue that after doing some contract work with the ITF. But when I was offered a permanent position it was too good an opportunity to turn down.

What type of research did you do before applying for your job? Trade union internationalism was the field of my PhD research so I was very familiar with the ITF.

What do you think are the most important things to be doing during a PhD with regards to developing your future career? Whether you are looking for a career outside academia or not, the ability to translate your academic outputs into a format suitable for a wider audience is a really useful skill. Blogging your key chapters could be a useful way to demonstrate your communication skills. I think one of the main things people outside of academia want to know is whether people with academic training are capable of explaining their ideas in easy to understand language and without jargon.

What advice would you give with regards to developing a network of contacts within your industry? As above, think of ways to disseminate your results. People in the industry probably won’t have time to read a thesis, chapters, or articles, but if you can circulate more digestible formats, that could improve your visibility.

Organising conferences and workshops can also be a good way to reach out to practitioners, particularly if they are directed towards dialogue across the academic-research divide, rather than just internal academic discussions.

What skills and/or expertise do you use in your work that relates to your PhD/research area? In general I think it’s important not to undersell the training a PhD gives you, including practical skills such as research design, time management on a large project, and practical things such as gaining access to research participants. For my PhD I had to work fairly hard on getting access to my key informants, and the experience set me up well because a big part of my job is finding information when the usual sources dry up.

An understanding of academic research and how the academic complex operates has been really useful. I’m always looking for opportunities to link with academic researchers as I’m aware it’s a vast resource and that co-operation with academics can be really useful for both sides.

I also worked as a teaching assistant on an undergraduate methods course in the geography department, where I was supervising group research projects. That was really helpful for my current work, where I’m often co-ordinating research teams.

How does your work/role differ from your PhD and how have you dealt with this? I think defining the role of a ‘researcher’ in a non-academic context has been one of the main challenges. As a ‘researcher’ you are often expected to have an incredible breath and depth of knowledge, two things that don’t necessarily go together. Most of the projects I’ve worked on have been much smaller in scope than academic research projects, so I’ve tried to establish a balance between research activities that are more than just simple data-gathering but also manageable in the time available. No specific strategy here apart from trial and error. By the same token the time frame for getting your head around new subject areas is much shorter than in academia. That has just come through experience and necessity.

Another major challenge has involved use of language. I think coming straight out of an academic environment it’s easy to underestimate how specialised the language you use is. After a few puzzled looks you get the message that you need to couch your ideas in a different way. I work on the principle that if a concept can’t be explained in simple language, it’s probably not that worthwhile anyway.

Alexandra Tomkins – Graduate Attributes Project Advisor

Role: Graduate Attributes Project Advisor

Organisation: The Learning Institute

Qualifications: PhD History QMUL

What does your role entail on a day to day basis? The project I work on aims to embed a set of attributes that will be developed by all graduates at QM. My role within the project is very wide ranging. I have lots of meetings with academics in every School advising them how to highlight to students the skills they are already building up on taught programmes. I also work with the Students Union as we try to establish ways in which students’ extra-curricular activities are contributing to their graduate attributes. The project is also redeveloping its website, so I am working on content and planning the films of students that will be shown when the website goes live in September. I also work on creating promotional material for the project – articles for student newspapers and websites, material for academic staff etc.

What background/experience/qualifications are required for the role? A PhD is required, experience of teaching, and good inter-personal skills.

What are the highlights and challenges of your work? The highlights are working with students and learning about all the different and innovative teaching that is happening across the college. It is genuinely exciting to meet a broad range of the inspirational people who work and study at QM. The challenges are trying to speak to academics about Graduate Attributes when they are either suspicious of the college’s employability agenda or when they resent giving time to the project when they want to be spending time on their REF submissions. This is one of the reasons that I think an understanding of academic life and priorities is so important to the work I do.

Why and when did you decide that you wanted to search for work that wasn’t within academia (if this is the case)? Towards the end of the PhD I realised that I probably wouldn’t be able to get an academic job straightaway so I knew I probably had to look at other options. After looking in to work in museums and archives I felt that I wanted to still work in a university because I knew how they worked.

What type of research did you do before applying for your job? After doing some temping at the Judge Business School in Cambridge I went to see Emily, head of careers here. She advised me to meet people at Queen Mary who were working in departments in which I was interested – widening participation and student and curriculum development. I had coffee with a couple of people and asked a lot of questions to find out what their jobs entailed. One of the people who I met was Dr Caroline Walker who is now my boss.

What do you think are the most important things to be doing during a PhD with regards to developing your future career? Keep an open mind and talk to as many different people as possible. I remember being at PhD careers events where nobody wanted to talk about not having an academic career, even though most of us in the room probably knew that having such a career was not going to be a possibility for the majority of us. You have to be confident and optimistic whilst doing your doctorate, but you also need to be realistic.

What advice would you give with regards to developing a network of contacts within your industry? Do some research and speak to lots of people. Queen Mary staff are a good place to start – they will want to help you.

What skills and/or expertise do you use in your work that relates to your PhD/research area? Research, analysis, and writing.

How does your work/role differ from your PhD and how have you dealt with this? My role now is completely different from my PhD – I work a set amount of hours a day and try not to bring my work home with me. I do miss history but I am using my spare time to change the thesis into a monograph.

Local Government Advisor – Charles Loft

Organisation: Local Government

Qualifications: PhD Politics QMUL

Briefly tell us what your role entails. Lobbying on behalf of local government in England and working with councils to spread best practice. Recently it has involved writing consultation responses and select committee submissions relating to rail, bus, and investment policies.

What background/experience/qualifications are required for the role? Usually, a background in local government, the civil service, or other policy work. You don’t need a PhD. I previously worked at another branch of LGA dealing with regulation. I got that job with no background in either regulation or policy work but the transferrable skills from my PhD were essential.

What are the highlights and challenges of your work? Having spent a long time studying transport policy I enjoy being involved in influencing it-or trying to. Challenges include achieving cross-party support and keeping abreast of relevant developments in other policy areas, however the most challenging aspect is managing a workload that includes getting to grips with major policy consultations while responding to short-term press queries etc.

Why and when did you decide that you wanted to search for work that wasn’t within academia? When the job centre told me i’d have to apply for three jobs a week if I wanted to claim Unemployment benefit! I had spent six or seven years in short-term academic contracts and ran out of work so had to look elsewhere. I’m glad I did, I really enjoyed lecturing but I wouldn’t go back.

What type of research did you do before applying for your job? My PhD and subsequent book covered Government policy towards British rail since 1945 and was mostly researched at the public records office, although I did a few interviews too. I also spent just over 2 years working on the official history of BP which involved similar archival research.

What do you think are the most important things to be doing during a PhD with regards to developing a future career? I did a PhD because I wanted to and I wasn’t that bothered about getting a job. As far as humanities are concerned, I would say unless you want to work in academia and are confident of getting a job there, then don’t do a PhD to further your career. I don’t think there are any other jobs that you can get with a PhD in the humanities that you could not get by working your way up in the field-on the assumption that you have a good degree from a good university. That is certainly the case in my current profession. Having said that-and particularly given the current job market-doing a PhD is not a waste of time career wise. Ask yourself what are the transferrable skills your PhD conveys and spend time developing them. Anthony Sampson said that doing a PhD involves crawling along the edge of knowledge with a magnifying glass (or something like that), try and lift your head up from time to time and see how your work connects to everything else, not just in the obvious sense of your academic field but how whatever patterns you are studying can be superimposed elsewhere. I started off looking at what the government was trying to achieve by cutting back the railway network and ended up considering what the English mean when they talk about England (via the ways in which they talk about rural railways), which is probably a fairly typical PhD journey (at least in the humanities); but the issues I studied have thrown up relevancies subsequently when I have looked into over-capacity in the European refining industry during the 1970s, how councils administer budget cuts, and the correct balance between local and national control in various areas.

I think it is well worth taking any opportunities to speak and also try and give as many presentations/conference papers/talks to amateur interest groups as possible. Having the confidence to address strangers is a very useful skill indeed when it comes to job interviews and is a skill many jobs require. I got my first policy job because I turned up to interview, having been told to bring a PowerPoint presentation (on a topic I had researched that weekend from scratch), and no one could work the PC. Having done plenty of teaching and presentations I was used to technological failure and happy to sit there and talk with a handout.

What advice would you give with regards to developing a network of contacts within your industry? I didn’t do this, but in retrospect I could have developed contacts in the rail industry because many people who work in it are interested in the history of it. At the time I was more focussed on developing academic contacts. I would suggest if you want to work in policy then try writing to lobbying organisations, MPs or even senior councillors and volunteering as an intern. If you do want to get into policy work then don’t get hung up on what area of policy it is- if you can’t find something in your area of expertise but you can get something else, develop the generic skills and hope to move on. That has worked for me.

What skills and/or expertise do you use in your work that relates to your PhD/research area? Currently the benefit of my PhD is that my job is fairly similar to that of a civil servant and having researched the civil service for a few years I just impersonate! Drafting/written skills, editing skills, analytical and presentational skills all come in handy.

How does your work/role differ from your PhD and how have you dealt with this? When I researched my PhD I was casting a wider net in the sense that I was trying to look at quite a wide area and then drill down into specific bits that were of interest. Now my research tends to be more focussed. Timescales are much tighter (although that was true once I had started teaching). The biggest difference is having to come to an office at a certain time and have a boss. All of which is a complete drag in theory but manageable/not too bad in practice.

Managing Director and Company Founder – Tom Parkinson

Organisation: Winterwood Tutors

Qualifications: PhD English

Briefly tell us what your role entails. I took my PhD in the English Department – studying an eccentric Renaissance travel writer, Fynes Moryson. I retain links with the department, and still teach on the Shakespeare course. I currently own and manage a private tuition agency, Winterwood Tutors. I work closely with my business partner, Jade Everingham. She is responsible for client liaison and manages our tutors, whereas I handle business development, recruitment and marketing.

What background/experience/qualifications are required for the role? Running one’s own business does not require any formal qualifications, but my past work experience really helped. I spent a year working in recruitment before taking my MA, and this experience of working for a rapidly growing private sector firm really helped – particularly in terms of client relationship management and professionalism. My PhD also helped, in that I was forced to organise my time, and oversee a complex project – not at all dissimilar from overseeing the sometimes untidy growth of a business. I feel that the cultural benefits of studying English for 8 years at university also helped me interact with high profile clients, who respect intellect and learning.

What are the highlights and challenges of your work? I still get to teach a lot – which is fantastic. Teaching is very rewarding, and seeing someone grow, develop and succeed under your influence is very satisfying. I also get to travel with my clients – I have spent time this summer at a manor house in the Cotswolds (think Downton Abbey…) in Ireland and in Provence, where I will return for a week this October. Meeting ‘high net worth’ clients is also fascinating – some of the domestic and social environments I experience are deeply interesting. I suppose it also pays well! It is good to have a disposable income, especially as many of my peers are now finding their way in the world – it can be dispiriting to rely on research funding and part-time work.

Why and when did you decide that you wanted to search for work that wasn’t within academia? Potentially a difficult question! I think one’s life and ambitions have to be dominated by their research if they are to succeed in academia. For me, it was merely a part of my life, and not something I could become fixated with. I felt more invigorated with the work I undertook outside academia – particularly teaching – so my work, or career, grew from this.

What type of research did you do before applying for your job?  I spent some time researching the market, and in particular thinking of a brand that would work in North London, where I was based. I spoke to existing clients, tutors and teachers I knew, to build up a picture of the business environment. I also spent a lot of time learning about business administration, particularly taxation and the legal side of things. Stultifying though this was, it helped me avoid lots of the problems that often befall start-ups, and crucially, prevented me worrying about things that had the potential to derail my plans.

What do you think are the most important things to be doing during a PhD with regards to developing a future career?  I think that building up a network of relevant contacts is the single most important thing to focus on. Go out, speak to people, be social – one of the best things about research is that you have free time (although it may not seem so at the time) to explore your own interests, so talk to people in relevant industries and attend events. The vast majority of my existing business was built on a single contact, who my business partner Jade encountered by chance in Hampstead. Another contact has recently asked us to partner them and open an office in Moscow – personal connections are vital in any industry, and research gives you the time to explore and exploit a range of different networks.

What advice would you give with regards to developing a network of contacts within your industry? Further to the above I would say that industry events are important, as are social connections. Facebook and Linkedin give one access to various networks – be bold, send a message, suggest drinks – people will almost always respond favourably, and in many cases can be of help. A recent placement in Moscow – worth £15 000 to the business – was founded on a social contact.

What skills and/or expertise do you use in your work that relates to your PhD/research area? Although at the time I was blind to this, I feel my PhD benefited me in a variety of ways.  I firstly feel it equipped me with the intellectual confidence to carry through a dream or vision. My course, and the chance to teach at QM, greatly helped my public speaking and client facing skills, particularly in terms of eloquence and comportment. Research itself is (strangely) a useful skill – the ability to investigate any given topic, and quickly and efficiently amass relevant information.

How does your work/role differ from your PhD and how have you dealt with this? One of the principal differences between my current role and the PhD is time – I had almost unlimited free time when researching my thesis, but now every moment counts. This was, at first, quite alarming. I had to learn to plan and manage my time. It can still be very frustrating. Having space to think, read and write is a real luxury, and shouldn’t be underestimated. Conversely, I do have far more independence – I can choose to take a day off whenever I please, and I have few absolute obligations. This gives me a sense of freedom that escaped me during the PhD.

Research Fellow – Henry Miller 

Role: Research Fellow

Organisation:History of Parliament Trust 

Qualifications: PhD History QMUL

Briefly tell us what your role entails. The Trust is a research institute attached to the University of London but which is funded directly by Parliament. The Trust has a series of major research projects on different periods of parliamentary history and has a strong focus on public outreach.

What background/experience/qualifications are required for the role? I work on the 1832-1868 House of Commons project as part of a team of five. The aim of the project is to research and write biographies of the 2,589 MPs who sit in that period and histories of the 401 different constituencies that existed at that time. These will be published online and in print. See our blog for more info.

Mostly my job involves researching and writing biographies and constituencies. Since starting I have written around 175 short pieces, totalling over 300,000 words – or three Ph. Ds! Other duties include: uploading pieces onto our website; giving research papers and public talks; writing blogs; answering queries from the media and public; liaising with other bodies such as the Parliamentary Archives, National Portrait Gallery and local museums, libraries and record offices to get pictures for the website. I also did a short TV programme (two minutes) for BBC Parliament as part of a series on famous MPs.

What are the highlights and challenges of your work? Research is always interesting and there always throws up plenty of fascinating things. The need to write regularly (typically 25 pieces every six months) is challenging but also a good thing. I’ve become a lot less precious about writing than before, which has helped with my longer writing (I continue to write articles for academic journal and have a book contract).  The pieces are typically 2,000-5,000 words and aim to be authoritative, yet pithy and accessible, rather like the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. It is a very different style of writing compared to doctoral level, when the tendency is for dense footnotes and long literature reviews. Even though you might have 10-20,000 words worth of notes on a particular MP or constituency, you have to stop and boil it down to what’s really important and communicate that clearly.

Why and when did you decide that you wanted to search for work that wasn’t within academia? My position is perhaps unusual in that the Trust is run like an academic institution (with the same payscale and benefit structure for example) but is funded directly by Parliament, with a strong emphasis on public history and outreach. I wanted to get an academic job when I finished my Ph. D. and feel very fortunate to have one working on something I’m interested in.

What type of research did you do before applying for your job? I checked the website. My wife’s a HR manager who has interviewed thousands of people and she says you’d be surprised how many people don’t do this! I also read up on the Trust’s past and present projects and spoke to my supervisor and other academic mentors about it.

What do you think are the most important things to be doing during a PhD with regards to developing a future career?  It depends. If your aim is an academic job then it’s important to develop a strong research profile by giving papers and, if possible, getting some publications to your names.  It’s important to speak with your supervisor and other academics about your future career so they can offer advice.

What advice would you give with regards to developing a network of contacts within your industry? Going to conferences and seminars is a good way to meet people. There are a number of websites including www.academia.edu that provide social networks for academics and postgrads. Blogging or tweeting is another way to make contacts. Don’t be afraid to write speculative emails/letters to academics or others in your industry asking could they read and comment on your work or offering to get involved in what they do.

What skills and/or expertise do you use in your work that relates to your PhD/research area? Pretty much all of it. There’s a very strong overlap between my Ph. D. topic and the project I work on.

How does your work/role differ from your PhD and how have you dealt with this? I still work individually (as during my Ph. D.) but am now part of a team and also engage with people from other organisations like those mentioned above. I feel I have a much deeper knowledge of the period and subject than I had when I was doing my Ph. D. For the reasons mentioned above, the written work is different in style and length to my Ph. D.


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