The traditional career path in academia isn’t the only option available for scientists, say panelists at the 2015 Naturejobs Career Expo in London.
Guest contributor Gaia Donati
Are you close to finishing your degree, and tempted by the academic environment you came to know well? If yes, then you’re in good company: according to the Vitae Careers in Research survey from 2015, 77% of researchers in the UK aspire to a position in academia, and 60% expect to find an academic job. However, the Royal Society estimates that only 3.5% of PhD graduates land a permanent position as researchers or lecturers. But all hope isn’t lost: alternative options for those wishing to stay in academia exist, as panelists discussed at the Naturejobs Career Expo in London on Friday 18 September 2015.
The panel offered a refreshing perspective on some options that allow scientists to maintain the link with academic research without facing years of potential postdoctoral insecurity. Dr Anna Price, chair of the panel, left academic research because she lacked a specific question to answer as a scientist. As the head of Researcher Development at Queen Mary University of London, she now works with researchers on planning their careers and honing their transferable skills. Price is well aware that academia is a competitive sector; for this reason, and from her own career development perspective, she introduced four panelists to talk about traditional academic positions as well as roles at the crossing between research and management.
The traditional academic
Frances Ashcroft, professor of physiology at the University of Oxford, explained how her role involves supervising students, administering a large research budget and attending international conferences. For Ashcroft, academic research isn’t merely her job, “it’s my life, where every day is different and I’m never, ever bored,” she said. One wouldn’t be wrong to think that a professor at a prestigious university would have a stellar career path, but for Ashcroft things didn’t always go smoothly. After a PhD that was “pretty much a disaster,” as none of her experiments worked, she applied six times before landing her first lectureship. Her advice to young and aspiring researchers? “Just get out there and do it! Try to find your own individual research niche and try to be realistic.” Ashcroft also insisted on the value of scientific collaborations: “it’s so much more fun to work with others, but choose [your friends] wisely because it’s likely that [you’ll] to be with them for a long time.” In her view an academic job requires, among other things, “passion, determination, an enormous amount of patience and the ability to cope with failure,” as scientific research consists of “endless failure punctuated by moments of ecstasy.”
The lab manager
“Good laboratory managers make good laboratory research,” said Dr Frederique Guesdon, senior research laboratory manager at the Royal Veterinary College, University of London. Her role entails different responsibilities, from the daily operation of the facilities that she oversees to reviewing and negotiating service contracts – a key aspect when funding is scarce and it’s necessary to manage laboratory equipment efficiently. Throughout her career, Guesdon moved from one position to the next in a continuous effort to increase her level of responsibility and improve her skills; interestingly, the only formal training for lab managers is a health and safety certificate. While Guesdon acknowledged the challenge of adapting quickly to new geographical locations and specific research environments, she also stressed how her career progression was positively noted by prospective employers.
The core facilities manager
Dr James Hadfield, Genomics Core Facility manager at the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute, manages a budget of over £1 million every year. His role requires him to understand “the technology” very well, which is also the aspect that excites him the most – even when it means going to someone “much more senior than yourself [to say] ‘that experiment is likely to be a dead end’” given the available technology. Hadfield also provided useful feedback drawn from his experience as an employer. When he receives job applications, he’s “driven by a covering letter”: if the text sounds like an anonymous copy-and-paste production, he will be less inclined to read on.
The clinical trials manager
Managing clinical trials requires scientific knowledge to analyze the data combined with people-oriented skills for setting up trials, some of which can have a real impact on clinical practice. Lisa Fox, senior trials manager at the Institute of Cancer Research in London, reflected that her career path allowed her to achieve the balance between science and project management that she sought. As employers of clinical trials managers look for experience on the job, it may be necessary to accept an entry-level position at first. However, clinical research offers a variety of roles and the career progression is quick and clearly structured. Fox also reiterated “the impact of networking” on her career, where even a small trial can involve many stakeholders.
After a varied collection of possible careers with links to academia, some questions from the audience suggested that many may have well belonged to that 77% who aspire at a research or lecturing position, with attendees asking for advice on how to secure PhD funding and how to manage work-life balance. Whatever your (alternative) role in academia, all speakers agreed that it is important to choose your employer wisely as you plan your career. They also shared an exhortation that pervaded the air at the Expo: networking is as fundamental to finding a job as it to keeping one!