As PhD studentships far out-number the quantity of post-doctoral opportunities, young researchers might want to consider a career in research outside of academia.
Guest contributor Zoe Self
“There are careers available in academia, but they are becoming more and more limited,” said Naturejobs editor Julie Gould as she introduced the session on careers in industry at the 2015 London Naturejobs Career Expo on 18 September 2015. The auditorium was packed, with many delegates sat on the floor. Chairing the panel was Dr Ric Allott, business development manager at the Central Laser Facility, part of the UK’s Science and Technology Facilities Council. In opening, he said that he’s keen to break down the misconception that basic science occurs only in academia, while industry focuses just on applied science. “That is not the case,” he said. “There’s a real spread — a real broad application of science, research and development across both of those [academia and industry].”
Allott introduced a panel of experts from different areas of industry to give their take on careers outside of academia.
Dr Dave Worton is a senior research scientist at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL), a government-run laboratory in the UK. He supervises a team of scientists and oversees multiple research projects. Worton also spends time applying for funding and attends academic meetings, much like a university researcher. The career ladder at the NPL has a similar structure to that in universities, including research scientist roles (graduate level), his position of senior research scientist (post-doctoral experience) — and beyond. “It’s very much like working in a university,” he said, but with opportunities to move laterally, into business.
Contract research organisations (CRO)
Dr Helen Pappa is from Quintiles, a global CRO that works for pharmaceutical companies to take drugs from clinical research through to commercialisation. Pappa is in Alliance Management — a customer-facing role managing relationships between project managers, business developers and senior figures in her own organisation and the clients’. “If people are interested in service, this is a fantastic area to explore,” she said. Pappa described how she moved through a number of roles at Quintiles, starting more on the science side before moving more towards business, demonstrating the opportunities for progression in such organisations. In her talk, Pappa highlighted how networking has helped her: “Almost every single step in my industrial career was influenced, in some way, by networking,” she said. (She once obtained grant funding through a chance introduction, she added in a chat after the session.)
Dr Steve Martin, head of an R&D Discovery Unit within the global healthcare company GSK, headquartered in the UK, was “blown away” by the size of the audience. “That’s fantastic — because in industry, and GSK as a company, we rely on people wanting to come in, to lead exciting scientific careers,” he said.
Because Martin joined GSK 21 years ago, he offered insights he’d gained from recent graduate recruits on what it’s like to work in a big pharmaceutical company. Recruits appreciate the level of innovation at the company, and how collaborative the research is — as well as the level of investment the company makes in cutting-edge scientific equipment. His advice to anyone contemplating a career in industry was to find out more about the specific industry they’re considering: “Reach out and see if you can make contact with someone in the company and have a conversation with someone who actually works there — there’s no substitute for first-hand knowledge.” He also stressed the importance of building transferable skills in communicating and translating science. Communication skills are key to making complex science easy to understand for the non-scientists that you may be working with — in particular, convincing funders to invest.
Simon Mosey, University of Nottingham, began his career with a physics degree, including a sandwich year in materials research at BP. He had hoped to continue working for BP, but the company closed its materials research unit right around the time he finished university. So he joined a different materials research company…..which also closed down a short way into his time there! Following this, he took up a fellowship at the University of Nottingham, progressed through a lectureship and heading an institute to become Professor of Entrepreneurship and Innovation. “I didn’t plan any of it and was completely wrong about most of it,” he joked of his career path. Simon recommended a “try before you buy” approach to careers, and suggested looking into the Biotechnology YES and Environment YES schemes to develop key skills for moving into industry. (These are competitions designed for post-graduates and post-docs to develop business and entrepreneurial skills.)
There is a huge variety of careers in industry, and this session showcased but a few. To move into that sector, the panel stressed that you will need not only scientific expertise, but key transferrable skills, particularly in communication — as you will likely be working with people from many different scientific and non-scientific backgrounds.
Another key message from the session was that networking can help you in achieving your career goals. “Networking is a contact sport,” said Allott — so the big advice to anyone thinking of a career move is to get out there and make connections.