Sarah-Jane Lonsdale speaks to two senior female scientists in industry about their career paths.
Guest contributor Sarah-Jane Lonsdale
The Institute of Physics ran an event in November 2015 targeted at PhD students and early career researchers on “Taking Control of your Career as a Female Physicist”. It was a rallying cry which attracted women in physics from all walks of life, working in both academia and industry.
As a first year PhD student, I attended the event hoping to explore possible career options in a supportive environment. My interest in engaging more women in science comes from several supportive female mentors that helped me through my formative years, both at school and as I honed my skills as an undergraduate. They facilitated my first steps into STEM and research, but not everyone has the same good fortune. I hoped to be able to share my experiences and support others, while hearing the inspirational stories of women who have “made it” in physics. After the event, I spoke with Dr Valerie Berryman-Bousquet, R&D manager at SHARP Laboratories, and Dr Jenny Wooldridge, associate programme manager at the National Physical Laboratory, about their career paths in industry.
What skills do you use from your research training in your current work?
JW: Loads! I’m working in science policy, which is quite managerial, but I’m using all of the data skills I used previously and a few new ones as well. In the Impact and Policy team at the NPL, we try to understand which areas of science are strategically important so we can best support UK industry. I’m now a self-taught programmer, out of necessity; I do a lot of network analysis and econometrics.
VBB: Working in industry means you need basic transferrable skills, which you start learning in your PhD. One example is writing; I’ve had to write many reports during my working life. Another useful skill is presenting; during your PhD you try to present results at conferences, but in industry you’re doing presentations all the time – either to customers or staff. Time management is important as well; to plan what you’re going to do and how you’re going to achieve your objectives.
What was your path to your present job? Was it a clearly defined track or were there twists and turns on the way?
JW: I wouldn’t say it was clearly defined. Some people do their PhD and are employed, or get a postdoc in something similar, but a lot of people do jump around. The move out of the lab into science policy was a tough decision for me, because until then my identity had centred on being a scientist. However, science policy has given me the opportunity to work with more people, and make a bigger change within the organization. It’s really exciting.
VBB: My career path wasn’t all laid out; I had to work quite hard to find the right opportunity. I think you can foster opportunities by being creative, assessing what’s going on around you, and trying to find new opportunities within your organization. This allows you to grow into your own; taking on new responsibilities will help you to develop.
Many scientific careers cross international borders. Dr Berryman-Bousquet, how did you find your relocation from France to the UK?
VBB: I wanted to move from France to an English-speaking country; which is why I joined SHARP. Moving countries means many things are different, from healthcare to the banking system, but my employer supported me. Speaking a different language is quite tiring but I got used to it quickly. It was rewarding to discover a new culture.
Dr Wooldridge, what was your experience of working at Accenture?
JW: I joined Accenture in their basic graduate scheme as a member of the due diligence team. We’d check the practicalities of Accenture’s offer to a client – to sense and stress check that the proposed contract fitted the client’s actual requirements.I think when you’re in physics, and everyone around you is extremely intelligent, you can underestimate your own abilities. I didn’t think I was doing anything astounding at Accenture, but they were amazed how much work I could get through and how I could present complex ideas back to people.
My time at Accenture wasn’t relevant to science at all, but it gave me many useful skills. I gained a wider awareness of how businesses work. When you have a bunch of academics arguing in a room about something, you can see that the hour spent arguing cost more than the original issue did. It changes your viewpoint.
Could you give one key piece of advice to early career researchers considering working in industry?
JW: I think that people with STEM degrees and PhDs are in high demand and there are masses of choice in what you can do. Your skills are really appreciated; you just need to go out and sell yourself to find something exciting.
VBB: When I speak to students, they often don’t know what they want to do. They should try to assess what transferrable skills they have gained. They should be an expert in their field after their PhD and should learn to promote their expertise.
Don’t feel that your first job will be the only job you’ll have in your life. Every position offers a different experience. Try to make the most of each experience and learn from it.
Dr Valerie Berryman-Bousquet is the R&D Manager at SHARP Laboratories of Europe Ltd.
Dr Jenny Wooldridge is an Associate Programme Manager within the Policy, Strategy and Impact team at the National Physical Laboratory.
Sarah-Jane Lonsdale is a Principal’s Career Development Scholar at the University of Edinburgh, studying the formation of the nuclei in stars for her PhD. She is passionate about outreach and inspiring the next generation of young scientists.