Career paths are not always straightforward. Choosing a scientific vocation can involve challenging and unanticipated decisions, often with no tour guide to follow. Some scientists may hop from the lab bench into industry while others progress up the academic research ladder. Others decide to leave research behind and explore science communication, teaching, setting up their own business or working in technical roles outside of the lab.
While a love of science can lead to varied and fulfilling careers, it may be lonely trying to evaluate the next step to take. Recently, initiatives such as “This is what a scientist looks like” and the #IamScience discussions, have shone a bright light on scientific career trajectories. In our latest Soapbox Science series, we focus on some interesting examples of scientific career transitions. We will hear from different contributors, all of whom use their scientific background in their current jobs, asking each of them the same questions: how did you decide on your career path, what are your motivations, and what does the future hold?
Ian Mulvany leads user-facing product development at Mendeley.com, a role which touches on feature development, product usability and the development process. He tries to understand researcher needs, translating these demands into code.
In the past he has worked on other products for researchers, as well as working as a publishing editor for a major publisher. Ian tweets as @IanMulvany and very occasionally blogs at partially-attended.
VP Product, Mendeley
What is your scientific background?
I was deeply interested in science from an early age, I got turned on to it at about the age of 13 by watching a documentary about Einstein. Pretty soon I’d read every sci-fi book in my local public library (lot’s of Azimov, Arthur C Clarke and Robert Silverberg).
I studied experimental and theoretical Physics at University College Dublin, then I went on to do another course at Edinburgh in Astrophysics. I took as many courses as I could, it was all so fascinating, learning about the structure of the world.
I started to specialise in statistical cosmology, and I then began a PhD at Columbia University in New York. I got about 2 1/2 years into my PhD, failed quite a few of the qualifying exams and was asked by the department to leave.
What is your current job?
I’m responsible for working on the vision of the product alongside the CEO of Mendeley. We have to make decisions not just about what we are building this week or next week, but we also have to ensure that we are laying the foundations for what we want to build in the next two to three years; we have very big plans.
On a week to week basis, I take our vision for a product and work with the development teams to break that out into work units, deciding which bits we will actually spend time on now. You have to take into account the costs of the build, feedback from users, the technological blockers you may need to overcome, the motivation of the team and at the same time, respond to inbound queries from other companies or individuals. Typically I’m responding to a lot of emails and making ad-hoc decisions on resourcing projects as we uncover more information about the things we are building. I try to set aside a certain amount of time per week to catch up with people and get a good understanding of the problems they are facing. Sometimes I’ll want to get some data myself about a part of the product and I might write a few small scripts to run some reporting.
I also do a day of customer support every three or four months where I handle queries from our users. This role gives you a strong understanding of the immediate issues that your users are facing. The pace is incredible and one of the hard things is forcing myself to step back and take a more strategic overview, but it’s really important to try to do that. Every now and again I’ll give a talk or presentation, either to some of our business partners, or to some of the researchers that are using Mendeley. I really like doing that, but pretty much I can pick and choose which events I go to, it’s not a core requirement of my job. As a company, this year we have been working hard on experimenting with methods to make us more efficient at software development. Some of the things we have tried have been really good and some not so good, but the important thing is that you have to keep experimenting. Every day is a little different and I really like that.
Can you detail the steps you have taken to get to your current position?
As I mentioned earlier, I dropped out of my PhD. That was pretty crushing, everything that I’d been working towards for about nine years of my life in total, my entire self-image and all of my imagined futures, all gone in one moment; all that remained was a very big hole.
“Success is so often built out of great working relationships.”
On reflection, it’s easy to see the mistakes that both I and the department made. I had thought that once I’d obtained a PhD position, all that mattered was getting on with the subject. I didn’t realise how important it was to build good mentoring relationships with faculty and how important it was to seek advice. Success is so often built out of great working relationships. I’d managed to get myself into a frantic tailspin. I was handling massive amounts of work, leading to nothing productive. I burnt myself out and inevitably that was what my department saw. Concerns for my own health were also among some of the reasons they asked me to leave. I had very poor PhD supervision, but didn’t have the sense or experience to try and fix that problem.
“What if there were jobs or careers out there that were connected to research, but that didn’t actually involve being a researcher?”
Of course time moves on and we have to pick ourselves up and get on with things. I spent about ten months back in Dublin doing anything except getting involved in research again. I was a bike courier for a while, did some data entry, supply teaching, anything that would pay the rent. I think I just needed to mentally regroup. Then one morning, about ten months in, I had this really dumb epiphany. I suddenly realised that I actually had a lot of qualifications. What if there were jobs or careers out there that were connected to research, but that didn’t actually involve being a researcher? I got a copy of New Scientist, applied for three jobs out of that one issue, received interviews for two of them and got offered one. I packed up my bags and headed over to Germany to work for Springer Verlag in their copy editing department. I worked there for a couple of years, getting to understand the production side of research communication, then a job opportunity opened up as a managing editor in the physical sciences group at Springer. I ran a couple of journals and a couple of book series, going out to conferences, building up a network in the research community and trying to convince researchers to send their work to my journals and book titles.
At the same time as I was doing this, the web 2.0 thing was starting to emerge. Delicious was getting going, podcasting was starting upand I got really interested in the idea that as a publisher we had access to so much great information about the authors, readers and content, that we really ought to be able to create better services for researchers. Sadly those ideas conflicted with what was expected of me in my day job. At that time it really felt that the business was optimised around chasing Elseveir’s price increases and ensuring a steady flow of product. I simply felt that there had to be some smarter way of doing this.
In 2007 I saw a job advertised with Nature Publishing Group working on building exactly these kinds of tools. I remember thinking that there was no way I was qualified, so I applied in order to do a gap analysis. When I didn’t get the job I’d be able to find out which parts of my CV I needed to work on in terms of skills. That didn’t quite work out though because I got the job. I worked with NPG as product manager for Connotea, and then later as a technical product manager for Nature Network. It was an amazing experience. I remember one day receiving an email with a hand drawn flower as an attachment from a researcher who loved the tools we had created, because we were saving her time and making her life easier. That led fairly naturally to my current role. I moved over to head up all user-facing product development at Mendeley in mid 2010.
“You know on one hand you are doing something right, and on the other hand you know you still have the opportunity to improve.”
Every week we have hundreds of thousands of researchers across the world using the tools we have built. We have scientists who are passionate about what we have built, and we have others who get really frustrated by what we have done. If you are building a service, both of these types of reactions are hugely motivating. You know on one hand you are doing something right, and on the other hand you know you still have the opportunity to improve. I can’t in any way imagine that I would have had more impact had I stayed in research.
Where do you see your career in the future?
I have no intention of returning to research, however I hope to continue to experiment with the tools and infrastructure of scientific communication.
Paul Graham, one of the most influential venture capitalists out there, recently wrote about the concept of schlep. He described a schlep as something annoying that everyone just does and puts up with because no one has found a better way to do it. It might be the technology is not mature enough, or the thing causing the schlep is just a very difficult problem to solve. Science is littered with schleps, time spent formatting citations, the roller coaster of submission, modification, rejection, resubmission. There are so many areas of the scientific communication process that our current level of technological savvy ought to be able to help with. I hope my career in the future will continue to be involved in reducing these schleps for researchers; helping to improve the research process.
“I’d love to see true open access flourish, and I’d love to see the emergence of robust recommendation and search engines and interfaces.”
One big challenge with the kind of work I do is that people are resistant to changing their patterns of behaviour. Even if you have a better mousetrap, you still have to think hard about how to communicate that, making clear the benefits of trying something new. The other big challenge is, for the most part the scientific publishing industry has an enormous amount of legacy; the technology stack, the sociology of credit, business models and de facto monopolies in journal siloed content. In my opinion these are holding us back from creating a more efficient and cost effective research communication system. I’d love to see true open access flourish, and I’d love to see the emergence of robust recommendation and search engines and interfaces.
Do you have any advice to other scientists considering a career in your area?
Don’t be afraid to try going at things a little bit differently. Be open to opportunities. Tools built on the web, at web scale, are going to accelerate certain areas of research. Understand this, and position yourself to take advantage of it.
In terms of getting a career in my area, for me I was incredibly fortunate to have opportunities open up, allowing me to follow the ideas I am passionate about. Following your passion is really important. On a practical level, in terms of product development I recommend getting an understanding of agile product development, tools like scrum, and kanban. Spend a lot of time thinking about the user experience. Trial your ideas early on in the process with light-weight user testing; finding problems early on is a lot cheaper than discovering problems at a later stage.