Last June, Eva summarised the Node’s alternative careers stories, personal accounts of how scientists made their transitions from research into various alternative career paths. As a friend of Andrea Hutterer, who is now the Fellowships Manager at EMBO, I witnessed her exciting leap from the bench into science management back in 2010, and now asked her to tell her story. I’m sure her experiences will interest the Node’s readers and complement the alternative careers stories already available on the site. Enjoy the interview!
Briefly tell us about your scientific career.
I studied biochemistry in Vienna and then did both my diploma thesis and my PhD in Jürgen Knoblich‘s lab at IMP and IMBA in Vienna. The focus of my thesis was asymmetric cell division in the nervous system of Drosophila. After that I joined Masanori Mishima‘s group at the Gurdon Institute in Cambridge, UK, for a postdoc. In his lab, I studied the process of cytokinesis.
Why did you quit research?
I was simply not sufficiently fascinated by one particular biological problem. My CV was good in scientific terms, so I think I could have gone ahead and started to apply for PI positions. But without being passionate about a question I think it’s hard to be successful, and being quite ambitious I decided it’s not the right career path for me.
What got you interested in research funding and policy? Did you consider other career paths?
Once I had decided to look into alternative careers, I needed to find out which career paths were open to me. I looked into loads of things – management consulting, scientific editing, medical writing, conference organising and science communication. In the end it was clear that science management was the best choice for me, as I would still have direct contact to scientists and thereby get a broad overview of scientific progress and emerging fields. On top of that, one can make a difference in terms of policy, for example by dealing with researchers’ employment conditions or gender issues.
Did you take any additional courses to polish your CV?
At the Gurdon Institute I was lucky enough to be able to take advantage of the fantastic careers service Cambridge University offers. In the beginning, I almost randomly took courses such as microeconomics, web-authoring and programming languages. This helped in a way that I found out quickly that pure economics were not entirely my thing and Perl was not my language. Other courses were more useful, for example when I learned the basics of using HTML to build websites or how to best write a CV for non-scientific jobs.
With regard to “polishing” my CV, it wasn’t so much the courses I listed but more how I organised the CV. I tried to emphasise my soft skills and highlighted extracurricular activities such as supervising younger students and organising retreats and symposia.
How easy was it to get your first job in funding?
It wasn’t easy at all, not even to get interviews. My scientific CV was good, but I had virtually no other relevant experience. Many employers appreciate even the smallest amount of experience more than a fantastic scientific CV, so what you really need when coming out of a PhD or postdoc is to get a foot in the door.
The first interview I got was with Cancer Research UK, but they didn’t offer me the job. I then got offered a job as Science Manager with the Medical Research Council (MRC) in Swindon, UK. I was quite over-qualified for this job since it didn’t even require a PhD, plus it came with a significant pay cut, but I was glad to have been offered it and accepted. In hindsight, it was the perfect stepping stone.
As preparation for the interviews, the Cambridge Careers Service again proved extremely helpful, because they offered mock interviews with the career advisor. It helped immensely to practise – I found out what I might be asked in an interview and I learned to explore different possibilities for answering these questions. I simply got an idea of what to expect during the process.
What does your work consist of?
On an everyday basis, I do some general administration, the details of which depend on the various fellowship application deadlines: I read proposals, find referees, talk to fellows, talk to my team [Andrea has three administrative staff to manage] and attend in-house management meetings. Every now and then I travel to career events to give talks about the programme, or attend workshops somewhere in Europe, which cover different aspects that come with the programme, such as a recent workshop on tracking research careers.
I also write grant proposals to try to get more money for the programme, and organise and attend the EMBO Fellows’ meetings in Heidelberg and the US. So it’s a very diverse job and I’m never even remotely bored!
Is there anything you miss about working in research?
At the MRC, although my colleagues were great I sometimes missed the international environment, which I do have here at EMBO. Sometimes I also miss standing at the bench, running around in the lab, being physically active. But I’m aware that that would have stopped sooner or later even if I had stayed in research and had become a PI.
What advice do you have for PhD students and postdocs wanting to leave academic research?
Find out why exactly you want to leave and what you would rather do. Even if you’re unclear whether research might be the right thing for you or not, start thinking about alternatives and get involved in non-scientific activities early on. There’s actually quite a lot one can do with our education. You just need to be clear about your goals, have a good non-scientific CV ready and work towards the new career profile. It might take a while until you get the job you have in mind, and you possibly need to be prepared to take pay cuts and will maybe feel slightly under-challenged in your first non-research job, but at least for me it was all worth it.