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From the bench to the science centre

Posted by , on 15 February 2011

During the first year of my PhD, I undertook a small rotation project in the lab of Dr Kim Dale, doing some work with the chick embryo. I did this project to try something a bit different. All my work up until this point had been sub-cellular and mostly within the nucleus. Who knew there were whole tissues and even whole organisms to study? Not me. I had never considered it before. I was all set to cure cancer during my PhD and then along came the chick embryo. I loved the project (and Kim) so much that I returned to her lab to complete the remaining three years of my PhD. I didn’t even know what mesoderm was when I started, how we laugh now and thanks Kim for bringing it up at my viva presentation (it’s not forgotten).

I absolutely loved my experimental work and Kim was an amazing supervisor. During my first year I had some very beautiful results and was still all set on undertaking a career in research. To be honest, I didn’t really understand why anyone wouldn’t want to run their own lab (and obviously win a Nobel prize for being so fabulous). They said, “you’ll understand  one day”. They were right. I have to say that while I loved doing my experiments the level of anxiety and distress caused by the rest of academic life was just not worth it for me. The constant pressure and the need to commit so much of my soul to the work was not something I felt I could maintain for the rest of my life. I soon became aware that there would never be a point where the pressure lessened, there would always be papers, grants, fellowships, tenure, more papers, more grant applications and more rejection. Not an enticing prospect. I liked finding out how things worked, not the politics that goes with establishing a career in academia. It doesn’t pay well enough to make up for it. I also became aware how narrow the opportunities were to establish your own lab. Only one in ten post docs make it and the thought of what happened to the other 90% terrified me. And most of the 10% then have go through tenure (yuck). So I decided to get out before it was too late and I was doomed to eternal postdocing.

I think that I had made a firm decision NOT to be an academic researcher at the start of my third year. Then the question was, what the hell do I do now? All my dreams and hopes had changed. I also didn’t want to go into industry. So what else was there? I had no idea. Getting help with this was quite hard. Academics, at least from my own encounters with them, tend to have only experienced an academic life and therefore don’t know what’s required to move out of it in many cases. I know this is very generalist but it is certainly how I felt at the time. Kim was fantastic and very supportive however. When I told her my decision, she did all she could to help and never once made out that it was the wrong decision (although she did say it was a loss for science but I am very much still involved with science so I guess it depends how you look at it). She was happy for me to do any skills courses I wanted and did all she could to help me progress in whatever career I chose.

So I added to my work load and took on as many other activities as I could. I starting organising scientific meetings with my best friend who works at the Roslin Institute. Soon the first Scottish Chick Symposium was born and there have now been five meetings. I also did plenty of generic skills courses in time management, communication skills, presentation skills, the list goes on and on. I put myself forward for presentation at every opportunity and went to as many conferences as I could to network to the max. This involved applying for funding, making lots of posters and generally staying up really late (best networking time is 1-3am I find). I also did a lot of public engagement work, getting the whole lab involved in events at science centres, writing articles and doing some free lance writing for The Primitive Streak project. I also did a three month science policy internship at the Academy of Medical Sciences in London.

So basically I was knackered, but still managed to complete a successful PhD and developed a vast array of skills. I’d also learnt a lot about what I enjoyed. I found that I actually really liked working in an office. I liked feeling like part of a team, where you didn’t feel possessive over your work and everyone helped each other out. I also rekindled my love for a wide variety of science. I hadn’t realised how narrowly focussed I had become. It turns out somites aren’t the only area of science! They had ruled my life for four years so regaining perspective was wonderful. I also found an office job to be extremely varied. Much more so than the lab where the same experiments are done again and again (I still don’t know if I will ever miss cutting PSM explants or not, it might take a lot of years). I also was rather fond of project management. I really enjoyed organising things and loved the challenge and variety that this could bring. I also discovered that outside of academia, no-one really cares about your publications! Or at least there isn’t the same requirement for them. They mean the world to you at the time but trust me, your skills are so much more important when you’re leaving academia. And I don’t mean lab skills, I doubt anyone will ever ask me to dissect some PSM explants in a job interview at any point.

So, I’d done my PhD and an internship. I then returned to the only place I would consider doing a postdoc, in Kim’s lab. I wanted to get the project ready to pass on and get a review paper written, so I went back for six months. This turned into ten months while I was searching for jobs. This takes such a long time I can’t tell you. Each application form would take up to four hours. You HAVE to tailor each one or there’s no point writing it. Whoever looks at it will just stick it in the bin if you just witter on about the details of your lab project. Why do you want that particular job and why are you the best person to do it? That’s all they want to hear or you won’t get an interview. This is a big learning curve, you can’t just have a CV and send it around. I don’t think that works in academia either by the way. Having seen the selection process in Kim’s lab, I know that sending out your CV with loads of non-specific info just makes it look like you don’t really care about the job. Which is likely to be true. Those ones are canned immediately.

I digress, sorry. It’s just an important point that’s all. So, I had filled out more application forms than I care to mention. I wasn’t sure if what I was applying for at that point was for me, hence the lack of interviews I guess. However, I did find searching for jobs and applying absolutely invaluable as I started to open my eyes to the number of possibilities out there. I was hoping that a policy job would come along but there aren’t so many in Scotland and I didn’t want to move to London and my husband would have divorced me if I’d asked him to go there (did I mention I also planned my wedding and got married during my third year?). Then one day I saw a psci-com post (a website for science communication that has loads of jobs advertisements in all manner of scientific fields) that was advertising for a Science and Interpretation Officer role at Glasgow Science Centre. The role would be to undertake some research to help put together an exhibition about health and wellbeing. This sounded ideal, I loved the activities I had done in science centres and it would involve project management and lots of interaction with researchers. The only problem was, the contract was only for 12 months and Glasgow is 60 miles away from where I live in Perth. But I thought, ‘well, you can’t have everything’ and applied.

I didn’t initially get invited for interview. I found that out when I phoned to ask how my application had gone. The reason was I had a lack of experience in developing exhibitions (actually I didn’t have any experience in this but what can you do). I was very disappointed and asked if someone there could perhaps phone me back and discuss my application with me. I explained that it was the ideal job for me and I felt I had a lot to offer. I really wanted to know what those who had got interviews had in their applications that I didn’t (other than direct experience). I heard back from them and they’d changed their minds about interviewing me after looking at my application again. I also had a wonderful letter of support from Jon Urch, who runs all of the science communication activity for the University of Dundee, which I think helped massively. I only had a couple days notice for the interview but said I would be delighted to attend. At this point I knew I was on the bottom of the list going into the interviews, their last choice. So I didn’t expect much but was very keen to get some interview experience.

I didn’t think the interview went terribly well, but then I always think that. It’s really hard to know what they pick up on in the interview or what they’re looking for. I was more myself than usual in the interview so I guess I was more relaxed. I just answered their questions as best I could and told them about the stuff I had done during my PhD (the non-somite related stuff) and how I went about work in general. It must have done the trick as a few days later they asked me to submit a portfolio of my written work (in hind-sight I wish I had done this before being asked but never mind) and shortly after that I got a phone call offering me the position. I was delighted and after negotiating salary and start date I was set to start. Since then they’ve told me a big part of their decision to offer me the position was based on the fact that I had done a PhD, I had experience of doing research and lots of reading and doing it quickly. They also felt I had the confidence and experience to go and speak to top academics in all manner of fields.

I’ve been there since October. It’s fantastic. I’ve read about research ranging from prosthetic limb design to stem cell research. I’ve made rockets to see how far I could make them fly using a plastic bottle as a launcher and made drugs out of Lego to prototype some ideas of how to engage the public with the drug discovery route. It has to be said that the commute is horrendous but I work from home a lot and travel around Scotland a bit meeting researchers so I don’t have to do it every day. I love the job I am doing. I did have to sacrifice money and travel time but it has been more than worth it. I feel like I am where I should be now and vitally, when I look for my next step, I will have some real job experience to add to my application. There is so much I can do with the skill set I have developed and my PhD was crucial to that development. I don’t regret having done a PhD at all, it’s the most character building thing I’ve ever done!

My advice for anyone looking to take a similar leap out of the lab, start NOW. You already have by reading this overly long blog. Think about what you enjoy doing and start filling in some application forms. You will have to be prepared to put in some serious hours doing stuff on top of your lab work but at the end of the day, if you don’t want to be where you currently are in a year’s time, you will only change it if you make it happen. Think outside of the lab, if you don’t plan to be an expert cryosectioner for the rest of your days then that’s not the most important skill to perfect while you’re in the lab. And I’m not suggesting give up on your bench work and go and do some skills courses. You need to have a successful project in the lab but that success goes beyond doing 5000 western blots.

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2 thoughts on “From the bench to the science centre”

  1. Right on! It’s good you realized this early on and were able to start working towards an alternative goal. Most advisers seem to only think about training students or postdocs to be professors, which ends up costing a lot of people a lot of heartache. I was well into my postdoc before I realized that my idea of landing a tenure track academic position at a premier institution was probably both unrealistic and not really what would make me happy. But luckily for me, I was naturally drawn to developing a diverse set of skills and experiences, which seems to have helped my future prospects.

  2. Thanks Sarah, I enjoyed reading your story. You offer some good advice to students reconsidering being in academia for the long haul. Best wishes for you in your position at Glasgow Science Centre and the next project to come (if they let you go…)!

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