Academic and Non-academic careers for PhD grads

Posted by Gemma Ludgate on 8 July 2013

For those PhD students who didn't manage to escape the lab last week for our event on academic and non-academic career options for PhD graduates here are the highlights ... enjoy!

Careers in academia:

Dr Charlotte Lawson, Senior Lecturer at RVC

Charlotte entered academia because it satisfies her desire for certain working environment interests; Variety, creativity, independence, improvisation, practical work, responsibility, passing on knowledge, people, travel, team work, management and writing. One of the key decision points in her career was whether to move to a different University for her post doc; moving allows you to pick up more skills but staying after your PhD allows you to develop in your subject area. She was happy with her decision to move and would advise PhD graduates to do the same to show that you can adapt to a different lab environment and learn new skills.

A key question to ask yourself is whether you enjoying working with UG students in the lab. She pointed out that it’s increasingly possible to spend a couple of years in industry after your PhD and then return to academia. Whatever direction you take you should recognise your skills as an independent thinker as well as the assertiveness you develop by having to defend your position. If you think that academia is for you these are the criteria you will be judged upon as you progress you career;

  • Scientific publications (impact factors, citation indexes…!)
  • Research grants
  • Involvement with charities, industry and research councils
  • Scientific reputation (invited talks, editorial boards…)

These are the general salaries you can expect at the different stages and approximate ages;

  • PhD 14-18K (age 21-25)
  • Post Doc 25-35K (age 25-30)
  • Lecturer 35K – 45K (age 30-40)
  • Senior Lecturer/reader 45K – 55K (age 35-50)
  • Professor 60 – 70K (age 40+)

A major downside is the fixed term contracts you’ll be on at the beginning of your career until you obtain a faculty position.

This is a ‘typical’ career path;

  1. First Degree
  2. (MSc)
  3. PhD
  4. Post doc position x1 or x2 (could go abroad)
  5. Research fellow
  6. Lectureship (tenure)
  7. Senior lecturer/senior research fellow
  8. Reader
  9. Professor

Dr Aris Tagalakis, Research Fellow, Dept of Infection & Immunity at UCL

Aris always knew he wanted to have a career in research. In contrast to Charlotte, he stayed at the same institution for his first post doc and kept the same supervisor. Recognising that it would be beneficial to work elsewhere he moved to a couple of different institutes. Ironically these then got amalgamated with UCL meaning that he has stayed at UCL for the whole of his academic career so far. In hindsight he wishes he'd moved out from UCL to learn new skills and in his experience, moving around often makes you more attractive to future employers. He likes teaching MSc and PhD students. He thinks that the most negative thing about academia is the feeling of insecurity due to post doc contracts being generally one or two years only in length (contracts can be up to 5 years but these are rare). Academia is also poorly paid compared to private sector careers. That said, he mentioned friends who left academia to work in industry sometimes feel that the research process is like a conveyor belt with no one researcher getting an overall view of the research. These private sector researchers like the money though!

Dr Noriko Cable, Research Fellow, Institute of Epidemiology & Health at UCL

In contrast to Aris, Noriko completed her first degree in nursing and wanted to be hands on with people. She then realised that if you are a nurse you can help people one at a time whilst research can be beneficial for lots of people. She obtained her PhD in America and her first research post was in epidemiology which she didn't know anything about. She has enjoyed her research career so far but has found it very competitive when trying to progress. Her next step is to get a grant to be a PI but this will be difficult. She puts her success in progressing so far down to being excellent with research methodology. Her advice is to plan ahead and recognise that your PhD is not just about your thesis but developing a network of people; get to know your supervisor’s friends! She likes the flexibility and freedom to manage your own workload that comes with academic work – she can work from home which makes looking after her children easier. Noriko once worked in a hospital research environment but found the resources poor. She is much happier with University research resources. The academic career path is unclear and whilst Lecturer posts reasonably secure, post doc posts are much more insecure. You need teaching experience to get a lecturer position and she also advises collaboration with others to get your name on as many papers as possible.

Dr Anastasia Z. Kalea, Research Associate, Centre for Cardiovascular Genetics at UCL

Anastasia came to the UK 2 years ago after being in the USA. She is now on her 4th post doc. She opted to do a PhD to try to change the world through educating the educators. She recognises that your post doc is not supposed to be a continuation of your PhD and staying in the same place doesn’t look good on your CV. However in her case she decided to stay for her first post doc at same University where she did her PhD, in order to publish several manuscripts and finalize her work on an important project for the lab. When it came to her second post doc she looked for a larger well-funded lab. Her advice from having had 20 interviews is to try to show your willingness to work as hard as possible combined with the recognition that you don’t know everything. She ended up getting a job which had specified that they wanted more experience – her advice is to take risks in your applications, be sincere on what you know and don’t get too hung up on what the advert says! The lab had lots of funding and many projects to be involved in and learn many different techniques. She has completed post docs on lots of different research areas, which has given her lots of different skills. Despite the downsides of academia what motivates her is her desire to know something first. In addition to being able to show that you can work in different groups and settings’, moving around allows you to learn what environment you want to eventually work in; a large Uni with a high research load or a small Uni with high teaching load. She feels that there is no point doing a post doc if you aren’t interested in academia and that you should be clear about your career goals with your supervisor in order to receive the right mentoring and guidance. She would never join a research group that would hire you through Skype as you need to know that the place is right for you as well; the interview is a two-way process. Interviews vary in formality from a whole day with all the senior people versus 20 mins in a cafe. Her advice is to apply for jobs speculatively if you are very interested in a place and area of research, as the lab may have the money to hire you before the grant comes through. She got two out of four of her jobs through speculative applications talking to people that she admired their work! Keeping a good network is key to this. Be persistent! She sent emails to 30 Principle Investigators at a Uni, none of whom were advertising posts but got 6 interviews! Bring your own funding -if you can- is critical and always be on the lookout for more funding. Her final piece of advice was to keep expanding your horizons and evolving within your research area, especially if you aren’t progressing as you would hope. Research is not static.


How realistic is it to balance academia with the demands of young family?

The general feeling of the panel was that this is becoming easier. As you become more knowledgeable and experienced you become better at balancing and organising your work. Flexibility is important; Anastasia reads papers in the evening once her son is in bed. You will need an organisation that will be flexible for the first few years so be sure to ask around and assess what the lab will be like for this. UCL are now much more considerate of work life balance. Be aware that the finances won’t add up in terms of the cost of child care and your earnings; depending on the area you live, your average post doc salary may be the same as nursery fees for two kids. Planning and saving for these early years will allow you to have the best flexible childcare and stay in research.

What are recruiters looking for?

All of the panel members could remember instances of when the best prepared candidate with the most experience didn’t get the job so it’s not always straight forward to predict; once someone was recruited because of a technique they knew (MRI) and another time the interviewers knew the applicant from a conference. Coming across as someone they would want to work with is just as important as looking good on paper. Most lectureships require an extensive publication record (over 8 first author publications) but this depends. You shouldn’t be put off applying for jobs by what it says in the advert.

What’s the relative focus now on In-Vitro and In-Vivo research skills?

The feeling was that you can still get away with just in-vitro skills but it’s becoming increasingly desirable to have a mix of both. A factor is your area of research but having both can mean higher impact papers. Shadowing others can be a way of gaining more skills.

Check out some further information about academic careers here

Given that only 0.6% of PhD students will make Professor, the focus of the day then moved onto non-academic career options...

Careers for PhD graduates outside academia

Careers in Biotechnology: Dr James Francis, Head of Immunology, Immune Targeting Systems Ltd

Immune Targeting Systems is a small biotech with a focus on T-cell vaccines (malaria and influenza), funded by venture capital. They are based in LBIC and have 15 full time staff, the majority of which have PhDs. This is James’s early career history: BSc from UCL, MSc from LSHTM, PhD from Bristol, post doc in Dallas. He then went into academia at imperial before entering this biotech. The context at a biotech is very similar to an academic lab but with (possibly) better equipment.

Research in a biotech is the same as academic research with the exception of more emphasis on quality control, formal lab notebooks and further development of assay. He left academia because it wasn't a research focused environment due to all the other bits and pieces the modern academic has to do (grant writing etc). Biotech is the middle ground between pharma and academia with quicker decision making than both but small biotech firms will never move towards third stage trials so partnering with big pharma at that stage is essential. His role as Head of Immunology is very varied; he is lab director, H&S officer, biological safety officer, line manager and home office project licence holder. The other functions in a biotech include business development (an MBA is useful), quality systems, regulatory affairs (this is where the money is), project management and bioinformatics (computer based).

A survey of 10,000 people by Nature in 2010 found that the salary difference between academia and biotech firms is slight in the UK but large in the US. However, you can progress more quickly which results in high pay. He is paid 20% more than he would be in academia. You also get bonuses, healthcare, shares and a decent pension. The downsides are less flexible working hours, longer working hours, fewer holidays, greater risk due to the firm’s financial investment in a trial and greater deadline pressure. That said, in a biotech you work as a team not as an individual so you can share the workload. Having a good attitude is essential and the most common route in is to come in as a Scientist and work your way up as opposed to gaining experience elsewhere and trying to enter at a higher level. Look in Nature jobs for vacancies.

The career of a Patent Attorney: Rachel Wallis, Greaves Brewster

Rachel fell into being a Patent Attorney after deciding that veterinary practice wasn't for her. She doesn't have a PhD but wishes that she did as it’s a huge benefit in this area of work. She summarised the profession as fun, hard work and hard to get into. The profession only takes on around 50 people per year, the vast majority of whom will have a life sciences background. It then takes 4 or 5 years to qualify whilst the firm supports you. Put simply Patent Attorneys help people get intellectual property rights. This involves lots of talking to scientists, a combination of being desk based during the day and entertaining clients in the evenings and paperwork. You get to look at a lot of interesting new science and the ability to bluff until you understand complex issues is essential.

She enjoys the business development side of the role which takes her out with clients 2 or 3 nights per week but not all Patent Attorneys have to do this. There is lots of international travel and long hours (40 hours in the office plus a bit at weekends and some evenings). The pay is equivalent to city solicitors (which is high). In addition to working at a bespoke Patent attorney firm you can also work in industry as an in-house patent attorney for a large corporate firm. Working for a bespoke firm is more varied with different clients and you get to decide the clients you want to have (e.g. she likes medical patents). The downsides of a bespoke firm are that it’s more cut throat, you don't earn as much initially, your role includes other tasks (e.g. business development) and the financial performance of the company is more apparent. Working in-house allows you to only work on a topic that you love (i.e. what the company does), you don't do any business development and your initial salary is better. Regardless of the context the pressure is intense and it’s not uncommon for Patent Attorneys to have to take career breaks because of it.

A PhD gives you insight into the science and not having this understanding is a disadvantage (she struggles to understand experiments). You also have greater insight into how scientists and academics work. Her advice is for PhD students to think about their soft skills and become comfortable interacting with all different types of people. You should also try to learn about business development.

A word of warning relates to the requirement to sit (and pass) exams! The pass rate can be as low as 15% but you can re-sit (some people pass exams after 8 times). The quickest you can qualify in is 3.5 years but you are working and getting paid in that time. If you plan to move abroad you also need to research whether your qualification is transferable to that country. E.g. The US legal system is completely different and you start from scratch but the system in Singapore is the same. You could also be an IP Barrister or IP solicitor but these involve less science. Most large firms run recruitment programmes in Sept / Oct; Look at websites of patent attorney firms from Oct to Jan and she advises you to apply to all of them. Firms are always looking for part qualified attorneys so it’s easier to move firm once you are in the sector.

Careers in Higher Education Management: Dr Louise Sherlock, Programme Co-ordinator at RVC

Louise completed her PhD at RVC in 2000 and stayed at RVC for a post doc on a rolling contract. This lack of stability put her off staying in academia as she wanted the security to have a family. She did however love the Uni environment and wanted to stay...

Her role involves creating a new MA in conjunction with industry. It’s very varied which she loves as well as the opportunity to further develop her project management skills. She is also a line manager and enjoys the emphasis on communicating diplomatically and event organisation. Louise is mostly desk based but gets to travel around the UK. Despite not remaining in a lab environment she is still using lots of skills from her PhD – the ability to write reports, understand academics, project management skills and working independently as well as in a team. She has also found that HEIs understand the value of a PhD where as some of her former PhD classmates have not had such a positive experience. A major plus is that moving between roles and progressing is common.

Careers in Healthcare Consulting: Dr Holly Robson, Datamonitor Health Consultancy

Holly completed her PhD at RVC in 2010. Although she enjoyed it she was looking forward to getting out of the lab and was also put off from academia because of the short term contracts. Looking within commercial science, she started in as an Account Manager in telesales before moving into Healthcare Consultancy.

Essentially she analyses the pharma industry on behalf of clients who plan to introduce a new drug to the market. Her role is to decide whether there is a market and what the product life cycle might be. This takes the form of the following steps:

1 Desk research on disease area

2 Desk research on market overview

3 Ask doctors and patients their opinions

4 Excel modelling on valuation (numeracy skills are key)

Most of her time is spent at her desk but she will get to go out and meet clients later in her career. She still misses being able to discuss research but enjoys her job greatly. She recognised that the biggest challenge facing PhD graduates going into healthcare consulting is generally showing commercial awareness. Her 5 months in telesales before becoming a consultant was in hindsight invaluable for this reason. Her advice is to try to get some commercial work experience (even if it’s only for a couple of weeks), engage with social media (LinkedIn) and prepare to be quizzed at interview on latest developments in the pharma industry.

Want to read more about jobs for PhD graduates outside academia? Click here!

Many thanks to all of our great speakers who contributed their time!

Topics: Veterinary Science, career choice

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