Careers away from the laboratory bench


Over recent years there have been several articles and reports featuring graphics to highlight the careers taken by PhDs. You know the ones, with only the tiniest arrow leading to a professorial position (like the one below). Disheartening though this can be, what has always struck me the most is that the arrow with the greatest proportion of jobs is usually composed of the rather unhelpful “Careers outside science”. As I am currently considering my options I thought it would be useful to try and answer the question on my lips: “Just what are all these jobs and where can I find them?”

IB 1

Image adapted from “The Scientific Century: securing our future prosperity” produced by the Royal Society in 2010.

As luck would have it, I spotted an email for a careers event held at the Society of Chemical Industry (SCI) in London that offered a broad selection of presenters, which I hoped would shed some light on my query so I booked my (free) place and headed into London. The talks were highly illuminating, with each speaker detailing the steps of their career paths so far in addition to giving insights on what their jobs entail and how to go about getting into their field. For my part, I was most interested in the speakers whose careers had steered away from the laboratory though, if you are interested in following the academic route, I would highly recommend having a chat with Prof. Joe Sweeney, who delivered one of the best talks I have ever seen about what is (and isn’t) important about being an academic in the current research climate. I took the opportunity to network with a few of the presenters and have tried to highlight below what I learned about some of these “alternative” career pathways.

I first spoke to Dr. Samantha Alsbury, Head of Professional Development at The Organisation of Professionals in Regulatory Affairs (TOPRA). Interestingly, Samantha moved into her position at TOPRA after serving as a lecturer at the University of Greenwich. By gaining a teaching qualification and experience in co-ordinating academic programmes, she was in a strong position when the opportunity to join TOPRA came up. In addition to outreach, she is also responsible for the creation of training and development programmes for all career levels in the regulatory affairs (RA) profession. When speaking about careers in RA, Samantha neatly summarised it as “science, in a suit”. Along with the need to delve into the literature to get accurate data on drug efficacy and safety, most RA projects also include a significant amount of interaction with people; willingness to travel and strong communications skills are required to liaise between the various regulatory agencies, stakeholders, and even marketing departments involved in the drug development life cycle. Understandably, new entrants to the field often work on “lower” risk aspects, such as requests for amendments to clinical trial authorisations, or answers to questions posed by regulatory authorities. Once you have demonstrated competency at this level, exposure to higher risk projects such as Investigational New Drug filings where often millions of dollars are on the line. Later on, specialisation in areas such as compliance, operations, publishing, or even consulting, offer interesting career development pathways.

The same could be said for a career in publishing. Samantha Foskett, a Publisher at John Wiley & Sons, went over a couple of different career pathways available to scientists with an interest in gaining commercial experience but who also want to remain in direct contact with science and scientists. Samantha recommended looking for roles as an Assistant editor to start learning the ropes and building up contacts, then progressing to either, the more commercial-minded Journal Editors, or the more scholarly Associate Editors (more involved with peer review and manuscript decisions). She also made a point to mention the opportunities for growth currently in the industry because of the take up of new media and publishing technologies.

At the next networking opportunity, I spoke with Dr. Darren Smyth, a partner at IP firm EIP who offered an illuminating view on the kind of work involved in his career as a patent attorney. Darren emphasised the importance of detail and accuracy, as well as the flexibility to engage with a wide range of stakeholders in his day-to-day activities. A patent attorney will find themselves dealing with investors, large and small businesses, other patent examiners, and even liaising with solicitors and barristers if a dispute goes to trial. As with regulatory affairs, communication and strong research skills are very important, but the rewards are certainly worth the effort. Darren advised that, although the field is notoriously difficult to get into, these days there are numerous boutique firms in addition to the larger pharmaceutical companies where someone from a life sciences background could apply for a training position. Even then, it is a long road to becoming fully accredited, 4 to 6 years in most cases, and a large amount of private study would be expected in addition to working office hours. The exams are tough, with higher failure rates than you might be used to, and mostly essay based, however most firms are often supportive of good candidates and would try to help them overcome these difficulties.

Finally, I managed to have a chat with Dr. Nathalie Huther, a Business Development Manager for Arcinova, a contract research and development organisation based in Northumberland. Nathalie’s role is to serve as an intermediary between clients and company headquarters, using her technical knowledge to propose solutions to clients’ problems while also identifying areas of expertise or new technologies that could be used to enhance the services her company provides. In addition to technical experience, a willingness to travel, a talent for scouting new opportunities, and negotiating skills are key aspects of this role. In Nathalie’s case, these were acquired in her various roles as a laboratory scientist, then in marketing and sales force training in industry. Nathalie pointed out that a variety of job experience helps accelerate progression on this career pathway but, as it is a sales role, being able to deal with the pressure to make sales, as well as the pain of lost sales, is another key component to consider.

As you may have guessed, I left the SCI with a lot to think about! Please bear in mind that there are several career pathways I did not get to dive into on this occasion, including: Technical or Application Specialists, Clinical or Medical Science Liaisons, Clinical Trials Associates, and Data Analysts. I would say the take home message is to keep an open mind when thinking of alternatives careers choices. You might be surprised by what you find.

I would like to end with just a few pointers on how to approach a job search.

  • First and foremost is probably to update your online profile, be it on LinkedIn or ResearchGate. You never know who might be looking for someone just like you! Make sure to include the link on your CV, which should also be formatted appropriately for the type of job you are looking for.
  • Do a thorough analysis of your skills and try to categorise them in terms that recruiters in your field of interest will use, such as “Communication”, and “Project Management”. The Careers and Employability Centre at Sussex offers a range of tools that can help with this, including a Skills Checklist, and you can also arrange one-to-ones with advisors. Another resource recommended to me by a friend is the “Individual Development Plan” hosted at Science Careers. This is a free resource tailored for Life Scientists that are really unsure (yep, that’s me!) of what they would like to do, offering a prediction of what careers might suit their particular set of skills and interests.
  • Reach out to people in fields you are interested in via LinkedIn (remember that from the first point?) or ResearchGate and ask for “informational interviews”. These serve numerous purposes, principally, to provide you with information about what a job entails, and what skills you might want to brush up on before applying. These also allow you to start building up a network that can help you to land a job, offer career support when you get one, and perhaps even offer you bigger opportunities further down the line.
  • Keep your eyes peeled for opportunities in your network and don’t be afraid to apply, even if you don’t think you have enough experience. Recruiters have a habit of hanging onto CVs that catch their eye and can come back to you with alternatives that may not be openly advertised.

Blog written by Iain Barrett


“The Scientific Century: securing our future prosperity” ISBN: 978-0-85403-818-3 © The Royal Society, 2010



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