I think I promised to write these notes up yonks ago. I attended an event called Pathways run by my university that is aimed at giving careers advice to post-grads looking to move outside of academia. I have to say, it was pretty damn good. The format of the event was a series of parallel panel Q&A sessions with former University post-grads at various stages in their careers from all sorts of different fields.
I attended “It’s okay to change your mind”, “Industry versus Academia”, “Using a Medical/Life Sciences PhD”, ” What do employers look for in PhDs?” and finally, “Marketing Your Skills!”. After being made to feel utterly incompetent and rubbish at just about every soft skill PhDs are supposed to develop during the introductory lecture, with absolutely no clue what I want to do with my life, I wasn’t expecting to get much out of the event. Fortunately, my expectations were far exceeded.
The general gist of “It’s okay to change your mind” was “it’s okay to change your mind”! Funny that. We heard from people who had done Business/Finance as post-grads and found, after several years working as Analytical Quants for Big BankingTM, that actually they disagreed with the morals of the whole system. We heard from someone who had started out as a forensic scientist, working as one for several years before the UK government decided it was a fantastic idea to outsource and downsize UK Police forensic departments. He now works as a course manager for the NHS Clinical Biochemists Training Programme, after going through the course himself and doing time as a Clinical Biochemist.
We got quite a bit of info about the NHS Scientists Programme and it turns out there are more background science roles than I knew. Embryology/IVF specialists, haematologists, pathologists, clinical microbiologists and genetic counsellors are just some of the options. It’s a mix of on the job training, lectures and formal assessment, and although it’s super competitive if you’re entering fresh out of Undergrad, with a life science PhD behind you, you’re several steps ahead. The course intake is quite small and isn’t anywhere near just undergrads. Now, I know I’ve got practically zero interest in doing any more bench science, or anything that involves sitting any more exams, but it’s a good range of options for those who want to make a real and direct difference to people’s lives.
Other things were discussed during the session, although I’ve forgotten them now, but the best bit about this Q&A was the title of it. I’ve known in a vague sort of way that the idea of a set career within one company is long dead and that the pattern now of many job changes that eventually turn into a cohesive story if you squint sideways at it is likely here to stay, but it was encouraging to hear real stories from real people. Apparently these types of career are called ‘portfolio careers‘. Also reassuring was that fact that all of them had been unemployed for stretches of time while they were trying to figure out what to do next.
“Industry versus Academia” was by far the best session I attended all day. A few boring questions were asked to start with but then some brave soul asked the killer question: “I’ve always assumed that working in Industry requires having no morals and being all about the money – is this true?” I thank her from the bottom of my heart because it’s an assumption I’d held since before I started undergrad. In my mind “Industry” = big pharma, you know, the companies that charge a fortune for life-saving drugs, that cling on to patents for dear life and that haven’t spent any significant money on new antibiotics since the 70’s. Turns out this isn’t always true and those companies have legit financial reasons for what they do. Their failures are just as much failures of the capitalist system as of the companies themselves.
The advantages of Industry according to the speakers were:
- No worry about continuity of funding for R&D
- Far less of a “publish or perish” atmosphere
- Clear career progression routes – no tenure track malarkey
- Well defined, short-term projects with clear pass/fail end goals
- Pressured deadlines at the expense of ‘flexibility’
Another benefit specifically of big industry is that their graduate schemes (also open to PhDs) let you experience just about every area of their business you could wish. It’s relatively easy to move into management or marketing or procurement or what have you, once you’ve done a bit of time at the R&D bench.
It’s also worth noting that big industry isn’t your only option. There are SMEs to consider, the Small and Medium-sized Enterprises that focus on different areas to classical big industry. Examples include university start-ups, antibody-making specialists, sustainable biofuels companies, and specialist drug-development companies focusing on neglected diseases. One advantage of them is that it is easy to get to grips with different areas of the business very quickly and there may be more opportunity for stepping sideways and up . After all, if there are only ten of you in the company, and someone’s off sick or no holiday someone has to pick up the slack. One of the speakers had gone into a small physics/tech based company and worked his way up the structure over about five years or so, putting him in the ideal position to move to another new start up once he fancied a new challenge.
For myself, the description of industrial working practises, such as tight deadlines and customer-focused projects, and the better career stability (nothing like the drop-off rates of the academic sciences leaky pipeline) sounded much more like me. One of the things I loathe about PhD study is that it is entirely self-directed with way too much flexibility for my tastes. There’s so much to do and so many new avenues to explore that I am like to become completely overwhelmed and stressed out as a result. The one thing I miss from school is the deadlines with consequences. Unless you’re an expert at setting your own deadlines and feeling obliged to stick to them, PhD study under a hands-off supervisor is a recipe for procrastination and disaster.
The single key bit of advice the speakers had in this session was about communication skills. I’ll discuss these in my next post because it was a recurring theme, and if you’ve had any exposure to a careers service, you already know this is a biggie.
What about you? Best bit of careers advice you’ve ever been given or careers counsellor who actually knew what they were talking about?