PhD in Virology, Imperial College London (2014)
Year entered into a non-academic position: 2014
Job highlight: The collaborative nature of my role, which sees me working closely with colleagues across Wellcome and across other organisations.
My research training set me up to…take a scientific approach to my work, ensuring that Wellcome’s policy recommendations are built on the foundations of robust evidence. That commitment to rigour allows me to promote our ideas safe in the knowledge that we’ve done our research and understand the complexities of an issue.
What’s your background?
I studied Biochemistry as an undergraduate, before spending a year working in a laboratory in the USA, which showed me how different a lab career was from the lecture hall. Having enjoyed my time in the lab, I moved into a PhD at Imperial using microscopes to track the assembly process of viruses in infected cells.
Why did you move away from academia?
My MRC-funded PhD included a chance to spend 3 months on a policy placement at the Academy of Medical Sciences. Policy hadn’t occurred to me as a career choice, but I enjoyed my internship so much that I resolved to take a leap away from academia.
Is there anything you miss about academia?
I miss working with my hands. My lab experience revolved around electron microscopy, slowly building up the skills to slice ultra-thin pieces of tissue on diamond knives, and mount these onto metal grids that had to be held by tweezers. It was a huge satisfaction to master those skills, even if it took years!
How did you get this job?
After my internship, I started applying for roles outside academia – first moving to the Medical Research Council, then spending several years at the Academy of Medical Sciences, and now at the Wellcome Trust. The policy sector is a very mobile one, and there is a constant stream of interesting roles that you can apply for.
Did you think you had the skills required for your current position before you started? Were you right?
The biggest challenge was the need to write in a very different way – the academic style does not cut it when talking to policy people. It helped that I’d pursued various outlets for science writing, including entering a few competitions, which ensured I’d had some practice at writing in a different way. It was still a big jump though, and I’ve never stopped trying to further hone my writing skills.
A PhD is also excellent training for rapidly reading into a new angle or area – the fast-developing nature of policy means that you have to dive into an emerging topic and quickly assess what’s important and what’s not.
How did your PhD prepare you for your current job? For example, what were the transferable skills that you developed during your PhD that are most relevant to your current job?
An analytical approach is key to my role as a policy adviser, and this is probably why the policy profession is full of ex-researchers. A PhD is also excellent training for rapidly reading into a new angle or area – the fast-developing nature of policy means that you have to dive into an emerging topic and quickly assess what’s important and what’s not.
Did you have any preconceptions about your sector that proved to be wrong?
I was slightly concerned that I’d be stuck behind a desk all day, but politics is still old-fashioned and there’s no substitute for meeting in person. My work often takes me out of the office, either around London or the UK more widely, so I’m certainly getting more daylight than I was when using an electron microscope!
Can you describe a typical week in your job?
It’s a cliché, but there really is no typical week. Our work is heavily led by political developments, which often means dropping whatever you’re working on and throwing all your energies at an urgent issue. Brexit has only served to increase that pace, but it feels good to act on challenges that feel very current. While the balance changes, the main elements of the job are gathering and analysing new evidence, drafting this into policy documents, and then taking these policy recommendations out to decision-makers – be they civil servants, Parliamentarians or others across the policy sector.
What’s the workplace culture like?
Wellcome prides itself on being a progressive workplace – with a beautiful, airy office and a network of supportive colleagues. Our work is team-based, so there’s no sense of rivalry between colleagues. Knowing they’re always ready to lend a hand means that, even at its most demanding, the job always feels enjoyable.
What are your favourite parts of your job?
Two things – the people, and the feeling of my work being relevant. I get to work closely with a huge range of people, from Parliamentarians, to patients and researchers. When it comes to supporting medical research, the vast majority of people want the same thing so it’s more about finding ways to achieve that. While the world does throw problems in the way, it’s nice to feel that my daily work relates to something happening right now.
I did wonder whether academia might beckon me back, but I think Policy offers me many of my favourite elements of research, while adding in a few that were missing.
What are your reflections on your (future) career path?
I did wonder whether academia might beckon me back, but I think Policy offers me many of my favourite elements of research, while adding in a few that were missing. I see myself staying in the field as a career path, and occasionally finding a way to visit an electron microscope when the nostalgia gets too much.
Do you have any advice for current graduate students and postdocs considering a career outside of academia?
I’d advise testing the waters through one of the many internship schemes out there, including the Academy scheme, POST Fellowships, or perhaps placements at Learned Societies you may be a member of. There are plenty of (paid!) chances to see what the world of Policy is like, and researchers are welcomed with open arms.
Can you recommend any relevant resources, organisations or events that might help somebody new to the sector find out more about it?
The internship programmes above, all include good insight for those considering Policy as a career.
Wellcome is a politically and financially independent foundation, with a mission to
improve health by helping great ideas to thrive. We support researchers thousands of researchers to take on big health challenges, we campaign for better science, and we help everyone get involved with science and health research.
Policy is only one career among many at Wellcome, and we offer a range of opportunities that may be of interest to academics.