Showcasing careers beyond academia
Thomas Nicol

Alex Liversage

PhD - University of Bristol
UK/Ire Seahorse Instrument Sales Specialist
Agilent Technologies Inc.

Year entered into a non-academic position: 1999

Job highlight: I’ve been in this sector for 20 years now but the main highlight is working with cutting edge technology, putting this into action in laboratories across multiple disease research areas and seeing that translated into published work. The variety of the science you get to be involved in and people you meet stands out as a highlight.


My research training set me up to… Understand the processes a researcher goes through, from internal bureaucracy to data quality and critical questioning of a particular scientific area.  It also taught me to think strategically, be patient, and be resilient to setbacks.

Left academia after:  PhD


What’s your background?

I wanted something to follow on from my undergraduate studies in biophysics, so the opportunity to take up a PhD at Bristol Uni whose theme was in the structural studies of skeletal muscle fitted the bill.

Why did you move away from academia?

As much as I enjoyed my PhD, despite a tough initial 2 years with no positive data to show for it, I could see after self-reflection that I personally didn’t have the right mindset for a long-term career in academia. This, combined with seeing funding streams dry up for researchers with 20-30 years in their position, and hearing postdocs complain that they have to apply for another 3-4 year position again, made my mind up to leave.

Is there anything you miss about academia?

There is the obvious hustle and bustle of the lab and just the ability to chat about an issue with any number of people who might be able to bring something that you hadn’t thought of. This and the opportunity of perfecting a technically difficult experiment by tinkering over it at length are the main things I miss.

How did you get this job? Did you face any challenges when considering a move away from academia or applying for the role? 

I initially tried to move into the pharmaceutical industry and applied for multiple roles over a 6-month period, but didn’t get so much as an interview. I guess pharma in those days wasn’t looking for a PhD structural biologist. It’s probably quite different today. After this I looked at sales roles and used an agency which provided some interviews, including one in which I was successful.

What motivated you to/why did you choose the sector you transitioned into?

If necessity is the mother of invention, then needing some cash/direction in life is the kick up the backside needed to broaden your view of what’s out there.

I wanted something with one foot still in science but with reasonable career/financial prospects, and scientific sales offered this.

Did you think you had the skills required for your current position before you started? Were you right?

Certainly, in terms of the skills academia provided me I was well suited for this role, but a lot of this comes down to personality. You have to be an open person with good communication skills, willing to see an issue from all sides, and you can’t take setbacks personally. You’ll often get sales training through your employer which helps, but if you have the right personality traits, then it’s your interaction with the researcher to help them move ahead that is key.

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 understanding of the scientific process, both technical and intellectual, as well as the language being used, are the key things to carry over.

Did you have any preconceptions about your sector that proved to be wrong?

Like many, I thought sales folks are the bad guys just trying to get the hard-earned grant money out of your pocket and then move on. The reality is that a good salesperson, and therefore a successful one, will want to provide a solution that best fits a problem. This might not be the most expensive option or even something they can provide, but by doing so they build up a relationship that could last for years not days.

Can you describe a typical week in your job?

Very difficult to do, but expect variety in what you do and where you’ll be. Some days I travel for sales calls/demos/presentations, others to conferences, as well as catching up on internal meetings to discuss projects and sales progression, which could be in the office or at home.

What is the workplace culture like? Please include comments on work-life balance, flexibility, remote working?

Working in field-based sales as I am, you’re predominantly working from home as a base, but could be travelling up to 70% of your time. This can have obvious drawbacks on family life but in most cases your diary is open for you to set, so this can be mitigated to some degree. Contact with colleagues can be infrequent, so you need to be self-motivated to succeed.

Do people with a PhD frequently get hired in the company/sector?


What are your favourite parts of your job?

It is the variety really, and the ability to be the master of your own schedule, within reason. One day you’re working in a lab with a focus on diabetes, the next it could be immunology, and then you’ll be in a conference call with internal R&D groups to discuss product development.

What are your reflections on your career path?

I’ve had no regrets about the path I took, although there was a sense of guilt when leaving academia and not putting the training I’d been given into action at the bench. On reflection, though, these skills are still valuable, albeit in a different way. It’s also been extremely interesting to visit so many diverse labs and find out the latest discoveries that have taken years of hard work, and occasionally to see PIs discussing work on TV in which the technology you assisted them with has played a role.

Do you have any advice for current graduate students and postdocs considering a career outside of academia?

The skills you have are highly valued, but a positive can-do attitude is just as important.

What do you know now that you wish you’d known when exploring a transition?

You may naturally think your experience is only suited to a narrow field of careers outside of academia, but keep your options open to other possibilities.

Can you recommend any relevant resources, organisations or events that might help somebody new to the sector find out more about it?

The best source of info is a sales representative. Speak to them when you can, we’re not as bad as you think we are!