Showcasing careers beyond academia
Dimitri Varsamis

Dimitri Varsamis

PhD in Applied Analytical Biochemistry, Cranfield University (2007)
Senior Policy Lead
NHS England

Year entered into a non-academic position: 2006

Job highlight: National public policy development is not too dissimilar to research: big issues that need looking into, accepting uncertainty, testing options, and developing solutions!

My research training set me up to … Think logically, use data and information, work across disciplines.

Left academia after: PhD


What’s your background?

After a BEng and MSc in medical devices, I did a PhD in Analytical Biochemistry, although rather multidisciplinary, in developing a portable biosensor. I then entered a national NHS arm’s length body initially as an analyst, and then moved to strategy. I spent a few years at the local and regional level NHS in service reconfiguration and improvement before working on national clinical policy. After a couple of years in Whitehall at the Department for International Trade on healthcare services exporting policy, I now lead the national England policy for the development of digital-first models in primary care.

Why did you move away from academia?

My personality was not suited to working on the same subject or specific question for years on end, or to be “stuck in the lab” either.

I wanted to work on something more tangible, relevant to the real world and immediately obvious to impact society.

How did you get this job?

There is a graduate NHS scheme, and actually, a structured clinical scientist programme that would also have been applicable to my experience. These days, the graduate scheme offers specialised paths such as HR, policy, informatics and more.

I chose to apply directly to roles that offered more specific or at least obvious focus on specific tasks; a graduate scheme just felt too much of a roller coaster!

Can you describe a typical week in your job?

Cliché. I would imagine to say there is no typical week, but definitely a lot of meetings, discussions, workshops with dozens of different colleagues across different teams and organisations, all working on facets of the same work area (digital primary care), but at different aspects thereof. Depending on how you measure it, healthcare spending in England is a staggering £150 billion per year (!) so is bound to need an immense amount of coordination and collaboration across system partners, to shape and agree policy and to then find the right way to make it happen.

What’s the workplace culture like? Please include comments on work-life balance, flexibility?

The NHS and the wider public and civil service staff are certainly as hard-working as all my private sector friends, and without the bonuses or the paid-for perks! We do have very strong policies supporting balance between work and other commitments, flexible working, and a fairly generous annual leave package.

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

I would say that yes, they do. I certainly come across more PhDs in the analytical teams, or teams that specialise in policy for certain clinical conditions.

What are your favourite parts of your job?

I get a kick out of different aspects of my job depending on the day! I certainly love the feeling of shaping national policy and the responsibility that comes with it, and the pleasure of a job well done, when it happens.

In local policy or improvement roles I have worked in, you get a much more acute sense of helping people in the immediate community to get access to better quality healthcare, or achieve better outcomes.

My heart lies in innovation and international policy, so working in the NHS (as well as Whitehall in the central government on international trade) has allowed me at times to shape the work, so that I can focus on the things that I do best and draw the most energy from.

What are your reflections on your career path?

The NHS – both local and national service delivery or management organisations, together with relevant parts of the civil service – all add up to many hundreds of individual and separate bodies. In short, the possibilities are endless when it comes to the variety of roles, locations and culture.

I made the best of this, having worked in many local and national roles.

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

It is pretty much impossible to know from the outside, how the NHS is structured and functions, and to seriously put that across in an interview. So try your best to grasp the basics, but don’t be afraid to admit gaps that are likely in a non-industry person; instead focus on transferable skills and experience.

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

When I started looking for desk-based jobs in the wider NHS, I put just as much effort looking into and applying for jobs at the local-level NHS, as well as national arm’s length bodies. I hadn’t appreciated back then that, in the ‘outside world’, PhD graduates starting off in their careers outside academia in admin and management, are perceived as overqualified which can potentially be detrimental to applications at the local level. National bodies with more competition for jobs and usually in metropolitan areas, even for the same types of jobs, will value the perception of academic excellence that is assumed to be possessed by a PhD graduate more readily! So I suggest that people consider more the national bodies of the NHS, be it in generalist or specialist roles.

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

Regarding events, there are dozens of free-to-attend all day conferences and trade shows in healthcare, some really general and comprehensive like “Health plus Care” to very specialist subject ones on the latest innovation or clinical service models. There are definitely an increasing number focusing on digital and technology.

The NHS-led flagship event would be the 2-day “NHS Health and Care Innovation Expo”.

The websites (and events) of the 3 main healthcare think tanks are also key: Nuffield Trust, Health Foundation, King’s Fund.

Finally, the websites of NHS England, NHS Confederation and the Department of Health and Social Care are also good to explore. The current national direction of what the NHS is facing and how to transform are in the “Long Term Plan”. And the patient and public-facing website is also interesting to see.


From 1 April 2019, NHS England and NHS Improvement are working together as a new single organisation to better support the NHS to deliver improved care for patients.

They are in effect the national policy making and coordination of the overall NHS.

The NHS has a single website, NHS Jobs, where all jobs are advertised, and can be searched for any grade, location, keywords and more.