Showcasing careers beyond academia

Sarah Atkinson

PhD, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, University of Melbourne, 2013.
Assistant Director
Department of Finance

Year entered into a non-academic position: 2020

Job Highlight: Every Budget night, we get to see the culmination of months of work.

Left academia after: After 8 years 6 months of postdoctoral work

My research training set me up to: I don’t think about biochemistry a lot these days, but many of the skills I developed in my academic career have been invaluable in my new role, for example: multi-tasking, learning new things quickly and the resilience to keep moving when work changes at the last minute. These are all vital skills in the fast-paced lead up to the government considering new policy proposals . Scientific writing skills are very similar to the work we do when summarising complex information for government briefing. Mentoring junior staff is very similar to supervising a student. I don’t expect to ever solve a crystal structure or purify a protein again, but I apply a scientific approach to everything I do.


What’s your background?

I have a PhD in biochemistry and molecular biology. While writing my thesis in 2012, I started work as a research assistant and then a postdoctoral research fellow at Monash University. I held an NHRMC Early Career Fellowship (2014–2017), a Monash University Faculty of Medicine Senior Post-doctoral fellowship (2018) and an ARC DECRA (2019–2020) during my time there.


Why did you move away from academia?

I’d always known I didn’t want to stay in academic research long-term, but it took me quite a few years to work out what I wanted to do instead. I first saw the Australian Science Policy Fellowship advertised in 2018 and after following it for a couple of years, in 2020 I decided to apply. I was looking for a new challenge and to be able to see a more direct impact of the work I was doing.


Is there anything you miss about academia?

I miss the people I used to work with and being able to wear sneakers to work every day.


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

The Australian Science Policy Fellowship Program is run by the Office of the Chief Scientist and aims to give scientists experience working in public policy. The application process was fairly straightforward – a CV, a short description of why I was interested in the program and 2 reference letters. I used my network to get in touch with a couple of previous fellows before I applied, which really helped me know what to write in my application and gave me the confidence to apply.


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

I thought policy work sounded interesting: I liked the idea of contributing to the betterment of Australian society and understanding how the Government makes decisions and how they are implemented.


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

I think it’s important for all PhD students to understand the skills both your studies and any post-doctoral work afterwards equip you with – we gain so much more than just expertise on our research topic.


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?

I use my ability to learn new things quickly, research a topic, write concisely and accurately, and work well under pressure almost every day.


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

Not that I can think of.


Can you describe a typical week in your job?

My weeks are a mix of meetings to discuss new policy proposals as they are being developed, briefing senior executives within the department or the Minister, reviewing costings for new policy proposals, and providing advice on the most appropriate way to finance those proposals.


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

I work with a lot of enthusiastic and dedicated people. The workplace is supportive of part-time work and flexible work around caring responsibilities. Remote working varies across the public service, with some people in the office full time and others full-time remote.


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

The Australian Science Policy Fellowship program is now in its 6th year, so more than 100 fellows have entered the public service through the program. There are also a lot of people with a PhD working in the public service outside of the program.


What are your favourite parts of your job?

I work on quite a broad policy area, managing a lot of different proposals at once. I enjoy multi-tasking. I also really like the people I work with and there’s lots of opportunities for both promotion and sideways moves to try something new.


What are your reflections on your career path?

I’m very grateful for the experience I gained after my PhD as a post-doc. It made me independent, resilient, and increased my confidence a lot. But in hindsight, I could have left earlier, I’m not sure I gained much experience in 8 years that I didn’t have after 4 years.


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

You’re never going to have an epiphany about what to do next. You just have to pick something and try it.


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

Transitioning into a new career is easier and much more common than you think.


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

If you want to learn more about the Australian Science Policy Fellowship Program:,to%20mid-career%20scientists%20to%20become%20skilled%20policy%20practitioners.
For jobs across the Australian Public Service more broadly: