Showcasing careers beyond academia

Sheen Gurrib

PhD in Spinal Research, Cambridge University, 2021
COO (and content creator on the side)

Year entered into a non-academic position: 2021

Job highlight: I feel like a plumber, fixing a new leak on a new tube every day and I LOVE IT!

My research training set me up to: Endless things! Primarily, how to ask the right questions, how to find answers to them, and how to restart every time you reach a dead end!

Left academia after: PhD


What’s your background?

I am originally from Mauritius. I left my island at the age of 18 for the UK. My first degree was an MEng in Materials Science at Oxford University. This was where I discovered the wonderful world of medical materials and what lab-based research was. I then moved to Cambridge University where I joined the Centre for Medical Materials and I did my PhD in Spinal studies, trying to improve the diagnosis of back pain.


Why did you move away from academia?

Although I loved research and the medical research world, I felt like academia was too slow paced for me. I also found it slightly isolating, given that as a PhD you work on a very niche area all by yourself for a few years, while I thrive on teamwork. During my time at the university I also founded 2 startups, one EdTech (education technology) and the other a consulting NGO. I then realized that I enjoyed working at the intersection of business and science more than the pure scientific research.


Is there anything you miss about academia?

I miss the excitement that comes from succeeding in an experiment or seeing the positive outcome of several runs of trial and error. I also miss the university environment, where I was surrounded by young minds constantly buzzing with research interest and ideas.


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

Immediately after my PhD I went into Strategy Consulting. I prepared for the process of getting into consulting by practicing case studies and applied and got several offers. It was very highly regarded that I had a PhD, as it is recognised that a PhD comes with transferable skills very relevant to a consulting job. Following my time as a consultant, I joined the startup world as a COO (Chief Operating Officer). I am also a content creator, with my own podcast, youtube channel and instagram page, curating insights and content for women empowerment and professional development.


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

It was a fast paced environment, tailored to work in teams, on very quick turn-around projects, which meant more exposure to different industries and a steep learning curve. That was exactly what I was missing in academia.


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

Yes I did, and yes I was right! As I mentioned before, a PhD equips you with so many transferable skills. But also, I made sure that my time at university was used efficiently, to explore all the avenues I had potential professional interests in, which meant that I had tried theatre, charity work, teaching, mentoring, coding and presenting. That’s a huge set of skills that I got to leverage and that still serves me.


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 learnt an incredible amount of self-discipline and project management which has been useful in everything I have tried since then. And, of course, the classics: analytical skills, the ability to read through technical paperwork and find the important points, presentation skills and finding ways to explain very technical work in easy and simple terms.


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

My current role is in tech and I always assumed that you would need to be very tech-savvy to get anything done, but that is not true: everyone is equipped differently and can contribute equally.


Can you describe a typical week in your job?

I have several meetings every day, with investors, stakeholders, partners and the team. I also have presentation decks to prepare for specific projects. I attend at least one of the events and conferences relevant to our work. I keep track of tasks at hand for the team and review their work. I review the content strategy for our social media as well.


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

It is very much like a family where everyone is involved in everything. We have very flexible ways of working: the work can be remote, can start late and finish later. The work life balance is generally very good, except when sometimes there are very close deadlines or fires to put out, which happens very rarely.


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

In the tech startup world, yes definitely.


What are your favourite parts of your job?

Networking! I love going out and meeting people who are relevant to very different parts of the business, learning how they approach their business and finding ways where there are synergies for us to explore! Absolutely love meeting people!


What are your reflections on your career path?

I moved from a scientific background to business, to tech startup and content creation. None of them are connected and none of it makes logical sense. But I would not have it any other way! I have learnt very different things from each job that I held and I continue to learn new things. I have grown to be comfortable with not having one singular job for the rest of my life, and to evolve with my skills.


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

Welcome, it is lovely out here! There is no easy path, but there is no harm in trying different things if you don’t know yet what your path is. You either find your dream job or you learn more about yourself, so don’t be scared!


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

It will be okay, breathe! Every period of change in life is scary and that is normal. I wish I knew that I should just be comfortable with being uncomfortable because this is where the magic happens.