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In (re)search of success
October 4, 2012 - 10:10pm

As a former biomedical researcher, a field I left in favour of a different career, I was recently asked to act as a speaker at a careers’ day designed for early careers researchers and Ph.D.s interested in (or forced to explore) alternative careers to academia. Interestingly, there were more women than men both in the audience and amongst the speakers. Is it because women don’t mind admitting they are open to all career options, or is it that they have less confidence in their ability to sustain a lifelong successful research or academic career? In fact, I am not sure.

It’s not the first time that I had to present arguments as to why I decided to leave academic research and join the “other side”, (in my case, university administration) and I must admit that I always feel like I am having to defend my corner fairly strongly. But why? Is it because I feel guilty of disloyalty towards my supervisor, the institution which trained me and the funder who paid for my research? (My supervisor, just like my head of lab at the time, took a little time to get used to the idea.) Or is it because I feel the question is only asked because I am a woman. Maybe it is because, deep down, I miss the lab. Well, of course I miss the lab! And the varied nature of research, and that fantastic feeling you get when your paper is published, and the freedom to express your ideas. But as I explained to my audience, I don’t miss being in the lab late at night or the fact that my project was so specialised I didn’t have time to see the “big picture” whatever that might have been!

The other truth about leaving academic research,  the thing I think I am afraid to say, is that actually, I did well! I enjoy my job (in the same institution I did my Ph.D. at, by the way). It mainly involves the recruitment of postgraduate research students. What does that mean? Well, amongst other things, I get to speak to students who are considering doctoral studies about what a great experience it is, and importantly, what an array of careers is open to Ph.D. holders.

I love the interaction with students at this stage of their careers, they are passionate, driven and a large proportion thinks (quite rightly) that they can make a difference in the world. Of course, the reality of doing a Ph.D. hasn’t reached them yet and perhaps the difference in the world will be confined to creating “an original piece of research worthy of publication”. That doesn’t mean that they won’t make a difference in the world, it depends of what world we are talking about. Perhaps it will be an impact on just the research world, or that particular body of knowledge but you have to start somewhere, don’t you? While only around a third of Ph.D. students in the UK will end up as academics, their impact to the labour market means that they will continue to make a difference to the world, in a different way.

In my talk at the non-academic careers’ day, I thought it would be useful to give a few tips to those considering alternative careers as a next step and here is what I came up with:

  • You have amazing transferable skills, even if you attended none of the courses on offer (a short-sighted move in my view), your Ph.D./research experience gave you resilience, negotiation skills, report writing skills, etc.
  • Don’t aim too high or too low
  • When applying for jobs, don’t bamboozle employers with jargon/technical speak but make sure you know the keywords/buzz words

What I find amazing these days is that you’ll find Ph.D.s in all walks of life: in industry, in the arts, in the public sector, in the third sector, in university administration…. And as far as I can see it is both men and women who choose these career paths. Maybe women are better at telling the world about alternative careers to research.  In conclusion of my presentation, what I really wanted to say and managed to say for the first time in public is, “You haven’t failed. It may be the best option for you!” Do I believe it myself? Well, at least a little bit….

Edinburgh, Scotland

Dr Nathalie Mather-L’Huillier is currently a Postgraduate Research Student Research and Admissions Manager at the University of Edinburgh (Scotland), Nathalie has worked in research and graduate policy as well as a researcher in biomedical science. She is passionate about postgraduate education and enjoys interactions with prospective and new postgraduate researchers. Originally from France, Nathalie has lived in the UK (mostly in Scotland) for 17 years.


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