Show Me the Money!


Dear CareerDoctor,I'm in a quandary.I've had a very enjoyable career so far: 2 years working on insecticide resistance as a research technician; a BSc degree in geography and biology; a 3-month expedition doing biological marine surveys as a trained scuba instructor; 1 year as an ecology, biology, and geography tutor and research scientist; another expedition; an MSc in oceanography; 1 year as an ecologist; and a PhD in marine ecology. I hit 30, had 2 children and looked after my family until I got financially stuck. I then went for the best job I could find locally, which was in agricultural science--hence 3 years as a plant pathologist and my current 3-year contract in herbicide resistance.My problem is that my family can no longer survive on the wage I receive as a scientist working at a government research station (£15,000 for 30 hours a week). I've always done what I've enjoyed, but now I have to be a bit more realistic and do something which allows me to support my family better--surely I can improve on my current salary with my three degrees and 9 years employment experience. I gather there is a shortage of plumbers for which a decent wage is offered and I might even consider that, but it would be a waste of my experience, which surely is good for something? Where can I find out what careers could be up my street?Thank you,Sarah

Dear Sarah,

Sadly the vital role scientists play in the community isn't always reflected in the salaries they receive, so I'm sure your quandary will strike a chord with others. But let me reassure you, there are well-paid jobs out there for scientists, and I'm going to outline some here.

One of the key factors that affect your remuneration is of course your employer. Research salaries in the private sector are usually higher than in universities, research councils, and research institutes. The big scientific companies offer "attractive packages"--which is employer speak for graduate starting salaries of £20,000-plus, medical insurance, pensions, share options, and often subsidised restaurants and sports facilities. Companies may also offer part-time work and flexi-time, which allow you to cope with the school run or build up extra time off.

Working for such companies within your field is probably the best option for you because it would allow you to make direct use of your qualifications and experience. You could start identifying potential employers by contacting the British Society for Plant Pathology. Even though they seem to have an academic focus, they ought to know of related commercial organisations. Another major one for you to look into is Horticulture Research International, which, according to its Web site, is "the principal UK organisation tasked with carrying out horticultural research and development (R&D) and transferring the results to industry". They have a number of research sites and vacancies with the kind of family-friendly working conditions that would probably suit your current situation.

And in a quick search on the Internet I came across the Plant Pathology Internet Guide Book, a list of international companies. A quick look through it should help you to identify UK research and manufacturing bases (or overseas ones, if you fancy a trip abroad!).

Besides your more recent work in plant pathology, you have an excellent knowledge base that straddles a number of different disciplines, so I'm sure there are many other areas in biology in which you could market yourself. Two good places to start your search for relevant companies are Prospects (you may search by occupation, degree discipline, or look at employer listings) and the Animal & Plant Resources section of the University of London Virtual Career Library.

If you are willing to broaden your search to the pharmaceutical, consumer products, and general chemical sectors you will find hundreds of industrial employers. But they tend to recruit chemists and medical scientists, so you would need to stress the techniques and research skills you can transfer to break into these new disciplinary arenas--something that may not be possible without stepping back down the ladder a way.

You may also want to consider careers in industry other than research. Trends, the latest edition of the Royal Society of Chemistry's (RSC's) remuneration survey, reveals that research management, general management, marketing, and sales all come out top, salary-wise. Most companies will encourage scientists into management positions if they have the right personal and professional qualities, but unless you've got experience you usually need a foot in the door of that company first. If you are interested in areas such as human resources or marketing, you can retrain on a part-time basis by gaining professional qualifications from the Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development ( CIPD) and Chartered Institute of Marketing ( CIM).

But industry is not the only sector that rewards its employees well. Consultancy is also mentioned in the RSC report as paying significantly better than other jobs. You should bear in mind, though, that although consultancy can be a top earner, the salary range is huge because the term covers people who are working freelance for a few hours a week through to international agencies that can name their price. You should always try to find out how much people earn in the areas that appeal to you, and professional bodies may be able to help you with that. Often, unfortunately, their advice and courses are only available to members, so do a little market research on the different bodies before joining (and ask your employers if they will help pay your membership fees--it's always worth a try!).

If you are determined to attract the sort of pay that most of us merely dream about, then I'd suggest you look into patent or actuarial work (i.e., the mathematical modelling of predictive risk), although they traditionally recruit from the physical and mathematical sciences. Information technology is another popular area, and a quick talk to a local recruitment agency will help you to find out any shortage areas you may be able to retrain for. You'll find extensive information about these and other more lucrative occupations, including management consultancy and accountancy at Inside Careers.

Landing a highly paid job in a new area will almost always require new qualifications and experience. Make sure you take time to judge whether the effort and cost you will invest in retraining is likely to pay off before you set off along a new career path. Recruitment agencies may be able to point you towards local training providers and courses, and professional bodies will also offer advice. The Institute of Biology, for example, organises courses on changing jobs, which you might find helpful.

But I am only too aware that as a mother of 2 you also need to balance work and family commitments. I fear that the jobs you would need to retrain for may not be particularly family friendly in the early stages, as the qualifications are demanding and employers expect their pound of flesh in return for the riches you receive.

A good compromise for you may be part-time or contract work. Keep an eye on the opportunities advertised in the scientific press and contact agencies. Although most deal with office staff rather than scientific, you can also find agencies specialized in recruiting scientists such as Lab Support UK and SRG Labstaff. Agencies can set up short-term contracts, which tend to be better paid and which may be a great foot in the door, although temping often means you have to sacrifice holiday pay and other perks and face periods of unemployment. Discuss your needs with the agency, but be explicit about the hours you want to work as they will want to fit you to the vacancies they need to fill. Another tip: Don't part with money--recruiters pay the agency fees. You should also know that 99% of the agencies deal with office staff rather than scientists, so you should also keep your eye on the opportunities advertised in the scientific press.

As with all career transitions I would recommend you start the process with a good look at what features your next job MUST have, what you would ideally like and what you are willing to compromise on. If you are restricted geographically, then you will need to be realistic about the range of employers you are likely to find, so start with a little research into the local labour market. If all the local wanted ads ARE for plumbers then maybe you should polish up your ballcock. ... But hopefully you'll be surprised at what is out there and what you are capable of in the next stage of your professional journey.

All the best in your career,

The CareerDoctor

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