A Small Step to a Big Career Change

When you decide, as I did a couple of years into my PhD, that your future doesn't lie in the lab, getting to where you do want to be can seem hard. The secret is not to believe that you have to leap directly into your 'dream job'. You can find steppingstones that take you in the right direction. Having completed my doctorate last year, I've now been working in a completely different environment for the past 6 months. Although I work in an office, I'm still intimately involved in science. My job, as a scientific liaison officer at the London headquarters of the Public Health Laboratory Service (PHLS), may not be quite what I set out to find, but my career path is following the right route.

Still, none of this was quite what I had envisaged when I started my undergrad degree in biochemistry at the University of Surrey. I concentrated mainly on human and animal biochemistry, but through the year-in-industry I spent at the Jodrell Laboratory at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, as part of my BSc, I became interested in plant sciences. Consequently I chose plant biochemistry as my area of study for my PhD, investigating carbon partitioning in oilseed rape embryos at the John Innes Centre (JIC) in Norwich.

By the end of my second year at JIC, I knew two things about my future career: Firstly, I felt unhappy that my field of expertise was narrowing and wanted to change that, and secondly, I didn't want to follow the traditional postdoc route. In addition to my research, I helped with a number of events. These ranged from open evenings aimed at adults to weeklong events aimed at schoolchildren. I co-organised a biomedical symposium with Dr Belinda Clarke (science liaison manager of Norwich Research Park Science) and handled chameleons as part of a 'Science and Secrets of Survival' week co-ordinated by Dr Ray Mathias (head of science communication and education, JIC). I even represented JIC at the Chelsea Flower Show and talked to visitors about 'crop circle genetics'.

I realised that this was the area of science that I wanted to get into--science communication and public awareness and understanding of science. I felt that this was the sort of challenge I would enjoy facing on a day-to-day basis. I can't remember if I looked for experience because I was already interested in a 'communicating' job, or if Belinda and Ray were looking for volunteers and as a result of working with them, I realised this was what I wanted to do. I think it was probably a bit of both: I initially volunteered because I was frustrated with experiments that weren't working, then because I enjoyed it so much I volunteered for more events, and so the ball started rolling.

But when I came to look for employment, all the advertised communication-type jobs required a number of years of formal experience, and I began to despair of finding a job that I actually wanted to do! Then I saw my current job advertised in New Scientist. It didn't require lots of experience; rather they were looking for someone with a science background. Best of all, it offered opportunities to learn the administrative and organisational skills that I lacked. PHLS seemed like a good place to start my career.

In applying for the job, I described the skills that I had learnt through my PhD research and voluntary work. I had gained basic administration experience through serving for a year as secretary for the JIC Student Voice Committee, and I had gained confidence in speaking through giving departmental, national, and international talks. Many of the skills that I had learnt in the laboratory could be transferred directly to an office environment. For example, I am able to think logically, to prioritise and to forward-plan, and to interpret information and communicate with a range of audiences.

My role is to provide professional scientific secretarial support to 13 different PHLS expert advisory committees, covering wide-ranging areas from vaccines and immunisation, virology, and new technology to mycobacteria and systemic and respiratory viruses. My job is varied, and no 2 days are the same. I arrange and minute meetings, answer queries, prepare agendas and papers, and make sure that action items from meetings are carried out. I keep abreast of scientific developments relevant to my committees and disseminate information through and between them. I liase with PHLS staff, Department of Health officials, and representatives from academia and industry.

I think I've adjusted well to this environment. Talking to senior staff does not phase me, and I will quite happily phone and e-mail them until I get a response. I write copious lists every day and methodically work my way through them to ensure that I get everything done--so far I've always made my deadlines! My broad background in biochemistry, with some elementary microbiology, virology, and bacteriology, provides a sound basis for work in PHLS; and I am enjoying relearning those subjects that I touched upon in my undergraduate years.

There are some aspects of the job that I have found more difficult to adjust to. For example, because the job is office-based rather than lab-based, we can have cups of tea next to our computers, and I really miss moving en masse to the tea room twice a day! I have also found it quite hard to get used to having the assistance of 'one-third' of a secretary, whom I share with two other people in my division. I am used to doing everything for myself, and it takes a lot of trust to delegate duties to someone else.

All in all, I've enjoyed the transition from lab to office. I like the challenge of coping with 13 committees and handling the responsibilities that I now have. I remain keenly interested in science communication and stay abreast of the field through the media, friends, and the Internet. I am gaining valuable experience of working in an office environment and acquiring a range of new transferable skills. I am sure that my experiences with PHLS will be useful in my future career.

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