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Research Program Management: Jobs at U.K.'s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council


After spending 8 years at university, studying for a degree in materials science and then continuing with an engineering doctorate in the same field, I felt it was time for a change. Although I had thoroughly enjoyed my time at university, and had found research interesting, I was quite sure that I didn't have the level of enthusiasm required to make a career out of research in either an industrial or academic context. However, I was absolutely certain that I did not want to abandon science completely. With this in mind, I started to look at alternative career paths that would keep me in touch with science whilst not requiring that I get down to the "nitty-gritty" aspects of doing the research itself.

An option that I found particularly appealing was science administration--organising science rather than doing it! When I came across an advertisement inviting applications from scientists interested in working at the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) as "Associate Programme Managers," it sounded ideal, since the ad suggested that Ph.D. scientists with a wide interest in science and its organisation may wish to apply. The EPSRC funds research in engineering, technology, and the physical sciences, which fit my background, and there is a fairly continuous programme of recruitment for associate programme managers (rather than a general "milkround" that typically occurs around Christmas time), which encourages applicants at various career stages and not just recent Ph.D. graduates.

The recruitment process for these particular positions is quite rigorous. A standard EPSRC application form has to be completed in addition to an achievement record. The purpose of the achievement record is to describe aspects of your skills, experience, and achievements and how these may relate to the requirements of the post. The key skills the EPSRC looks for in any associate programme manager are the ability to plan and organise, problem solve/analyse, communicate well, work autonomously, and be flexible. If successful at this stage, candidates are then invited to attend an assessment centre. Unlike a lot of similar interview procedures, this only lasts one day--but quite a lot is squeezed into that day! Tasks include a teamwork exercise, a writing test to assess your ability to assimilate information (this involved reading several fictional proposals and making a case in support of the proposal of your choice), a presentation, and of course an interview. Although this is all quite daunting, the day seems to pass very quickly, and you are told of your success (or lack thereof) within 10 days.

What can the successful applicants expect? Firstly the associate programme manager is expected to operate as a generalist rather than a specialist. For example, despite my background in materials science, I manage research within the IT and Computer Science programme. The need to operate as a generalist is actually an aspect of the job that I like a lot because it gives me the opportunity explore a whole new field of science.

"APMs," as we're called, work within "delivery teams." A team comprises a manager, at least 15 APMs, and approximately 20 support staff, although this number varies from programme to programme. The main aim of the delivery team is to ensure the fair and efficient evaluation and delivery of grant proposals. We select referees for grant proposals, choose members from the academic and industrial communities to sit on the peer-review panels, organise the panel meetings, provide feedback to applicants, and announce the grants--all within a specified time frame and budget.

In addition to these tasks, APMs may also help identify and then manage areas of research that are particularly new, exciting, or timely. Current "hot" areas include sustainable manufacturing, security and encryption, opportunities for research in biophysics, and the convergence of computing and communications. APMs consult with academics, scientists working in industry, and others to identify key research opportunities. We do this in a range of ways, from one-on-one visits with university departments to organising large meetings where in excess of 100 people gather to identify and air issues. When critical areas of research have been identified, the APM then publicises this fact to maximise interest and encourage proposals. Once started, these initiatives typically continue for 3 years. The APM stays in touch by carrying out a number of activities such as organising workshops, monitoring projects (usually through visits to the research labs), and organising program evaluation.

But scientists aren't just thrown into the job. The EPSRC provides APMs with training in a wide variety of areas, including computing and management skills, giving presentations, and writing for the media.

So, what makes this job fun? On conferring with colleagues about what parts of the job are particularly enjoyable, we came up with quite a list. On the science side, our list includes visiting experts in research at universities and in industry, finding out about the latest research issues and innovations, and to a certain extent "steering" research paths. We also like working in an area different from our original research training, therefore having the opportunity to get a good overview of areas of science that are new to us. On the people side, we work with a wide variety of people and have the opportunity to attend and organise conferences or workshops. The significant amount of training provided is also a bonus.

Typically we have to juggle several tasks at any one time; however, this variety is another interesting aspect of the job. You just have to be able to prioritise.

Of course with every job there is always a downside. As would be expected when working for any public body, the money is not fantastic! So if you are aspiring to riches, then I'd give this one a miss. But if you want to learn about, contribute to, and organise new areas of scientific research, then a career in research administration provides an excellent opportunity.

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