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First Post-PhD Job: From Bacteria to Balance Sheets

So after completing a first degree in microbiology and a PhD researching antibiotic-resistant bacteria, what would my next career move be? Why, chartered accountancy of course! Well, perhaps it's not that obvious a choice, but I've decided to give it a whirl. Having made quite a long list of things that I really didn't want to do after I finished my PhD, such as staying in lab-based research, I found that I only had a very vague idea of the sort of thing I actually did want to do. Despite not wanting to pursue a research career I certainly did not want to move away from science completely, as it's still something I'm very enthusiastic about. However, I also wanted a career with plenty of variety but a defined structure. And after almost 7 years of being a student, one that would be financially rewarding too!

Having studied at a university that has long been involved in commercialising its research and establishing spin-off companies, working at the business end of science and research seemed to provide the ideal solution to my career dilemma.

Although I had briefly looked at chartered accountancy and working for one of the 'Big Five' international accountancy firms (PriceWaterhouseCoopers, Ernst & Young, Accenture (formerly Anderson), Deloitte & Touche, and KPMG), it was really only after I had the opportunity to speak to other PhD scientists who had made the move into finance that I decided to investigate the options more seriously. Most of these firms have offices throughout the UK, as well as globally, and also have groups specialising in specific industries, such as pharmaceuticals or technology.

I quickly learnt that, contrary to popular belief, chartered accountants working for the Big Five do not actually prepare accounts but instead work as auditors, ensuring that the published accounts are a true reflection of the company's financial position and conform to the appropriate standards. This requires both knowledge of the client's industry and the wider business world, as well as the technical knowledge required to comply with the legislation that surrounds auditing. It therefore seemed that a job with one of these major players could provide an excellent opportunity to utilise some of my knowledge of the life sciences, whilst at the same time giving me the chance to learn about the world of finance.

So once I'd decided that a career in commerce might be for me, it was just a matter of filling in a series of application forms and waiting to see what happened. The largest accountancy firms, like most other global corporations, have established graduate recruitment procedures that can involve interviews, group assessments, and psychometric tests. All this turned out to be a lot less daunting than it sounded and was in fact a good opportunity to 'interview' them about the office I had applied to and the type of clients it dealt with. It was also reassuring to find out that the skills of a PhD scientist were actually in demand too! And so now, two rounds of interviews, some psychometric tests, a presentation, and a lot of indecision later, here I am working for one of the Big Five!

Possessing a PhD is obviously not a prerequisite for a career in chartered accountancy, but from my experience there does seem to be a growing number of us in the profession. I have to admit that I was quite pleased to find that there was another PhD scientist and a number of others with higher degrees starting along with me. And although accountancy has always been a popular choice with new graduates, it is seemingly also a career that people from a wide variety of different backgrounds decide to enter. Many of the people from my own and other offices have already spent a few years trying other jobs before starting in finance.

For me the transition from research scientist to trainee accountant, although not entirely without problems, has been surprisingly smooth. The majority of graduates entering accountancy do not actually have business-related degrees, so I certainly was not isolated in my initial lack of business knowledge! Also, in contrast to starting a PhD, where you are more or less given a lab coat and some protocols and expected to get on with it, new joiners are provided with substantial in-house training, both on business issues and the technical side of the job.

As well as 3 years work experience, I need to pass the exams of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales in order to become a fully qualified chartered accountant. Attending lectures on the statutory obligations of auditors or acceptable accounting practices may not sound thrilling, but they are an excellent, though intensive, way of learning and ultimately should turn me and my fellow trainees into all-round business advisors. However, having to study for exams after a full day's work is not ideal. Although I felt I would be quite well prepared for the pressures of studying and working after the commitment of doing a PhD, it has not always been an easy task. But even in the short time I have been working, there is no doubt that I've learnt a huge amount. I've gone from someone who had never even seen a financial report in her life to being able to analyse cash flow statements and interpret the balance sheet of a listed company.

Although I may not be using my PhD directly, certain skills, such as the ability to prioritise work and being able to deal with details whilst being aware of the bigger picture, have proved to be very useful. Some of our offices allow a greater degree of specialisation than others, but I'm about to start working with a number of biotech and pharmaceutical clients and am hoping that my life science background will prove to be valuable. As I become more experienced I'll also be more involved in the planning of audits, where a knowledge of the client's industry will definitely be a bonus.

Even though having a PhD doesn't mean that I earn more than other new recruits, I've still noticed a much needed improvement in the state of my bank balance. I currently receive almost three times my research council stipend and also have a salary review every 6 to 12 months. Once qualified, accountants usually earn at least £35,000 to £40,000 with many at city institutions receiving more.

As for the future, well of course there is no absolute guarantee that I'll still be here in 3 years time, but whatever happens I am certainly very glad that I decided to at least take a peek into the corporate world. I'm gaining a whole raft of new experiences, as well as plenty of technical knowledge. And so whether I decide that my long-term future lies in accountancy or not, I know that I now have a great foundation on which I can build a career.

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