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Presenting Illnesses and Changes of Direction


Dear CareerDoctor,In 2000, I graduated from the University of Aberdeen with a 2:1 in theology and began to study for an MTh the same year. However, around that time my Mum was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and I became very interested in learning more about this disease and ways to treat it.In January 2002 I decided, after much thought, that I should change direction and study neuroscience, as the best thing I could do for MS patients is to work on a cure. So in September that year, I began studying for a BSc in neuroscience at the University of Aberdeen, and I have so far been achieving good grades.I would like to know how I can improve my chances of employment after graduation, and whether it would suit my ambition better to move along the academic or industrial route. What forms of research would both options offer me?Also, I wonder if it will go against me that I did not complete my MTh. The problem is that I became ill myself for a while towards the end and had to decide between finishing my research or studying neuroscience. I am not even considering completing my MTh now since it has no bearing on MS research and therefore does not interest me.Yours faithfully,Allen

Dear Allen,

First of all, congratulations on your success so far--you've made a flying start to your career transition and are obviously coping with the demands of a science degree. You are deeply committed to your new career path and have already started weighing the options that lie ahead of you. You are also keen to maximise your chances of success, and I am confident this attitude will greatly help you move into a role which suits you best in a few years' time.

To help you decide between your future options, I'll take your definition of research slightly away from the academia versus industry dilemma, as it is more relevant for you to think in terms of fundamental versus applied research. The objective of fundamental or "blue sky" research is to improve understanding and increase knowledge. A final application is thus not the main motivation, although most technological or medical breakthroughs are based on such work. The great attraction of blue sky research is that it gives researchers a high degree of freedom in deciding the direction of their work, subject to funding.

In contrast, applied research needs to contribute to a product or therapy, which means that research projects which don't show potential will be dropped to give attention to more promising ones. This can be frustrating if you believe in the long-term value of work, but the attraction is that you are likely to see your work having an impact within a few years.

Although both types of research take place in academia and industry, as a general rule, fundamental research is more commonly found in the academic sector whereas industrial research is predominantly applied. If you would like to read more about the main differences between academia and industry, I have discussed them in greater length in another column.

In either sector, to build a successful research career you will almost certainly need a PhD, so this is likely to be your first step after graduation. However, this doesn't mean that you can sit back until your final year--your career in MS research starts right now! You already have something of a head-start over other undergraduates, as the experience of your MTh will have given you a taste of the challenges, frustrations, and rewards of academic research. Having said that, research in the medical sciences will be very different, so it is important that you develop research skills in your new field.

The best way of achieving this is of course through direct experience in MS research groups. You are at too early a stage in your degree to be eligible for many of the placement programmes offered by large companies, as these are usually for penultimate-year undergraduates. However, as I've described in a previous column, every year students are caught out by the early closing dates for these, so be ready to apply from October 2004 for placements in summer 2005. I'd suggest you start looking at what is available now, as you may find the pool of potential employers is quite small if you want to work only on MS research.

However, I'm sure you are keen to start making your contribution to MS research as quickly as possible. You can always arrange a short-term placement before your final year, and an academic research group is probably your most realistic option for this summer.

The Multiple Sclerosis Society ( MSS) is a good starting point for finding research groups in this field, as their remit is to promote and fund MS research. I have found one group in the MSS Funded Research Directory at Aberdeen University, so don't worry about having to compromise on your career development if you are unable to relocate.

Another way of pinning down high-profile MS academics is by flicking through a publication you will find in your library, Current Research in Britain, and a search on the Internet should come up with companies working in the field. For example, I found out about GW Pharmaceuticals, which is trying to isolate the active components of cannabis for new treatments. Do not forget to look for links from organisations supporting MS patients, as these are often a great source of information too.

Even if your search does not lead to a placement in the short term, it will put you in touch with MS researchers, and they may be willing to discuss their work and motivations with you and suggest ways in which you can begin to develop your career. Ask them if there are networks you could join or meetings you could attend. There is a list of questions to ask at "information interviews" on the GRAD Web site which may help you to structure these discussions.

Meanwhile you need to start thinking about how you will fund yourself if you want to spend the summer working in an academic lab. Some universities have funds to give some support to undergraduates whilst they gain research experience, and individual researchers may have discretionary funds which might cover your living expenses. The Nuffield Foundation offers Undergraduate Research Bursaries, but as the supervisor has to submit the application for these, and this year's closing date is 17 February, unfortunately you may have missed the boat on these for this year.

Alternatively, the University of Aberdeen Research and Innovation unit may have some ideas, although they usually deal with research students. There are some high-profile MS benefactors out there as well, although there may be only a slight possibility of success!

I can not emphasise enough how essential work experience is, as you will know if this career suits you only if you have genuine experience of it. And if your interest in MS research is confirmed, you will have to demonstrate to employers or potential PhD supervisors that you have made an informed career change and have the skills they need.

Another aspect you will need to address when approaching them is the reasons for not completing your MTh. The decision as whether or not to disclose your medical history is up to you. Legislation in this area is open to interpretation, but as a general rule, if an employer doesn't draw attention to gaps in your career history or ask specific questions about your health and if you feel that it will not affect your ability to do the job in question, then you are entitled to keep it private. The advantage of disclosing is that if there is a chance of the illness recurring, your employer is likely to be more supportive. Unfortunately, if you do choose to disclose, you may find it more difficult to secure a job offer in the first place. This is a very sticky subject and I wish I could say that there is a simple answer, but I'd recommend you discuss the details with your careers service or a professional body or organisation which offers support to people with specific conditions.

As an example, I've found some advice on Mind's Web site for people with mental health problems, which includes the following advice, applicable to any medical problem: "If you do decide to disclose you might like to work out a strategy in advance, about how and when you will disclose, how much and to whom, in order to keep some control of the process. It might also be worthwhile obtaining a supportive letter from your psychiatrist or other mental health professional, stating your ability to work." Similarly, the advice for students with disabilities on the Prospects Web site may be useful.

Given the academic success you've had since you started studying neuroscience, I think you can safely say that you have made a full recovery if this is the case, or that your health problems don't interfere with your studies. You also imply that the main reason for not completing your MTh is your interest in MS, so don't say that your own illness was the main factor, or you will exaggerate its impact. I would focus on the positive elements that contributed to your change of direction.

Similarly, I would think carefully about how you represent the time you spent doing your MTh--why not describe this as time spent as a researcher (which is true!) and list the skills you developed through research work, focussing on those which are transferable to scientific research. You can then mention in a covering letter that during this time you were registered to do a master's degree until you decided on your new vocation.

I sincerely hope that you will pursue your ambition and successfully contribute to research into a cure for MS.

All the best in your career,

The CareerDoctor

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