University Challenge: Administering Research


As someone who has successfully made the transition from a career in research to one away from 'the bench', I am often asked what specific steps I took to develop my chosen career in university management. The truth is that my career was not particularly well-planned--at least initially--but I have learned a lot of valuable lessons along the way and I now have a career that I greatly enjoy and that challenges me every day.

Best and worst mixed together

I developed a keen interest in science at an early age--I have always been curious to know why things happen and how things work in the natural world around us--and I eagerly began my BSc Honours undergraduate degree without giving much thought to how my career would develop thereafter. Throughout my degree the infectious enthusiasm of several of my lecturers for their subject areas drew me to a career in research, and I embarked on a PhD in molecular genetics.

The time spent earning my PhD was, as I believe it is for many research students, one of extremes--the best and worst times of your life mixed together! Weeks of struggle during which experiments did not go as planned were rewarded by days of elation when positive results made all the effort worthwhile; many unforeseen problems had to be dealt with (equipment breakdowns, vital materials not arriving at crucial times); a myriad of relationships had to be managed with all their attendant challenges, from supervisor troubles to seeking help from colleagues, but at the same time developing friendships that have sustained and grown stronger over the years. There was the agony and ecstasy of presenting research findings at meetings, of writing and submitting papers for publication, and of finally having a completed thesis to submit.

I didn't realise at the time that, throughout the rollercoaster ride of my research project, I was developing a wide range of valuable life skills, including oral and written communication, problem solving, strategic and analytical thinking, project management, time management, and team working. And despite my lack of recognition of them, I continued to develop them over the years and I still use them every day in my current role.

Following my PhD, I quickly found employment as a postdoctoral researcher. I spent 2 years in plant molecular biology followed by 6 years in cancer research. Although these were different subject areas from those of both my undergraduate degree and my PhD, I found it relatively easy to apply my research skills and experience in different subject areas and, on paper at least, my research career was progressing well.

However, I became increasingly disillusioned with research as a long-term career. There appeared to be very few permanent posts and I experienced the practical difficulties and insecurities of life on short-term contracts, among them the issue of securing a mortgage. I felt under pressure to regularly move location to develop my career and I gradually realised that, as a woman, it would be very difficult to pursue a successful career in research unless I was prepared to make sacrifices in my family life.

I did not have children at the time, and I knew of very few 'successful' female researchers who did. What's more, opportunities for part-time working or job-sharing were unheard of. In addition, while I still loved science, I was beginning to find life at the bench very repetitive and my desire to have more variety in my day-to-day activities grew.

Listing transferable skills

My decision to leave research was a difficult and daunting one. I had known no other career and initially thought that I had few skills to offer elsewhere. I seriously considered studying for an MBA in order to gain a business-related qualification, but the high cost ruled out this option. Instead I made lists of the transferable skills I had and of the nonresearch activities that I had been involved in that would demonstrate competencies and commitment outside my functional discipline; for example, I had organised my department's external seminar programme for several years and I had acted as secretary to my local Community Council for a similar period.

When I reviewed the lists, they were more impressive than I had thought they would be. This process helped me to identify my existing skills and, significantly, gave me the confidence to pursue a different career path with a positive attitude, rather than viewing it as faltering in my original plan.

I had convinced myself that I had a range of useful skills to offer the world outside science, but could I convince an employer? It was not an easy task. I applied for a variety of positions that interested me, from jobs in health promotion and health education, to various administrative posts within the higher education sector, and found myself competing with people who had directly relevant experience. Although employers could see that I had enthusiasm, commitment, and potential, it took 6 months of perseverance to secure my first nonresearch role as a university administrator.

The job that I was offered wasn't immediately the most appealing to me--in fact I considered turning it down--but I developed an instant rapport with the enthusiastic professor who would become my line manager, and I could also see that by accepting the post I would have the opportunity to gain a lot of administrative experience to add to my CV. I believe that I found it easier to get a position within a university, rather than a non-university role, because the university recognised the value of my PhD as a multilevel achievement rather than simply as a specialist academic publication.

I moved to a subject area that was completely new to me--nanoelectronics--on a reduced remuneration, but from day one I didn't look back. The job was challenging, stimulating, and full of variety. I was immediately responsible for all the administrative aspects of the department, from managing the multimillion pound research budget and coordinating European networks, to organising a major international conference for 300 delegates. I was also responsible for promoting the research of the department and quickly had to learn to deal with regular press enquiries.

The requirement to quickly learn and understand new subject areas and technologies in order to be effective tested the limits of my capabilities. I realised that I had been working within a relatively narrow subject area and I was now exposed to areas of research whose existence I had not previously been aware of. But I also realised that I wasn't wasting any of my previous research experience--every day I was applying the generic and transferable skills that I had developed over the years of being a research student and a postdoctoral researcher. Each day brought different challenges, whether they be solving problems, managing resources, analysing complex data, or presenting technical material in a variety of formats to a range of audiences. I didn't miss life at the bench for a minute!

I stayed in my university administrator role for 2 years, building on my existing skills and developing a range of new skills and experience. I was then able to move to a more senior post, as administrative assistant to the university's vice-principal for research. This was an even broader role as it encompassed all the subject areas of the university, and it enabled me once again to use my biomedical research experience as well as my generic skills. It also enabled me to develop a much greater understanding of university management and to see research from other perspectives, e.g., the importance of research income to the university, what 'overheads' are, the high costs of accepting charity funding (which covers no indirect costs), how research is balanced with teaching, and how interdisciplinary research can be fostered.

Over the past 5 years my role has developed considerably and my responsibilities now include many areas of strategy and policy, from helping to develop the university's research strategy and submission to the research assessment exercise, to drafting policies relating to research ethics and misconduct. Most recently I have assumed responsibility for developing the university's postgraduate research strategy and I am working closely with the University Careers Service to ensure that all our postgraduate research students and postdocs have access to generic skills training and personal development planning.

Fortunately, most postgraduate research students today are aware that the majority of them will not have long-term careers in academic research and they are much more aware of their generic and transferable skills through personal development plans and structured career planning. Funding bodies now also offer a wider range of career development schemes that allow for career breaks and part-time working. However, if you are considering a career outside research, my advice would be first of all to be confident of your motivation, and then to go for it! Your PhD is a passport to many exciting career opportunities outside the confines of the laboratory!

Follow Science Careers

Search Jobs

Enter keywords, locations or job types to start searching for your new science career.

Top articles in Careers