Each Friday we post a new v i s t a profile, a career beyond the academy story (use the tags at the bottom of the post to find the entire list). These posts accompany our curated events to support post-PhD career transitions, v i s t a mentoring, and also #sheffvista on Twitter.
Job title and company: Policy and Projects Manager, BioIndustry Association @DrMartinTurner
Approximate salary range for your type of role: £35,000-45,000
Why do politicians make the decisions they do? Why did the previous Chancellor, George Osborne, freeze science spending between 2010 and 2015, and why has the current Chancellor, Philip Hammond, promised to increase it by 20% over the next four years, albeit with an emphasis on innovation over basic research?
I started my career in policy because I wanted to understand how decisions like these get made, and to potentially influence them myself.
There’s a huge range of policy roles and the type of organisation you work for will strongly dictate what your job involves.
For example, if you work in the civil service you will be developing policies that the government is to follow – like the decision to immunise all children under the age of three, or to sign international climate change agreements. In the same way, a policy role at an oil company might involve deciding how much you should invest in renewable energy research.
My work is on the other side of this: I develop policies I want others to follow, principally the government. Because the aim of my job is to influence policy so that it benefits a particular group, I would also describe myself as a lobbyist – but this is a dirty word to some people, and can be easily swapped for ‘public affairs professional’.
I work for a trade association for biotechnology companies – mainly small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) that develop new medicines. My job is to create policies that will help those companies and then convince the government to adopt them.
It’s a fascinating and varied job. I spend my day analysing government announcements and legislation to determine how it will affect the biotechnology industry, speaking to our member companies to understand their needs, and meeting politicians and civil servants to communicate those needs – and to hopefully convince them to adopt our policies. There’s also a fair amount of mundane admin.
My PhD was in molecular biology but my scientific knowledge rarely comes in useful. Instead I have had to become comfortable with writing and talking about subjects I have no background in and only a rudimentary understanding of. My current areas of focus are tax, venture capital finance, and intellectual property policy. However, many people do find policy jobs that utilise their research area expertise.
The work is intellectually challenging and often fast-paced. My plans for what I’ll do on a particular day often change in response to an unexpected government announcement or request from a journalist. Publicising our policy ideas and views in the media is an important part of lobbying and we are often approached by journalists researching a story or wanting our take on an announcement. This can be stressful but it’s also exciting to see your name in print.
A PhD isn’t required to work in policy but I think it is looked upon favourably. My job is very analytical and requires rigour, which I developed during my time at Sheffield. It also requires an interest in politics, but not all policy jobs will, and your political leaning doesn’t really matter as long as you can separate your personal views from the necessities of your job. You will definitely need strong communication and interpersonal skills. I spend one or two nights a week at drinks receptions networking.
A research career won’t necessarily equip you with all of these skills. I knew within the first couple of years of my PhD that I wasn’t cut out for academia. Knowing that my CV was going to need something different, I took a month’s break from my PhD to do an unpaid internship at Sense About Science. It’s there that I got hooked on science policy. When I returned to Sheffield I teamed up with three other PhD students to setup a science communication charity called Science Brainwaves. This gave me experience in event organising, writing both blogs and press releases, and working as part of a team in high-pressure situations. There’s no doubt in my mind that I got my first job because of what I had done outside of my PhD.
I think my path has been typical for a policy career. I started with a six-month paid internship at the Association of Medical Research Charities, who then kept me on as a policy officer (£25,000 is the standard starting salary). I stayed there for three years earning a few promotions, then moved on a couple of times before ending up where I am now. It’s common to move between organisations every few years to climb the ladder.
If you’re interested in a career in policy, my advice would be to do things outside of your PhD or post-doc to gain experience and skills. Most importantly this will show that you are truly interested in a policy career and not applying because you can’t think of anything better to do. (Sadly I get this impression from a lot of applicants.) Good places to look for job are the Guardian, Work4mp.org, and on the Campaign for Science and Engineering website. Almost all jobs are in London but there are some in other major cities.
You’ll need to have a passion for policy and a drive to make a difference. It’s not an easy job and you are required to work evenings and weekends sometimes. But it’s hugely rewarding. It’s a great feeling when an MP stands up in the House of Commons and quotes your report, or when the government implements your policy or changes the law as a result of your campaign. Most of all, I like that my job is contributing to the research and development of new medicines to help patients and supporting the growth of businesses that provide jobs for people across the UK.