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 titles and companies:
- Product Innovation Scientist, Mars
- Senior Product Design Scientist, Mars
- Programme Leader, Mars
- Development Manager, Britvic
- ‘Head of Science & Public Engagement’ at Oxford University’s Botanic Garden
Approximate salary range for your type of role: Ca. 55k on leaving Britvic
I completed my PhD in Plant Molecular Biology in 2009 at the University of Bristol. I absolutely loved working in research and I wanted to pursue it as a career. So much so, I devoted my heart and soul to my work and I won both a faculty and a national prize. However this commitment to my PhD was followed by two unsuccessful attempts to secure funding. At that time, I started to question whether this was in fact the career for me. So despite my passion for plants and biology, I started to look at opportunities in Academia and also in Industry.
I saw a job advertised in New Scientist in Research and Development (R&D), working for the American company Mars – the confectionary giant. I did my homework and learnt that the company was repeatedly listed as a Top 100 Employer across the board. My dad, whose career was in Advertising, told me that Mars was a blue-chip company that was very well regarded. So I completed (and passed) the online numerical tests and was invited to a telephone interview. The questions were fairly direct and it was difficult to tell over the phone if I had built a rapport with the interviewer. Two weeks later I was invited for a face-to-face interview and Assessment Centre. On arrival I was given an exam paper (of sorts) and told that I had two hours to prepare a business plan. Having never done anything like this before in my life I was rather sceptical about how I would perform. The panel challenged my analysis and my recommendations hard – there was certainly nowhere to hide! I now know that there were several competencies against which I was being assessed; for example how successfully I would stick to a decision once I had made it and how well I could cope with ambiguity. After a series of interviews I was offered the job, so I moved from Bristol to Leeds (where the office was based).
My role at Mars was initially in Product Design for the Pedigree and Whiskas (household pet food) brands. I spent much time overseas in a factory in Hungary commissioning new products and running trials. I was amazed (and sometimes a little scared!) at the level of responsibility I was given. I probably learnt more in that first year than I ever had before.
Two years after my appointment I was promoted to a senior role, and a further three years on I was promoted again to Programme Leader and led a technical team. Each promotion involved a very gruelling series of interviews and assessments. I spent lots of time travelling in these roles and experienced working in, for example, America, Germany and Lithuania. I also developed a whole suite of Manufacturing and FMCG (Fast Moving Consumer Goods) industry skills in for example Product Design, Process Engineering, Project Management, Regulatory Affairs and Marketing. In my last role at Mars I was looking after a significant portfolio of projects across several continents.
During my time at Mars, I still made time for interest in botany. For example I returned every year to University of Bristol to teach plant identification in Portugal. I compiled data from these trips to publish a field guide with Kew Publishing.
Five years after my appointment at Mars I decided to look for other opportunities. I applied for the role of Development Manager in Chemical Engineering for a company called Britvic, who manufacture household brand soft drinks including Robinsons and J2O. This required a move back down to the south. Whilst my background was not in Chemical Engineering (unlike the colleagues I worked with), and was therefore somewhat technically challenging for me, I was able to draw upon the transferable skills I had acquired at Mars. I led the ‘Liquid’ programme for the company’s multi-million investment project to build new factory lines across the UK, alongside a team of project engineers. There was also the opportunity to become a chartered Chemical Engineer in this role which is highly transferable in the industry.
After a serious operation in 2015 I did some soul-searching and decided to move back into the plant science arena because for me, it’s truly what I love most. This was a difficult decision (just like my first to move into industry in 2010!) and not one I undertook lightly.
A post at Oxford University arose which would be the perfect opportunity to combine my passion for plants and biology with the leadership skills I developed in industry. I am now in post as ‘Head of Science & Public Engagement’ at Oxford University’s Botanic Garden. I feel extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to do what I love and to draw upon the skills I acquired in industry as well. Sometimes I experience a slight ‘culture shock’ or have people look at me quizzically when I use language not traditionally used in Universities or Academia that I picked up in Industry! However overall I feel immensely privileged to have worked across the Industry and Academic sectors. Having worked in an unusual variety of roles over the years, my advice to anyone would be not to worry about crossing sectors, or perceived divides, and to just get stuck in!
Where can researchers look for jobs like yours?
What professional/accrediting bodies, or qualifications are relevant to where you work?
ICHEME (Institute of Chemical Engineers)