#sheffvista 17 – Strategy & Policy Manager, Dr James Donald

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.

Twitter: @JW_Donald

Job title and company: Strategy & Policy Manager, Skills and Careers Unit @BBSRC

Approximate salary range for your type of role: ~£37-43k

Towards the end of my time spent completing a PhD in Molecular Microbiology I came to the conclusion that academia is probably best suited to those who really enjoy research. This realisation came while at an EMBO summer school in Corsica where at the numerous beach and bar breaks the general chat invariably centred on people’s research projects; although I found my PhD project interesting, I really didn’t want to talk about it on the beach.

Once I’d come to this conclusion, and wanting to avoid the ‘drifting’ into a postdoc position that seemed so common, I focused on finding a subsequent job. I wanted one that would allow me to keep involved with science, but which wouldn’t require the need to focus tightly on a particular area or carry out lab work; two things that my not being so hot with details and innate clumsiness weren’t the most suitable for.

This move was made particularly easy with the support of a very helpful supervisor who was fully aware of the range of sought after transferable skills that I’d developed over the course of my PhD and who encouraged me to emphasise these in my job applications.

Profile_photo_Donald.JPGMy first job met these aims and allowed me to make great use of the writing and organisational skills that I had particularly enjoyed developing throughout my PhD. The job was for a company that provided scientific information services to the pharmaceutical industry, and which at its most basic involved reading papers and summarising the key messages in as punchy text as possible. I did such a great job here that 18 months after joining the operation it was shut down by the parent company, making everyone redundant.

Luckily (for me at least) by this point I had already decided that I’d got as much out of the job in terms of experience and skills development as I was going to get. As such I’d already acquired a new position at the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) as a Strategy and Policy Officer involved in developing strategy to ensure researchers of the time were able to adopt innovate working practices that took advantage of rapid technological advancements that were taking place. This was a time-limited role, and although there was the opportunity to apply for other roles within the Research Councils, I felt that the end of this contract provided an ideal time to look for work abroad, something that I had been interested in for a while.

As a result of this I took up a role in a newly established research institute in Germany where I worked on a range of eclectic tasks from events management and recruitment, to collating and editing annual reports, and the preparation of funding proposals for training programmes. This involvement in applying for grants gave me experience of being ‘on the other side of the fence’ in terms of research funding, and my involvement in setting up schemes to support the training of researchers led nicely into my current role in the Skills and Careers Unit of BBSRC.

As a Strategy and Policy Manager at BBSRC I’m responsible for developing our thinking around the development of future research leaders and the support and career development opportunities that postdoctoral researchers receive. In practice this covers a wide range of activities, from oversight and development of BBSRC fellowships and their associated training programmes, to ensuring we are investing in a world-class community of postdoctoral researchers as set out in the BBSRC vision for postdoctoral researchers. As part of this I work with the BBSRC Postdoctoral Researchers Advisory Group and develop strategy and policy to help ensure research organisations support their postdoctoral researchers through encouragement of continuing professional development and appropriate mentoring programmes.  I’m also involved with a range of more sector-specific skills related activities and projects as they arise.

My current role therefore requires interactions with a wide range of stakeholders including Research Organisations, other Government departments, Professional Societies, and organisations such as the Equality Challenge Unit and the Sector Skills Councils. I’m therefore out of the office fairly regularly and get to hear first-hand about the research that BBSRC invests in and the impact of the support we provide through fellowships and other mechanisms.

Desk_Donald.JPGOne highlight is involvement with fellowship events as these often include the fellows giving scientific talks aimed at a generalist audience; meaning I still get the opportunity to hear about cutting edge research. This means I’m now in a job where I get to go out and about, am able to directly see the effect my work has in supporting researcher career development, and can maintain an awareness of a huge variety of science topics, from animal behaviour to synthetic biology; luckily these are just the sort of things I’m interested in and enjoy.

When I finished my PhD I didn’t really know what job I’d end up in but I tried to make sure that each of my subsequent positions  added something new and specific in terms of experience and opportunity to develop my skills. If I was giving one bit of advice to academic researchers I’d say that even though it may not be possible to exactly plan your future career, taking the time to think about your continuing professional development, and about how each job you take can be used to develop your skills and benefit you in some way is an important activity that can help ensure each position you take is a stepping stone to a successful future career.

Where can researchers look for jobs like yours? All Research Council jobs are listed on http://www.topcareer.jobs/

What professional/accrediting bodies, or qualifications are relevant to where you work? There are a wide range of roles at BBSRC, but a degree in a biological or-related subject tends to be needed and a similarly relevant PhD is often useful although not essential. Other research councils will recruit from other subject areas.

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