#sheffvista 26 – Project Development Officer Dr Phil Swarbrick

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: Project Development Officer, Centre for Agriculture and Bioscience International (CABI)

Approximate salary range for your type of role: £28,000-£40,000

PSwarbrickVista1.jpgCABI is an international non-profit organisation that delivers knowledge and helps to solve problems in agriculture and the environment. There is a significant focus on international development and we have offices dotted around the world (mostly in developing countries). I’m based at the HQ in Oxfordshire. I am part of a small business development team and our role is supporting scientists and directors in the development of grant bids; we help to secure funding for our organisation to run its projects. Day to day this means working closely with project staff to develop proposal documents and budgets for upcoming work on a wide range of topics, while arranging administrative supporting documents for the application, and advising colleagues on CABI’s internal processes and procedures. We perform a few other roles, such as looking out for new funding opportunities and keeping tabs on projects applied for as they progress through the project development pipeline.

My PhD in plant pathology at the University of Sheffield was followed by two postdocs, at the Universities of Sheffield and Nottingham. I’m a keen biologist and I enjoyed research for the variety involved. During experiments I was involved in the whole process: experimental design, planting seeds, weighing leaves, right through to analysing data from molecular analyses and writing up the findings. However, without a great publication record and not having managing to carve a niche out of my research interests it became clear I’d struggle to get a fellowship or lectureship so I decided to look beyond research-based positions.

Even before deciding to leave active research, I jumped at most training opportunities. I did some journal editorial work, took on a bit of lecturing and tried a university-run teaching experience course (I was disappointed that the latter experiences neither massively enthused me, nor did they deter me about being a teacher). Staying in science was a must, so I was excited to come across the advert for the position at CABI (the very day after visiting a careers fair). On first review it looked out of my league but when I looked into the job specifications and skills required, I could tick most of the boxes and had some experiences that could demonstrate capability in the others.

I think that taking training courses and varied career development experiences during my time as a postdoc was crucial for my skill-set and CV when it came to moving out of research. My postdoc projects both had an international development angle to them and included collaborations, meetings and field trips in Africa. I had helped out on developing a few grant proposals and had good familiarity with the process, but I had not led any and hadn’t brought any money in. I had good experience in writing and editing scientific papers and had plenty of experience analysing complex datasets (budgets are no more daunting or challenging than gene expression data). So I was well placed to apply and had a solid set of transferable skills to show off at interview. I followed some training advice and ‘practiced my stories’ from the CV and beyond, and I made sure to deliver them. I also managed to keep a cool head in the required written and numeracy tests- pulling one of them back from the brink of disaster with five minutes to go. Read the question properly.

The transition out of the university setting was quite daunting but I felt more comfortable than I might have in a private sector role (CABI is a not-for-profit organisation). However, research organisations are run with business development in mind, so this was an interesting new angle to pick up. I miss the stimulus of independent research and the occasional thrill of learning and discovery, and I miss the intricate technical skill required in the lab despite the frustrations like failed equipment or empty gels. But I’m working with interesting topics rooted in science every day, and occasionally get to show off some technical know-how.


While my office in Oxfordshire is not exactly being out in the field, I enjoy working with colleagues based overseas and I get to travel a couple of times per year. This can be for training events, proposal development workshops, or even assisting with project implementation or meetings (like a project close-out workshop about cocoa in Malaysia, pictured). But generally my team is only involved in projects at the proposal stage before they are funded, so I don’t have the opportunity to see the project through to the end like I experienced when in research. Having the occasional trip out to see the projects in action lets me see our contributions first hand and it can be quite touching. I feel like my organisation does very valuable work and we get to see the outcomes and impacts of the work on people’s lives, which can be different to many lab based research projects.

My team is usually busy and the workload can be unpredictable as we are often responding to calls for proposals at short notice and with tight deadlines. Working out of hours isn’t common but a fair bit of pressure is normal. At the moment I’m working on proposals for my colleagues to carry out work in Pakistan and South East Asia. Writing about vegetable value chains and mobile communications feels a long way from weighing leaves and washing glassware! But most of us move from the lab to the office in the end.

Comparable jobs. Posts in university research offices or research organisations e.g. Research Manager, Research Development Manager, Research Strategy Manager; Private sector consultancy companies; Non-profit or charities’ business development units.

What professional/accrediting bodies, or qualifications are relevant to where you work? A Masters or PhD would be important for my role although not essential. Having a solid basis in science is a definite advantage in job and similar roles.

Where can researchers look for jobs like yours? research organisations, research councils, scidevjobs, Jobs.ac.uk, environmentjobs

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