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: Research & Development Manager at Kirkstall Ltd @KirkstallLtd
Approximate salary range for your type of role: £30-40K
My career path to Research and Development Manager may seem to outsiders as a smoothly planned journey, but in reality it has been fuelled by good luck and, even though I didn’t realise it every time, my professional network. After studying for a Microbiology degree at Cardiff University, I came to Sheffield for my PhD. Halfway through my second Post Doc at Nottingham University, I had a moment of clarity: what was I doing? Would I ever make it as an academic? Did I even want to make it as an academic? During a leadership course, I came to the conclusion that the skills I valued in myself (supporting others, high level interest in lots of things, aversion to the details) were not necessarily valued by academia (papers, papers, first author papers), so I started to widen my career net.
About 3 years ago, one of my PhD colleagues sent me a message asking if I was interested in a permanent job closer to home. I said yes, and now I work for Kirkstall Ltd, a microSME based in Rotherham. We have a core team of five supported by students doing their year in industry and summer placements. Even though I am R&D Manager by title, in reality everyone is involved in every aspect of the business and because of this, there is no typical week! Over the last month or so my tasks have been a mixture of R&D-types activities to more sales- and business-focused ones:
- Had a trip to the USA to support our distributors by presenting seminars and introducing new users to our technology;
- Presented a project to a grant panel for funding;
- Organised and went to sales meetings in the UK (Liverpool, Leeds, Cardiff);
- Attended a workshop at Brunel University to prepare for a Horizon2020 bid;
- Presented a webinar about our technology;
- Was accepted to present a poster at The 10th World Congress on Alternatives and Animal Use in the Life Sciences in Seattle;
- Interviewed for a new KTP associate with Manchester Metropolitan University;
- Attended a conference as an exhibitor;
- Many, many other tasks including project proposals, meetings, lots of meetings, reading literature, managing other staff members…
The first major difference I noticed about moving from academia to industry was the obvious focus on money and sales. Everything that I do has to have an impact on the bottom line of the business; I can’t waste my time on something interesting if there’s no benefit in it for us. But the more I thought about it, the more I realised it’s exactly the same for academia: we have to sell products to pay the bills, academics have to sell their research to get their next grant. The skills I’d developed as a Post Doc were those that helped me to succeed in industry too, because underneath, the pressures are the same. And I didn’t have to do the one thing I really didn’t like about academia: focusing on one protein and one reaction, doing the same experiments every week. Now, I get to support other people doing those things, while I can talk about their data and the big picture; bonus!
If I could recommend the top skills for people who want to be R&D Manager at an SME, they would be:
- Network, network, network. It’s not a big scary word reserved for women and men in posh suits with shiny cars and fake smiles. Everyone has a network, and you should start using it now. Reconnect with PhD colleagues; reach out to members of other labs who you used to have coffee with but then their grants ran out; attend careers talks and engage with those who have jobs you’re interested in; sign up to workshops and courses that nurture the skills you value the most. Talk to people! Your network is your biggest asset.
- The skills you develop as a PhD student and Post Doc are relevant everywhere. Don’t just focus on your technical skills. If you like supervising students, that’s management experience. If you like working on your own project, that’s the ability to focus and get things done. What about those things you can’t control? Have a difficult supervisor? That’s the ability to work with many different types of personalities. Your project is a lemon? You’ve got troubleshooting and problem-solving skills galore.
- Let your personality shine through. If you really want to work for a small company, then the first thing you have to realise is personality is everything. If two people in a team of twenty don’t get along, that’s an itch. If two people in a team of five don’t get along, that’s a nightmare. When we’re looking to recruit and interview, experience is important but the ability to integrate into the team is essential. I like to see some essence of the person in CVs and covering letters, so don’t be afraid to include that you play netball five times a week, or make your own clothes, or volunteer at your local community centre.
Finally, my career words of wisdom to those wanting to leave academia are: find something you enjoy and run with it. There are so many careers out there, and you have the skills to be an asset to any company. Opportunities exist everywhere, and I’m going to say it again: network, network, network! Or in easier language: just talk to your people. It could end up taking you to a biotechnology company in Rotherham!