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.
Approximate salary range for your type of role: £20-25k
From an early age, I was fascinated with science and scientific discovery. It was this interest that persuaded me to both attend university and then to undertake a PhD in Chemistry. January 2019 marked the first anniversary of defending my PhD thesis that brought my student-career to an end. Now, one year removed from university and still in an environment where I am exposed to the latest industrial scientific research and innovations, I have found the profession that works for me.
It was during my MChem undergraduate degree that I had my first experience of academic research, and enjoying it made my decision to study for a PhD all the easier. I was fortunate that several projects in theoretical chemistry were available that year and I decided to start my PhD in October of 2014.
But one of the most poignant and thought-provoking questions wasn’t asked until I started my second year of PhD:
“What are you going to do after graduating/after your funding runs out?”
For me this was a difficult question. I knew that in order to progress further in academia, I would need a stronger background in computer coding (of which I would describe my skills as novice at best) and a stronger publication portfolio.
One of the best and underappreciated advantages of studing for a PhD is the sheer number of opportunities available. Through the university, I was able to take classes in computer coding (such as HTML, C and Fortran) and have the opportunity to give presentations to different people about science and research. These opportunities were essential at helping to progress skills that were not only useful for my PhD, but to assist in my own personal development.
Opportunity is often down to luck though, and in the final year of my PhD, I was fortunate enough to take on the role of departmental publicist. This was a newly created role that involved working closely with departmental and the university communications teams to improve internal and external awareness. This role provided me with my first taste of public-focused scientific writing and communication, branding, graphic design as well as various other skills that would prove useful in my future career.
By winter 2017, and with my funding about to finish, I began looking for my next job. I knew that I wanted something involving the communication skills I had accumulated throughout my PhD, while also remaining in the science industry. It was while searching for these jobs that I came across my current position at Notch Communications, and began working as a science writer and editor. Notch is a small-sized life sciences marketing agency located in Manchester. We handle the various marketing needs of different science and technology companies around the world. Notch works to best position and raise awareness of our clients in the market through content and marketing activities. This could involve writing and distributing news releases, organising editorial articles, writing text for websites, updating brands and creating visual advertisements.
I joined as a scientific writer, meaning it is my job to write the text of the various materials that later appear in the public domain. At Notch 75% of employees have a science background. In fact, the entirety of the content team are all scientists, with backgrounds in a range of subjects including neuroscience, molecular biology and biotechnology, biology and even forensic anthropology. While holding a PhD is definitely not essential, a quarter of our twenty-person team hold the qualification. But being a science writer isn’t down to your background or qualifications. What matters the most is bringing passion and creativity to writing and having a flair for understanding science and discovery
But, it was only after starting this position at Notch that I realised how beneficial my PhD would be throughout my future career. Although the exact topic of my PhD was not relevant for my position (a theoretical study of aromaticity), it was the secondary skills that were essential.
One of the most exciting aspects of the job for me was working closely with Chemistry World, the RSC publication, which I had read throughout the course of my undergraduate and postgraduate degrees. We at Notch have published a series of digital issues on the Chemistry World website covering various aspects of scientific research (I was even able to highlight some research from the University of Sheffield in the second issue which was particularly exciting).
The experience of performing multiple presentations meant I was a more confident person when I started my job. Writing my PhD thesis and various journal papers also means that I now focus on writing technical, in-depth articles and editorial pieces. Attending conferences, asking researchers questions and performing interviews with various academic members of staff meant I was trusted to lead interviews and calls very early into my job. Incidentally, in only my second week at Notch, I was able to interview Prof. Robert Grubbs for our Chemistry World supplement, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2005. This, and interviewing the other passionate scientists within chemical companies, are firm highlights of my first year outside academia.
To me, a PhD is more than just about the research. It was an opportunity to develop myself further, recognising my weaknesses and having the availability to address them. My last piece of advice to current PhD students – or current undergraduates – would be to engage with the opportunities available. Teach a masters student, write for the local magazine, try different things; you never know where your career will take you, and academia isn’t for everyone.