Do you feel lucky?

According to the personal career stories of most people, including those with a PhD, luck and chance play a major role in career success.

Books have been written about the value of luck, such as the ‘Luck Factor’ and ‘Build your own Rainbow’, in which so-called ‘accidents’ (events over which we have no control) can determine our career paths.

In his TEDx talk, Bruce Walker talks about creating your own luck: “There’s no-one stopping you but you”, he concludes. On the other hand, Ritchie Etawu professes that you can bring bad luck upon yourself by taking the easy route, which requires minimum or no effort. He believes that to encourage good luck into your life, you need to put in some hard work!

So, how does ‘luck’ figure in your life and how can you enhance its effect on your own career? According to the theory of ‘Planned Happenstance’ proposed by Mitchell, Levin and Krumboltz, chance (otherwise known as unexpected career opportunities) can be harnessed via the following behaviours:

  1. Flexibility – if you’re able to adapt to technological developments, changing work cultures, helping others with their challenges, and generally flexing your own working practices to ever-changing global priorities, then you’re likely to remain employable in a range of disciplines, roles and industries.
  2. Curiosity – being interested in areas beyond your own sphere of interests can lead you into new environments and cultures, exposing you to new people, ideas and opportunities. This aids collaboration and cooperation, novel and innovative thinking, resulting in new perspectives.
  3. Taking a risk – not necessarily in the sense of ‘jumping into the unknown’, but a calculated risk which takes you out of your comfort zone and into the realms of new possibilities. It can feel scarey, but this is good as it means you’re learning new things and experiencing opportunities, which may take you along a new course or career path leading towards ‘success’.
  4. Being proactive – that is, not being passive. It’s easy to let others make decisions on your behalf or to wait for something to happen to you. Being proactive means taking a leadership role in your own life. Set yourself goals, even if they are everyday small achievements, make things happen for you, put in effort and energy – it all helps to make you more self-motivated and driven.
  5. Networking – taking advantage of the network of people you already know, as well as getting to know new people, who could assist you in your research or career is not cynical or opportunistic. Rather, it is a two-way mutually beneficial relationship between people who wish to build a relationship and cooperate with each other. Networking can be done face-to-face, for example at conferences, via email, phone or social media. Operating on your own is not encouraged by funding bodies or businesses nowadays, as they perceive that ‘two (or more) heads are better than one’.

If this makes sense to you, why not give it a try by putting one or more of these suggestions into action.

Science communication – telling it how it is!

What are the alternatives to an academic career? Perhaps a job where you are still using your scientific knowledge and skills, but not working in the lab? Somewhere that has a similar culture to the academic research environment? A job where you get to communicate science to a wider audience?

Many PhD students and early career researchers aspire to a career in science communication, as they seek more flexible and creative careers outside of the confines of academic research and the laboratory set up. Probably they have already embarked on this career path, testing out their skills and likely enjoyment of the job by volunteering to get involved in internal and external activities, such as University Open Days, schools visits and on-line writing opportunities during their PhD or postdoc.

However, when people tell me they want a career in science communication, my first question to them is always, “Which area of this career sector interests you most?” For example, do you want to stand in front of school children and wow them with exciting and inspiring demonstrations (e.g. as you would do working in a Science centre or museum, or teaching in a school?). If you’re someone who wants to stay very close to academia, science publishing careers may be most suited to you, but beware that there is little opportunity to write yourself in these jobs. Rather, you will be editing and evaluating the writing of others.

Would you prefer to take a back seat behind the scenes, blogging about scientific events and issues? Or how about being a science journalist or press officer, bridging the gap between academia and the media? Perhaps you are good with your hands and would be surprised to hear that the job of ‘Maker’ exists, whereby you create colourful and educative exhibits for the general public and school children. Those interested in science policy can take a more influential role by collating opinion, formulating consultations and writing position papers aimed at governmental ministers.

For all of these very varied roles, there are particular criteria which will be more appealing to some than to others, depending on personal preferences, such as personality, skills, values and other criteria, such as a preference about where to live. Many science policy jobs are based in capital cities, as are other science communication roles, so this could be a restriction to some people. Extraverts may relish face to face encounters, whilst more introverted types might prefer a behind-the-scenes-role. Creative types might wish to express their artistic and imaginative talents through more free-form media, whilst those of a more conservative nature may feel fulfilled through a more administrative role. Remote working is more amenable in many communication roles, which may be a draw for those who wish to work from home.

Opportunities to gain experience in science communication during your PhD or postdoc is relatively easy compared with industry experience. A really excellent community to tap into the science communication world is the PSCI-COM Discussion list. Hosted by the Wellcome Trust, it has over 2000 members who are always eager to advise and help newcomers. You can find voluntary jobs, internships and employment opportunities, as well as hearing about the latest hot news and developments. Euroscience is an excellent Europe-wide forum and hosts the ESOF meeting every two years with the opportunity to present science to the public. If you’re particularly keen on press work and journalism then STEMPRA is the organisation to join and, finally, look at my blog (under science communication) to see all the other links to relevant information, e.g. medical communications.

Good luck to those aiming for a career in science communication – just remember that your most likely key to success is being able to show you’ve already been doing it during your research or PhD!

Abstract Thinking

Conference season is upon us once again – a chance to showcase your work, listen to others and meet up with fellow scientists in far flung places (some more exotic than others). Giving a talk or presenting a poster makes the trip all the more worthwhile and productive, putting you in the spotlight and opening up opportunities for helpful comments and suggestions, potential collaborations or even a new research job. But how can you maximise the chances that your research receives the attention it deserves during the meeting?

Obviously you need some interesting results to disseminate to your fellow delegates, but you can make them more noticeable by submitting an eye-catching abstract ahead of the meeting. Not only will this improve your chances of being chosen to give a talk, it will also mean people notice your research when they scan through the (sometimes hundreds of) summaries, before and during the meeting. Try out this formula to help you stand out from the crowd:


Step 1: Set the scene – WHAT’s the question/current knowledge? This is your opportunity to draw in the reader and tease their curiosity so that they want to read on. The aim is to entice them to come to your talk or your poster.

Step 2: Write WHY you have done it. What is the main aim of your research? What are you trying to add to the current knowledge and why are you doing it?

Step 3: Write HOW you have done it. Only give general details about the methodology. All too often PhD students and early career researchers tend to get bogged down in the detail of the methods. Although this might represent about 70% of what you, don’t be tempted to make it 70% of your abstract.

Step 4: Write only your MAIN results. Again, don’t get distracted with small details. Cut to the main findings and retain your reader’s interest. They will probably have scanned quickly through the abstract to locate this information so don’t disappoint them.

Step 5: What is the SIGNIFICANCE of the results? So you’ve done these experiments and got these results – so what? Don’t assume your reader will be able to interpret them – you need to highlight the significance of them in relation to Steps 1 and 2. This then creates a complete story – one worth hearing about.

Step 6: Think up a catchy (but accurate) title. It’s probably best to wait until you’ve written your abstract before you think up a title so that it reflects the content. Pull out a key phrase or ‘soundbite’ from the text or think of a play on words, but make sure that it’s not misleading or inaccurate.

Happy conferencing and if you can’t be there in person, try the meeting’s Twitter hashtag to see what’s going on. For example, I’ve been to Hawaii recently on #plantbio17 🙂

Keep calm and career on

“The future of universities” – this UK event was sold out within hours of being publicised. Not surprising, given the uncertainty of Brexit and its impact on funding, students, researchers and the very nature of what a university is for. Change is the only unchanging certainty in life, but no one could have predicted how much the world would alter in just one year, and we haven’t even started yet; elections are coming up in many influential European countries and who knows what will happen in America?


“Keep calm and carry on” is a famous motivational slogan from WWII and it’s a good mantra to hang on to right now. In situations where the political “powers that be” are playing a game over which you have little or no control, carry on doing what you’re doing, and be prepared to stand firm on your beliefs and principles. At the personal level, you are talented individuals who still have influence over key aspects of your life: For example, what’s your USP? Knowing your own “Unique Selling Point” and how to promote yourself as the “go-to person” for your area of expertise is a skill in itself nowadays, especially in this era of social media networking. It could be your specific bioscience knowledge, technical or teaching talents, personal attributes or even your connections which make you a valuable commodity in a particular employment sector. Unlike socio-economic and political influences, these are factors that are under your control, so why not think about focussing on them and developing yourself further. It will make you stronger and wiser.

For my part, I consider my strengths to be advising and writing – usually around career related issues. It’s a far cry from my early days of doing research in the lab, where I was well away from my comfort zone, but where I learned that I really enjoy the company of scientists. They (generally) manage to combine mindful intelligence with having fun and I feel privileged to have spent the most-part of my career working amongst them.

And on that note, I leave you with these words, which have been disseminated widely since they were first written by Kent M. Keith in 1968.

People are often unreasonable, illogical and self-centred;
Forgive them anyway.
If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives;
Be kind anyway.
If you are successful, you will win some false friends and some true enemies;
Succeed anyway.
If you are honest and frank, people may cheat you;
Be honest and frank anyway.
What you spend years building, someone could destroy overnight;
Build anyway.
If you find serenity and happiness, they may be jealous;
Be happy anyway.
The good you do today, people will often forget tomorrow;
Do good anyway.
Give the world the best you have, and it may never be enough;
Give the world the best you’ve got anyway.
You see, in the final analysis, it is between you and your God;
It was never between you and them anyway.

What’s guiding your career?

What’s the secret of career success? Is it down to luck or just hard work? Is it about who you know rather than what you know? Is there a ‘career success’ formula?

These are questions that can run through people’s heads when they are thinking about their careers and what path or decisions they should take. It can make them procrastinate and over-think their career decisions, making them feel confused and diminishing their confidence levels. They come to me asking for direction, saying, “Tell me what I should do”. My answer? “Do something!”

That’s after a full guidance interview of course, where we journey together through the present and the past, before thinking about the future and the question of what action to take. I act as a mirror, reflecting back to my client, questioning their thoughts, their assertions, challenging their long-held beliefs and helping them to find connections and, ultimately, a way forward into the future.

This is what professional career guidance is all about – career professionals are not going to tell you what to do, but we can help you to find your own answers using recognised career theory and documented practitioner experience. It’s not rocket science and there is no magic formula. Compare your career decision with buying or renting a house. On what do you base your decision? Price, location, reputation of the area, how many rooms, position etc. – it may not be perfect but the one you choose is the one that is available at the time and ticks most of the boxes and you can always change it a bit to suit your needs. Alternatively, you can choose to build your own house, design it to your particular specifications and project-manage the whole process. Compare this with being employed and being a self-employed entrepreneur: the former is dependent on what the market is currently offering and your own career situation at that particular time; the latter is more likely to get the design that suits you best, but there is a greater risk involved.

So, what am I getting at here? Your career is in your hands. I can’t tell you what to do as you know yourself much better than I do. However, what I can help you with is sorting out and managing all those thoughts whizzing around in your head and possibly driving you mad:  the number of options you have; your hopes and fears; your family’s hopes and fears; your supervisor’s opinion; your need for success but your sense of failure; your feeling of powerlessness in the face of political pressures; your frustrations; your personal potential and the over-riding optimism you have to push ahead and fulfil your career ambitions. I can also help you to find helpful networks, sources of information and connections.

So, in conclusion, if I had to give one piece of careers advice, I would encourage everyone to be proactive and positive. If you listen to most people’s career stories they will mention a ‘happenstance’ moment when an unexpected event or meeting put their career on a new and exciting footing. If you do stuff, get out and about, engage with social media, network, find a mentor, go to meetings, sign up for courses, volunteer for things, get yourself known and recognised, you will be surprised by the number of career opportunities that come your way.

Bon chance!


The Business of Science

Thinking of getting into business? Many of those who embark on a PhD will have been considering a number of other options before making their final choice to commit 3 – 4 years (or more) devoted to research. Amongst their number are budding entrepreneurs, management consultants and businessmen/women. During their PhD, these students often have their eye on applied opportunities associated with their research and may get involved in outreach and impact activities, generating patents or even launching a spin-out company. Recently, I was asked by a PhD student about ways in which she could bolster her business acumen and experience to enhance her chances of entering a career in business post-PhD. I asked my network of career professionals (hat tip to those who responded) and here’s a list of 10 ideas they came up with:

  1. Get involved in enterprise programmes such as YES Biotechnology or join (set up) an entrepreneur association at your university.
  2. If your PhD includes the opportunity to do an internship, aim to spend your time in a business role if possible.
  3. Contact your university business/management school to ask their advice and/or investigate their business courses on campus. You might decide to take a part-time master’s degree or diploma course during or after your PhD (e.g. MSc Bioentrepreneurship at Karolinksa Institute).
  4. Investigate other potential management courses, eg online MBAs, MOOCS, Summer school business courses and others such as EIT Health, EMBO and College des Ingenieurs. Pharma and business companies also run short courses. A Google search might help to locate opportunities in your country.
  5. Contact your university/institute alumni network and ask to get in touch with former PhD students who have moved into business careers. They may be able to give you advice, act as a mentor or put you in contact with potential employers.
  6. Use LinkedIn to do a search to find former PhD students working in science business. Look at their work experience history, any extra qualifications and, if you link with them, ask their advice on entering their line of business.
  7. If there is a science park on or nearby your campus aim to make contact with one or more relevant companies there and see if you can spend time shadowing or even undertaking some work with them.
  8. Talk to your university careers service which will have links to employers with graduate management recruitment programmes, e.g. McKinsey, PwC, Anderson IT Consulting and healthcare consultancies.
  9. Attend career, alumni and employer fairs such as those organised at your university and regionally, as well as specialist scientific careers events such as Europbio, NatureJobs and BCF.
  10. Further information:

You may have the will, but you also need to be able to demonstrate that you are developing relevant management-related skills to convince employers of your personal qualities and potential business ability. Therefore, make sure you get involved in activities during your PhD to add breadth to your CV, such as team sports, organising events, representation on committees and interaction with outside organisations. These will help to show that you are an active, team-orientated results-driven person with proven communication skills – qualities that many companies look for in their new recruits.

Flying High

mo farah

As research scientists, you will know the excitement of success, not least of all the moment when you passed your PhD defence. For more seasoned postdocs, that may be some time ago, for PhD students, it’s a future pleasure to look forward to. However, staying in the present, see if you can recall your most recent achievement. It can be anything that makes you feel a sense of pride and accomplishment.  It doesn’t have to be a paper in Nature, an international collaboration or successful funding bid. These revered equivalents of Olympic gold, silver and bronze represent some of the most recognised attainments amongst the research community. However, as the sports teacher of double-gold medal winner, Mo Farah, pointed out in an interview during the Olympic games in Rio, it’s easy for us to become obsessed with medals and distracted by league tables, whilst neglecting all those who have managed to qualify and take part, which is an outstanding achievement in itself.

Positive thinking

So, think again. What is your most recent achievement? It can be anything that makes you feel good about yourself, something that provokes a sense of satisfaction when you think about it. It could be a professional or personal accomplishment, something major or relatively small. It has taken a lot of talent and effort to get this far in your career, so whether you’ve recently generated some new results, completed your analysis, started to write your thesis, given a great lecture, written a blog or even juggled a family event or run your personal best, take some time to reflect and revel in your achievement.  Focusing on the positive can help you through the dark days when your experiments aren’t working or your paper has just been rejected. Recall something that you have done well and look to the future to boost your confidence. Write it down and then get on with working on tomorrow’s achievement.

Positive action

Researchers and PhD students have many opportunities to apply for awards, fellowships and a variety of competitions. For example, my organisation, the Society for Experimental Biology (SEB), each year recognises four early career leaders in the fields of education, plant, cell and animal biology through its ‘president’s medal awards’. It also hosts a Young Scientists Award session and poster prizes during its annual conference, as do many other scientific meetings. This is a great way to add additional evidence of your research excellence to your CV. However, belonging to learned societies and professional bodies and attending conferences and meetings can also help you to gain a sense of achievement: It might be making links with other bioscientists leading to a lab visit or even a job offer, it could be winning a travel grant to attend a conference, an informal chat which opens up a new line of thinking, or simply experiencing an international scientific meeting for the first time.

My own personal achievements range from publishing my first book, which took me about two years to write, through to everyday stuff such as writing a couple of articles for our society magazine and completing the programme for a one-day conference I’m involved in organising. I even count this blog as an achievement, since I set myself a goal of writing one per month and I’m two days ahead of my February deadline.

Think about what you’ve achieved at the end of every day and you may well surprise yourself!

Keep on, keepin’ on

2016-11-15 15.41.49

What do you do when you love being a postdoc, but you know you’re living on borrowed (contract) time? Here’s 8 ways to keep on, keepin’ on.

This month I’ve been organising a one-day career workshop for bioscience mid/senior postdocs, which is scheduled to take place at the end of February in London. Workshops aimed at postgraduate students tend to be more straightforward as everyone is ultimately aiming for the same goal – a successful PhD defence or viva leading to graduation and the coveted doctoral prize. Following on from this, graduates follow a number of career paths; most leave for non-academic careers, however a significant number, especially those in science, choose to remain within academic research (universities and research institutes). Once a postdoc, career goals become more diverse and include: aiming for a permanent tenure-track academic post, an enviable list of publications in high impact journals, making ground-breaking discoveries, intellectual stimulation and even the Nobel Prize. These are highly aspirational aims, but as many academics will tell you, you need to be highly determined, competitive and even lucky if you are to be one of the few who “make it”. And few they are, compared with the numbers who embark on the initial postdoctoral career path, ultimately culminating in the long-term or ‘serial’ postdoc situation which befalls many.

Sometimes unwittingly, but in many cases, very much open-eyed, postdoctoral researchers embrace the opportunity to “keep on keepin’ on” with their contracts, even though they suspect they will never secure a permanent post. The lifestyle is good, comfortable and rewarding – I call it the “velvet rut” – but as much as it is a nice place to be, it will disappear one day. I have seen this happen to people in their 40s who end up taking jobs in the local book shop, government office or departmental stores at the university. They compromise their careers in favour of their personal goals to remain in the local area, keep their kids in the school just around the corner or in order to stay with their friends or support their partner or wider family. Unless this is where you see yourself in a few years’ time, here are some suggestions and career strategies:

  1. For every year that passes, and every postdoc position that you take on, always consider your own personal and professional development. Ask to do more; take on more responsibilities, write papers and apply for funding applications; initiate new collaborations; take on a teaching load, supervise masters students, manage aspects of the lab such as resources, budgets, people; give conference talks, etc. In other words “act up” in the role of an academic, even if you’re not one. You never know where it may lead.
  2. Identify your own Unique Selling Point – USP(s). What are you good at? What are you known for? E.g. a research specialism, technical skills or tools, innovative teaching & learning, etc. Whatever it is, try to improve and keep up to date with its development through courses, workshops, lab visits or collaborations. Learn new ways of doing things and stay in touch or ahead of the game!
  3. Consider research opportunities away from your own field of interest. Some areas of research are on the rise, attracting more funding and moving across into them could open up new and more obtainable opportunities.
  4. Look for on-line remote-working type jobs, e.g. in publishing and communication. There is an increasing need for journal editors (proofing and editing) which might be ideal for those who enjoy home-working. Similarly, websites need science writers who can provide copy and bring visitors to their sites.
  5. If you’re happy to move across into the management/administrative side of the university or institute, many of your organisational, analytical and project management skills will be an asset when you apply for internally advertised posts. It means changing roles, but enjoying the same work environment.
  6. Consider targeting small companies, rather than the larger more well-known ones, as these are more akin to the working environment of a research group, with flatter management and the opportunity to problem solve and multi-task. [LinkedIn can help you to locate them as they have ‘number of employees’ as one of their search criteria].
  7. Use your networks and social media such as LinkedIn to track down people doing the types of job you would like to do, especially if they are PhD alumni of your university or any others with which you’re associated, as they will be more willing to help you. The more networking you do, the more people who know about you, the more opportunities will come your way. An on-line presence can especially help to boost your profile, e.g. Researchgate, LinkedIn or Twitter.
  8. Try to get help and support if it is available in your institution, or contact someone like myself for individual coaching and advice. Even find a supportive empathetic colleague in whom to confide. Sometimes all you need is someone to help boost your confidence and to help empower you to say to yourself “Yes, I can do that!”

I hope you found this (rather long) blog useful and maybe I’ll see you at one of our postdoc workshops in the future 🙂

Looking for a new job? Keep your acquaintances close!


When it comes to finding out about new jobs – or, for that matter, new information, or new ideas – ‘weak ties’ are always more important than ‘strong ties’. This is not surprising when you think about it – whilst your friends are closely associated with your personal network, your acquaintances tend to occupy quite a different world to you, so that they are more likely to know something or someone that you don’t. In this way they make great ‘connectors’, linking you to new information and people, new jobs and employment networks.

This research finding, originally conducted by sociologist, Mark Granovetter, in 1974 was reported in Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point”, a book I was reading over Christmas, whilst also digesting rather a lot of high calorie food! Subtitled, “How little things make a big difference”, the book demonstrates how concepts such as “the law of the few” and “the power of context” can lead to escalated effects such as epidemics, successful mass media campaigns and increased social power.

Many people, when they look back over their life and tell their ‘career story’, quite often mention a turning point; something that happened such as a chance meeting or piece of information which transformed their lives, changed or boosted their career direction. Such events can act as a ‘tipping point’, defined by Gladwell as one dramatic moment when everything can change all at once. People also refer to these instances as their ‘lucky’ moment. They say things like, “I just happened to bump into someone who told me about a great job opportunity” or “I attended a conference I’d found out about on Twitter, where I met my current supervisor” or “I attended a career workshop where the tutor put me in touch with one of her contacts and from there I managed to find my first job in science communication”.  That last one was me – I was the workshop tutor who acted as the ‘connector’ to help one of my workshop delegates to get connected to the science communication community.

Social media, especially Twitter [currently], are vast networks which often get into the news as the perpetrators of viral stories (good and bad) – they can cause information epidemics very quickly and are a powerful example of how one tweet can escalate globally, depending on factors such as who posted it, the topic and the controversy. Within this global network, more specialised sub-communities exist where people follow each other and tweet a variety of fascinating and useful information (including jobs) connected with their particular interests. All of our connections on social media are potential ‘connectors’ – the fact that they are engaging with these networks means they are likely to be conducive to approaches from people in their circles, so I recommend that you join one or two of them, depending on your career plans.

So if you look a bit closer, you’ll probably find that people are usually the makers of their own luck. They have put themselves ‘out there’ by being proactive, being in the right place at the right time, instigating semi-formal introductions and initiating interactions with acquaintances or ‘strangers’. One or more of their many ‘connectors’ are likely to have put them in the path of a person or piece of information which has acted as a tipping point in their career, acting as their lucky moment, and leading them to where they are now.

Related content: 10 ways to find your next job

Patently obvious careers

November’s blog showcases Patent Examiner, a popular career choice for researchers [note: not to be confused with Patent Lawyer/Attorney]. “Miguel” works in the European Patent office and explains his role and what it takes to get into this profession.

Patent examiner, European Patent office

Job Description

The minimum requirements for the role of patent examiner at EPO is an undergraduate degree. However, in reality, most (if not all) of the 300 examiners working in the biotechnology cluster have a PhD and postdoctoral experience. The reason for this is that the job requires highly critical analytical skills and the ability to have meaningful in-depth scientific discussions with the patent applicants. The information and analysis is highly specific and you need to be able to de-construct the details of the application to determine its value and contribution to the advancement of a particular technology.

Only 30 – 40% of patent applications are accepted per year and the process, from start to finish, lasts several years. I work in a team of three but our work is carried out individually. Each of us works on our own applications. I research databases, examine all the information, analyse the contribution and build up a dossier. I write a report highlighting the strong and weak points of the application and give my opinion on the patentability of the invention. I then negotiate with the applicants through an exchange of letters until we reach an agreement or their application is rejected, in which case I meet with the applicants, their lawyers and supporters at a hearing with my other two colleagues to make the final decision and to close the case.

In addition to scientific expertise and a highly critical analytical mind, language skills (English, French and German) are required by the EPO. You need to have excellent knowledge of two in order to apply but a third is usually desirable. If your language skills are not good enough they will ask you to go away and improve on them before you can are accepted for the job. The majority of employees here are from France and Germany but smaller countries where language skills are more important such as Luxembourg, Belgium, the Netherlands and Switzerland are well represented. Notable under-represented large countries include the UK, Portugal, Greece, Italy and Spain.


Towards the end of my PhD in molecular genetics at the Università Autonoma and CSIC in Madrid I started looking for postdoctoral positions. I wasn’t convinced of aiming for a career in academia; during my PhD I had seen many highly talented researchers striving for this only to be unsuccessful due to the very strong competition.  Therefore I focussed on research posts in industry and secured a position in a small start-up company in Germany – a spin-out company from the Max Planck Institute. The job was ideal – it was a permanent post and I felt more valued than in academia; I led a small team and could delegate more routine tasks so I could focus on reading, experimental design and analysing data. After two years, however, it was clear the company was not really taking off so I started to look at other options. As well as again looking for research posts, I saw an advertisement for a patent examiner in Nature which caught my attention. I had never considered this as a career before. I had been on the other side of the process as a patent applicant but I could never understand a word of the legal aspects of the document. I decided to apply to see what happened and as I looked more closely at the job and working conditions, I became more interested. I was attracted by the prospect of being at the forefront of technological developments and being privy to the very latest breakthroughs. Also, now that I understand the legal side of the job, I find I enjoy it as much as the science!

The Career factors:

Examine jobs in detail

With such a range of jobs being advertised it’s difficult to know what would suit you. Even if you decide to leave academic research you still tend to consider research but instead in an alternative organisation. This is probably because most of us haven’t any idea of what else is on offer or whether we would enjoy it (or be good at it). When I applied for the patent examiner post I didn’t take it seriously to begin with – I had just seen that it was science-related and would involve a visit to The Hague for interview which seemed quite appealing.  However, if you look more closely at the detailed specifications of vacancies, rather than only considering the specific subject knowledge and qualifications, you start to get a much better idea about the job. Employers want to know you can do the job and if you’re a bright person with the ability to learn new things they will happily take you on if you have the right skills and potential.


Clearly this is a job for someone who is comfortable working with highly complex scientific information across the field of biotechnology and who has very well developed analytical skills. Furthermore, this is quite an isolated role with people working individually on their own projects with limited interaction with others in their team. This prospect will be appealing to some but not to others and will depend on personal factors; your personality and the skills you enjoy using are more important when choosing your career than your specific subject discipline. When you examine job descriptions look at the skills and personal attributes they require and don’t dwell too much on specific subject knowledge.

Further information

European Patent Office
US Patent and Trademark office
Chartered patent attorneys

This career profile is one of 20 case studies showcased in my book “Career planning for research bioscientists”