Cat Vicente

Cat Vicente is now the web editor at Lady Margaret Hall College in Oxford. She shares her experience of leaving academia. You can tweet her @catcvicente.

Short summary of your work in developmental biology:

I did my PhD in the Raff lab (University of Oxford). I used Drosophila as a model to study centriole assembly.

New role and company:

Current role – Web editor, Lady Margaret Hall College (University of Oxford)

Previous role – The Node community manager and online editor at Development

Why did you choose to leave academia?

I really enjoy science but not at the level of detail needed for a career in research. I realised that there was no specific protein or process that fascinated me enough to want to pursue a single scientific question for the rest of my life. I discovered that I liked science at a much broader level. In addition, I realised that ‘eureka’ moments in science are actually quite rare, so you must genuinely enjoy the process of doing science, not just the moments when you make an exciting discovery. I guess I realised that I didn’t enjoy the practical side of doing experiments enough to wait for the eureka moments!

Did the experience and skills gained in academia prepare you for the new role? Was there any training, etc. you wish you had done?

When I was in academia my eyes would roll when someone mentioned the ‘transferable skills’ that I was developing, but now I know that they were absolutely right! There are two skills that I acquired from academia that are absolutely essential for any job: first, the ability to think critically and logically; second, resourcefulness and the ability to be creative when approaching problems. Working with people without academic training has made me value these skills immensely. There are also other, more specific, skills that we take for granted as scientists, but that people outside the lab may not get the opportunity to develop. These include organisation skills, project management, presentation and writing skills, the ability to give and accept feedback, etc. PhDs are fabulous stepping stones to other careers.

What do you miss the most about research?

I have missed different things in different jobs. When I was the Node community manager, because I worked in a more traditional company, I missed some of the comradery of the lab. In my current job, in a higher education setting where I interact with students and academics of many fields, I miss the opportunity of focusing my mind on biology. So it really depends on the job!

What do you miss the least about research?

I don’t miss the lack of job security. Both my jobs outside academia have been permanent positions. I also don’t miss the feeling that a lot of my hard work and commitment ended up wasted. In science, I felt that any work done was only valued by the system when it turned into a publication. Outside the lab, every day of work is seen as one more day of experience to be added to your CV. In addition, because of the nature of my role, most of my tasks and projects are more short term than the experiments or projects I used to do in the lab. This means that I have a personal feeling of achievement more regularly, which is very motivating.

Do you have any CV tips?

If you are going to transition from academia to another career, you will have to prove that you have the transferable skills needed to adapt to a new role. You can explain to a potential employer how your skills apply in a new setting and how you are interested in a new career, but a much better strategy is to show it. Try to do use some of your free time to build the non-science part of your CV. If you want to go into writing, for example, make sure that you contribute to magazines, journals or just start a blog. Try to find opportunities to do short internships or volunteering in your area of interest. Identify an essential skill or training that you might be missing and do an evening or online course. A great way to identify where some of the gaps are is by checking job adverts in your area of interest several months before you start applying for jobs, to give yourself time to fill some of those gaps.

Do you have any other advice for young researchers?

Labs are strange bubbles. All of your mentors and colleagues will be (or will be working towards) becoming academics, and so wanting to become an academic is the obvious career path. Don’t let this bias you. Careers outside academia are actually the norm, not the exception. Give a career in academia a good go if that is your genuine dream, but if it’s not, don’t feel guilty about it. You might find (like I did) that there are careers outside academia that you will find more fulfilling and enjoyable than being a scientist. I can say in all honesty that I have never regretted my decision to leave academia, and wouldn’t want to run my own lab even if a Wellcome Trust Senior Investigator Award was given to me on a silver platter!

 

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