A short summary of your previous work in developmental biology:
My first project was to investigate the expression pattern of a large family of genes during development in the mouse. At the end of my PhD (in 2001) I had a strong interest to work in the stem cell field especially for the therapeutic potential they offer in specific neurological conditions (eg. Parkinson’s disease and spinal injury). After 6 productive years working in the stem cell field, I then decided to go back to more fundamental basic science-based research in order to further understand the developmental origin of a population of specialised cells (that have demonstrated potential to repair the injured spinal cord) using an in vivo fate mapping method in the chick embryo.
Current role and company:
I founded Petit MushyP – a small brand of children and baby-related products such as soft toys, cushions and bags – in 2013 while on maternity leave. I am designing and currently making all the products myself. All my products are mainly sold online via my own website (www.mushyp.co.uk) and various marketplaces (NotOnTheHighStreet, A Little Market, Etsy, Folksy and Cargoh). I also occasionally sell my products at Designer & Makers’ fairs. My job involves everything regarding the running of a company – not only designing and making the items but also photographing them in order to showcase/list them on my websites. I also work on the description and SEO (Search Engine Optimisation – in short, all the keywords that potential customers may use to find your products online) of each listing, I take care of the marketing via social media (Twitter, Facebook and Instagram), ordering of materials & packaging, customer service, and bookkeeping for accountancy & yearly filling in the tax return. For each type of toy I am making, there are also a series of physical tests I must conduct in order to ensure that they are compliant with the EU standards related to the toy safety regulation (CE certification).
Why did you choose to leave to academia?
During my third (and last) postdoc, it started to become clear that I didn’t want to pursue a career in academia. Already as a postdoc, I found that there was far too much pressure in getting the next grant or fellowship application accepted and also in publishing manuscripts in high impact factor journals. Academia doesn’t offer many alternative career tracks (principal investigator, technician or postdoc/research associate basically). Continuing as a research associate was not a long-term option due to its lack of security. Also, I believe that because I didn’t have the main of goal becoming a principal investigator/group leader at a University, my excitement for my research was gradually fading over time.
Having a career break in 2012 – while on maternity leave – helped me to accept to move away from academia. Returning to academia after that break was difficult. I applied for a job in a company (science-related) because I had all the skills and expertise required for the job. Moving from academia to a company, however, meant that I had to accept a downgrade in my job level and title, to become more controlled, and have fewer responsibilities. It didn’t feel right because I was definitely looking for a job where I could make progress – rather than starting from scratch again in a non-academic environment.
Did the experience and skills gained in academia prepare you for the new role? Was there any training, etc. you wish you had done?
I always had an entrepreneurial mindset (even as a teenager), so I thought I would have a go at setting up my own business as a ‘side-hustle’/evening job while still working as a research associate. Setting up my business that is not at all science-related was obviously a massive move, but I learned a lot via networking (I was lucky enough to meet a successful entrepreneur who is mentoring me), blogs and/or websites, business talks and of course books.
I do think that academia provides plenty of transferable skills such as computer literacy, time management, budgeting, writing business/project plans. While my practical laboratory skills are not of much use, other academia-related skills are, for example, problem-solving and project planning & implementation.
What is your favourite thing about your job?
What I love the most about my job is definitely the complete freedom in making each decision related to product development, to reinvestment and therefore business growth. In addition, being a mother of a 4 year old, I very much appreciate being able to work flexible hours around my daughter’s school hours.
What do you miss the most about research?
One aspect I particularly miss about research is the intellectual interactions – discussing a particular scientific idea and its feasibility, raising hypothesis and then testing that hypothesis. I also miss having colleagues (even though I currently don’t have much time for any social life), teaching and supervising students. Working alone at home is challenging from the social side of things.
What do you miss the least about research?
I have always been very passionate and dedicated to research however I don’t miss being in a very unsecured position or contract that may not be renewed if the next grant application is not successful. My career progression is now well and truly in my hands.
Do you have any CV tips?
Being now self-employed, I can only speak of the experience I had from the few jobs I applied for after my maternity leave, and I think that it is important to focus on the transferable skills you have developed during your time in academia. In addition, I would suggest taking full advantage of the help and resources many Universities now offer research scientists with regards to transitioning away from academia.
Do you have any other advice for young researchers?
If you are interested in becoming an entrepreneur, make sure you attend as much business talks as you can while still employed (PhD or postdoc/research associate). The first couple of years are extremely hard, there will be lots of trials and failures, and it can take a year or a couple of years to make the business profitable. So it is best to start a business while still receiving a secured monthly income. While doing your day job, start a business in your spare time to see if it is feasible as a long-term second career option. Do not simply quit and try to start a new business. Networking is also extremely important: I learned considerable tips from successful entrepreneurs and as for any academic scientists, mentoring is extremely beneficial.