- What Do PhDs Do?
- What Do PhDs Do? Case Studies
- Case Studies in Biological Sciences
- Andrea, zoo nutristionist, PhD in zoology/animal nutrition
Andrea, zoo nutristionist, PhD in zoology/animal nutrition
Occupation: Zoo Nutritionist
PhD subject: Zoology/Animal Nutrition
Why did you do a PhD?
I had spent 18 months as a research assistant (in an unrelated field) prior to my studies, so although I wanted to develop my research skills in specific areas, I had no desire for a longer term academic career as a postdoc or lecturer. I did recognise the improved employment potential that would come from the increased respect that comes from having a PhD.
Describe your current job briefly:
I organise and provide a nutritional advisory service for the animal collection through diet formulation and review, foodstuff quality assessment, economic evaluation of nutrition programmes and conducting research (including publishing and presenting scientific papers on topics involving comparative animal nutrition). I promote best practice in animal nutrition, developing effective policies and procedures and deliver training to the curators and staff within my own institution, but also provide consultancy services to other external zoological collections, associations and universities.
Why did you decide on this career?
Throughout my zoology degree I was interested in the role zoos played in conservation of endangered species and sought suitable work experience. Initially my concern and expertise was largely in studying behaviour in relation to improving captive animal welfare, but funding (and thus employment potential) for this topic was limited. I was allocated a research project to investigate diet and recognised a knowledge gap (albeit still poorly funded) that I could champion and fill.
What was your job search strategy and how were you recruited?
The position is a new one so I spent time prior to and during my PhD establishing whether the role of zoo nutritionist would be supported within zoos. I attended relevant meetings and conferences building up a solid network of colleagues employed in similar positions elsewhere and subtly ‘campaigned’ for the position to be created at a zoo. Once Chester committed to the idea, it was advertised in New Scientist and I was recruited in the normal way.
Why do you think you got the job?
I did an awful lot of preparation for the position to be created in the first place, but never took it for granted that I would be the one to fill the vacancy. I used my network of colleagues to establish what would be involved in actually doing the job and took a lot of time customising my application (covering letter and cv) to meet the requirements specified. That was followed up with a 5 min oral presentation (no powerpoint!) during my interview, where I’d done my research to show how job activities would contribute to fulfilling the zoo’s mission. By engaging in a large quantity of diversionary behaviour during my studies (!) I was also now a recognised leader in this field, with both academic expertise and practical knowledge of zoos.
Do you think a PhD has had a positive impact on your career?
Definitely! It kick-started the process, providing me with instant authority, particularly useful when being introduced to the animal keeping staff – they’d managed without this position before, so why spend money on my salary that could be better used elsewhere? But this was coupled with a desire among management to boost the zoo’s scientific credibility and my appointment was repeatedly used as an example of such progress.
What advice do you have for PhD students too boost their employability?
After a minimum of three years focussing on the minutiae of your research, working largely on your own even if you’re surrounded by other researchers, it’s incredibly difficult to truly recognise the diverse range of skills you’ve acquired. More specifically, it’s not easy to visualise how they can be used generically, beyond the context of your own research.
Furthermore, there’s an inherent tendency to focus on where you failed (how you would do the research better?), rather than on what you have actually achieved.
Seek a means of honestly identifying and appreciating the personal qualities you have, separate and apart from your obvious highly specialised subject knowledge. If you’re not convinced, go on a GRAD course!