Danielle Hoyle

Head of Scientific Services and UK Grants at a UK research institute

Former researcher in biochemistry at the University of Manchester (UK)

Danielle HoyleResearch staff experience

I was a PhD student at the University of Manchester between 2005 and 2008. After I submitted my PhD I did a short postdoc for four months in the same lab, funded by a Wellcome Trust Value in People (VIP) Award.

My research was focused on identifying novel regulators of the eIF2B protein in yeast. This protein plays a critical role in regulating protein synthesis through a well-defined process; my project was to uncover new mechanisms that affect the activity of eIF2B. However, it was not a successful project and no major advances were made. During the course of my PhD I was co-author on a methods paper as a result of code I wrote to automate analysis of 96-well plate growth assays. I was also co-author on a paper that was published in 2016 – using data I produced ten years earlier.

I decided to leave research for multiple reasons. The lack of ‘success’ in my PhD had not inspired me to continue and I’d lost my love of working at the bench. There was also the prospect of short-term contracts and the competitive nature of academia that put me off. I realised I still loved science, I just didn’t enjoy doing it.

Transition from academic research

Because I wanted to stay in a career aligned to science, and use the knowledge I had developed over the PhD, I decided a career in publishing would be ideal. I also considered jobs like medical writing, but publishing appealed to me the most because it gave me the opportunity to keep up-to-date with exciting new developments in research, with the prospect of a permanent job with regular hours.

The most challenging part was accepting that I didn’t know anything about this field and had never worked in an office before. Also, I had to take a substantial pay cut, despite moving to London, which was hard to accept.

After 12 months in journal publishing working as a Scientific Editor, I moved to work for the Wellcome Trust (a biomedical research charity based in London) in their Grants Management department. It was a chance move, really. As a PhD student someone from Wellcome had visited a University careers fair and their job had really appealed to me; I would frequently look at the website and when I saw an opening I applied for the position.

My new role was actually very similar to my previous one, with the major difference that people wanted funding to conduct research rather than publishing their results. On a day-to-day level the jobs had a great deal in common: reading applications; checking for compliance with internal standards; identifying peer reviewers; reading reviews, and so on.

In addition, I gained experience sitting in on grant funding and interview panels, which gave me an insight into how committees make decisions on what they do and do not fund. Furthermore, I was given opportunities to develop my skills and expertise by managing funding schemes and acting as secretariat for committees.

Current job – and how it compares           

I moved to Babraham Institute (BI) in 2013. BI, based near Cambridge, is one of the UK’s National Institutes of Bioscience.

In this role I have responsibility for UK grant funding, providing a comprehensive oversight of Research Council UK (RCUK) policies and requirements. I oversee all grant submissions to UK-based funders that leave the Institute, providing support and advice to applicants throughout pre-award: budgeting, internal committee review and approval, the content of the application, compliance checks and submission. Prior to this role there was no grants office at BI and applicants were offered limited support. Working in collaboration with a colleague who oversees international grant submissions, and with input from our researchers, we established a formal pre-award workflow.

Over the past four years I’ve been given the opportunity to become more involved in the operational and managerial aspects of running a research institute. A benefit of working in a small organisation is the chance to take on new challenges, although this needs to be balanced with maintaining your current workload.

As a result of this experience I’ve recently been promoted to Head of Scientific Services and UK Grants, which in addition to my current role will oversee the Institute’s scientific services in order to improve efficiency for our researchers. I’m also studying for an MBA through the Open University to develop my knowledge and expertise in management and finance.

One of the challenges of the role is the cyclical nature of grant funding opportunities, which means there are peaks of extremely high demand and it can be hard to manage people’s expectations of what you can deliver if they’re all competing for your help. However, it is a very rewarding job when the grant submissions are successful and you can see a tangible outcome from your efforts.

Competencies old and new

Other than the scientific knowledge I gained during my PhD the skills I developed then are not hugely relevant to my current position. However, those experiences enabled me to move into publishing and the competencies developed there allowed the move to Wellcome, and from there to Babraham, so without an academic background I wouldn’t be in the position I am today. When applying for the position in publishing it was important to reflect on what I did in the PhD and how that could be categorised as a generic competency. For example, managing my own research project could be badged as project and/or time management skills; talking at conferences equalled communication skills. This allowed me to make a case for how I fit a job description when at first glance I thought I wasn’t competitive.

Reflections on my career path

I am currently very satisfied with my career. An ‘operations’ role suits me well because I enjoy trying to make sense of situations and work alongside other people to identify and implement the most rational way to make things happen. As I’ve just started a new position I have no plans to move on at present, but my long-term aspiration is to move into a more senior operations role, either specifically managing research activities or a broader position such as Chief Operating Officer. The benefit of this type of job is that the competencies are very generic so you aren’t limited to sector; I could move out of academia and take up a role in a completely different area.

My advice

When I was doing my PhD I didn’t have any idea of the breadth of careers available to someone with the skillset that gives you. I’d encourage you to go to careers talks and events and read the CVs of people in different roles to give you a sense of where they came from and the types of jobs you can do with a background in academia. Push yourself to go for positions that interest you, even if you consider them out of reach, especially if in an application form or at interview you can demonstrate enthusiasm and a willingness to learn. 

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