Elena Shvets

Senior Scientist in a small biotech company, UK

Former researcher in the cell biology department of a research institute in Cambridge, UK and the Weizmann Institute of Science, Israel

Elena ShvetsAcademic research experience

I completed my PhD studies (in five years) at the Weizmann Institute of Science, Israel where I studied the molecular mechanism of autophagy. I then moved on to pursue my six-year postdoctoral studies at the UK’s Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology (MRC-LMB) in Cambridge. During my postdoctorate I used genome-editing techniques to study caveolae: flask-shaped invagination on mammalian plasma membrane involved in diverse range of cellular processes. My academic career resulted in 20 peer-reviewed publications including six first author and two last author articles, a chapter in a “methods” book, and several review-format publications. To support my postdoctorate studies I applied for and secured my own funding: individual fellowships from the European Molecular Biology Organization, Federation of European Biochemical Societies and the Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions.

The decision to leave academic research was not taken in a day. It was a long (still ongoing) process, that came with the realisation of how I would like to see my life in 5, 10, and 20 years. As much as I love research, I was not happy with the existing academic system and the sacrifices in work-life balance that you have to make during an academic career. Despite going through some very tough and stressful periods, I loved every moment of my academic research. However, my love could not compensate for being over-worked and under-paid, lacking work-life balance and a clear vision of how I could develop a secure career. I also came to realise that the main things I loved in my academic research such as asking interesting questions, problem-solving, learning new things, and overcoming new challenges can be done successfully in other, happier and more structured environments. More importantly, I also came to understand that I enjoyed overcoming technical challenges and building an experimental system not less but probably even more than asking functional questions using this system, thus research that is more applied was more satisfying for me. All in all, my decision to leave academic research was mostly based on what I like about science, rather than the downsides of academia.

Transition from academic research

As I slowly came to realise and understand who I am and what I like to do, I decided to explore careers outside of academia. In addition to jobs in the biotech and pharmaceuticals industries I also considered a postdoc in pharma, and explored possibilities in teaching, publishing and business management consultancy. I believe it is very important to be open-minded to different options rather than be fixed on one, and I could clearly see the appeal, pros and cons in other career paths. Eventually, however, I thought that a job in small biotech company would better suit my lifestyle and be a closer fit to my personality and preferences.

This search was not an easy process, as having spent all my professional life in academia I did not have much experience (if at all) in job search and interviews, and was very unsure about my skills in this area.  I approached it by web-searching, speaking with people who had made the transition, and reading in online forums. Most helpfully, I got professional help from the University of Cambridge careers service, which is free for all affiliated students and postdocs. I took several workshops, participated in career talks and, most importantly, had individual meetings with a career adviser. They helped me to shape my CV and cover letter in a way that emphasizes my strongest sides, and gave a lot of valuable advice. This help, together with constructive feedback and mock interview, gave me much more confidence and practical skills during my job search.

Current job – and how it compares

I’m now a researcher in a biotech company that was originally spun out from the University of Cambridge. Although less than ten years old, the company already assists over 200 customers globally with their research.

My current job involves mostly R&D activities, but unlike in my postdoctorate we also have a lot of project management/data analysis and presentation activities. In comparison to research in academia, right now we have more focus on technical aspects such as building and setting up new assays and exploring our technology more (though that is not always the case with R&D in industry).

The main and one of most appealing differences from academia is the diversity of projects and research topics: as we collaborate and work with a varied range of companies we get to work on cellular system/assays I have never tried before. I find it very challenging on the one hand but very exciting and rewarding on the other.  Another difference from academia is the fact that we have very defined goals, milestones and strict deadlines in varied projects.  This could be more stressful and challenging in comparison to academia, but as the daily work is much more structured and defined, I find it easier to reach these deadlines within standard working hours. Overall, despite being busy and fully occupied by ongoing work, there isn’t a culture of “the more you work is better” or “never enough” as I had felt in academia, therefore better work/life balance is more feasible.

Competencies old and new

I think that my experience during my research career in academia has prepared me well for my current job: I still need same set of skills for research activities, as well as for data analysis and data presentation. Also, as I moved between different labs and changed my country of residence I developed the ability to learn fast and adapt quickly to a new environment.

I still lack some skills that are required or will be required in my future career path, such as proper project management, budgeting and staff management, but as my company puts a lot of emphasis on training and staff development, I am confident I will be able to acquire these competencies.

Reflections on my career path

One of the main challenges during this transition was the fear that I was making a mistake by moving out of academia, since in general I was very happy doing research and it was stressful to leave the only setting I knew so far. One of the most important statements I learned during my job search was: “Everyone has more than one possible career path that they can be successful and happy with”. Being aware of this took away a lot of pressure. So by going into industry now does not mean you would not have been successful or happy doing something else, and vice versa. 

In general, I am positive about my career path so far; I do not feel I have made any major mistakes. I see it all as positive experience that has contributed to my personal development and proper understanding of my abilities and preferences. Yes, it is very helpful to be focused and not spend too much time in academia if you know for sure that you do not want to do academic research. But other people need time to grow and learn and every experience is added to make you what you are.

My future plans and aspirations will be to keep learning and progressing with my career to the next level – more management and organisational skills, but also to learn and improve my researcher skills as well. So far, I see my future career in a positive light, since if I enjoy doing what I do, I believe I will be happy and progress well. I also promised myself to be open-minded and look at different options, rather than being fixed on something very specific. 

My advice

For anyone who is looking to transition to industry I would advise not to be afraid of the move. After speaking with many people who have made this move I’ve found that most people are happily integrated (although it took a while for some of them).

On more practical note, research and talk to people with experience and, importantly, ask for help – whether it is from a professional adviser or just a friend who can help you to format your CV and give you a mock interview; this is extremely helpful for anyone who lacks experience outside academia.   

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