Elisabet Salas Ibanez

Project Adviser at Research Executive Agency, European Commission (Belgium)

Former researcher in metabolic diseases at University of Lille (France)

Academic research experience

I started as a researcher in 2003 in San Pablo CEU University in Madrid. I combined lecturer activities with research and finally gained a PhD in Neuroscience in 2009. My main fields of expertise were in neuroscience applied to the study of addictive behaviour. After that, I joined a research team at the General Hospital of Ciudad Real in Spain, whose main challenge was to launch a new Translational Research Unit from scratch. The first line of research was the analysis of biomarkers related to addictive behaviour in morbid obese patients. We launched the Unit and carried out several projects in collaboration with the hospital’s psychiatry and surgery departments. In 2013 I was looking for new challenges and opportunities for learning; I joined the European Genomics Institute for Diabetes (EGID) in Lille to develop a postdoctoral project based on the exploration of the neurobiology of metabolic diseases such as obesity and type 2 diabetes.

Transition from academic research

Several factors had a bearing on my decision to leave research. The main one was job instability. Fixed-term postdoctoral contracts always depend on the budget of the head of laboratory. I had to leave the laboratory in Lille because my two-year contract expired and there was no more budget to hire postdocs.

One of the consequences of the budget shortage was that we worked every day for 12 or 14 hours, working almost every weekend and never taking all our holidays.

In 2015 I was 37 years old, and I needed to rethink the whole scenario of my working life. As I foresaw this situation, I started to search for other options outside academia and public research institutions.

Before thinking of changing my career I’d met people who worked at the European Commission (EC). I was familiar with European research policy and programmes because I applied for many grants. I was aware that at the EC all professional backgrounds are represented. Therefore I responded to a call for expression of interest for contract agents in the field of scientific research. I passed the preliminary tests and I was hired in 2015 in the Research Executive Agency (REA); to work as a Project Officer for the FET Open unit (FET stands for Fostering Emerging Technologies). I have to say that it was a challenging opportunity because I moved from the laboratory to the other side, the side of those who fund the research.

It was an excellent option for me because the REA was looking for PhDs with a scientific background. The FET Open unit funds high-risk projects that develop radically new technologies. High-level researcher competencies are considered essential to organise and execute evaluation of the proposals submitted and to follow up the life cycle of the projects funded.

My main concern before starting working at REA was that I would carry out highly administrative work – the opposite of anti-routine work done in a laboratory. However, after a few months I realised that the activities and tasks were very diverse.

Current job – and how it compares                       

My main responsibilities are:

1) preparation of grant agreements and follow-up project implementation: monitoring contractual obligations (via financial activity and periodic checks, reviews, amendments, audits, follow-up reporting and assistance, quality checks, etc.)

2) selection of external independent experts, then providing training in order to ensure quality during the evaluation process, and following up their work.

3) to monitor project deliverables and expenditure as reported in cost statements

4) to extract and disseminate best practices and present the programme and its projects.

We work to tight deadlines and there are some peaks of activity, such as whenever a new call for proposals is launched. However, if I compare it with my former positions as a researcher, my workload now is more balanced. Work well done is appreciated and if we seek more responsibility, we have the opportunity to be part of working groups within the Agency. On top of this, learning activities are a priority, and we can attend internal and external training courses.

Competencies old and new

Doing research is about managing projects, although a high proportion of researchers don’t realise this. A researcher is a multi-tasker – lecturer, trainer, researcher, creative, writer (of reports and publications, etc.) and good at social skills to build a network of stakeholders.  In my opinion, these competencies are much appreciated outside the academy.

Thanks to my researcher experience I could work in a proactive and autonomous way, and had acquired multiple competencies that are essential to my current position:

  • high capacity to achieve results through planning the workload, resources and budget
  • strong aptitude for team work
  • experience in multi-cultural and multidisciplinary environments
  • flexibility to adapt to different situations
  • analysis and problem solving: the ability to identify the critical facts in complex issues and develop creative and practical solutions.

In my current position I’m gaining negotiation and networking skills, financial competencies, and learning EC policy on research. I had the opportunity to do some training on Innovative Projects Management and Intellectual Property in order to improve my professional profile.

Reflections on my career path

In terms of competencies when I was a researcher, I wish I’d had more knowledge about project management and on how to identify my skills and highlight them to employers. Such knowledge could have made the process of career change smoother.

Thinking back to my expectations at that time, I wish I’d paid more attention to the professional world outside my laboratory instead of focusing only on the outcome of the experiments, especially after obtaining my PhD and before starting my last postdoc. Nowadays, it gets harder and harder to have a permanent position in academia. Therefore, a plan B is needed before it’s too late to change career path.

Currently, my expectations are to learn as much as possible about innovation management and EC policies and continue working to improve European research quality and researchers’ working conditions. There is a lot of work to be done here, and I would like to use my experience to contribute.

My advice

It’s very important to "translate" the skills and competencies gained during academic professional life into keywords and competencies appreciated by each hiring organisation. For instance, strong communication skills, flexibility and capacity to adapt to new situations, resilience, etc. should be emphasized. For project management positions, the number of your publications, the impact factor of the journals or the techniques used for performing the experiments are not that important.

In my opinion, if you foresee a career shift, first, your strategy should be prepared well in advance: in my case, doing research on companies or organisations that hire scientific profiles. Secondly, adapt your motivation letter (cover letter) and CV to the requirements of each job position. Thirdly, consider whether training to reinforce some competencies would be valuable.

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