Jennifer Brennan

Director of Research, Development and Innovation, Technological Higher Education Association, Ireland

Former researcher in chemistry and nanotechnology; five years as a postdoctoral researcher, working in the US, UK and Ireland

Jennifer BrennanAcademic research experience

I was a researcher for nine years. My PhD at Dublin City University (DCU, in Ireland) was followed by five years of postdoctoral positions: at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (USA); University of Liverpool (UK); and back at DCU.

My PhD research was in physical chemistry, exploring the effects of laser light on the electronic properties of metal complexes. For my postdoc in the USA, I moved into the field of nanotechnology, making gold nanoparticles and examining their properties. When I moved to the UK, I brought my experience of working with nanoparticles to a project to develop new hybrid “bio-nano” materials using enzymes and gold nanoparticles. That was part of a large project funded by the European Commission’s 6th Framework Programme (FP6). It involved 11 partners from seven European countries, including an industry partner.

I returned home to Ireland in 2006 when my partner was offered a great job opportunity there. My PhD supervisor offered me a short postdoctoral position at the newly-formed Biomedical Diagnostic Institute in DCU, which I accepted. He encouraged me to apply for an independent research fellowship from the DCU Vice-President of Research Office, which I won and took up in April 2007. In October 2007, I left to become a Programme Officer in the Irish Research Council for Science, Engineering & Technology (now Irish Research Council).

Thinking about my main research achievements, they are mostly the typical academic achievements of published papers and conference presentations. However, I’m also proud of the quality of the research groups I worked in and that I was a “mobile researcher”, moving out of my comfort zone to work in different countries, research environments and research areas. The FP6 research project was a particular highlight – it was technically challenging, and being involved in a consortium project gave great opportunities for travel and for learning about how EU-funded research projects are managed. That experience was particularly useful in my non-academic career and was key in securing my first job outside of academia.

Transition from academic research

When I graduated with my PhD I, like many researchers, saw my future in academia. Knowing that international mobility was important for securing an academic job, I targeted high-profile research groups abroad for my postdoc. Over the course of my postdoctoral experience, however, my interest in an academic career declined. I began to consider what I could do instead of academic research and started to think about an industry career instead, but I wasn’t sure that with my particular research background I’d be able to find a research job in industry, so I continued to pursue an academic career.

My goal changed definitively when I secured my independent research fellowship and started to work towards having my own research group. I discovered that I didn’t really enjoy it and started to seriously consider other career paths. That, coupled with strong concerns over work-life balance, the insecurity of academic research jobs and the lack of faculty jobs, plus a feeling that my skills might be put to better use outside of academia, led to me deciding to look for a non-academic job.

Transition from academic research

When looking for job opportunities I used the typical search methods of the time (job websites/noticeboards, newspapers and recruitment agencies). I didn’t have any particular career in mind, so I looked for opportunities in industry, government/state agencies, and non-academic research organisations. In general, I wanted to be able to apply my research skills, so I prioritised jobs where that would be likely, but I was open to anything that looked interesting!

My main challenge was editing my CV down from six to two pages and making it more attractive to non-academic employers. This meant focusing on my skills and achievements rather than the specifics of my research experience (such as details of each project and my publications and conference presentations). I used several online resources, including from the American Chemical Society and Royal Society of Chemistry website sections on careers. My husband, who had been working in the private sector for most of his career, was a great help by critiquing my CV drafts and cover letters.

A second challenge was the concern that employers would see my research experience as “no experience” and wouldn’t be interested in hiring me. That was a common opinion among my peers, but that concern proved unfounded.

I interviewed for several jobs and received two offers – one from industry and one from the Irish Research Council (a government research funding agency). I accepted the IRC’s offer of a research management post for several reasons. I liked the fact I’d retain links with the academic community and make use of my research experience and technical knowledge. Also, I’d enjoyed the project management and administration aspects of my research career (particularly the EU experience in the UK) and thought that the job would be a good place to develop those skills.

My role at the IRC was to manage the research council’s Postdoctoral Fellowship Programmes in science, engineering and technology. I was also responsible for various international grant programmes. After four years there I moved to the Irish Universities Association where I spent five years working as a National Contact Point for the EU’s Framework Funding Programmes (FP7 and Horizon 2020).

Current job – and how it compares           

I recently started working as Director of Research, Development and Innovation at the representative body for higher education organisations in Ireland known as Institutes of Technology. The Institutes are known for mission-oriented research, working closely with industry on collaborative projects. They also play a role in supporting entrepreneurs to develop new businesses through training programmes and incubation facilities.

I’ve only been working here for a few months, but so far I see that my job has three main elements: advocating on behalf of the sector; promoting their research and innovation achievements; and supporting them to expand their activities and achieve greater success. There’s no typical working day. I could be at my desk working on a policy paper or analysing the Institutes’ research performance, or I could be out representing the Institutes at a national committee meeting – there are lots of those! The work is varied and challenging, and as such, is very satisfying and rewarding.

Obviously my current role is completely different from carrying out research, but as I work for the academic research community, I haven’t moved too far away from the world of research.

Competencies old and new

The main useful skills I’ve brought with me from academic research are project management, presentation skills, writing skills (including grantsmanship), analytical and critical thinking skills, IT skills (including data analysis), the ability to be a “self-starter” and work under your own initiative, and working collaboratively.

Also, having been a researcher in academia, I understand the culture and the environment that researchers are working in. This understanding helps me to represent and support the academic community appropriately – I also think it helps with getting their support and buy-in for the work that I do.

As I’ve taken on more senior roles I’ve had to learn about managing people, which is a very difficult thing to do well. I’ve built on my team-working skills – academic research can often be a very solo pursuit and learning to genuinely work collaboratively with others seems to me to be an important skill for most non-academic careers. I’ve also had to develop skills in negotiation, influencing and strategy. I’ve taken several short training courses to help develop those skills.

Reflections on my career path

Overall, I’m very satisfied with my career path. I don’t regret having completed a PhD and working in academic research for several years afterwards. I believe it gave me a skill-set and experience which have been very useful in my subsequent career. Outside academia I’ve been lucky enough to follow what interests me, gradually building up the knowledge and skill-set that has allowed me to move onwards and upwards.

I do wish I’d known earlier how few academic positions are out there relative to the number of people earning PhDs. It would have been useful to have had access to the kind of training and support for researchers that is more widely available today, particularly information on career options and advice on how to transition out of academia. Perhaps I would have been better to leave academia earlier than I did, but in the end, completing five years of postdoc experience didn’t damage my career prospects outside of academia.

The most challenging issue that I face in building my career is work-life balance. My husband and I have a daughter and I worry that both of us working full-time might not be the best for her. We try to balance that out by not bringing work home with us (most of the time) and making sure that evenings and weekends are full of quality family time.

As to the future, I’m aiming for a leadership position in higher education and research, but I’m quite flexible about my future career – we’ll see what opportunities come up and where they take me!

My advice

If you’re aiming for a career outside academia, take advantage of all the training opportunities that you have to expand your non-research skills. Don’t rely on your principal investigator to provide you with advice on non-academic careers – unless they have worked outside academia, they are only knowledgeable about academic jobs!

Get networked! Online and in person. Connect with and talk to people who have left academia and are in the kind of career that you’d like. Talk to a careers advisor if you have access to one. If not, there is lots of great advice online – check out the Linkedin Group “PhD Careers Outside of Academia” for an example.

Take time to prepare a good CV – do a skills audit…you might be surprised at how many “transferable” skills you already have learned during your research career. A personal development plan is useful to map out your skills development – what skills do I need now, and in the future?

In terms of looking at career options, unless you have a “dream career”, keep an open mind. Be realistic about salary and entry-level.

Finally, don’t feel like leaving academia means that you have “failed” in your career. All the statistics show that fewer than ten per cent of PhD graduates today will end up with permanent academic positions, so PhDs in non-academic careers are actually in the majority!

LinkedIn profile