João Peres

Digital product manager and UX designer, UK

Former researcher in developmental neurobiology at King’s College London, UK and developmental biology at Utrecht University, The Netherlands

João PeresAcademic research experience

I graduated in Biochemistry from the University of Lisbon, Portugal, and started my research career working with extremophiles in the lab of Prof. Helena Santos. I then moved to Utrecht with a fellowship from the Portuguese government sponsored by the EU to do a PhD in the lab of Prof. Tony Durston in developmental biology. From there I moved to the UK to work in developmental neurobiology with Prof. Corinne Houart at King’s College London, first with a Talent fellowship from the Dutch government, and then I was fortunate enough to secure both European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) and Marie Skłodowska-Curie postdoctoral fellowships. I worked for seven years on my postdoc with zebrafish; initially performing basic research on early mechanisms of neural development and later doing more medical-related research, studying neurodegeneration in the context of motor neuron disease.

When my funding was getting towards an end and I was going to move into short-term contracts, I started to look around for alternatives outside of academia. I had enjoyed doing research for 13 years; the independence, the generation of hypotheses and the excitement of being the first to find something new, the constant discussion of ideas, the teaching, the scientific meetings, the informal environment, and the constant learning.

But alongside all of the positive things, I was getting tired of the insecurity of the job, not knowing when my funding would run out, and the feeling that my career progression towards a stable job was not in my control.

And also I was starting to get tired of doing the same experiment over and over again!

I was ready for a new challenge, to move out of my comfort zone and try something new, but on condition that I could keep learning in a new role and stay working in an international team.

Transition from academic research

I started to look at what jobs were available in consultancy, science policy, funding agencies and medical charities. Almost straight away, I spotted an email circulated by my department from Faculty of 1000 (F1000), a publisher of services for life scientists and clinical researchers. They were looking to recruit a postdoc to start a project to build a new reference manager; someone with experience in publishing and with problem solving skills. And the best thing of all was that it was only three days a week, which would allow me to keep one foot in the lab and if I didn’t like it, an easy way back.

Because I did have some reservations. After spending so much time working in a lab, I felt that my only skills were pipetting and taking care of my fish – skills not much in demand outside academia! In research, we always feel a lot of ownership of our project and I was afraid of losing that. Plus, I was moving to a web developer team; would they be like The IT crowd (a British TV comedy)?

Current job – and how it compares           

I am Product Development Manager of F1000Workspace, a digital product that I helped to shape and make happen.

I was hired, in 2013, to build a new reference manager, a better alternative to EndNote or Mendeley, and even though I didn’t know anything about building a website or software, I knew what the basic features were that were necessary to build. I started to define features, learn the ins and outs of frontend and backend development, and how a digital product goes from an idea to be working in your computer screen. And this is the most rewarding part; you write down how something should work and in the space of weeks, or even days, you see it coming to life on a screen. There is always a lot to do and learn, and, as in research, there is never an end.

My current job is a very collaborative one; I translate the researchers’ needs (our users) to the developers, designers and marketing people so together we can find the best solution for the problems. Something that I am still getting used is the business side of my job, and accepting that in the end there is the need to make money.

It is a fast-paced job, but now I rarely need to work weekends, so I feel I have a better work-life balance.

Competencies old and new

When I was looking for a job, I thought that my skills were limited to lab work, and they were not of any interest to the outside world. What I realized when I started this new job is the value of the analytical and problem-solving skills that any researcher develops and loves. We may not know how a protein fits in the pathway, or how to do an experiment, but we all easily search and try and learn how. We are also used to leading our own projects, dealing with people, managing expectations of our supervisors and working independently. This is 99% of any job; learning new software, getting to grips with a different subject, and becoming comfortable in a new industry comes easier. Of course, there is a lot new to learn and get used to, but that is part of the fun of changing career.

Reflections on my career path

My career path is something that I have been worried about since my postdoc was nearing its end. I wanted to be a lecturer and spend the rest of my life doing research – well, at least I thought that’s what I wanted – until I started to get stressed because the experiments weren’t working, the papers weren’t coming and the funding was ending. Plus, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to give up so much of my life outside of the lab just to fulfil this dream, that I wasn’t sure was mine, but more the one sold to me since university.

I was afraid of starting all over again and I was feeling that the time that I spent doing research was wasted. Now, I see that it was all worth it; I did enjoy my time in the lab, all the people that I met and everything that I learned, and even if I will not do it again, I am still proud that I could do cell transplants in fish and frogs.

It was also very helpful for me to be able to work part time for a period – for a couple of years I worked four days a week, and I can still work from home whenever I need to. This is important for me as my wife also works (and travels a lot for work) and we have two children, so this flexibility has meant that I have been able to take on my share of the childcare responsibilities and therefore help her progress in her career.

I am still worried about my career: what will come next; when can I say I am an expert in what I do now; what can I do next? Well, that is the biggest challenge; to stop worrying and enjoy the journey. I am currently a digital product manager but I just finished a user experience (UX) course, which is very useful for my current job, but also opens up the possibility for another career move. I am happy if I keep learning, and so far I have managed to do just that.

My advice

My only advice to someone who is deciding whether to stay in or leave academic research, is just follow your heart. One is not better that the other, just different ;) Don’t be afraid of trying something new, but at the same time don’t be afraid to stay in academia because of how hard it seems. There are opportunities out there and you are equipped with a sophisticated set of skills that are highly regarded outside of academia. Just find what makes you tick, and go for it.

And don’t forget, it is not the job that defines you, you define yourself, and, if you are lucky, the job you get.

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