Jeff Stonehouse

Project Lead Chemist, AstraZeneca.

“I may have been serendipitous in finding this career but, in terms of progressing it, it has been hard work and reputation – getting other people to believe that you can do it...”

"After GCSEs I wanted to be a doctor. I chose science A levels so I could do a medical degree. At that point I questioned my maturity to be a doctor. I had always wanted to do this and had planned my study around it. But I seriously thought about what the job would entail, people’s lives being at stake and the responsibility. Did I want the responsibility and commitment? I worried a lot and stopped watching Casualty! You have to be brilliant and hard working to be successful in medicine, also I was lazy and could excel at all my studies – at the time I was a minimalist. I liked chemistry and this was flexible as a degree course – I could do any career with chemistry. Margaret Thatcher had a chemistry degree and she went into politics – it could be versatile and flexible as an option. I wanted to keep my options open and to get through as quick as possible.

"At end of the first year I was offered a placement year with a pharmaceutical company in Switzerland as I had done the best in my course. This made me realise what I wanted to do. I became very proactive and decided I wanted a career in medicinal chemistry. I was motivated to find out what would be required to be successful. I found out about working on particular types of research, who were the best professors, and built up the relevant experience. Choice of PhD research was driven with a specific career in mind, I purposefully planned for this. Often chemists don’t know what they want to do after PhD. You have to work hard, you can’t cruise – you need to be dedicated, otherwise you drift. If I hadn't got a job straight away I would have had to go to the USA to do more research and build up my experience there. Going to Switzerland crystallised everything for me, and confirmed that I didn’t want to be a medical doctor.

"I don’t see myself as a planning kind of a guy. A lot of it was really informal, instinctive really. I knew my supervisor in Switzerland had a PhD, and I talked to him as he was on the career path I would like to be on. He advised me about who the key people were. I then read their research and journals to see if this was what I was interested in. When I returned to Warwick, I talked to my lecturers about what I needed to do to apply for a PhD. I selected who I wanted to work with, and used the supervisor in Switzerland and the professor from Warwick to promote me and what I could offer. I find it easy to network, and this helps a lot. Being successful at networking is about you as a personality. Having got the ‘big guns’ on my side, it gave me the opportunity to talk to professors at other institutions. Their expectations were raised. A lot of it is about trust and trusting people’s judgement, because this personal recommendation holds a lot of weight. A CV sent out speculatively would not have worked.

"I wanted to work for a big company – the big players. A number of these are not in the UK. I wanted something that paid well and offered security. I had a first round interview before I finished my PhD, and chose a big company as they offered better opportunities and professional development. My choice was based upon the location and the people I met. Would I work well with them? Would I enjoy my job? I was very proactive and visited all the companies I wanted to work for. I have really enjoyed this company, it was a good choice. After four years in the position I was worried I would be doing the same job forever. Opportunity for promotion into a niche team came up a number of times, but I was worried about being pigeon-holed – and that it would close off career opportunities. That experience is really sought after now, and lots of jobs require this. If I was thinking bigger picture, globally, I would have planned ahead and seen this as an opportunity rather than looking at what was available locally. I stuck on a rigid career path and couldn’t see beyond it.

"With a broader picture I would have created a wider network – I haven’t always used the opportunities that I could have. You look at opportunities differently when you are developing a focused career plan, as apposed to thinking more widely. When looking for opportunities you need to use all networking opportunities to self-promote. In the future I will make sure I talk to more people, find out about their companies and the work available, and build my network more globally rather than focusing on what is available in front of me. In the end I went looking for other opportunities – the role I wanted didn’t exist, so I had to go elsewhere to create it. I looked at secondments within the company, I tried to create the opportunities that I couldn’t access. Through setting up the secondments to develop new skills, I proactively created opportunities which resulted in getting the job I wanted. Being seen to have leverage worked well, just going for the opportunities got people to look at me and see what I could do. I feel I am at a crossroads now, I could take a risk but I am not really a risk taker.

"Safety is important, but I am also thinking now that life is too short – and maybe I need to consider other options. I am about to be made redundant and I am now thinking about going back to do a medical degree. But I really want to carry on doing what I am doing now. I am not committed enough to be a medical doctor. You can get any job you want but you need to be globally mobile – if you are flexible enough you can follow the work. Some people are stuck because they can’t move for jobs. If it was just me I would go and work anywhere. I may have been serendipitous in finding this career but, in terms of progressing it, it has been hard work and reputation – getting other people to believe in what you can do. Career progression is very slow as there are so many good people in this industry. It is not just about technical skills, personality is important as well."