Jessica Barrett

Jessica completed her theoretical physics doctorate in the Mathematical Sciences and Physics Departments of Durham University. She then held a postdoctoral research position before being awarded a career development fellowship at the Medical Research Council's Biostatics Unit.

"I completed my theoretical physics doctorate in the Mathematical Sciences and Physics Departments of Durham University. My subject area was string theory, which is a candidate for a quantum theory of gravity.

"I currently work as a career development fellow at the Medical Research Council's Biostatistics Unit. The position is academic in nature – I carry out original research, and publish papers in academic journals. My work involves performing statistical analyses of medical data – I have recently been researching the progression of disease for patients with psoriatic arthritis, and also modelling cognitive function in the elderly.

"Towards the end of my doctoral research I decided I wanted to work as an academic. I took a postdoctoral research position in the theoretical physics group at the University of Iceland in Reykjavik. After three years there, I felt somewhat dissatisfied with my research area and the prospects it afforded for career progression – so I decided I needed a change. After considering my options I settled on medical statistics, which appealed to me as I liked the idea of being able to make a positive and valuable contribution to society through my research. I applied for and was awarded a career development fellowship, suitable for people seeking to change research area, by the UK Medical Research Council.

"I learnt a lot as a doctoral researcher that, at the time, I did not imagine would become so useful in the future. The most important aspect for me was the experience I gained carrying out academic research. Following an academic career path would not have been possible without a doctorate. Because I have changed research areas, the subject knowledge and expertise I developed during my doctorate is no longer as important as it once was, but the skills I developed are still very useful for me in many ways. Examples include understanding how to absorb new subject material, the ability to ask critical questions, researching background literature, giving presentations, and time management.

"Specific skills have also proved useful – for example, learning how to write computer programs using the C programming language made it easier for me to learn how to use the statistical software necessary for my current job. I also understand better how to cope with the research process – when to work hard at completing a task, or when it is best just to take a break or get a good night’s sleep!

"I would advise doctoral researchers to consider all options when choosing a career path. I found the careers service at Durham University very helpful for that. The careers adviser I spoke to made lots of good suggestions about possible directions for me, including medical statistics! Also, do take advantage of training opportunities. If you are considering an academic career, it is worthwhile doing postdoctoral research so as to understand your subject area in greater depth, and to get a better feeling of what life is like as an academic – there are still plenty of other opportunities available afterwards if you change your mind."