Anna Sharman

Founder and Director of Cofactor Ltd (scientific publishing consultancy).

Former research staff in genetics at the University of Heidelberg, Germany.

This story comes from our What do research staff do next? project, investigating the careers of research staff who moved from research posts to other occupations and employment sectors. You can use these stories to better understand how these researchers transition, what careers they have and their reflections on the transition process and current career paths.

Anna Sharman

Research staff experience

I was a postdoctoral researcher in the University of Heidelberg, Germany, for 20 months, studying the development of the embryonic zebrafish brain. I had previously completed a PhD on development, genetics and evolution of early vertebrates, and had written three research papers. 

During the postdoc I had difficulty getting experiments to work and I lost a lot of confidence. My interest in brain development wasn't enough to motivate me through the more tedious aspects of experimental research; I regretted moving away from evolutionary biology, which fascinated me more. 

Two achievements had a long-term effect, however: I became semi-fluent in German, and I co-authored a minireview article in a high profile journal with my principal investigator (PI). I also gained experience in life as a scientist, including managing my time, presenting my work and reviewing papers. 

I decided to leave research for a number of reasons. The lack of confidence with lab work was the main factor, together with a lack of support. I realised that experimental work wasn’t my main forte and it became clear that a job in science writing or publishing would be better for me. The insecure career structure for research staff was also a big reason, as it looked like I would have to keep moving every few years, to different countries, and continually apply for jobs and grants in order to stay in science. I missed the UK and wanted to be able to return permanently. And the timescale of job satisfaction in research felt too long term - you could go weeks or even months without getting a result you could be proud of. 

Transition to new career

When attending conferences as a postdoc I chatted on a number of occasions with journal editors from the company I later joined. I talked with them about what their jobs involved and expressed potential interest in one day doing that kind of thing. Together with coauthoring a minireview from one of their journals, this meant that when they were looking for a temporary editor for maternity cover my name occurred to them and they invited me to apply. I didn’t research other alternatives much; I just jumped at the chance, put all my energy into applying for the job, and got it. 

Support from colleagues in the same institute but different labs was crucial, particularly other women. My PI supported me in so far as he encouraged me to apply for a non-lab job, told me I would be good in publishing and gave me a good reference. 

In that first six months I wondered about applying for jobs back in research, but it didn’t take long for me to be sure I wanted to stay out of the lab for good. In editing I got job satisfaction every day with an article edited, a new issue coming out, or an agreement from an invited author. I had an excellent manager. Most of the editor jobs were in London, where I wanted to live, and it seemed clear that getting other publishing jobs would be easier than getting a research job. 

So the temporary editor job led to a permanent editor job for another journal in the same publisher, and then to one with another publisher, where I stayed five years and rose to senior editor. I then decided to go freelance, and in 2014 I set up my company, Cofactor. 

Becoming self employed

The decision to go freelance after seven years as a journal editor took about nine months to bring to fruition. I realised I wanted a change of some kind and started thinking about how to do it. I had a few telephone sessions with a life coach, which helped me work out my goals and focus. I wanted more flexibility and freedom and wasn’t interested in promotion to managing a journal - I loved dealing with the nitty-gritty of individual articles and wanted to continue ‘at the coal face’, so freelance copyediting seemed a good option. 

I researched options, including admin temping as a backstop in case freelance editing didn’t work out. Knowing I could earn enough to live on from temping gave me enough confidence to say to my manager that I wanted to leave my job, but they persuaded me to try going part time for six months. I ended up working alternate weeks, which left me lots of time to start other projects. After the six months were up I was certain I wanted to go freelance so I left the job. It also helped that my employer promised me freelance work on their articles, which got me started as a freelancer. 

Going freelance was a challenge but my contacts in several publishers and the fact I lived in London helped me to get work straight away. To start with a lot of this was in-house cover for assistant editors who were away, and this helped me build up more contacts in more publishers, as well as gaining lots of experience in how different journals and publishers work. I joined the Society for Editors and Proofreaders, did training courses and gained enough credits to become an Advanced Member of the Society, which gained me work through their directory. The mutual support from members of the Society was very valuable. 

Setting up a company

I enjoyed being a freelance editor, but after a few years I wanted a new challenge. I had accumulated quite a lot of knowledge and experience about scientific publishing so I decided to focus my freelance work on science (having branched out in several random directions). I started a Twitter account and used it to find out what life was like in science nowadays, given that I had been out of the lab for years by then. I started retweeting interesting links and making comments and found that I gained an increasing number of followers. This led to various opportunities and contacts, and I felt I was getting back into the world of science. I gradually built up my contacts, knowledge and experience by taking courses and reading in between the freelance work. In particular I got training in being a trainer and started to give workshops on how to publish a scientific paper. Then, when my personal circumstances were right, I decided to set up a company. I now have a team of freelance editors and consultants and thus can take on more work, including more workshops for researchers. This launched in June 2014 and so far business is going pretty well. 

Running a company is a lot more challenging than running a freelance business, even though I am the only employee of the company. I need to do a lot of marketing, for instance getting a logo and website professionally designed, and I need IT systems to keep track of potential customers and ongoing jobs that freelancers are doing. I have learnt how to be a salesperson without losing my integrity, and how to manage freelancers. There is a lot of juggling and a lot more investment of time and money, but this is balanced by the greater long-term potential for profit than just being paid for each hour I work. 

Focusing on helping researchers means that I can venture back into the world of research in a new role, and I love being back in that world. 

Competencies old and new

My current job mostly uses skills I have gained since I left research. Time management, networking skills and self-motivation are crucial, and I developed these more in my in-house and freelance editing years than I did as a researcher. 

Reflecting on my career path

I wish I had known how many options there were outside academia with a biology PhD and that they were possible for me. I had no idea! There was no Vitae then, of course, and no online social networks, and I wish I had had the support from them that is now available. 

I wish I had realised earlier that resilience was a crucial skill for a scientist. In hindsight I lost so much confidence at every knock when others might have bounced back. If I'd realised that this was the thing I should work on above all else, and ask for help with, I might have done some even more amazing things than I have! I might even have stayed in science, though who knows whether that would have been better or worse for me in the long run. 

My future aspirations are to grow my company steadily and to invest some profits and time in interesting projects to do with science communication and improving the system of higher education and publishing. 

Suggestions and advice

Firstly, if you want to stay in research, don't compromise on finding a research topic you are completely fascinated by. I compromised by moving away from my first love, evolutionary biology, in order to get a postdoc job, and that meant I wasn't motivated enough to persevere with getting tedious experiments to work. 

To change to a career away from research, or even if you stay, the most valuable thing you can get is contacts. Networking is crucial - I have got all my employed jobs through contacts, none through answering an advertisement, and the same is true of much of my freelance work. Some amazing opportunities have arisen through someone recommending my name, and I have never been able to predict where these opportunities would arise. So if you are good at something and some people know it, get out there and get to know more people and ask them to recommend you. Network continuously, online and in person, and you never know where the rewards will come. And networking can also tell you about options you hadn’t thought about. 

My final piece of advice is to continuously work on your communication skills, whether you want to stay in science, work in science communication or publishing or do something else. Get good at giving talks, writing for scientists and the general public, talking to strangers, and using online networks of all kinds.