Beth Thompson

Policy Adviser, Wellcome Trust.

Former research staff at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge.

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.

Beth Thompson: photograph by permission of the Wellcome Trust

Research staff experience

I did my PhD at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge where I used biochemistry and genetics to study gene expression in fruit flies. I stayed in the same lab for a short postdoctoral position. I published two papers during my PhD and associated postdoc.

The risks and instability of a career in research were the main factors that led me to leave. I would have been very happy to undertake further postdoctoral research and had always planned to do so. Around the time I submitted my PhD, I was offered postdoc positions and was applying for others. However, I was growing increasingly concerned about how hard it would be to establish an independent research career in the longer term. I was attracted to a job where long-term success would be more proportionate to the effort I put in and that offered greater security for my future.

Transition to new career

I had considered science communication or public engagement as ‘back up’ career options should a career in research not work out, but neither seemed quite the right match for my skills and interests. I then came across an advert for a job in the House of Lords and this led me to consider science policy as a career. I spoke to two people working in different science policy jobs and read Roger Pielke’s The Honest Broker to try to understand more about the career. By that stage - although with hindsight I still had very little information about what it involved - I decided that science policy seemed a good fit for me. I was genuinely excited about this new career, which made the big step of leaving research seem smaller.  

My first role was as a graduate trainee in science policy at the Royal Society of Chemistry. This was a year’s role in the Science Policy team and gave me great experience in fundamental aspects of science policy, such as drafting consultation responses. It was ironic that I had to take a short-term position in order to break into a new career, when this was one of the things I found off-putting in research. However, the gamble worked; I loved my new career. After nine months at the RSC I secured a permanent position at the Wellcome Trust.

I’ve been promoted while working at the Trust and I was also fortunate enough to be seconded to the Academy of Medical Sciences to work on a major policy report. 

Current job

I work in a team of 12 with an overarching goal to promote a sustainable environment for biomedical science. We do this by influencing science policy and legislation in the UK and the EU and by developing the Trust’s policies for those we fund. Each member of the team has specialist areas, but we undertake very similar day-to-day activities including: developing responses to consultations by Government or other stakeholders; briefing the Director ahead of meetings with key figures such as cabinet ministers; providing briefings and draft amendments to parliamentarians during the passage of legislation; and developing and coordinating our approach and position with other organisations in the sector. On a day- to-day basis this involves a combination of desk research and analysis, meetings, phone calls and writing. 

My focus is on the regulation and governance of research involving human participants although I also work on a variety of other issues as and when they arise. At the moment I am leading the Trust’s work to ensure that new EU laws on data protection do not have a negative impact on research, which means I travel to Brussels once or twice a month. I really enjoy the combination of being able to get into the detail of an area, but also having breadth and variety in the work I do.

I really value my colleagues and those I work with in other organisations as they are smart, friendly and passionate about what they do. Since we work very collaboratively, this is very important to me.

Like my time in research, I work more than nine-to-five. However, I only rarely work at weekends now.

The major downside for me compared to academia is the commute. I miss my ten-minute cycle to work! In the UK, many policy jobs are based in London, so you have to be prepared to live or travel there.

Competencies old and new

The analytical skills I gained in research are regularly put to use as my job often involves piecing together varied information and views into a coherent story. However, I never use the subject-specific elements of my research and I have learnt to apply my analytical skills in different areas, for example dealing with the text of legislation rather than western blots.

Other skills from research, like project and time management and being self-motivated, are crucial in policy as we usually juggle multiple projects and deadlines.

I always enjoyed writing and get to use this regularly in policy. Many of our outputs are written documents, so this is a really important skill to have.

When I started in policy I found networking difficult, but building contacts and collaborations with other organisations is an important part of the job. I soon discovered that the science policy community is small and friendly and I developed my skills in this area. I may never have considered policy as a career if I’d known how much networking was involved, but this has become one of my favourite parts of the job.

Reflecting on my career path

I am so glad that I came across science policy and took the risk to move into this career that was relatively unknown to me. Had I come across science policy sooner, I would have sought some hands-on experience as there are a number of internships available to doctoral students, for example at the Academy of Medical Sciences and the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology.

In the longer term I plan to continue my career in science policy and strategy as there are still many challenges and opportunities available to me in this area.

Suggestions and advice

Consider your options broadly and seek out those who are happy to share their experience in a different career to help decide whether it is likely to be a good fit for you. When you are applying for jobs, make it clear how your existing skills match those demanded by your new career. This can help demonstrate not only that you have or can develop the relevant skills, but that you have made an effort to understand what the job involves.