Christina Fuentes Tibbitt

Engagement Manager (Regional), British Science Association.

Former research staff in cognitive neuroscience at University College London (UCL) UK.

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.

Christina Fuentes Tibbitt

Research staff experience

After my PhD in the USA, I came to London to do a postdoc in cognitive neuroscience. The project was EU-funded and involved collaboration between twelve research institutions. In the two and a half years I was at UCL I attended interesting conferences, travelled to different parts of Europe and wrote half a dozen papers.

From about halfway through my PhD training, I decided I didn’t want to stay in HE research long term: my postdoctoral position was a means to a different end. I’d decided that the career I really wanted, and was best suited to, would be in science policy or science communication. However, in the USA, such jobs were going to more senior academics. I decided to look for a postdoctoral position to gain experience and credibility as a future job candidate. Moving to Europe really appealed – it would certainly be different and I had never lived abroad.

My postdoc was very enjoyable in many ways, but throughout I still desired to work outside academia; it confirmed to me that while I love science, a research career is not for me. My passion is not for the day-to-day business of research, collecting and analysing data; what I most enjoy is project management and seeing people engage with science. 

Transition to a new career

Since I was already interested in careers that bridged science and other sectors, I took on voluntary roles during my doctoral training and then while I was at UCL to connect with the world outside higher education. My plan was to extend my skills and experience so that I could demonstrate to potential employers my passion for communicating science and my ability to manage projects outside the lab. 

Part way through my postdoc I knew I wanted to stay in the UK afterwards. I had realised by this time that the path to jobs in science communication was different over here. The research staff experience that had seemed so important to acquire was not, in the UK, the asset it might have been on the other side of the Atlantic. I had a strong sense that it could be difficult to convince UK recruiters of my suitability on the strength of my research-staff skills alone. Other candidates would have experience and qualifications that recruiters could relate to more easily – such as a background in event management or a master’s in science communication. 

More familiar to recruiters, and therefore easier to provide convincing evidence about, I figured, would be the experiences and skills I developed in voluntary activities. 

Much of my volunteering was ‘one-offs’ like volunteering at the Royal Society Summer Exhibition and The Big Bang Fair. My most important longer-term commitment was with the UK Research Staff Association (UKRSA), which aims to provide a collective voice for research staff across the UK. I joined the committee very early in my postdoc and eventually did a one-year term as co-chair. 

At the same time, I made sure I didn’t neglect my research projects – as shown, for example, by the number of papers published. My principal investigator let me work very independently, which enabled me to take the occasional day off for, say, a UKRSA meeting so long as it didn’t affect the progress of my work in the lab. 

I applied for several jobs in science communication as my fixed-term research staff position came to an end, and secured a number of interviews. As it turned out, the first one resulted in an interesting job offer: British Science Association (BSA) National Science and Engineering Week Project Manager. (The BSA’s purpose is to advance the public understanding, accessibility and accountability of the sciences and engineering in the UK.) 

In the selection process both my experience co-ordinating large research projects and my volunteer activities and leadership roles were probed. No-one else in the organisation had research staff experience, so the business-related skills I had gained through my project, such as managing students, multitasking, and presenting and reporting to colleagues and partners, took some explaining during the interview. 

Although the job was fixed term for one year and not especially well paid, I decided to take it. I figured that project management at the BSA would develop me more than the work involved in other roles that I was interviewing for, and ultimately would look stronger on my CV. 

Current job                         

A year and a half on, I am still at the BSA, having been promoted to my current job of Engagement Manager (Regional). The role is to support and grow community-based engagement with science - both local projects and events - across the UK. I find this kind of role very fulfilling. I love helping people access science in a way that is relevant for them.

In a typical week I might meet with a partner organisation to discuss joint outreach projects and events, chat via email and phone with volunteers and event organisers across the UK who are planning science events, and contribute to a funding proposal - as well as do routine tasks such as signing off volunteer expenses, checking the progress of key performance indicators and reviewing the resources we offer our audiences. 

Competencies old and new

Starting at the BSA was quite disorientating – even the open-plan office fazed me at first! The BSA has charitable status but, like most of the voluntary sector, runs like a business, which felt very different. Adapting to how businesses work took some time but, since my role involved building on skills I already had, I found my feet in the end. It was great – and still is – to have a role based on things I enjoy a lot: being organised; dealing with all sorts of people; managing projects.

In my current role I need to be able to adapt my communication skills to a greater range of people than ever before. Engaging successfully with business people has been the most unfamiliar - it’s perhaps where I’ve had the most to learn. 

Reflecting on my career path

When I was an undergraduate the USA did not have master's degrees in science communication. So I took a roundabout route to my career – but a good one in the circumstances, I feel.

I’m not sure whether I’d like my next move to be within an organisation working at national level (like my current job) or whether to consider moving to a smaller organisation such as a regional museum. It’s hard to compare the potential impact you could make in each kind of role – smaller organisations can make big local impacts, while in a national role you can help facilitate widespread change. I may also consider eventually moving on to a role working more closely with scientists, helping them engage and communicate with general audiences. But for the time being I’m thrilled with where I am and what I’m doing! 

Suggestions and advice

Do stuff beyond your research project. If you want to move outside HE make your CV not just about the skills and experience you have gained within HE. In my view, your application will be more compelling if you can include relevant experience from elsewhere.

Appreciate volunteering experiences.  I secured my BSA job on the strength of my university employment and volunteering activities – I had no other paid work on my CV. I don’t think this was particularly unusual: I’ve now had some involvement as a recruiter, and have found that what counts is the quality of the experience, not whether it is paid or unpaid.

If you can afford to, consider taking a salary cut for your first job after academia. Don’t dismiss one that could give you valuable skills and experience because it pays less than you think you are worth: it could be a valuable stepping stone.

If you are interested in science communication the UK is an excellent place to get training and a qualification. It doesn’t have to be a master’s – there are shorter courses too.