Emma Gray

Head of Biomedical Research, Multiple Sclerosis Society, UK.

Former research staff in molecular neuroscience, King’s College London, 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.

Research staff experience

I did my PhD at King’s College London (KCL) Institute of Psychiatry. After obtaining my doctorate in 2009, I stayed at KCL, continuing my PhD dementia research for a short while, and had a journal paper published. I then started another project investigating a different protein but using similar techniques. Although by the time I left higher education research two and a half years later I’d not published results from this work, it was taken forward as a PhD project. 

My boss at KCL gave me a lot of early responsibility. I attended a course on PhD supervision and became second supervisor to a doctoral student. I also gave a lecture to master’s students on Alzheimer’s. 

I loved these challenges, the research environment and the camaraderie at KCL. With a group of other researchers I also helped develop a proposal for a public engagement project – a café scientifique. We pitched this to a KCL funding competition, and were awarded £2,000 to implement our initiative. 

But despite loving my time at KCL I felt I needed to leave in order to find a permanent job, and one where I could see clear opportunities for career progression. I was well aware of the difficulty of obtaining a permanent post and becoming a research leader. I didn’t have sufficient belief that my dream of running my own lab was attainable. 

It felt important to leave research sooner rather than later, to give me the best chance of making a successful career elsewhere. But it was a very difficult decision to make, because I got so much job satisfaction from research. 

Transition to new career

I considered all sorts of areas where I could transfer some of my research skills and knowledge: research grant administration; medical writing; editing; school teaching; consultancy. I felt I could do elements of all of these jobs, but none really struck a chord with me. 

Then I read a description of jobs in science communication and it really excited me. I was passionate about engagement with science and I’ve always been ‘cause oriented’, wanting to work where I can make a difference. I saw affinities in science communication with my skills too: I’ve been told I’m good at explaining things and I’m quite creative, I enjoy using pictures and diagrams to communicate as well as words. 

My job search was very much influenced by wanting to working with people with similar values. 

I was successful in my application for job as Research Communications Officer with the Multiple Sclerosis Society (MS Society) at the same time as research funding for another three years became available at KCL. Nevertheless I decided to leave academia. 

My new role was to communicate the Society’s research to all it audiences: donors, people with MS and others. This included website content, talks, answering queries, and so on. 

Culturally, I found the transition from HE research to the charity sector really difficult. It took me six months to adjust. This was partly because in my new team I was starting at the bottom and had to prove myself all over again. But it was also because of the way I communicated. In academia I’d been used to a collegiate but competitive environment where people said exactly what they thought. My new environment was both more hierarchical and more respectful of people’s feelings. I may have offended people unintentionally and came across as difficult and abrasive! Gradually I learned tact and came to appreciate the benefits of working in a more inclusive working environment. 

After a year and a half I was promoted to Research Communications Manager, overseeing the whole of the research communication programme. First I was responsible for one member of staff, and then my team grew to two.

Current job – and how it compares

In summer 2014 I applied for temporary promotion to cover a maternity leave. I was successful and am now, for a year, Head of Biomedical Research. This is a big step up from my previous role. I’m responsible for a £5m research budget and a large team. I have a lot of contact with researchers from universities and research institutions where the Society has funded research. 

There are some similarities to the academic environment. Both combine elements of collaboration and competition. In the MS Society I have to make the case for my budget in competition with other departments. 

I have a very heavy workload and long hours: partly because I am learning the role, but also because at the moment the Society is restructuring, and there’s lots of business planning to do. I don’t begrudge this: it’s a fantastic opportunity where I’m learning loads of new skills. 

There are lots of pluses to my new role. I love managing a team and seeing how all the different contributions come together. I love having a job with the scope to think strategically and be logical. In this I’m trying very hard to focus on outcomes for people with MS. 

There are not many downsides to my current job. I suppose that one is to do with confidence in communicating with senior academics. After meetings with established professors I sometimes kick myself for missing a chance to get a point across. 

Competencies old and new

Only someone with an understanding of science could work in the roles I’ve undertaken at the MS Society. A research background is essential in my current role, both to be taken seriously by academics and also in order to relate to the research environment, to get the best outcomes. 

The general analytical approach and problem solving skills that research develops have also been very useful. 

In academia I developed people management skills that gave me a good basis for my current role. The PhD supervision course I attended was particularly useful. It broadened my understanding and gave me techniques (on handling difficult conversations, for example). I also developed people skills through the day-to-day experience of dealing with different, sometimes difficult characters. 

As well as adapting to a different work culture at the MS Society I have had to adapt to the language, and learn the importance of following the linguistic norms – the ‘buzzwords’. Other new aspects I’ve needed to learn include budgeting and understanding how a charity works, in particular governance. 

Reflecting on my career path

Although I’m very happy in my current job I’m sometimes in two minds about my decision to leave academia when I did. Was I being defeatist? Should I have tried harder? These feelings strike me especially when I go back to a lab on a site visit. But I think I’m looking back with rose-tinted spectacles. If anything, I now feel more at home in the third sector than in academia. I have stimulating colleagues whose values I share. I love the variety of people I engage with – a much greater range than I met in academia. I love getting immediate feedback for the work I do, rather than waiting for months or years for outcomes in academia. I even prefer ‘little things’ like being able to dress more smartly for work sometimes. 

I’m also much more conscious of the downsides of the academic culture – how competition becomes unhealthy and non-nurturing. The research career is a tough one (and desperately poor at supporting women in particular). It makes me angry that there is no structure to keep good scientists in universities: an awful lot of skills are lost. 

Looking ahead: I am ambitious, but I deliberately don’t have a particular goal in mind. I feel that if I do my best and take on all sorts of new learning experiences and challenges, and learn lots of new skills, opportunities will happen for me. I want to do new things outside work too - I’ve recently become a school governor. So while I think that probably my next move will be a role in research strategy, I’m trying to keep an open mind and see what opportunities are around. 

Suggestions and advice

Don’t give yourself such a hard time. You’re not a failure if you leave HE research. With the skills and experience you’ve developed you have many more opportunities than you may realise. Whatever you decide to do – just go for it.