Fiona Lynch

Student recruitment and widening participation coordinator (UK and EU), University of Manchester.

Former research staff in Cardiovascular Research, University of Manchester.

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

Fiona Lynch

Research staff experience

I have twelve years’ experience as research staff in the Department of Medicine in the University of Manchester.

After completing my doctorate at University College Dublin I moved to Manchester to pursue a postdoctoral career.  The University’s labs were based in Manchester Royal Infirmary. The hospital location was extremely useful for my project, which concerned the behaviour of small resistance coronary arteries to changes in intravascular pressure. We wished to find out how the arteries behaved under relatively healthy conditions and in diseased conditions. I had to liaise with clinicians and surgeons to collect tissue samples, coordinate ethics and research passport applications and maintain patient confidentiality, and manage sensitive databases.  I published a number of papers and abstracts, attended several conferences, and won a young investigator’s award at an international conference. 

I was then offered two-year funding to continue research in this area and develop some projects of my own. Unfortunately, the fellowship application I put together was unsuccessful, but I did gather data for several abstracts and another paper.

My next few years in research involved a succession of short-term contracts, mostly three-month ones.  Despite this I enjoyed my work and increasing responsibilities: supervising students; forming collaborations; and regularly attending international conferences.  I acquired some valuable teaching duties which I really enjoyed. 

During this time I wrote several grant applications.  Many came back with positive feedback and encouragement to make changes and reapply, but the result was always negative.

I continued to aim for an academic career. But as I had not secured my own funding I was not the strongest of candidates when applying for lectureships, although I was shortlisted for interviews. 

Eventually I became unhappy with the lack of career progression and security. I had been a research staff for over a decade, which is a long time by UK (or anyone’s) standards.  The short-term contracts were having an increasing impact on work-life balance, as it was hard to justify time off when chasing the next contract.  

Transition to new career

Friends were leaving research after becoming unhappy in the lab like me and I saw them develop successful careers elsewhere.  It encouraged me to know that it is possible to leave HE research, not be a failure, and enjoy doing something else.  So the hardest thing was just making the decision to leave.  

It helped that I’d attended lots of staff training and accredited courses. Completing a level 5 certificate in management was excellent, not only for the skill set gained, but also for showing me there were other things that I was good at apart from research.

I’d also developed a keen interest in public engagement work and had started to volunteer at events in the University and the local region. I began to find ways of doing more, such as securing funding from the Physiology Society to host an event at the Manchester Science and Industry Museum - a really challenging and exciting project. I also became a Widening Participation Award Holder. These one-year positions supported the University’s widening participation activities with school students of all ages.  Award holders received lots of training in developing workshops, managing classrooms and communication skills.

Although these activities were difficult to structure around experiments/work/family they were invaluable for showing me what I enjoyed and could potentially do as a career.

I also considered medical writing, school teaching and clinical trial work.  But my real passion lay in public engagement and widening participation. 

Finding jobs in this sector can be difficult as they are sought after and sometimes don’t make it to an external advertisement. However, keeping an eye on university job web pages, volunteering to work on events and good networking can often lead to opportunities. 

Support from my friends really helped; they read my CV and gave advice.  One of the biggest challenges leaving research for a non-academic job is explaining why you want to make the change.  The only way to address this is to be honest in job interviews. If you have a passion for what you want to change to, this will come across.

Current job

I’m part of the team responsible for the University of Manchester Open Days.  We have four a year, each with over 10,000 visitors.  I help organise the programme, our student experience exhibition, central speakers and staff rotas.  I also coordinate campus visits for schools and other groups. Thousands take part each year: I liaise with schools; organise and staff the visits; and develop the presentations. 

There’s a lot of variety and challenge. I also co-ordinate training events for staff, develop training material and website content and manage interns. I regularly attend Higher Education conferences, parents’ evenings and so on. Sometimes I support the activities of other teams within student recruitment and widening participation.

A ‘typical’ day may involve some desk work, organising visits, ensuring all the paper work is in place, rooms are booked, etc. I may need to write a report or a web campaign. I may need to recruit people to work on my events.  I will have meetings to attend, or training sessions to deliver, or I may have to dash out to a school or college or another part of the campus to give a presentation. I also need to find time to keep up with current affairs so I’m aware of sector and government policy developments.

Often I’m busier than when I was a researcher - which seems difficult to fathom - but I absolutely love what I do!!

Competencies old and new

As researchers we take for granted all the things we do day to day to keep our research running. Nowadays, I certainly value the project management, budgeting, and report writing skills that I gained and that are vital to my job. Visit information and schools activity need to be recorded and trends analysed so years of working with data have been invaluable.  Communication and networking skills are also key.

I’m learning about marketing and communication, branding and policy making – all very enjoyable, and completely new to me. 

Reflecting on my career path

I feel very lucky to have made a successful move, and with the benefit of hindsight wish I’d left the lab a few years earlier. Looking at my peers with successful academic careers the one thing they seem to have in common is a willingness to relocate.  I enjoyed my research so I stayed where I was for that and family reasons. 

I hope to stay in student recruitment and widening participation.  There are lots of opportunities open to me. I can apply for secondment positions to try new areas and may do that to gain some broader experience and start to move forward. 

Suggestions and advice

If you want to leave HE research say YES to opportunities that will show employers you have interests outside the lab. 

Make use of staff training. Pick up some skills valued by employers outside research, such as minute taking, report writing, project management.

Network. Talk to people at conferences, talk to everyone!  Job opportunities can arise from this.  Work on your LinkedIn profile. 

Work on a non-academic version of your CV.  (I found this really hard!). Look at your multitude of transferable skills.  Employers really value your organisation, attention to detail, communication, budgeting skills etc. Sell yourself!

Be prepared to take a salary cut.  You are starting again and while this is a bit painful you will find that you move up the ladder again.

Lots of universities have career fairs for researchers. After finding them encouraging as a postdoc, I now go to them as a panellist and hope that I can help some people who are thinking about making the leap.