Helen Niblock

Portfolio Manager at EPSRC.

Former Postdoctoral Research Associate in medicinal chemistry at the University of Oxford.

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

Helen Niblock

Research staff experience

My experience of higher education research came after a period of working in industry. 

Following my undergraduate degree, which included a year in industry at GSK, I wanted to continue working in drug discovery. It was actually my boss at GSK who pointed out the job advert for the job I ended up getting, at a smaller biotech company. I really enjoyed working for the biotech business, as I was more involved in decision making in my project. However, I left that job to do a doctorate - to advance my career, do some different science and develop my transferable skills. 

After completing my doctorate I took up a research staff position at the University of Oxford (2012-13). I was working on a Cancer Research UK grant, which was a five-year grant for five chemistry PDRAs, one pharmacology PDRA and three pharmacology technicians. I was recruited in the last 14 months of the discovery project. There was a lot of work to be done in the last year of the project, but by the end I had improved the properties of the lead drug molecule to the point where it could be tested in mice. It was a multidisciplinary project, involving team communication between chemistry, pharmacology, the principal investigator and consultants. I also embraced the challenge of supervising a master’s student for a mini-project on a different disease.

I was never planning on an academic career, but took the research staff position to continue in research in medicinal chemistry. During my doctorate a lot of pharma companies were closing down sites in the UK. I felt that the opportunities for a stable career in medicinal chemistry in the pharma industry were limited.

Limited career opportunities were also part of the reason why I left academic research; I was looking for more job security. I did not want my next move to be another temporary research position. I was also looking to move out of doing lab-based research.

Transition to new career

I was looking for jobs which were still involved with science, but did not require me to do the lab work. My first thought was to work in grants funding, which is where I have ended up, but I also considered working with the Royal Society of Chemistry, medical writing and clinical trials research. Grant funding was my preferred option, so I regularly checked relevant websites including www.topcareer.jobs, www.jobs.ac.uk, and www.researchresearch.com. The University of Oxford organised a careers event which included a variety of talks from a wide range of people including researchers and people who had moved outside of research. This included a couple of workshops and a drinks reception – it was a good event to talk to a number of different people to find out how they got to where they have.

Current job

I’m now a Portfolio Manager at the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). I’m responsible for a research portfolio: this includes processing grants relevant to the research area, sending out the proposals for peer review and organising peer review prioritisation panels. I also keep up to date with current research in the area by visiting researchers at universities and attending conferences. I’m responsible for a number of large grants and training centres, so monitor these grants and attend board meetings. There are also organisation-wide activities such as data analysis and work relating to the strategic priorities.

The job is interesting, as I am still seeing the state-of-the-art research, and a lot broader science than if I was still doing research myself. I enjoy travelling around the country talking to researchers and learning about the science they are doing.

Time management is a large part of the job, which can be difficult when you have a large number of tasks on the go and deadlines to meet. The interesting part of the job is talking to lots of different people, but on the flip-side, it is difficult letting people know that their grant proposal has not been successful. A difference to working in research is the interaction with people. With some research projects you can be very focussed on your own project and maybe only speak to your own group. With my job I need to talk to people in different teams around the organisation, as well as external people at all levels from PhD students to heads of departments.

Competencies old and new

Having worked in higher education is beneficial to my job as I can empathise with the researchers and academics I talk to and I know how the higher education system works. Time management, such a large part of my job, is a skill which was also important while doing my lab research. I started to develop my presentation skills as a researcher in HE and I have given a number of presentations in my job. Some of the presentation skills are similar, but the material I am presenting is very different, and so it is a change in style.

Facilitation is a skill which I have developed in my new job as I have helped to organise and run a number of different workshops with people at different levels of their careers. There are different communication skills to be developed in my job as I have to speak to a variety of people including colleagues, early career researchers, senior academics and industry members.

Reflecting on my career path

I’m happy with how my career path has gone. Since I was 16 I wanted to work in drug discovery, which I did and found really interesting; however, I decided it wasn't a stable job in the current climate. So my next choice was to work in grant processing, and straight after my research staff position finished I started my job at EPSRC. I’ve had experience of working in a large multinational, a small biotech company, higher education and a government organisation, so for my relatively short eight-year career I have had quite a variety of experiences.

My job is really stimulating and I still have a lot to learn, so at the moment my career plan would be looking at promotions within EPSRC, but my current experience could lead on to a number of different jobs.

Suggestions and advice

Find out what jobs are out there. Attend careers fairs or workshops at your university to learn about alternative careers and go and speak to people at networking events – even though you might find it awkward! Set up email alerts to job sites you are interested in. Find out what jobs people in your department have gone on to do.

Before you send off an application get someone to check through your CV and your covering letter.

Practice is needed for job interviews; there are different styles, including competency based interviews, technical interviews, online assessments and assessment centres. Find out what interviews other people have been through.