Isabel Franke-Chaudet

Consultant at Helios, working in the aviation sector.

Former Research Fellow in Physics at the University of Surrey.

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.

Isabel Franke-Chaudet

Research staff experience

After completing my doctorate at the University of Oxford I spent two years at the University of Surrey in the Advanced Technology Institute. At Oxford my field of study was condensed matter physics, working with high magnetic fields and muon spin rotation. But for my research at Surrey I moved on to work on optomagnetic effects in quantum dots and work on nanomaterials in general. From my undergraduate degree onwards, when I completed three very different summer internships, I’ve always enjoyed new challenges.

The project at Surrey was very interesting and I learned a lot in the position, in particular regarding the project management aspects, from planning timescales to working towards deadlines. Additionally, a major part of any academic position is the ability to absorb new information quickly, analyse relevant data and information to then be able to communicate the results to an audience either in written form or through presentations. I had already developed these skills through my doctorate, but further honed them during my postdoc. This has proven to be a valuable skill for my current position. Furthermore, the interaction within a multinational environment, working with people from all nationalities and cultural backgrounds, was very enjoyable and has taught me to be able to adapt well to different perspectives and working approaches.

Transition to a new career

I left research because I realised that while I still find science fascinating I wasn't feeling passionate enough about it to stay in this field. What I do enjoy is learning constantly, and variety was something that I was missing in academic research. I feared that although I would become a specialist in a particular field, I would be limited to that one field. I also realised that I particularly enjoy working within a team. Although there is support and interaction in academia, a lot of the time is spent in the lab and lone working is common. It can be satisfactory as well, but I have come to recognise that I work much better in a team environment where I can still own a piece of work but also work with other people.

As soon as I’d decided to leave academic research I started trying to see what I would do next. I looked at everything that I thought might be of interest and also put my CV up on a series of job websites. Before I found the job I am in I was contacted by a few recruitment consultants and went to different job interviews. Amongst other things I looked into becoming a patent attorney, which sounded attractive due to the variety of the project work. I finally decided against it partly because it would have involved years of studying and partly because I was worried that the work might be dry and involve a lot of hours working on your own, which is not what I was looking for. 

In the end I applied to Helios, an international consultancy company specialising in air traffic management, airports and space. The job and the company fitted what I was looking for and I was glad when they offered me the job! 

Current job

The position as a consultant in the field of aviation has proven to be the ideal job for me. It offers me the possibility to work in an exciting environment, where I can apply my scientific knowledge. The projects I work on are varied and interesting, so that I doubt that I will get bored. I work mostly within project teams and can use my communication skills within the company as well as with clients. I enjoy working with people from very different fields, ranging from industry to policy makers, and working out solutions for their problems. Although I am not working in a lab I am still applying the skills I developed during my research.

So far, for example, I’ve been part of the team developing a strategy and business plan for an air navigation service provider in a fast changing environment. I‘ve also been working on developing a roadmap for the implementation of a new technology, which involves close collaboration with a variety of companies across Europe. Since I am fluent in German and French, and have some knowledge of Spanish and Italian, such multinational projects suit me well – and provide plenty of opportunity for international travel! 

Competencies old and new

My time in academia developed me in ways that are very useful in my current job, such as being able to absorb new information and complex problems quickly, and to analyse, condense and present information in a coherent way.

At the same time I have had to learn to adapt to the consultancy environment of working in a business and closely with clients. Making sure to understand what the client is expecting and that what we deliver is adapted to that expectation is particularly important. This is a very different approach to a project compared with academic research.

The learning curve to improve my understanding on aviation and related fields was quite steep, but Helios is a friendly company where support is readily available and so it was not hard to learn.

Reflecting on my career path

I am very happy about the way my career has gone. I could have left academic research earlier than I did but I don't regret the years spent in academia, as I have learned a lot.  My time as a researcher also showed me what I did and did not enjoy, which has led me to my current job.

Suggestions and advice

I would recommend that if you know that you want to move on, then do it, but make sure you know what you want. Do you know what you enjoy and what you dislike about academic research? Then look around at all possibilities and try some interviews out to get a feel for different options.

Don't discount jobs where you think you don't have the background as your skill set can still apply: it will be highly valued in a number of different fields, even if you don't have the specialist knowledge.