María Santos Vicente

Product Specialist in a biotech company.

Former research staff in botany at University of Salamanca, Spain.

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

María Santos Vicente

Research staff experience

Before the economic downturn, I was enjoying a developing research career at the University of Salamanca, in the field of botany. I started by working for a project on a research fellowship. A year afterwards, I got my pre-doctoral fellowship - FPI Predoctoral Research and Teaching Fellowship (National Programme); one of the most prestigious pre-doctoral fellowship programmes in Spain. My fellowship was linked to Flora iberica project (1980-ongoing), which aims to update and synthesize current knowledge about vascular plants which spontaneously grow in the Iberian Peninsula and Balearic Islands. When I finished my pre-doctoral fellowship, I worked in the herbarium of the University of Salamanca, the fifth important herbarium in Spain, for a year and a half; I worked for a GBIF project (The Global Biodiversity Facility) in digitalising and databasing plant specimens. That was the last time I had a stable position in botany.

From 2009, Spain reduced science funding drastically and I found it almost impossible to work on projects in botany. After that, I just found a little funding for teaching at the University (three months per year); even then it was not a proper contract. There was no funding for staff development at the University of Salamanca and I did not recognise that I had skills I could use outside higher education research. As a result I felt discouraged about researching new opportunities in other sectors.

To start with I tried to find a contract in a different university here in Spain, but the situation in the rest of the country was similar. Therefore, I changed my mind and started to explore different alternatives. I was still working on my PhD, so I tried to find a stable job near my university in order to finish my PhD as quickly as possible.

Cytognos SL (www.cytognos.com) gave me a great opportunity. Cytognos is a biotechnology company based in Salamanca that provides innovative solutions in the flow cytometry field. I work here as a Product Specialist.

I had a busy and productive time in higher education research. When I left, I had enjoyed several fellowships, and research stays in the UK. I had field experience in several countries (on three continents). I had published four papers in peer-reviewed journals, eight other journal papers, a complete book (as first author) and three book chapters.

However, moving out of higher education was not the end of my research activity. Today, I have six papers in peer-reviewed journals (three additional papers in preparation), ten other journal papers published, and three additional book chapters in editing at the publishers.

Transition to new career

I was unemployed for nearly two years before joining Cytognos. I attempted to find an opportunity in research; I did not want to give up because I would feel that I had failed. After a time, I realised that I needed to change my mind and find another job that satisfied me, since research was going through such hard times in Spain.

At that time I did not consider working abroad because it would be an obstacle to finishing my PhD.

The main options I considered were companies with a biological/biotechnological approach and educational activity in high school. I looked into environmental jobs too, but in Spain it is even more difficult to get this kind of job than find a research position!

The search for a job was really hard. I did not limit my search to my city, but still no clear opportunities were to be found. It was not easy to find a job with a biological background, and it is even worse if you are a botanist. After two years, I had the interview for this job at Cytognos. They were looking for a person with a degree in Biotechnology; however, I got the job.

I started my new job in January 2011. The first two years were really tough. Everything was new for me and I had to work hard to reach the level required. On top of that, I had to complete my PhD and to write some papers. Finally, I presented my PhD dissertation in July 2013 and I could enjoy free time for the first time since I started to work here.

Current job

Cytognos is focused on the design and development of new reagents, software and techniques in the flow cytometry field. As Product Specialist, my job is to support our customers in the implementation of these developments worldwide. We know all about the products and the software. Our clients are hospitals and research centres. I often visit our customers and give them personalised support, but I also organise training, and attend events such as conferences and exhibitions. At the office, I have several tasks: from helping other departments with technical documentation (IT department, R&D team…) to managing our corporate Twitter account.

Working a company is completely different from higher education research. In a company, you have more frequent deadlines to meet. You need to have a strong sense of purpose in your work. Management skills are essential: you need to manage your time and your efforts. Team working is a daily routine, hence you must feel comfortable with networking and delegating tasks, but also with taking action by yourself. Companies often require proactive people and I realise this is a fundamental skill; you need to detect opportunities, take on challenges and take decisions.

Besides, in a private company you need commercial awareness; all your work has an economic impact on your company!

Competencies old and new

Most of the competencies I acquired during my university career help me a lot in my daily work. Since I am a taxonomist, I have highly developed attention to detail. This is one of my strong points, which I apply in every situation. In research careers you usually learn to manage your time in order to meet deadlines, which is an indispensable skill. I’ve found that the ability to organise information efficiently is highly appreciated, as well as problem-solving, thinking logically, and speaking and writing fluently, among other skills.

During my years at Cytognos I have used all these skills, but I have also gained some additional competencies. As a botanist in higher education, research was an individual activity. Here I have learned to work in a team, which means taking responsibility and also delegating. I have also improved my presentation skills; at my company, we make presentations almost every day, to customers, collaborators, or internal presentations…. I have acquired strong skills in representing the company in different contexts and I have lost my stage fright. 

Reflecting on my career path

Nowadays, I feel really comfortable in my job. Of course, it was a hard decision and I felt disappointed about giving up research. In fact, I did not give up completely; I still collaborate with my former research group, when I can devote time to it. However, I know that I took the right decision at the time. Sometimes I miss some aspects of my previous life (mainly field trips) but my job has given me a different point of view. Now I realise that there is not just one way to fulfil your career expectations 

Suggestions and advice

Research in higher education is fascinating, but do not be afraid to start a new career if your opportunities are closing. Unluckily, there is not a place for all of us in higher education, but your skills will be highly appreciated in NGOs, private companies and other organisations.

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