Murray Booth

Mass Spectrometer Development Scientist.

Former postdoctoral researcher in atmospheric science at the University of Manchester, 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.

Murray Booth

Research staff experience

My PhD is surface physics where my main interests were ultra-high vacuum equipment, synchrotrons and pharmaceutical physical properties. Following that I was a postdoctoral researcher in atmospheric science at the University of Manchester for almost seven years.

My main interests were in developing new instrumentation (mass spectrometers) and measuring various physical properties of particulate air pollution. I’ve worked with industrial partners, published papers, been a researcher co-investigator on some grants, presented my work at conferences (and parliament!), been on field projects, designed and built equipment, supervised masters students, taught undergrads, done outreach in primary and secondary schools and much more...

While I liked and enjoyed (most of) academic research, I realised that it wasn’t going to be permanent. It’s either up or out and if you go up you’ll end up writing grants, teaching and managing rather than doing research. I just wasn’t willing to move around the world chasing jobs that, even if I was successful, would end up taking me away from the parts I liked the most. The push that turned my vague idea that I should leave into something more urgent was running out of grant money - and being in my notice period - when the research council decided to fund a) our current grant and b) another they had previously rejected. This was shortly after the birth of my first child. After that I decided I couldn’t live like that anymore. It’s a testament to the people I worked with that I stayed in that particular lab so long.

Transition to a new career

Once I had decided I needed to leave it took a year or two to find and get the right job. I'd explored several options which reflected different aspects of what I’d done as a researcher.

I spoke to friends who were working at the major scientific instrument companies in my area. I’d arranged to go into schools to shadow teachers. I’d contacted former colleagues who were now working as air quality consultants. I’d even spoken to former summer students of mine about the companies they were working in. One of the hardest parts was narrowing down what to go for. 

The most useful support was from people in my network who had left previously, but other very valuable resources were blogs by other people who either had made the leap, or were, like me, in the process of job change. I found the researcher career stories collected by Vitae useful too (they didn’t pay me to write that!).

Current job – and how it compares

I left academia in summer 2014 for my current role at Waters, a global corporation that specialises in a range of analytical technologies. 

In my current role I help develop new scientific instruments (mass spectrometers), integrating, testing and building them. It’s surprisingly similar to academia. There are projects to develop better instruments, you’re trying to stay ahead of rival labs, experiments are conducted, work gets written up. 

The difference lies in the resources the company can throw at a project and the time pressure to get things done. There’s also a greater sense of continuity as people tend to stay long term rather than leaving every two or three years. It feels more team oriented, and less isolating than a research staff project where you’re the only one working on it. While it is profit oriented, being a business, the focus on finance doesn’t seem any greater than when I was an HE researcher always having to think about the next grant. At least in a company everyone is in the same boat. Another difference is that people will actually use what you do. In academia I was used to writing papers that might not even be read. 

Competencies old and new

While not much of the atmospheric science I’ve done has been of direct use, almost all the lab skills I’ve developed have been useful. Building things, getting temperamental kit to work, electronics, using vacuum and gas systems…

Soft skills have helped, namely an ability to write and communicate, and the all-important problem solving skills that research teaches you.

Reflecting on my career path

I can’t honestly say I’ve ever had a career plan. It’s more of a bucket list for science.

While I’d always been in academia prior to this job, I’d worked in some very different areas of science. The one constant has been developing instrumentation. My undergraduate and master’s degrees were in astrophysics, my doctorate was surface/synchtrotron science and postdocing was atmospheric science. Once you have a solid background in physical science you’d be amazed at just how many different areas you can work in. 

It’s my view that you can either find somewhere (and someone) you want to live with and have to move your area of work, or you can find the field you want to work in but have to chase jobs all over the world…


Academia is a great job; that’s why it can pay very little for highly skilled people and give them insecure jobs. Enjoy it while you’re there but make sure you’ve always got one eye on the door, as you will almost certainly be walking out of it at some point.