Peter Thompson

Assistant Director, National Institute for Health Research.
Former research staff in chemistry at the University of Sheffield, 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.

Research staff experience

Peter ThompsonI was a postdoctoral researcher at the same university where I did my PhD in chemical biology. It was a short postdoctoral contract of six months, in an area similar to the one I’d previously worked in. Straight after my doctorate I’d been a researcher in a pharmaceutical company for two and a half years. That job had ended because my employer was bought out by an Indian company who moved the R&D department to India. The postdoctoral position turned up as a result of emailing my old lab colleagues about possible upcoming opportunities.

Although I moved out of academic research and back, in fact my experience of working in the corporate lab felt pretty similar to working in a university setting, not least because we worked closely with university collaborators. In both settings my work was nearer the ‘basic science’ than the ‘applied’ end of the research spectrum.

When the pharmaceutical company I worked for announced it was closing its UK research labs I looked for research positions both in higher education and in other companies. But because I wanted to remain in Yorkshire, where my partner also worked, it was hard to find research jobs within commuting distance (other pharmaceutical R&D departments were relocating overseas at the same time, for example). During my short postdoctoral contract I therefore decided to broaden my search beyond research jobs. I started thinking about areas where I could still use my science background, such as science policy.

Transition to new career

I was attracted by a job advertisement for a Programme Manager at the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), the research arm of the National Health Service. At the time I didn’t know much about research management as a career, nor about NIHR. As a chemistry researcher I was aware of research funding sources such as the UK research councils, but hadn’t known about this fairly new organisation with its considerable funding for applied health research. 

Nevertheless I applied, got offered the position and decided to give it a go. Not long before I’d also been offered a research job in a pharmaceutical company.  I turned this down as the role was a backwards step from what I’d been doing. I’m very pleased I chose to join NIHR instead.

The desk-based job and public sector environment I moved to felt strange at first after years of working in a lab environment. It all felt a lot more formal – at least partly because of the convention of dressing more smartly. I also had to learn how to communicate with a much wider group of people, rather than just colleagues who had a shared understanding of a subject area. In this I was supported by my line manager, who had also made the transition from postdoctoral researcher to research manager at NIHR (as have several of my colleagues).

In my job as Programme Manager I was responsible for one of the NIHR funding streams in the area of research training awards aimed at supporting future research leaders. I managed the funding award process – organising the expert panels, advising applicants and managing those awarded fellowships (particularly the reporting requirements).

After two and a half years at NIHR I was promoted, within the same area of the organisation, to my current role of Assistant Director.

Current job – and how it compares

As Assistant Director I now have oversight of a group of programmes managed by my team. I no longer work on the day-to-day tasks of programme management. Staff management responsibilities are a big part of my role. The aspects of my job that relate to thinking more strategically how we develop research capacity in England are also new. In this I work closely with NIHR stakeholders such as the Department of Health and Health Education England.

One of the best parts of my job is working with the Fellows: up-and-coming researchers who are brightest people in their area. I really enjoy supporting interesting and important research that has clear patient benefit. NIHR supports applied health research that has the potential to impact quickly on patient care. This is in contrast to my own work in pharmaceutical research which was a long way from the point of offering patient benefit.

I also enjoy having an influence over strategic direction – helping to identify gaps and unmet needs in terms of the people we fund through our research training awards, and recommending changes to the programmes as required to address the gaps and changing environment of health research.

My days are very different from lab work: more paper-based and more admin but with more travel and the opportunity to meet and work with a wide range of different people. Being exposed to so much interesting research I sometimes miss being a researcher, especially when hearing directly from the Fellows we fund.

Competencies old and new

The most useful experience I brought from higher education research is my understanding of the research pathway – from application for research funding to outputs and publication. This helps me support NIHR fund-holders and grant applicants. I understand the terminology they use and can help them ‘translate’ this to communicate more successfully.

Communication skills are also the area I needed to develop most when I joined NIHR. When I was deep into my research area I didn’t have to adapt how I communicated because my fellow researchers and I ‘spoke the same language’. In my new role I had to learn how to communicate in different ways with people ranging from grant applicants to NIHR staff to professors who make up the expert panels.

Reflecting on my career path

If I’d known what I now know about potential career paths I probably would not have studied chemistry as an undergraduate, but would have specialised in a more applied area of science instead. What little career advice I had at school was along the lines of ‘study your favourite subject’. At each stage from sixth-form onwards, I only looked one step ahead, and didn’t consider broader possibilities, so that was why I studied chemistry all the way through my higher education and early career.

It was chance really that brought me to NIHR: a science-related job in the right geographical area. My career change has been a good one and since NIHR is a fairly large organisation there is definitely scope to further my career here.

Suggestions and advice

Having now worked with high-flying researchers funded by NIHR I admire their determination and the way they have worked out what they are aiming for. I suggest you take a step back from your research and think about your overall goals. At the same time, try to be flexible: have a plan B and a plan C for if plan A doesn’t work out. I think the most important thing when you are working in a specialist area of research is to force yourself to develop a broader perspective, think about your career and find something longer term to focus on.