Sari Neijenhuis

Consultant, Life Sciences, specialising in research fund raising.

Former Postdoctoral Fellow in oncology at the Institute of Cancer Research, London, 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.

Sari Neijenhuis

Research staff experience

After I finished my PhD at the Netherlands Cancer Institute, continuing in science as a postdoctoral fellow seemed the only and at that time very logical step forward. Perhaps a little ignorant, but with a few papers under my belt, I was full of enthusiasm and very positive about a scientific career in academia. I felt ready to rock as a postdoc in London at the Institute of Cancer Research (ICR), where I then worked for just over four years. Although London definitely rocks, my science didn’t rock as much as I had planned.

I love doing research and thoroughly enjoyed doing a postdoc, however, little by little I started wondering whether an academic career would really be the thing for me. Did I really want to fight for funding the rest of my life? Perhaps my fellow PhD students who had left science and moved to industry and other areas weren’t that crazy after all. Moreover, although I published a first author paper while I was at the ICR, it was not of the impact I needed to be able to pursue a career in academia. Perhaps it was time for me to broaden my horizon!

Transition to new career

During my postdoctoral years I became a member of the Institute’s postdoctoral committee to gain more skills besides the scientific skills needed for my research projects. This activity brought me into contact with lots of people from different fields, and made me realise that perhaps a career outside of academia might be something I could appreciate! I visited career events, talked with as many people as possible – publishers at Nature, people working at funding agencies, life science investment bankers, medical writers, clinical research associates, scientists in pharmaceutical companies, and so on. 

The more I talked the more confused I became. There was so much out there that I had never heard about, let alone considered. Finding all this out was very helpful, although it was still hard for me to imagine what I’d like to do most. Overwhelmed by the possibilities, I ended up applying for lots of different jobs, just to get a better picture of what all these different jobs would actually involve. Having been a scientist all my working life I had a good idea of how it would be to start a science-based job in a new lab. I even had some idea about how it would be to work in industry – just so long as it was lab based. But beyond that safety zone…who knows what I could expect!

Instead of doing another postdoc I ended up taking a job that I felt would both fulfill my appetite for science and give me industry experience. I didn’t want to step away from science completely but felt it would be exciting to leave the lab and try my luck outside of the academic world!

Current job – and how it compares

In spring 2014 I joined a small business – a life sciences and biotechnology services company – as a Life Sciences Consultant. What that means on a daily basis is that I help other scientists, both from small businesses and academia, design science projects and write grants in order to get funding. These can be small local grants but also major European grants with more than 20 partners. Together with the client I design the project, search for the best-fit funding body, find possible partners and collaborators, write the project, prepare all the budgets, plan the commercialisation strategy, sort the legal matters and submit the proposals…basically, everything that is involved in applying for research funding.

I feel as if I’m still involved in trying to solve scientific questions, but from behind my desk. When you do lab experiments, many of them will never lead you to the expected and hoped-for result. With writing grants it’s similar: you need to be persevering, optimistic and realistic at the same time, just as when doing your experiments in the lab.

I’m involved in discussing science with experts in the field, helping them to shape their ideas and present them in a way that is attractive for funding bodies to sponsor. Although I came from an oncology field, I am now involved in many different projects, from biomarker discovery in cardiovascular disease to the development of new drug delivery devices. I’m not as focused on one project anymore, but get to learn a lot from different fields and innovations within those fields. What is very different though is that I basically have an office job now – no more running round from tissue culture to the FACS machine…

Although I miss the wet lab activities every once in a while, I like the broadened horizon in terms of being involved in so many different projects. I enjoy working with many different clients from various fields and backgrounds, across several different countries.

The highlights of my job come from client feedback and successful proposals. Having clients that are very happy with our services, help and input can be very satisfying. When grants or subsidies are awarded we celebrate these moments just as much as the applicant involved. Having been able to help someone get funding for their research gives me much satisfaction.

On the downside, the job can be very stressful sometimes so it’s important to learn how to keep a cool head. The deadlines are real hard deadlines and these can be very tight. You’re less able to plan your time and days flexibly than when working in a lab.

Competencies old and new

The analytical, independent and critical way of thinking I learned as a researcher is very helpful when discussing ideas and project plans with customers. Your input is very much valued and appreciated. Knowing your science and being able to look at a problem from different angles helps a lot in this job.

Other important skills brought to this job I gained through writing my own research proposals and articles as well as reviewing articles and other people’s project grants. Not only did this experience help me to improve my writing abilities, it also taught me how to critique writing and how best to present the science to a particular audience.

Planning is also very important when dealing with so many clients and working on so many projects at the same time. This is also a skill I could transfer from my time as a scientist, where planning your many experiments well ahead is of major importance so as not to run into problems later.

My current job also demands new competencies. I’ve had to become more time efficient. There is, for example, no time to read an endless number of articles to shape your ideas –you have to produce and, in a very short time frame, learn to formulate ideas that are not only scientifically correct, but also sellable and sexy. From my science background I also did not have a lot of experience in dealing with clients. Knowing how to correctly please a client while still getting your point across can sometimes be challenging.

Reflecting on my career path

I thoroughly enjoyed my time as a researcher, but I wish I had been slightly more open-minded to a working life beyond academic science. I should have put more emphasis on learning new skills beyond my technical lab skills. It would have helped to discuss other career paths more seriously than just joining career events and then rushing back to the lab to do my experiments. It’s very easy to get caught up in your project and it can be hard to imagine that this ‘one more paper’ is not necessarily the holy grail.

Suggestions and advice

  • Focus not only on your own research but work on extracurricular activities that show you have broad interests and talents in other areas as well. Personal development is very valuable. I would recommend anyone to do a postdoc abroad (if you want to do a postdoc that is). Setting up a new life in a new country with different customs and cultures is a very worthwhile life experience
  • Take up extra tasks beyond your research projects: committee work; teaching, etc. These activities will show your ability to multitask
  • To gain experience of supervising, take on students, become a mentor
  • Take courses, even online ones such as provided on platforms like Coursera, to broaden your knowledge
  • Keep an open mind – there is life beyond the lab bench. Leaving science is not a failure – there are a whole lot of other interesting and challenging jobs out there that can be very fulfilling.