Siobhán Jordan

Director of Interface – the knowledge connection for business

Former research staff in Department of Genetics at Trinity College Dublin, Ireland and the Medical Research Council (UK) Human Genetics Unit, Edinburgh, UK.

Siobhán Jordan Director of Interface – the knowledge connection for business 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

I wasn’t perhaps the most obvious person to spend nine years following a research career path. I did my first degree – in biotechnology – at Dublin City University, Ireland, an institution with strong links with business and industry. I was very unusual among my contemporaries in choosing to stay in academia as most took up positions in sectors ranging from food and drink to pharmaceuticals.

My first research staff position was at Trinity College Dublin, where I worked for two years after completing my PhD there in 1992. I was in a cutting-edge lab doing exciting work on the genetics underpinning the degenerative eye disease retinitis pigmentosa. It was a great grounding in a well-funded lab, and it gave me 20 really good leading author publications.

It had been my goal to move to a US lab next, but by then I’d met my future husband, who rather inconveniently had just come back to Ireland from a stint in the USA at Harvard University, so we decided to look for jobs in a place closer to home instead. We chose Edinburgh, Scotland, and were both successful in finding posts there. In 1994 I moved to the Medical Research Council Human Genetics Unit at Edinburgh’s Western General Hospital campus, having secured my own funding to do so (an EU Fellowship). Here my research focused on cellular and developmental biology and melanoma. Over the next six years, as a senior researcher, I continued to publish papers (including one in Nature) and enjoyed supervising doctoral students.

Despite these achievements, I became increasingly doubtful that I wanted to commit to a research career for life. Faced with the critical next step in a research career, securing grant funding to run my own research group, I asked myself whether this was the route I really wanted to take. I found myself hankering after my experiences before my doctorate when I had enjoyed working in industry as part of my undergraduate degree. I recognised that within the organisational structures of the Unit, there was limited scope for having full autonomy for PhD supervision and leading a research group.

Transition to new career

So in 2000 I started to look at other options, for example medical publishing and roles in public health. It took a year and a half to decide that I wanted to leave research, have the impetus to do so, and complete my job hunt. The learning during that period was immense; in particular how to demonstrate to future employers a range of transferable skills.

I decided to talk with a career coach to help me identify my strengths and potential job roles. This was really empowering: to ‘hold the mirror up’ to what I really wanted to do. I realised that research was too lonely a career for me: I should switch to one where I could better use and develop my people skills. Knowing that I was in the wrong job but that I had the means to change direction made me feel more in control of my destiny – it was a light-bulb moment.

My first job applications were unsuccessful: I hadn’t yet learned the language of business. For example, when I talked about my ‘admin’ experience, recruiters thought I had routine, low level skills, rather than the management experience I was trying to convey.

Eventually I landed the job of Applications Manager for the Proof of Concept Programme, a new initiative developed by Scottish Enterprise, an agency of the Scottish Government. This was a £79m programme to support excellent science that had commercial potential: helping academic scientists bridge the gap in funding (and other support) in order to develop promising research into a business. My role was to manage submissions and the selection process, and to support the successful grant holders to enable them to build fledgling companies.

My varied research background and industrial experience had been obvious strengths in my application for the post: I showed that I would be able to relate to and communicate successfully with grant applicants. Interestingly, I was later told by one of the selectors that the deciding factor when appointing me however, was not a skill I brought from my current job, but the facilitation skills I’d gained through a voluntary role with local community groups.

Once in my new job, I’d say it took me a year to make a successful transition. I had to learn a new language (all those public sector acronyms!) and get used to the layers of decision-making that accrue when public money is at stake. I had to get used to delivering, at volume, to tight, frequent deadlines. I was also commuting to Glasgow for my new job, which made this period more tiring and stressful than it might otherwise have been.

On the other hand, at Scottish Enterprise I had a highly supportive manager, and mentoring came as part of the job. Another advantage of my position was that, as I was employed on a new programme, I could to some extent develop its scope as I went along. I really enjoyed learning about lots of different new technologies, and helping build small companies. I developed some training programmes, including training and development specifically for women entrepreneurs.

After four years or so in this job, I had ‘itchy feet’ and felt ready for a new, bigger challenge. My mentor had already helped me identify that I worked best as a ‘big fish in a small pond’. So when the role of Director of a new initiative now known as Interface was advertised, I jumped at the chance to apply. Funded by the Scottish Funding Council, this new initiative allowed me the opportunity to continue to work in the worlds of industry and academia but supporting endogenous companies that had no track record of research and development.

Current job

I’ve been Director of Interface since 2005. Interface acts as a broker between Scottish universities and Scottish companies: we help organisations find the right academic expertise to help grow their business. I was given a ‘blank sheet’ to develop the concept, and implementation has been highly successful. When Interface was launched I had two staff in a small office in Edinburgh; now, thanks to the high demand we’ve created, we employ 22 staff in eight locations across Scotland, we’ve brokered industry-academic collaborations in very many disciplines and we run several different programmes, from funding to common interest groups for multiple companies.

Compared with my previous roles, I have much more autonomy to make decisions. Interface is government-backed but independent: there is none of the ‘decision paralysis’ that can slow progress in larger organisations.

Now that Interface has grown to a size where much of the day-to-day ‘brokering’ is carried out by other staff, my role is a nice balance of developing people and developing innovative programmes within the Interface wrapper. I particularly enjoy nurturing staff and building a team. I have learnt that to capitalise on new business opportunities it is vital to have a strong management team in place. I’ve had to be patient and make sure people are in place and trained before going for further growth.

Competencies old and new

I’d pick out two areas where my competencies as a researcher have been important:

  • Without my background knowledge as a researcher I would have not been a credible candidate for either of my posts since I left research. To carry out these roles successfully I’ve needed breadth of scientific knowledge rather than depth
  • Learning how to support doctoral students stood me in good stead for my subsequent staff management responsibilities

Thinking about new competencies, I’d say I’m much more strategic than I was as a researcher. When I worked in the lab, the idea of finding funding was very daunting, because I didn’t have much idea where I could bring income in from. Now that I ‘know my way around’ the public sector and business after years of experience, I am much more confident about finding funding and planning sustainable programmes. I have learnt about being politically astute and about managing the organisation’s stakeholders.

Reflecting on my career path

When I did my PhD it was very much expected that you went on to a postdoc and aimed at a research career. I wish that there had been a broader view of possible careers for doctoral graduates: I think I’d have explored other options at the time if I’d been in a different environment.

As I was a researcher in high-profile labs where I was getting really good results, I felt under a lot of pressure to continue in a research career. I wish it hadn’t taken me so long to gain the courage and empowerment to move out of research.

I’ve stayed at Interface longer than any of my previous jobs, because my job is full of variety and keeps evolving. I have no plans to move while the role is enjoyable and fulfilling.

Suggestions and advice

Don’t feel that there’s only one possible career after doing a doctorate. Make sure you understand your strengths and be ready to explore other options.