Stuart Watson

Clinical Scientist – Clinical Engineering R&D.

Former Research Fellow at the University of Glamorgan and University of Wales College of Medicine, 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

I have twelve years’ research staff experience as a biomedical engineer. In 1999 I obtained the post of research fellow, working on a three-year EPSRC-funded project. I was to investigate a novel biomedical imaging technique, Magnetic Induction Tomography (MIT), and to develop a multi-channel, fully electronically scanned MIT system. My contract was split between two institutions in South Wales: the first 18 months at the University of Glamorgan and the second at the University of Wales College of Medicine, Cardiff. 

Then I moved back to the University of Glamorgan and continued to work on MIT and other imaging projects with diverse sponsors. I also worked on a consultancy project for a South Wales-based company, through the University’s Centre for Electronic Production Engineering.

From 2006 I was a research fellow on a second EPSRC-funded three-year project. Carried out in collaboration with Manchester and Swansea universities, and Philips Medical Systems and Pilkington, this investigated MIT for brain imaging and industrial process control applications. At this time I also collaborated with colleagues at the University Hospital of Wales, Cardiff, to develop instrumentation for the measurement of visceral fat by trans-abdominal electrical impedance.

Then from 2010–11 I received Welsh Government funding to investigate the application of Magnetic Induction Spectroscopy for monitoring fluid shifts within the brain.

At the end of 2011 I left academic research for a post in the National Health Service. Several factors influenced my decision, both positive and negative.

The positive: I had collaborated with colleagues in the NHS for ten years and I knew the value of their work. I work in biomedical engineering, and the front-line for this field in the UK is the NHS. This was somewhere my experience and skills could be of value. It is also a good place to find relevant R&D projects – you can talk to clinical staff at first hand and spot interesting targets for research.

The negative: the same ones experienced by most researchers on short contracts. Once you have a family and mortgage, stability of employment becomes very important, and contract research by its nature doesn’t offer this. It’s always interesting and sometimes exciting, but it’s never stable. You also have very limited promotion prospects beyond research fellow.

The only ways to change the problems of stability and promotion as research staff is up – obtaining a lecturer post – or out into the world outside academia. Taking into consideration the positive and negative factors together, out into the NHS was my preferred option.

Transition to a new career

Once I decided to leave academic research it was a case of keeping an eye out for suitable jobs. I started this about 18 months before actually leaving. I scanned internet sources for vacancies (for the NHS it’s and and eventually suitable ones appeared. I applied for a few jobs, got some interviews and was fortunate to be offered the most interesting post I’d seen advertised. 

While I was looking, I also applied for membership of the Institute of Physics and Engineering in Medicine, the professional body for medical physicists and engineers. Membership certainly helped my CV (and I would also recommend obtaining chartered status, CSci or CEng, if you are working in science or engineering). 

Current job

I’m now head of R&D services for the Medical Physics department in Salford Royal – a large teaching hospital. I manage a small team of engineers developing equipment for clinical and research use – making stuff that isn’t available off-the-shelf. I liaise with clinicians, work out what they need, then along with my team, come up with possible solutions: if the customers like it, we build it. We work on physiological measurement systems, laser and other light-based systems, image and signal analysis and surgical devices.

It’s an R&D job, so there are similarities with my university work. Compared to contract research, there’s a lot more paperwork, and the regulation and documentation is a lot more rigorous. When we design and build a device, it will definitely be used on volunteers and patients, and we are the people who are trusted to decide if it is safe to do so.

One advantage of contract research is that you are usually given the time to go into real depth on your project. In my current role, there is less time and more pressure as we work on a fair number of projects each year, and we need to deliver them to our customers – the clinicians and researchers – on time. 

Competencies old and new

The main competencies I developed during my research staff experience are being able to do research, and being able to communicate the results. Good research supervisors pass on good methods, and the experience of carrying out a number of different research programmes is valuable. Review, form the questions you want to ask, develop the tools and experimental protocols to investigate the questions, collect and analyse data, publish in peer reviewed journals and present work at conferences – these are all incredibly valuable experiences and skills if you are to carry out R&D projects effectively.

The competencies I’ve had to develop – and I’m still trying to develop – are the professional competencies that come with my job in the NHS. Regulatory and safety aspects are all important, and you have to keep up to date with these. Time management and team management are also things I’ve had to work on. In academia I was often left to ‘get on with it’, often on my own: that isn’t the case in the NHS. Effective clear communication with your colleagues and team members is vital.

Reflecting on my career path

I had a great time as a contract researcher, and was fortunate to have spent this time working with very supportive PIs and a good collaborator network. I probably should have made the move out earlier from a career point of view, but I was enjoying myself too much.

I’d certainly consider returning to academic research in the future, but I’m not sure my nerves could handle surviving from contract to contract any more – waiting to find out if the current grant application has been successful and I can pay the mortgage next month is something I don’t miss.

I now intend to explore all the opportunities for research in my NHS post and see where this takes me.

Suggestions and advice

Network, collaborate – apart from creating opportunities in your work, these people will be your references. Most jobs involve working in a team and you have to demonstrate you can collaborate effectively.

I would advise on being selective about the jobs you apply for – is it what you want to do and a good match for your skills and interests? And when you do decide to go for a specific job – do your homework. Prepare by finding out some history on the people you will work with, develop an educated guess at what their expectations of the post holder will be, and then form a strategy for the application and cover letter contents: a clear and hopefully attractive statement of what you’re going to bring. 

Meanwhile, keep your options open – teach and do consultancy work for the experience if available. Use the training opportunities available. 

If you’re a competent researcher, you’ve got more skills and ability than most on the job market. Use it to your advantage.