Postdoc stories: Non-research careers

Former postdoc Lee has taken his love of teaching and technology and applied it to a new role as a Technical Training Content Developer. Here, he tells us about the similarities with his academic career, how he appreciates his flexible working hours and how he drives his own career development

Please give us a brief career history

I was lucky enough to study Natural Sciences at Cambridge, eventually specialising in Materials Science, staying for a PhD and submitting my thesis in 2012. I then continued my research journey by moving to France for a postdoc, working in a related area to my PhD. After three years I had produced a reasonable body of work and could have continued, but I felt ready to try something outside of research. I returned to the UK and joined Granta Design, an established Cambridge spin-out, making teaching resources to go with educational software about engineering materials. I still work there, but moved to the part of the company making commercial enterprise software and became their only Technical Training Content Developer. I maintain a library of slides, exercises, videos and other resources that my colleagues use to deliver training to our customers in large engineering companies around the world.

Why were you attracted to this role, how did you find it?

I always enjoyed the teaching side of being an academic – during my PhD I was a supervisor, lab demonstrator, and did quite a few outreach activities. Part of teaching is designing course content: it’s a huge challenge to get your own head around some very technical knowledge, and then to organise it in a way that is easy for someone else to access. In some ways, that challenge is the same whether you’re an academic lecturer or working for a company. That’s what I like most about this job.

decision point

Did you explore other career paths?

Always – I’m very indecisive! At every point in my career where I’ve had to make a choice, I’ve looked around at the other options. For example, I considered going straight to the private sector rather than doing a PhD, but I graduated in 2008 when the economy was shaky, so research seemed like a safe haven for a few years, as well as being interesting and exciting. When it came to leaving research in 2015, I evaluated several job adverts and literally wrote out the pros and cons, and gave them all a score. I could have applied for another postdoc in Spain or Finland, but the lure of a permanent job and returning to Cambridge won me over.

What do you do in your current role – what is an ‘average’ day?

My working hours are later than some of my colleagues, so there are a few emails waiting for me when I get in. Someone from the services team is about to deliver training to a large customer who needs to know everything about our product’s security and access control features. I point them to the right resources, and suggest a few ways to tweak their itinerary and alter the content for the users they’ll be dealing with.

Then I get down to the week’s main project – some meaty exercises about how to parse text output from mechanical test machines. I use my allotted learning time to read up on regular expressions, and get to work mocking up some examples that customers might recognise. In the process I find and report a couple of obscure bugs in the software – nothing mcommunicationajor, but they’ll be fixed in the next update.

After lunch I’ve got a meeting with a product manager – they’re excited about their pet project, a new feature to solve a particular customer problem to do with regulatory compliance. I ask the usual questions: who is the audience for a training event on this? What will they know already, and what will they need to learn? They share with me a few case studies and an example project file they were working on, so I can start planning the training content. I won’t do the work on this before next month, but it’s good to think ahead.

In the late afternoon I host one of my regular video conference webinars for existing customers. Quite a few tune in – they say it helps them stay sharp. This month I’ve coached one of my colleagues to be a guest speaker, talking about how to use our product with CAD projects and simulations. I set up a laptop to record their great demonstrations, and tomorrow I’ll edit and publish some clips on our customer-facing archive for anyone who missed it.

What do you enjoy about your job?

As the only training content developer in the building, I’m almost a department unto myself, and I’m largely responsible for organising my own time – I like working this way, it’s not so different from when I was a researcher. I set up meetings and listen to all the stakeholders – like the product managers who oversee the software, and the services consultants who deliver training – to establish what customers need to learn, and what they are struggling with. And as an intensive user of the software myself, I can give the developers a lot of feedback about the product, trying to make the user interface easier to get to grips with. So it’s a varied, communicative and social role that involves regular chats with most people in the company. It all helps me feel like a valued and respected member of the team. I’m not just stuck at my desk churning out slides.

Finally, and quite importantly for me, the company is also flexible about working hours, and I can work part-time (4 days per week) to make time for my other interests. I have a serious hobby – I’m a musician playing with two semi-professional acts that I also co-manage. Staying well-rehearsed while also promoting the acts for paid opportunities like weddings and other functions, well, it takes time and energy!

Any aspects that you don’t enjoy?

You do have to continuously advocate for the importance of your role – some people don’t get how important it is that customers be able to learn about the product in a way that speaks their language and suits them. Recent trends towards online e-learning mean you’ll sometimes use a learning management system (LMS) to deliver the content – some of these are better than others, but they can feel restrictive and there’s definitely a sense of distance from the learner. You can end up doing a lot of the same old thing if you don’t agitate for your own career development – for me that involves talking to my manager about new ways I want to learn and develop myself.

What are the main skills you use on a day-to-day basis?

image capturing the idea of understandingIt’s a good job for a generalist – I use a lot of different skills. I have to quickly pick up new technical concepts, by reading around or from conversations with colleagues, and move from one task to another. I need good people skills to tease out what stakeholders in a project really want me to do – sometimes they don’t express it very well – and most of all, I have to be very well organised because the job involves keeping a lot of different people happy, and delivering lots of things by different deadlines. Managing my own workload, and pushing early against any sign of an unrealistic deadline, is probably the most important general business skill – it has stopped me making crazy promises and getting stressed trying to follow through on them!

The Careers Service is amazing. Their Vacancies & Opportunities database has some of the best jobs going

What is your one tip for postdocs who might be considering a move to this sector?

Make sure you ask questions at interview about what the job will really involve. I have the impression that the training role varies a lot from company to company, and you might have the opportunity to define it yourself. Also, try to make sure your prospective manager is someone you think you can work well with. That’s one for any job really, but it’s hard to resolve a personality clash with someone who has power over you.

How did you use the Careers Service in your search?

The Careers Service is amazing: their Vacancies & Opportunities database has some of the best jobs going, and they got me into my current company. Through my years in academia I always kept an eye on it, in case some once-in-a-lifetime position came up. When I was a student, the staff there were always very friendly and open to open-ended discussions when I didn’t know what I was going to do – I never felt railroaded into any particular career. I think they know that everyone is different, and that it’s important to do something for work that matches not just your skills, but your character and values.

R&D in industry over the horizon

SunriseR&D in industry isn’t a surprising postdoc career destination but it’s still surrounded by mystery. What are the reasons former postdocs in industry say that they like it? Or there any downsides they are hiding?

This year, we’ve had lots of feedback at the Postdoc Careers Service on what’s it like and what are the key differences to academia.

Shared risk and glory

In academia if your project doesn’t go well and you are struggling to get any results, the burden is on you to fix it, limp on with the project and try to recruit some volunteers to assist. In industry, inherent team work means that you are not holding the whole weight of the project. As one postdoc now in a local biotech put it “If you are struggling (with experiments) the team is struggling with you and everyone is helping you out”. Sounds great but be aware that getting all the kudos for a project is probably off the cards too as the successes rightly need to be shared. So, if a getting the glory on an individual level is your primary driver, academia might be a better fit.

High tech shiny labs

While academia is idea cutting edge territory, industry is doing it on the technology front. R&D firms invest in equipment and technology which postdocs tell us is a step above most academic institutions and a major perk of the job. Time is money, so companies don’t tend to scrimp on the resources you need to get your job done.

stopwatchFast turn around time

Having years to delve deeply into an academic research area is heaven for some and the reason that postdocs go on to be PIs. But if you get more of a kick from shorter time frames, industry will tick that box. Project managers will be giving you targets and deadlines. It might mean that you can’t go down every interesting experimental route but it will mean you know what you have to focus on when which many postdoc tell us they yearn. But that level of organisation comes at a price. Industry postdocs say the number of meetings is a “culture shock”, the work is intense and the expectations are high.

Real world applications in sight

Certainly anyone working in pharma cites helping patients as a key driver, but that applies to all R&D careers across the sectors. Knowing that people will be consuming and purchasing what you research can be a reason to get out of bed even when the projects are tough.

What, no hidden downsides?

Sure, there are downsides. We’re well aware that the people who volunteer to come back to tell us their industry story disproportionally selects those with a positive tale to tell. But we’re keen to hear the downsides too. The downsides are often the reverse of all the positives above, it’s just a matter of your perspective. But if the positives energise you, it’s worth having a look over the horizon.  Find out more about real life postdoc R&D careers industry.


Anne Forde, Postdoc Careers Adviser


Building resilience for your career

Whether you’re worried about having a temporary contract, applying for long-term academic jobs or making the leap out of academia, having a good supply of mental toughness to cope with the career uncertainties of postdoc life is essential.

But how can you build repalm trees in windsilience?

We were really taken by some recent examples of former postdocs who demonstrated the much- prized ability to ‘bounce back’ in real-life situations and even surprised themselves how resilient they were.

When exploring the subject of building resilience, it’s good to draw inspiration from Stoic philosophy  – a central principle of which is that we don’t control and cannot rely on external events, only ourselves and our reactions.  Or as Seneca succinctly put it: “It does not matter what you bear, but how you bear it.”

Resilience in action

Take former postdoc Stacey Jamieson, a speaker at our recent ‘Careers in R&D in biotech and pharma’ event . Stacey didn’t have the ideal circumstances to land her first choice job.  In her video she describes how, due to her immigration status, she had to think around the issue of getting a job where a company would sponsor her.  Unfortunately, the companies that offered this sponsorship were in technical/scientific roles and not in Stacey’s preferred area of Medical Scientific Liaison, (MSL).

By being resilient – researching her options and being open to opportunities where she could use her skillset – Stacey was able to ‘bridge the gap’ between academia and industry for a year in a technical role until she got permanent residency status in the UK.

Things have worked out well for Stacey who is now in MSL, a role ‘where her heart lies.’

At the same event, Winnie Yeung urges you to be brave and apply for industry positions even if you have the challenge of not having all the skills listed on the job description.

You’ll have to be resilient to handle the inevitable rejections, but by highlighting your transferrable skills you may also get the job.  As Winnie says: ‘usually the company will see how your skills will fit with the role.’

Sometimes the resilience-building technique of ‘reframing,’ (a way of viewing and experiencing events, ideas, concepts and emotions to find more positive alternatives – Wikipedia), is needed to check if a perceived challenge or difficulty can be turned to an advantage.

José Teles, a speaker at the event, worried that his diverse background in academia would hamper his chances of moving into industry – a concern that wasn’t borne out in reality.  As José explains in this video, his wide-ranging experience ‘…. turned out to be an advantage in my current role.’

José’s story highlights the importance of ‘reframing’ – seeing your situation from all angles, to build your resilience.  What you might think of as a disadvantage in your career history, may actually be seen by employer as a benefit.

Moving forward

Seneca said that ‘we suffer more often in imagination that in reality.’ By deploying resilience to interrogate challenges -moving problems from the imagination and into the cold light of reality -positive, creative ways of moving-on can be devised.

Have a good supply of resilience is essential to overcoming life’s inevitable hurdles as a postdoc.

Getting help

If you are looking to increase your resilience, the Researcher Development Programme at Cambridge University run workshops which focus on building mental toughness by developing coping strategies to overcome challenges.

Come for an appointment at the Postdoc Careers Service if you feel that the rollercoaster of job hunting and career decision making is depleting your resilience.

Heather Smith

Postdoc team

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