|Molecular Cell Biology (with a year in industry)|
|Postdoctoral Research Associate|
|University of Cambridge|
|Science and research|
|Large business (250+ employees)|
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A day in the life of a Postdoctoral Research Associate in the United Kingdom
Briefly describe the organisation you work for
I work in the Cambridge Stem Cell Institute. The institute is part of the University of Cambridge, but focused fully on scientific research.
What do you do?
As a postdoc, my job is to perform scientific research. I work in a research group, headed by the prinicipal investigator, and everyone in the group works on a range of related topics. The group I work in is interested in the biology of blood stem cells and how these biological processes become dysfunctional in blood cancer.
The research I do is "basic research" - i.e. we study the basic biology of blood stem cells. On the other side is "translational research" which is concerned with "translating" basic research into therapeutics.
Most of my time is spent on planning experiments and projects, working in the lab and analysing data. Often postdocs spend some time teaching students - for me that has been informal training and teaching, but other postdocs I know have supervised PhD projects. Towards the end of a project, I am expected to write up my findings and publish journal articles. I am also required to present my work-in-progress regularly to the group, and when I have enough data, to present externally at conferences.
Reflecting upon your past employment and education, what led you to your current career choice?
During my final year at York, I considered a few different career paths; teaching, becoming a statistican, and staying in biological science. So I definitely didn't have a clear cut path in mind from the start, and I sympathise with those of you who are struggling with these decisions.
It was actually my final year research project experience that convinced me to continue in scientific research, and apply for a PhD. After my year in industry, I knew I liked solving problems and really enjoyed the time I got to spend on an independent project at the company. After completing a second project in my final year, I knew this was something I enjoyed and was good at. But for me that second project was really important to make up my mind. So my advice if you're considering applying for a PhD but you're not sure - go and work in another lab! You could try working as a research assistant, or getting a summer placement for example.
The reason I chose to do a PhD was to train towards being an independent scientist. There are actually lots of scientist positions in companies (and research assistant roles in universities) that you don't need a PhD for. However for scientific jobs where you are responsible for designing experiments yourself, and driving your own projects, a PhD is usually needed. This is especially true if you want to stay in academia. I didn't know if I wanted to be in academia or industry at this point, but I knew a PhD would be valuable for me either way.
I started applying for PhDs at the end of 1st term of final year in York, and attended quite a few interviews before I got my PhD position at the University of Leeds, studying immunology. My PhD lasted 3.5 years, and I started thinking about the next step while I was writing up my thesis. Again I faced the academia or industry dilemma... I decided on academia BUT I was still keeping my options open. I applied for a post doc because I enjoyed scientific research and wanted to experience life in another research lab. I was offered 2 postdocs; the first one I found out about through my PhD supervisor (he recommended me) and the second I applied through a job advert. I went with the second, which is what I'm doing now. It is in a different field to my PhD research, which was a bit scary at first - but I am very glad I chose to broaden my skills and experience.
Is your current job sector different from what you thought you would enter when you graduated?
No, I studied molecular biology and I'm still doing molecular biology.
Describe your most memorable day at work
Probably recently, when I have been coming in to help with SARS-Cov2 diagnostic testing. Not what I expected to be doing this time last year.
Are there any challenges associated with your job?
Presenting your work in front of a whole room of experts can be very daunting, but the more you practise, the easier it becomes.
Academia can sometimes feel lacking in structure and support systems. For example, in industry I had a direct supervisor, who had a line manager, who had another boss etc. etc. As a junior postdoc, my boss is the principal investigator of the group, who is also extremely busy being the head of institute, so I am given a lot of freedom. This can be wonderful depending on your working style - but for me I did struggle with feeling lost when I first started.
What extracurricular activities did you undertake at university and what transferable skills did you develop through these?
I took part in a few science outreach activities while I was at York, and was on the Biology outreach committee in final year. Learning to explain your own work, or other people's science, to the public is such a valuable skill for continuing in research. It has helped me give clearer presentations for example.
I also joined the dance society and took part in a few performances. Unrelated to science, but being on stage as a complete beginner is similar in some ways to presenting your work as a student! Dancing has helped me so much in growing my confidence and overcoming stage fright. So don't underestimate the importance of non academic activities.
What would you like to do next with your career?
I would like to move into more "translational" research, either in the biotech/pharmaceutical industry or working on therapeutics in an academic institute. I am coming towards the end of my postdoc, and now realise that I am more suited to faster moving, translational science, than work in a "basic science" lab. All the science I have done so far has been linked to medicine, but very far detached from patients and therapeutics.
I am glad I chose to do a postdoc though, I have learnt a huge amount and really challenged myself. There is so much I can talk about in an interview based on my postdoc experience.
What top tips do you have for York students preparing for today’s job market and life after graduation?
You don't need to rush if you still need time to figure out your next step after graduation. I say this because I did the opposite - going straight from school to uni to PhD. I was lucky to end up with a great PhD supervisor and interesting topic, but it was stressful managing all the applications while studying for exams AND working on my final year research project. I could have spent a year working as a lab technician or something else, before jumping into a PhD.
What topics from students are you happy to answer questions on?
Appying for science PhDs.
Academia vs Industry.
Working in Leeds or Cambridge
If you like the look of Michelle’s profile, the next steps are down to you! You can send Michelle a message to find out more about their career journey. If you feel you would benefit from more in-depth conversations, ask Michelle to be your mentor.