A Day In The Life Of – A Post Doctoral Research Associate
Postdoctoral Research Associate
What are your qualifications and career background?
I completed my BSc(Hons) in Genetics, and my MSc developing genetic fingerprints of grapevine cultivars at the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa. I then swapped sunshine and grapevines for a PhD in Aberdeen, Scotland, where I studied gene mutations that contribute to cardiovascular disease. I was planning on heading back to SA, but met a rather lovely English Army Captain and ended up staying in the UK.
How did you get into the industry?
By accident! No-one I knew growing up did anything remotely related to research, so I had no idea it was a career option. I actually didn’t know what I wanted to do for such a long time, and just went with the flow, following where my studies took me. My PhD was a great opportunity to live abroad, and everything just fell into place after that. I changed research focus for my second job after graduating, when I started working on the genetics of cancer, and haven’t looked back.
I’ve always made a point of taking every opportunity to learn anything and everything on offer in all my roles. This has meant I’ve been lucky enough to ride the crest of the wave that is cutting-edge ‘genomics’ – studying DNA and its role in disease.
What does a typical work day look like for you?
I don’t really have a ‘typical’ work day. I have multiple research projects on the go at any one time, each at different stages. My research projects generally follow the same arc though: Identify a unique research question, secure funding, generate raw data, analyse the data and publish findings. I’m work on each stage, either on my own or together with colleagues, who can be in my department or abroad.
In any one week, I will usually have a mix of experimental work (from simply growing cancer cells in petri dish reactions, to using samples that patients have donated for medical research), analysing data with appropriate statistics and bespoke computational tools, writing grant applications for more funding, or summarising results for publication in journals and presentation at conferences.
I also supervise students, training them in the necessary techniques to become independent scientists, and run my own research budgets.
There are also weekly departmental meetings where I present ongoing work to colleagues for critical feedback, and training courses (anything from new experimental techniques to changes in legislation affecting work with human tissues).
I also try to read as much of the latest scientific literature as possible, but this I reserve for coffee breaks or my commute.
What are the positive and negative aspects of your job from a professional/ personal point of view?
Professionally, there is a lot of practical and intellectual freedom in academic research, compared to customer-facing sectors, for example: I mostly decide how to arrange my work, and my work hours. Academic research encompasses everything from the very interesting to the very dull; I always try to engineer things so that the good bits more than outweigh the bad in any one week.
While my background is quite broad, over the past 10 years I’ve focused more on the genetics of cancer (prostate, pancreas and breast). It is extremely interesting and rewarding to work in an area that has the central aim of making a real difference in people’s lives. This is a strong motivator for most of my colleagues too.
On the downside, I constantly live with the feeling of not having finished my homework! There is always more to do, better experiments to design, papers to publish, grants to win, etc. There are also far fewer permanent positions available for the number of academic trainees, so it is an extremely competitive field with a high attrition rate.
As a Military spouse, what has been your biggest obstacle when trying to balance work/ kids/ your spouses military commitments?
Career continuity is proving to be the biggest problem, especially after having my first child, Whereas before, I could easily weekly commute (2 years), or deal with a 3+ hour daily commute (4 years), being constrained by nursery hours and a very long daily commute is a deal-breaker if your spouse deploys regularly, or keeps long, irregular hours. Medical research jobs are concentrated in certain areas of the UK, or in larger hospitals, so it’s not as simple as just ‘find another job’. I’ve been incredibly lucky so far to find work ‘near’ all our postings for far.
What has been your proudest moment in your role… so far?
It’s always fantastic to take a project from an idea doodled in a note pad to a published paper. My first solo effort is definitely something I’m most proud of – it took 5 years from start to finish, with lots of obstacles along the way (and help from colleagues) and I got there in the end. It led to a lovely publication, lots of exposure in the field, and has helped me get every job since.
Why is work so important for you?
It’s intellectually very interesting, and it is solely mine – I love being a wife and a mom and a sister and a daughter, but my job is all my own and isn’t something that defines me in relation to anyone else. It’s also something I’ve worked long and hard for, and don’t want to give it up until I really have no other options left!
What advice would you give fellow Military spouses who want to get into your industry?
Stick with it! Not every role requires a PhD, but if you decide to go that route, you’ll need to commit to at least 3 years uninterrupted in one place. For some sections of the Forces and some locations, this is doable. Also, it is totally worth the (massive!) effort required, as it opens so many doors, even to other sectors. Postdoc contracts are also usually 2-3 years long, so you might just get lucky enough to have your contract and your spouse’s new posting coincide…
Otherwise, there are lots of jobs that BSc graduates will qualify for, and that’s just in the actual research environment. There is also lots of scope for administrators, grant managers and similar both in universities and funding agencies, where other degrees and experience are more relevant. There are also plenty of routes into research via pharma companies, where you can receive lots of added in-house training and progress that way. Pharma is especially good for work placements, too.