CAREER Q&A

A skilful route out of academia

Catriona Manville made the most of her work and volunteer experience to land a job outside academia that utilizes her research skills.
Nikki Forrester is a freelance science writer based in Davis, West Virginia.
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Catriona Manville

Catriona Manville leveraged her science background into a career as a research leader for the non-profit RAND Europe.Credit: RAND Europe

During her PhD, Catriona Manville worked in an industry lab in London at the drug company GlaxoSmithKline (GSK). Immediately after submitting her thesis, she became a policy fellow at the British Library. Now, as a research leader at RAND Europe — a non-profit organization in Cambridge, UK, whose clients include governments, charities, universities and private-sector firms — she conducts independent research on topics that are relevant to policymakers.

What is your background in scientific research?

I earned an undergraduate degree in biochemistry, and a PhD in biochemistry and genetics from Newcastle University, UK. I’m a leukaemia biologist by training, and my graduate research explored how treating primary tumours can cause secondary cancers, particularly in children. During my PhD, I was co-funded by the British Research Councils and by industry, and I got to work at GSK for a year, which exposed me to a commercial laboratory and an office environment. I also did a three-month placement at the British Library, where I investigated the wider impact of research.

What does your current position involve?

I lead research projects as part of the innovation, health and science team at RAND Europe, a research institute whose mission is to improve policy-making. I assess how research and innovation benefit society and which conditions are needed to support that process. Our research is often in response to a request from a policymaker or government department. Unlike academic research, the scope of the work is set by somebody else. I think that helps us to make a greater impact: we know our research is on topics that policymakers want to address. For example, we recently did a piece of work on ammonia emissions in agriculture, which informed the UK government’s clean-air strategy.

How did you transition out of academia?

One key step for me was refocusing my CV to emphasize my experiences outside my academic achievements. It’s difficult, because at the time, you’re so proud of the title of your thesis, but landing a job is about helping the recruiter to appreciate the value of your PhD beyond the scientific knowledge you developed. When I was at the British Library, my mentor took my CV and rewrote it. She moved it around, put all the things I was really proud of on page two or three and highlighted my practical applications in different job settings that demonstrated more-transferrable skills. For example, she emphasized my time at GSK, as well as my volunteering experience as a Girl Scout leader.

Which skills from your PhD do you highlight when approaching the non-academic job market?

I made sure to point out the broad skills I developed around communication, working to deadlines, dealing with difficult people, handling setbacks, finding information and thinking creatively. Another key point I emphasized was how researchers learn to think: we’re able to critically analyse information from different sources and find broader patterns from that.

What is your advice to scientists interested in careers outside academia?

The best piece of advice I was given was that jobs aren’t really for life any more. If you think of it more as a portfolio career, you can view different opportunities and positions as providing you experience in areas that you want to develop. Over time, those areas might change, but they all contribute to your advancement and lead you down a path that is uniquely yours.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-01762-x

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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