Looking for a new direction in your career? Well you’ve come to the right place. This is the first in our new series of articles that focus on careers for scientists. We’ll be looking at jobs that are off-the-beaten-track (and sometimes on no track at all) and ones that are certainly not on the standard career guide for graduates.
To kick off the series, we thought you’d be interested in finding out about who does what behind the scenes at Bitesize Bio, and how we got here. First up, it’s our Editorial Manager, Dr Allison Ross. Here’s what she had to say when I talked to her about her new job…
Congratulations on your new role at Bitesize Bio. And what exactly is your new position here?
As Editorial Manager with Bitesize Bio, I’m aware that this is quite a unique job in the marketplace. It’s a bit of a cliché when people say that their job is really varied, but right now that’s the way my job is. One minute I’m editing and publishing articles written by our great staff writers who contribute to the ongoing success of the website, and at the same time I’m thinking about who I’d like to approach who could deliver a high standard of webinar presentation for us. Then there’s the timetabling and scheduling for everything that goes along with that. I really like this part as I get a chance to work with lots of very different people from all occupations, beyond the confines of a research group. It also means that I can pull on previous skills and experience from my early days as an administrator.
But I’m not restricted to an editing role in this job – as a senior member of the parent company, Science Squared (S2), I’m involved in the wider objective of creating new channels for science communication. This part is great – being involved in start up projects that I will see come to fruition because of our hard work and belief in what we are doing. This is where my postdoc experience definitely comes in handy, when applying for grant funding. There’s lots of room for fresh approaches to how we deliver our knowledge, not just to the next generation, but to each other. Oh, and did I mention book-keeping? You see, working for a company right at the start really requires you to adapt to all kinds of jobs.
Would you tell us a bit about your background?
I suppose I’m a little unusual because I didn’t go to university until I was in my late 30’s. Really, it was with the intention of becoming a lab technician at the start, as this was the only job I could think of where I could wear a white coat! It was definitely too late to become a medical doctor…..my very early career (late teenage years) was as a Medical Secretary and I always loved the atmosphere in a hospital – strange. I left because the pay was bad; actually, I should say really bad, and at that point I’d never even heard of a PhD, never mind a postdoc! It took over 20 years of working in admin and finance to realise I wanted to be a scientist and to have the guts to just go and do it, but it definitely wasn’t an easy decision to make, going to university when you’re the same age as your colleagues’ parents and some of the lecturers.
After my first degree in chemistry at the University of Aberdeen, I realised I wanted to know more and started my PhD research at the University of Edinburgh soon after graduating. From there I got my first postdoc position at Colorado State University and then moved back to Scotland where I worked as a postdoc again at the Medical School here in Edinburgh. So in effect, I came full circle – from a medical secretary to postdoctoral researcher.
What do you like about your job?
If I think about what an Editor does, I conjure up images of newspaper press rooms from 1980’s films with someone waving a large cigar in the air while instructing how a piece of written work should be done. My job is nothing like that.
New challenges. One of the biggest learning curves for me in my current job is adapting to a new style of writing – writing a thesis/publication/book chapter has been great from a skills point of view, but writing for an online resource such as Bitesize Bio throws up new challenges for me every day. That’s why I love my new job! I should also say that my background is in bioinorganic chemistry, not biology, which shows that you can adapt to your environment as long as you love the science behind it all. I suppose that’s the key, really. A love of all things sciency (is that a word for an Editor to use?) ensures that you have a broad knowledge base to apply to many new projects and creativity doesn’t just apply to the writing process.
Science communication is a hot career choice for many scientists who are looking to move away from the bench. What advice would you give to someone who is looking to make this move?
Contacts, contacts, contacts. I really can’t stress enough how important it is to build up a network of contacts that you interact with regularly. It’s crucial when you’re looking for a job, particularly for those who perhaps don’t wish to continue with the traditional academic career route. Actually, I should point out that if you know of people who have business ideas that you think will succeed, then help them out where you can. You never know where things lead to, and if they don’t lead anywhere, you are still building valuable experience and contacts …
Find a niche and build it yourself. Because of the internet, there’s huge scope for new approaches to science communication. So one way into this area is to look around for the gaps and opportunities, and above all be innovative. New media is fast becoming the platform of choice for communicating research and teaching. Take my job for example, here on Bitesize Bio. As little as three years ago, this job didn’t even exist. The internet enabled Nick Oswald to start the site and reach a huge audience within a short space of time, and on little more than some innovation, creativity and perspiration. From what he learned from Bitesize Bio, Nick started what is now BsB’s parent company, Science Squared, and we now have a number of very exciting projects on the horizon. So your dream job may be waiting for you to invent it, build it or support someone you think has a winning idea…
Looking back on what you have done in your career, which bits help you most in your job now?
That’s a difficult one to answer because my background is not one that many people have. I always thought I had it tough because I didn’t go to university when all my friends did – turns out that it’s the best thing that could have happened. There aren’t many chemistry PhD’s who’ve also been a building society manager (that was after the medical secretary bit!). Experience in the finance sector combined with an administrative background and up-to-date science degree, plus PhD, put me well ahead of the competition, not behind as I once thought.
The most useful things you can ever learn (apart from your science of course) are how to organise yourself and your work, and how to continually apply that practice to your work, not just once every 6 months or so when your stack of papers gets as tall as you are…
Make yourself as indispensible as possible. If you want to keep your job and move up your particular career ladder, then take on more responsibility, not less, and make sure the work you produce is of the highest quality you can provide. In these days of short-term contracts, that philosophy may not always work, but it will certainly help any decision your employer may make toward giving you a permanent job. Don’t adopt what I tend to call the “British tea-break mentality”!
If I asked you for a favourite quote, what would it be?
“The more I read the papers, the less I comprehend” – Ira Gershwin, 1937
And to sum up – what 3 pieces of advice would you give a scientist who is looking to move into scientific communication?
1. Get skills – understand the internet and how it works, learn about what science communication is now, and think about what it could be in the future, practice writing (you can start here – we are always interested in hearing from new writers) – this will help you get a job when opportunities like Bitesize Bio and others come up.
2. Keep in touch with people you know, actively grow your network and get yourself introduced to those you don’t. LinkedIn is great for this, and so are conferences…
3. Keep an open mind about crossing disciplines and subjects. It’s science communication after all, not just your own flavour of science you need to communicate. Of course, you probably won’t find yourself doing exactly the same job as me, but the definition of “science communication” is open to interpretation as you can see – work out what the message is that you want to get across and figure out a way of developing a vehicle that will do that for you.
You can do this with your incredible science background. I’m off now to write a series of articles on Mass Spectrometry for Biologists – wish me luck!
If you want to know about a particular person’s work experience that is perhaps a little bit different from the norm, just let us know – we’d love to interview them for you. Watch this space…