Life is like a box of chocolates

I studied science at University because I was good at science and I liked it. Undergrad, Honours, PhD, Postdoc … I was following the traditional pathway to a successful research career because studying science was fun … until it stopped being fun.

As a postdoc I realised that I loved thinking and learning about science, but didn’t see a future for myself as an academic researcher.

I was devastated … what can a PhD trained researcher do if they don’t like doing research? It was scary. It’s not an uncommon story.

Fast forward almost 15 years, and I’m now in my dream job as Chief Operating Officer of an incredible research centre. But how did I get from there to here?

What I’ve discovered is there’s a whole diversity of careers intrinsically linked to research, that enable you to engage with science and scientists while building career advancing professional skills.

Skills that together with traits essential for succeeding as a PhD student – resilience; a growth mindset and flexibility – can open doors to a range of exciting careers.

“Every single role I have taken on has grown and evolved with me. I don’t know where I will be working in the future, but I believe that if I keep building new skills and expanding my network – new opportunities will present themselves”

I’d like to share some of the things I’ve learned on my journey – in the hope that it’ll help others – especially women in STEMM – find their niche.

Grab opportunities:  I was working as a postdoc in New York City when I decided a research career was not for me.  Over the next 18 months I found ways to increase my job satisfaction by engaging in extracurricular STEMM activities, gaining essential non-academic skills and learning about the wealth of non-academic jobs available to STEMM graduates.

Transition to gain skills: I quickly discovered that to move up – I might first need to step down and learn new skills. My first forage outside of academia was as a conference organiser at a not for profit science organisation. I joined a small motivated team who were passionate about communicating science to scientists.

I loved the exposure to ground breaking science and scientists – working in emerging fields including: integrative physiology; oligonucleotide therapeutics, and personalised medicine.  I learnt networking, business development, budget management, marketing, and how to manage a diverse team.

Find Role Models: Stereotypes say that women are bad at seizing opportunities – we need to change this. I had an amazing female role model, mentor and line-manager who taught me to say yes to opportunities. She encouraged me to step up during her own maternity leave, allowing me to prove my capability to both myself and my peers.

We grew our program from four conferences in 2007 to the 2009 delivery of 12 fully funded international conferences in locations including New York, Beijing, London and Barcelona. My job title had also evolved, I was proud to be Director, Life Sciences at the New York Academy of Sciences.  But I was homesick, newly single and truth be told was getting a bit bored with the cyclic nature of the job. It was time to come home to Australia …

But what can a PhD trained researcher who manages academic conferences do in Australia?

Embrace Change: My next role was in Business Development working with a passionate team of science communicators. Building a loyal membership base of STEMM enthusiasts and organisations interested in supporting science communication was motivating.  I learnt about science communication; community, industry and government engagement; STEMM education; and the Australian STEMM landscape.

But after three years I was pregnant with my first child and ready to try something new … it was time to move on.

But what can a PhD trained researcher with experience in business development, science communication, conference management and has a young family do in Adelaide?

Break stereotypes: I didn’t know how I was going to balance work and family – society is full of clichés about failing to have it all.  I was scared that I would end up frustrated and a failure both as a parent and as a professional. Meanwhile my husband was disillusioned with his research career. We decided that he would quit work to study a Masters of Education, and become our primary carer.  This allowed me to step into my blossoming career.

Build networks: I joined the University of Adelaide in 2013 on a short term contract in the research management team. In my new role I was introduced to the Australian Grant management landscape and learnt new skills in systems management, leadership and team building. Meanwhile I was sending my CV to Adelaide based academics asking if they had any job opportunities for someone with my skill set.

I was still asking myself the same question … what next?

Dream Job: When the ARC Centre of Excellence for Nanoscale BioPhotonics (CNBP) was funded in early 2014 I applied for and won my dream job as Chief Operating Officer. This role combines my management skills developed over a decade of job hopping.

I work with and support a passionate, diverse research community drawing on my skills in leadership, communication, governance, business development and project management. I am surrounded by science and scientists – and have the opportunity to engage in national discussions about best practice in science policy and research management.

A chance to give back: I now have the chance to be role model for a new generation of researchers who are questioning their futures in academia.

More recently I have become interested in promoting the value of a STEMM PhD as a professional qualification – worthy of respect from recruiters and employers similar to that of an MBA.

I believe that the skills developed as a PhD student including resilience, adaptability and the ability to self-teach new things are valuable assets in the changing job landscape. I challenge you to have conversations with your colleagues and peers to help grow public perception of our PhD qualifications.

I’d like to conclude by sharing two mantras that have helped me – in the hope they will help you:

I make my own luck:  Every single role I have taken on has grown and evolved with me. I don’t know where I will be working in the future, but I believe that if I keep building new skills and expanding my network – new opportunities will present themselves.

I can do this: Like many successful women I have imposter syndrome.  In each new role I’ve been required to reinvent myself. Sometimes I stop and remind myself … It can’t be harder that completing a PhD – I can do this!

About the author:

Dr Kathy Nicholson is the Chief Operating Officer (COO) at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Nanoscale BioPhotonics (CNBP). As COO, Kathy is responsible for all operational functions of the centre, which operates both nationally and internationally. Kathy trained as a scientist, earning a Bachelor of Science (Hons) from the University of Adelaide and a PhD in Microbiology from Monash University with CSIRO’s Australian Animal Health Laboratories. She completed two years of postdoctoral training at the Weill-Cornell Medical School in New York City, before moving into her current expertise of strategy, operational oversight, executive management, science communication and development. Committed to fostering the next generation of leaders in STEM, Kathy is an influential mentor with the Industry Mentoring Network in STEM with the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering.

[Article title adapted from Forrest Gump]

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