Do many people consciously choose a research-adjacent career? I certainly didn’t. Well, not at first anyway. In fact most jobs I’ve done are ones I never even knew existed until I saw them advertised. But there are so many interesting and impactful research-adjacent jobs out there! The people who share their stories on the podcast are great examples. And by way of another example, here is the story of how a research-adjacent career chose me.
It’s hard to do science as a hobby
Apparently from the age of about 5 I told people I wanted to be a ‘doctor like my dad’ when I grew up. I have stronger memories of wanting to be a fashion designer (so 80s!), but you know how families go – this was probably a better story. Anyway, there must have been something there because, at least to start with, I followed in my marine biologist dad’s footsteps. As a music-obsessed teenage goth I was torn between art and science. Everyone steered me towards science, saying I could always do art as a hobby. Maybe it was their way of telling me I wasn’t that good at art, but it was sensible advice. It’s very hard to get hold of liquid nitrogen or other restricted substances for doing part-time biochemistry in your garage. Breaking Bad is testament to how this could go very badly wrong.
I went off to study biological science at Edinburgh University and then a PhD in plant biochemistry and pathology at the sadly defunct, but wonderfully niche Wye College (University of London). So far, so conventional and I did get good grades. But honestly my attention was never 100% on my studies. I always had part-time jobs and was generally more interested in the student social scene. I think my PhD supervisor could see I wasn’t destined for academia. I got sent on training courses for things like media training and transferable skills (thanks to my funders BBSRC). I was also running a lot of student events on the side as president of the Postgraduates Union (including some very ambitious shindigs that involved fields, marquees, haybales, and late liquor licenses.)
Anything to avoid living with my parents again…
While writing up my PhD I did look for a postdoc, but I was ready to move back up north which limited my options. And I had also done a weird interdisciplinary biology/chemistry PhD long before it was fashionable which made me an awkward fit for most jobs. Running out of cash and faced with the horror of moving back in with my parents I needed some kind of work. So I turned to my other experience and those all-important transferable skills. I landed a short-term minimum wage job as a Science Communicator for the Edinburgh Science Festival. After a few months of galivanting around the country making rockets and making kids vomit (really – see this New Scientist editorial…) there was still no sign of a postdoc, so I took another minimum wage job, this time as a Tour Guide/Front of House at the new Edinburgh science centre, Dynamic Earth. I also started volunteering for the Education team at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh, just because I loved having an excuse to go there – it’s one of my favourite places in the world.
I spent a very enjoyable year at Dynamic Earth trying to figure out what to do next. I applied for all kinds of jobs. The crunch point came when, in the same week, I was offered a job as Education Officer at Life Science Centre in Newcastle upon Tyne, and also fast-tracked for a job developing anti-fungal plant products in Reading. Having done 3 years in Kent for my PhD I felt I’d done my time down south so for that reason, and that trivial reason alone, I took the job in Newcastle.
I wanted to expand my mind, not focus it
And the rest, as they say, is history. I’m still in Newcastle. I have now been working in the field that I have decided to call ‘research-adjacent’ for over 20 years. Every so often I wonder if I made the right decision. But I never spend very long thinking about it. Despite having a very non-linear career path, I have been able to stay in the same location without the pressure to uproot my life and family every few years for the next opportunity. I have been able to do so many interesting things and learn all sorts of different skills. And I get to delve into all kinds of amazing research. If you want to see more of what I’ve done you can check out my Portfolio page or see my CV on LinkedIn.
The reason I first went into science was because I was interested in how everything works. It never sat very comfortably that during my PhD I became so specialised that only a handful of people really understood my work. I wanted to expand my mind, not focus it. So a research-adjacent career has fed my curiosity and my soul in a way I now see research never could. Even though working with researchers sometimes brings up that little ‘what if’ niggle, it’s not because I’m unhappy with the path I’ve taken. It’s because I’m unhappy with the system and the fact that my career is somehow seen as ‘less-than’, or that my expertise doesn’t count for as much as an academic. So I am now on a mission to change that – to highlight and celebrate the amazing people and opportunities that come with a research-adjacent career.