I decided to leave academia pretty much at the beginning of my PhD. I enjoyed the research I did, and I would certainly do it again, but my first impression was right: When my PhD was finished, I was ready to move on. I think one has to be determined and convinced to be able to become a professor. I just could not see myself in this position, especially as I am not very keen on teaching. I guess the fact that my partner was staying in academia gave me the final nudge to leave. Finding two positions at the same university is rather difficult, especially when you and your partner are working in completely different areas.
The only regret I have is that I missed out on all the opportunities to take business or management classes that were presented to me during my time at university. I had not realised the importance of these classes for future job applications, partly because I didn't get very much career advice. Companies don't necessarily appreciate that you pick up many useful skills during a PhD; what they want to see is management and commercial training. Luckily I had spent my summer holidays working in various commercial environments and could use this experience in my job applications. Still, I think taking up management classes would certainly have increased my employability, and quite likely my starting salary.
I applied for various positions in management and technical consultancies. Something you must be aware of if you want to find a similar job is the time scale of recruitment in this industry. Unless you apply for a very specific job, postgraduates are usually interviewed during the normal graduate recruiting round. This means that adverts appear around October, with most graduate jobs starting between July and October the following year.
In the end I was delighted to accept a job as project manager at Accentus, an international creator, developer, and exploiter of intellectual property (IP) through licensing, joint ventures, and technology transfer. Accentus is active in many technology areas, including environmental management, process enhancement, biomedicine and pharmaceuticals, and inspection technologies. We work on projects whose concepts are in the earliest stages of development, through to those that are being exploited as full-fledged technologies and products. In other words, our job is to turn our technical understanding into solutions for the challenges faced by industries around the world.
My first role was as a project manager in the external innovation team. External innovation covers all ideas generated outside the company, some of which it may want to buy, license, or get involved with in some way or the other. Most of my training has been on the job, and I have always made sure that I search for opportunities to turn my hand to as many activities as possible. In addition, Accentus works together with the University of Warwick to provide a formal course in applied management.
It's a year later and my responsibilities have been extended. I have been promoted to manager of the company's external innovation initiative, called Innovation Plus. I source and manage corporate venturing--an arrangement between a large company and a smaller one to share resources, risks, and rewards--and licensing in opportunities from outside the company to strengthen its IP portfolio. Good ideas originate from many places, and a company cannot just rely on its own ideas for business growth. I need an extensive external network that includes single inventors, universities, other companies, government organisations, and funding organisations such as venture capitalist firms. So I regularly attend events organised by the investment community and government organisations, where one has the chance to meet people from all these different backgrounds. In addition to that, I regularly visit different universities. I've found that it certainly helps to have a technical or scientific background when dealing with academics and inventors. However, you also have to be able to speak the commercial language when dealing with investors and businesspeople!
Now I am also involved in the internal business development of Accentus and am kept busy working as part of a team monitoring the progress of the commercialisation process, planning how the different departments can best exploit our technologies, approving further funds to continue the development of technologies, and, from time to time, closing down projects when they are associated with losses or too-small returns. This gives me a good overview of the company and all its departments. It also means that I have a high exposure to the directorate of Accentus. It is a great opportunity to show the higher management directly how good you are, but on the other hand it can be quite stressful as well, especially if things go wrong. Although the directorate is male-dominated, I don't find this a problem--after all, I studied physics!
This all keeps me quite busy already, but in addition to that I am involved in a European Union project Accentus is managing, a best-practice programme on Business Innovation and Growth from Exploitation of Academic Research (BIGEAR). The purpose of the programme is to provide some guidelines on successful routes for turning academic ideas into a product and taking it onto the market. It also aims to introduce information technology tools to facilitate matchmaking between academic ideas and industry needs. My involvement with this programme brings the opportunity to travel throughout Europe.
Because I'm involved in so many different activities, every day is different, which is exactly what I like about my job. Sometimes it can be stressful to switch between tasks, especially when everything seems to have to be done the same day. On the other hand, if you get bored with one thing, you can always take a break from that and get on with something else! Such diversity also gives me insight into the different business activities in a company in general. On any given day I can get involved in the technical and commercial evaluation of a project proposal, write or review a business plan, research IP and markets, meet clients, negotiate a business deal, and network internally and externally at various events such as investment presentations and technology conferences. I get to travel a fair bit around the country, which is fun, but sometimes this can be rather tiring, too, and I am glad to spend a "quiet" day in the office now and again.
For my particular role it is very important to be enthusiastic, motivated, committed, and able to work flexible hours. The technical skills I gained during my academic education are also a must. I have a diploma in physics from the Technical University of Darmstadt in Germany and a PhD in solid state physics from the University of Bristol. This sound technical background means I can quickly understand complex information and appreciate the time scales and difficulties involved in research. However, it is important to work to commercial time scales as well, and sometimes juggling the two can be rather tough! The transferable skills one gains during a PhD--time, project, and budget management; working within a team; interpersonal and communication skills--also help a lot in my job.
I am enjoying my current role and keep learning on the job and during seminars and workshops. I am also lucky in that my employers are keen to help us develop our skills, and this month I have started a part-time diploma in applied management, paid for and mentored by Accentus.
If you can picture yourself doing my job and like the look of it, then I would suggest you approach companies and ask what they can offer to you rather than waiting for them to advertise the vacancy. That is how I got my job! Always keep in mind that only a small fraction of jobs are actually advertised. Many of the large corporations offer a management training programme, but my role involves a combination of activities that might be less easy to find.
So where can I see myself in 5 or 10 years' time? Well, I hope I will continue to progress as well as I have done so far in my job. Ideally I would like to have a family eventually, and I am convinced that it comes down to good organisation to find the right balance between work and family and to have both working well. Maybe I am a little naïve here. However, it depends very much on the opportunities that come my way.