BACK TO THE FEATURE INDEX

Early on in doing my PhD, roughly around the time I set up an experiment for the 20th time that failed to work for no conceivable reason, I realised that a future in scientific research was perhaps not for me. What I really wanted was a chance to combine the science that I had studied with communications activities such as scientific writing and promotion, and science PR seemed to offer the ideal career solution.

Working in a PR Agency

I work for an agency, HCC De Facto, which works only with companies within the healthcare and life sciences sectors, and my job involves promoting the activities of a portfolio of biotechnology clients. Working within the biotechnology arena is attractive because you are placed in a position to learn about and follow the development of truly smart scientific technological advances within the industry. This not only satisfies my desire to remain informed of new research within the scientific community, but it also tends to take in a broad spectrum of scientific disciplines, rather than being restricted to one or two specific areas, as can sometimes be the case with research work.

However, agency work can be demanding; like lab work, it is rarely a 9-to-5 pursuit. As you are not a member of the client organisation, it can be difficult to control and plan for all eventualities--work can come from all sides, so efficient time management and the ability to prioritise become vital skills. The agency team is ultimately there to provide a valued service to their clients--if work comes in at short notice and deadlines are tight, as is often the case, then late nights may be necessary to complete a project.

A major plus side to this job is the diversity of people you encounter. PR is a great opportunity to meet and work with interesting people drawn from a range of industries. Another advantage is the sheer variety of the work--different clients require slightly different services. HCC De Facto provides a combination of PR and media relations, marketing communications, financial PR, patient recruitment, graphic design, Internet and new media services to its clients. All these give project managers the chance to learn about many varied aspects of communications strategy, media, and materials.

But What Do I Actually Do?

My role as a senior account executive involves working with around four to five clients with input from my account director. Below are the highlights of a typical week, which I hope will give you a better idea of what the job entails on a day-to-day basis.

Monday

The day starts much as any other with a trawl through the morning's e-mails--we receive numerous news alerts from health, science, trade, and financial services. A weekly team meeting allows us to review the week's work ahead, gain input from the rest of the team, and offer advice. Then it's down to work. ...

  • Issued an important press release for client company A--organise face-to-face and phone interviews between the key company spokesperson and journalists; follow up with other journalists by phone.

  • Client company B is presenting at an upcoming conference--invite editor of a target journal to attend presentation and meet company.

  • Client company C intends to give out branded pens during a conference--send samples of different types of pens to client company C from the supplier and arrange a time with designers in the studio to format the company logo to fit the chosen pen

  • Draft text for a new advert for client company D following a briefing from the client.

Tuesday

  • Travel to client company B to discuss their PR programme, current projects, and upcoming projects.

  • Draft a plan of action arising from the meeting with company B to be implemented over the following month.

  • Obtain a copy of the CV of a newly appointed senior member of client company C. Draft a press release on the new appointment.

  • Review coverage that has arisen from a recent press release for client company A (press cuttings arrive regularly from a company that checks a range of sources including the national press, newswires, and trade publications for client company keywords). Identify good examples to scan for future use in presentations and the like.

  • Liaise with a university press office to discuss the press release text and distribution strategy in connection with its collaboration involving client company E.

Wednesday

  • Draft a short profile of client company C for a conference handbook--liase with the client and conference organisers.

  • Review a list of up-coming trade journal features and pull together possible targets for which client companies may be able to offer editorial content over the next year.

  • Book studio time with designers to format a new flyer for client company B, which is attending a conference at the end of the week and wants to distribute some flyers. This is short notice for printing. Liaise with the client to draft and finalise the text; brief the designer to lay out the text in a manner consistent with the existing design style.

  • Attend an evening lecture and networking event for the London bioscience community (representatives from the research community, the biotech industry, PR companies, and financial institutions are present).

Thursday

  • Draft a press release about a technology deal that client company D has completed with another company. Use details of the deal and liaise with the collaborating company to discuss the text, quotes to be included in the release, and the targets and strategy for distribution.

  • Lunch with a journalist--arrange to meet the journalist to introduce myself, discuss which topics the journalist is interested in at the moment and, where relevant, indicate client companies that may be able to offer useful information.

  • Review the Web site of client company E and instruct the Web team on new files to upload and the text changes needed in order to keep the Web site up to date.

  • Arrange for a journalist to find out more about client company B via a site visit.

  • Catch up with reading journals; check for coverage of client companies and any interesting/relevant articles.

Friday

  • Contact a target journal that has an upcoming feature to which client company D could contribute material. Approach the editor with a possible article idea; find out deadlines and any author instructions.

  • Contact the journal for which a senior member of client company E's management recently wrote an article. Find out the options and prices for reprints of this article.

  • Draft a media briefing document for client company A. The document is to include relevant information on the company's history, technology, commercial strategy, and personnel.

  • Fill in timesheets. Enter into the electronic accounting system the time spent working for each client. This is necessary to allow the correct calculation of fees.

This list of activities represents only a small selection of the tasks I could be carrying out each week. Some weeks are relatively quiet, most are hectic, and some times of the year are always more busy than others, but there is always something to do or something new to learn.

Finding a Way In

The jump from scientific research to scientific communication can be a tricky one. Having no previous communications experience can be a major barrier. To be sure, many organisations make use of science PR--research councils, organisations that promote the public's understanding of science, biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies, and agencies that could be working for any number of these outlets. However, many scientists are attracted by the thought of communicating science, and so competition can be tough, with many fresh science graduates up against candidates who have accrued some relevant industry/journalism/communications experience. Welcome to living the adage "Can't find a job because don't have any experience; can't get any experience because can't find a job!"

Before ditching the PhD in despair, remember that the scientific knowledge that you build up while completing your research will help you in understanding the science you are ultimately aiming to communicate--a useful asset. Think also about the other characteristics, skills, and accomplishments that completion of a research degree demonstrates, such as IT, presentation, and time management skills; the ability to work within a multicultural environment; motivation; analytical skills; the ability to type extremely long documents at a good pace; and the like.

Then look around for activities you can do while still in the lab that will show prospective employers that you are genuinely interested in communications and that it's not just a whim brought on by the PhD blues (like opening a cake shop, which seriously crossed my mind more than once). Take advantage of the opportunities offered by research councils and scientific magazines and national newspapers--for example, scientific writing competitions and promoting science in schools. Gain insight into how your university press office promotes its science research. If you are interested in working within the biotech sector, find out more--read trade publications alongside more academic scientific publications, and try contacting the technology-transfer office of your university or funding body, or companies that have been spun out of your university, for some work experience.

What Do You Mean, 'Fax That'? I Have a PhD, You Know

Finally, remember that as in most situations where you change career direction, you may have to accept that entry to your new profession could well be in a relatively junior position. Although this can seem a step back, it really is the best way to learn the ropes in what will be, let's face it, a truly new--but, it's to be hoped, rewarding--working experience.