Careers, Interview

INTERVIEW: Liam Morgan – A postdoc’s journey: academia and beyond

Note from the editor: When we put the blog together I most wanted to present authentic voices and authentic narratives – this for me is one such post. Liam presents an engaging and accessible expression of his journey through academia and beyond, raising some fundamental areas for reflection along the way…


Liam is a former research scientist who worked in the field of cancer research for almost 20 years in one form or another. His initial focus was on the effects of drug resistance in breast cancer, but then moved on to look at the aggressive phenotype exhibited by certain types of leukaemia and prostate cancer. After much soul-searching, he has now joined the dark side (they have cookies apparently) and is a member of the human resources staff working in Organisational and Staff Development for research, supporting the Researcher Development and Staff Development programmes [these are CU intranet links]. What follows is a personal account of his career pathway to date.

So to start right at the beginning… “What do I want to be when I grow up?”

It was always an easy question to answer because there was always only ever one answer: a scientist (okay, so I dabbled with the idea of being an airline pilot for a few months, but I was young and didn’t know what I was thinking!). I had always been interested in science and lapped it up in any form I could get my hands on, be it in books, magazines or on the TV.

After getting my GCSEs and A-levels out of the way, I eventually embarked upon a degree in biochemistry at the University of Warwick which, while scratching a number of intellectual itches, left me feeling like a jack of all trades but master of none. This initially made me doubt whether I could (or should) pursue an academic career pathway by doing a PhD so I looked at a few alternatives, eventually ending up in industry working as mass spectrometrist in a contract research organisation. The job was great, but it only took a couple of years before I started to feel constrained by the environment; and carrying out other people’s work without seeing the endpoint made it difficult to get any satisfaction from the job. As luck would have it, I was made redundant (with just an hour’s notice) when the company suddenly closed one day out of the blue, thus allowing me to reconsider my earlier career choices and seek out a PhD studentship!

I had always been interested in science and lapped it up in any form I could get my hands on, be it in books, magazines or on the TV.

I think I’m a bit of an oddity in that I really enjoyed all aspects of my PhD, even the viva (if you ever want to wind up a 3rd year PhD student [and why wouldn’t you?], just tell them how much you enjoyed your viva!). I was based in the School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences looking at the effect of Tamoxifen resistance on the metastatic potential of breast cancer. It was (in my opinion) a really successful project that was both interesting and fruitful, and I loved it. There was no doubt about it, it was an academic career for me…professorship here I come!

You can probably guess, but that wasn’t how it turned out (spoilers!).

I applied for my first (and, as it turned out, second and third) post-doc, which looked at the pathology of aggressive chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL), mostly because on the surface it seemed to have a lot in common with my PhD project. It didn’t in reality; I realised during that time just how different one form of cancer can be to another, and spent the next few years doing what felt like another couple of PhDs back-to-back! It was a challenging project and, I think it’s fair to say, not one of the most successful in postdoc history. I’d worked hard, I’d done all the extra things you were supposed to do as a postdoc, but to no avail. The project just didn’t do what we thought it was going to do and although I did manage to generate some interesting data, it seemed to be unpublishable as it wasn’t trendy enough for the high impact factor journals. My research area was once a hot topic in CLL, but people had since moved on and left me behind. It was very frustrating.

I’d worked hard, I’d done all the extra things you were supposed to do as a postdoc, but to no avail.

I had some difficult choices ahead, so I talked to one of my PIs who had always been supportive of my career development in the past. During a very frank discussion, he told me that he didn’t ever see me as the PI of a thriving research group. He’d softened it by telling me I was an excellent scientist and that I always asked the right research questions, but it was still difficult to hear (even though, deep down, I knew he might be right). In hindsight he had done me a huge favour; it was something I needed to hear. It forced me to sit down and think about what I wanted for my career. I mean, did I even really want to be a PI? I knew I wanted to stay under the umbrella of academic research, but did I want to do or direct the research myself? Luckily, I had excellent support from my PIs and they were very encouraging when it came to exploring alternative options, even helping to arrange a short secondment in the School of Medicine Research Office. It was great: the work was really interesting, I was in the office 8:30am to 4:30pm (and no weekends!) and, best of all, I was able to switch off and think about other things during the evening!

Luckily, I had excellent support from my PIs and they were very encouraging when it came to exploring alternative options,…

Before I made any final decisions, I needed to check whether it was research I had become disillu­sioned with or just the subject area. I’d heard of a post-doc looking at the metastatic potential of aggressive prostate cancer; this time I was certain it had a more similar vein to the PhD I had enjoyed so much. So, I applied and I got the job. The research was very interesting and the group I was working with were fantastic (hopefully I’ve made some life-long friends there), but I think the damage was done and I was too far gone; the position wasn’t doing anything to dispel my earlier thoughts of leaving research. I felt like nothing I had done was ever going to have an impact on the world. Several years of generating negative data, and then struggling to get the data I did have published, had taken its toll and I was losing both my interest in and enthusiasm for research. I had to do something about it.

After a lot of soul searching I started looking into people and research management and the opportunities that existed in this area. I felt like I had a good understanding of the challenges faced by researchers and I liked the idea of being able to do something to help mitigate those. I initially targeted divisional (and eventually school?) management; but did I have the relevant skills for such a role? The first thing I did was to speak to some of the people who were already doing that job. Speaking to some division and school managers throughout the university helped me recognise that I already possessed a significant set of transferable skills that could be useful in the role, but it also helped me identify any gaps in my skills and experience that I needed to plug.

The first thing I did was to speak to some of the people who were already doing that job.

The perfect job came up in the Organisational and Staff Development division of HR, working primarily as programme manager for the Welsh Crucible development programme. The advert was distributed by the then chair of CURSA [intranet link] and actually specified that they were seeking a researcher that wanted to make the leap to a professional services career pathway. I couldn’t believe my luck, it was so on the nose that they may as well have addressed the email to me directly! I knew it could provide loads of opportunities for me to get the experience I needed; and significantly, it was at the same pay grade I had been on as a researcher (like most considering a change, I was worried I would have to start my new career at the bottom of the ladder and, thus, pay scale!). However, I was still a bit apprehensive. Looking at the vacancy I didn’t think I could possibly meet all of the essential criteria, but after a very encouraging chat with the chair of CURSA I ended up writing five pages to evidence my suitability for the post in my supporting statement! The selection process was tough, comprising an interview, a presentation and a written assessment – nearly 2 hours in total. But I did it, and I was offered the job about 95 minutes later, so I must have done something right!

View from McKenzie House, Cardiff University

I’ve been in the role for 12 months now and I’ve enjoyed every day. The work is challenging but worth it. Every day my workload is varied, interesting and so, so different to anything I’d ever done before (one of my first tasks was to organise a meeting with the deputy vice chancellor, intimidating for a former-researcher to say the least!). As I mentioned, the role mostly involves management of the Welsh Crucible programme (a challenge in itself!), but I also work on the Careers in Research Online Survey (CROS), adherence to Vitae’s Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers, and the retention of the HREIR award for Cardiff. Further afield, I also sit on the GW4 Developing People working and task groups.

I really value how my experience as a researcher adds a different perspective to a discussion and that this can affect the outcome, and I also appreciate how the perspectives of others can incite a new way of thinking in me too. I really love how the majority of problems I encounter on a daily basis require immediate solutions and so do not drag on for months on end (I think one of my main problems with research was the snail’s pace it can sometimes move at!). But one of the elements I enjoy most about the job is that my tasks have endpoints. When I finish something it’s finished, I can draw a line under it and move on (in research, every experiment I completed usually led to three more; the work seemed to grow exponentially with no endpoint in sight!). It’s been a difficult year – a trial by fire if you like – but the amount I’ve learnt is astounding and the confidence I’ve gained even more so. My dreams of working 9 to 5, Monday to Friday, were a little unrealistic and I’m still on a fixed-term contract, but at least now I feel like I have some exciting options available to me for the future.

I went blindly into an academic career simply because I thought that was what I was supposed to do after completing a PhD – become a postdoc (the clue is in the name!). I now understand how important it is to have realistic expectations of achieving a successful career in academia, and to accept that there’s nothing wrong with exploring and embarking upon alternative, non-academic careers if that’s what you want to do. In fact, with under 5% of PhD graduates securing a permanent research position and less than 0.5% actually making their way to tenured professor (according to the Royal Society), you could argue that it’s the academic career which should be viewed as the ‘alternative’ outcome for a PhD graduate!

…there’s nothing wrong with exploring and embarking upon alternative, non-academic careers if that’s what you want to do.

So, my advice for the next time you have an academic wobble: take the opportunity to ask yourself why you do what you are doing and whether you are happy doing it? Are you brave enough to ask a trusted senior colleague, line manager or head of department, “do you ever see me as a PI?”. Are you wise enough to take heed of the reply and act on it? I fully appreciate how hard it is to do, but as my sister once quoted to me: “If you always do what you’ve always done, then you’ll always get what you’ve always got.”

It took about 2 months for me to stop asking myself whether I had failed by leaving research. People often ask me if I miss the lab and, for the moment at least, I can honestly say no, not one bit. I haven’t looked back, and I genuinely believe it was the best decision I’ve ever made. And knowing that my actions may help address some of the issues I encountered during my years as a researcher finally gives me that job satisfaction I was seeking for all those years.


About the contributor:

University staff page

ResearchGate profile – https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Liam_Morgan2

 


Images – Liam’s image’s were kindly shared with his permission. Featured image built using Canva – design tools