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Dr Kate Whelan

Details of PhD

Neuroscience, University of Cambridge, 2002. 

Years spent as a postdoc

3 years at the University of Cambridge.

Current position

Chief Operating Officer (COO) and Head of Notch, Scandinavia. 

Job highlight

It’s still a constant learning basis for me every single day and I think that’s something that’s really important. People might think “if I leave academia I’m just going to be in a really boring, dead-end job” and that’s so not the case. 

Case study conducted

August 2020. 

What’s your background? 

I did an undergraduate degree in human sciences, which is a mixture of different biological science-related subjects. I specialised in neuroscience and went on to get a PhD in neuroscience working specifically on spinal cord injury at the Cambridge Centre for Brain Repair at Cambridge University. 

That was in the Department of Clinical Neuroscience While I don’t have a clinical background, a lot of the research areas we were involved in could be used in a clinical setting. Many of our collaborators, peers and so on were people with clinical backgrounds. 

My PhD looked at models of spinal cord injury, trying to understand why the central nervous system doesn’t spontaneously repair in adults. Once you understand that, you can then look at how can you change it – what potential therapeutic interventions could be made to improve repair and prevent paralysis. 

I really enjoyed the PhD and the group I was in, and I stayed on to do postdoc research. I only did the one postdoc position before moving on. 

Why did you move beyond academia? 

There was quite a bit of agonising over a few months of thinking about it. The main reason that I chose to move beyond academia – and bear in mind, this is a few years ago now – was that it seemed that if I stayed in academia, the career paths would be either teaching, research, or a combination of both. 

The research option would probably involve serial postdocs, moving around quite a bit and, more concerningly, having to get research funding for the area that I was involved in. I really didn’t want to go into teaching (that didn’t appeal to me) and I didn’t relish the prospect of having to constantly fight for grant funding. I also didn’t have the confidence – I didn’t believe I’d have the ideas that would get funding. 

How did you make the move beyond academia? 

At the time, I chatted with my PI about career options and I found this fantastic book called What Color Is Your Parachute?, and that helped me to really dig into the potential career areas I could move into. That was really invaluable. From there, I investigated several career options based on the strengths and transferable skills that I was learning, and what kind of things would appeal to my mindset. 

I started looking at job adverts in magazines like Nature (there wasn’t as much stuff online then). From there I went for interviews, which is immediately quite a difference from academia: you’d apply for a job, send in your CV and cover letter, be invited for interview and then you’d go to their office for a chat for about an hour or so, and then there might be a second interview as well, if you got shortlisted. 

In that second interview, you might have to do some kind of presentation, or a test – in quite a lot of these things, there was some kind of aptitude test. But it was also about giving the candidate a chance to understand about the company, and the industry etc. 

Any job I applied for had to be an entry level job, because I was entering a different industry, and I think that’s one of the hard things about moving beyond academia: you may have to take a salary dip and completely change your mindset, which is hard. That said, postdocs usually have a great many more skills and so can rise through a company faster, provided that they’ve moved into a company that suits them and which has that flexibility. 

The first job I moved to was working as a scientific writer in a small PR agency which specialised in providing PR and science communications for life science companies. During my time there I had the opportunity to do a diploma in marketing with the Chartered Institute of Marketing in my spare time. That was great and I learned a lot more about marketing and advertising. 

As a writer, I was writing press releases and technical articles, as well as doing interviews with academics to learn about their research (which was great fun) and turning that into feature articles for trade magazines, but there wasn’t much scope for growth beyond that. So it was quite a pigeonholed job and after a couple of years I was ready to move on. With the extra qualification I was taking, that gave me a lot of confidence and really expanded my skillset. 

I saw an advert for an account manager (which is a client relationship management position in a big international advertising agency with a team of people looking after clients in the health, pharmaceutical and life sciences sector – that was a great opportunity. There was an element of writing involved in that role, as well as the client relationship side and managing the client’s project. At that point I had already moved to Manchester with my husband, because he was a serial postdoc and took on a PI’s position at Manchester. 

At this big international agency, I met Peter (Brown, CEO of Notch Communications), who was heading up the team. I worked there for a few years and very quickly climbed up the ranks through the company. I got onto some fantastically big branding projects with household science names, which was great and I learned so much from doing that. 

After a few years, the time was right, Peter and I had a great working relationship and we decided to jump out of that big ship and set up our own company which was only focused on delivering marketing services for life science companies. 

In that big agency, we had been part of a team working for life sciences, but we were always competing for resources and time with all the other teams, working on building, finances, etc. It was a big international company with 17 offices around the world so it was a very different set-up from what we chose to do with Notch. 

We set up Notch in early 2011. Initially, it was just me and Peter and some clients that were very happy to come along with us, and some trusted freelancers who had been working on scientific briefs for a while. We put our processes in place, built up the client books, brought in staff, moved several times and here we are today! We’ve never looked back. 

What factors have influenced your career development and planning?

A massive part of it has always been thinking about tying together two things: understanding what my strengths are and combining that with understanding what I’m actually enjoying or not enjoying about the job; and helping that to map out what my aspirations and plans are. 

You have to be proactive and have some kind of self-awareness, which develops over time as well, in order to do that. You can’t just expect jobs to land on your plate, or job adverts to land in your inbox! It doesn’t work like that – you have to know yourself. 

Do former postdocs get hired in your company often? 

They do. I’d say we’ve hired more people straight out of a PhD, than a postdoc, and we’ve never hired someone who’d done more than one postdoc. That’s not because we’d be against that, but I think they wouldn’t be interested in us. That’s an assumption, though – it hasn’t happened yet! 

We’ve had 3 or 4 former postdocs, and then a bunch of PhD graduates. 

How did being a postdoc prepare you for your current job?

That’s a great question. Just to quickly build on that, one thing that’s really shocked me is when I’m speaking to academics who are saying “help! What can I do as a career? What are the career options out there?”, they have no idea about the depth of transferable skills they’ve got and how really important they are. 

There’re obvious ones, like writing, communication and so on, but I then think there are things that have been even more important, like attention to detail. On the one hand, being extremely organised and able to plan really well (because if you’re planning scientific projects, you have to plan things out over a period of months), but at the same time to be able to handle change and to be flexible within that (because, as everyone knows, things go wrong or unexpected things happen in science experiments). 

You might have this wonderful year-long experiment planned, and all of your materials lined up, and then things don’t happen as planned – what are you going to do? So that ability to react and adapt is very important and that’s definitely important in the business world as well. 

Specific to being a postdoc, there are a couple of things that I think are really key and which come out when we’re looking at employing postdocs: that ability to take the initiative, to learn about things really quickly and to not expect other people to have the answers – if you have a question, you go and figure out the answer yourself. 

So that’s one aspect, but then a rather different aspect is accountability and responsibility. That’s not something we see so much in more junior staff. When you’ve worked in clinical research, for instance, only you are responsible at the end of the day. You have the compliance factors for getting the data right, for planning the research out properly in the first place – I think that makes a huge difference. 

Can you describe a typical week in your job? 

Agency life is notoriously changeable – it’s a cliché, but there’s a reason why it’s a cliché! Typically when someone starts up a business they have a lot of hats, and I still wear a few but not so many as I used to. 

I do quite a lot of accounts-related and financial stuff, so I could be submitting the quarterly VAT returns, working with our accountants to make sure all of that’s in place. 

I’m going to have daily meetings with team members to talk about client projects they’re working on. I’m not really on the project management side of things, but just overseeing on certain projects and inputting advice and help where needed. 

Then another hat is an HR hat – we don’t yet have our own HR function, so we use software and government guidance to make sure we’re compliant. Obviously, there’s an element of HR activity, like recruitment, appraisals and so on. 

Peter and I would touch base once a week. Because we have people based all over, we use things like Slack so that we’re all constantly in touch. Client meetings and team meetings might happen across the two offices so pre-lockdown we were already using a lot of this software like Zoom which is now what everyone’s using. For us, then, remote working was a seamless transition. 

Notch set up a second office in Sweden a few years ago and since then my hats have doubled as we’ve had to set up suppliers here, set up a new set of accounts, understand the accounts systems and understand the new set of legal and financial standards we need to meet within the Swedish context. 

My job role has changed a lot over the years. I used to be completely engrossed in the day-to-day of the client projects and managing those. These days it’s much more an oversight kind of role. 

Have you found the workplace culture to differ from that in academia? 

Yes. It’s got a sense of permanence about it. It’s friendlier. It’s more collaborative. In academia, people are a bit protective over their research. They might pretend to be collaborative but only if that suits their agenda. And then people see a lot of their peers coming and going – they don’t expect to be in that institute forever unless they’re on the teaching faculty. 

A company is much more collaborative: it has a team of people with a shared purpose and a shared goal. It’s not individuals working for their own personal end-points. 

What impressions did you have of employment options beyond academia before you joined?

It was a big eye-opener. When I was a postdoc I thought my options were: academia, or – the only other option I thought there was – go and work as a scientist in an industry lab (which was also not very enticing). 

And then, as I read What Color is Your Parachute?, went and did some research, started looking at the job pages, started going to interviews, I realised “oh, there’s a whole ton of stuff out here!”. It never occurred to me that all of these industries and all of these things existed. They’re still related to science: they wouldn’t be here if they didn’t have R&D, scientists, or if they weren’t somehow supporting science industries. Finding out about all of these options broadened my sense of what science can do. 

What are your favourite parts of the job? 

Seeing the company grow and improving the company, because as you grow, you have to alter your processes and systems and things like that Seeing new clients come in and new staff come in – the growth and development there as well is fun. 

It’s still a constant learning basis for me every single day and I think that’s something that’s really important. People might think “if I leave academia I’m just going to be in a really boring, dead-end job” and that’s so not the case. 

What advice would you give to a fellow postdoc if they are considering a career beyond academia? 

Talk to people! Find people in the careers that interest you – which can be a catch-22 because if you don’t know the options that are out there then how do you find those people to talk to, but just talk to as many people as you can. Knock on the doors of companies – they won’t tell you to go away (well, some might, but generally you can’t really go wrong!). 

Use LinkedIn for sure – get on LinkedIn and use it. Academics don’t use LinkedIn much, and I don’t understand why as it’s an excellent resource! 

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