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Dr Shona Jones

Details of PhD

Pharmacology, University College Dublin (UCD), 2003. 

Years spent as a postdoc

3 years at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland. 

1 year at the National Centre for Hereditary Coagulation Disorders. 

1 year and 11 months at the Institute of Molecular Medicine, Trinity Centre for Health Sciences, St James Hospital. 

1 year and 7 months at the School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Science, Trinity College Dublin. 

Current position

IP Commercialisation Manager, Faculty of Health and Life Sciences, University of Liverpool. 

Case study conducted

June 2020. 

What’s your background? 

I grew up in Dublin, in a town called Swords close to Dublin Airport. I come from a family of non-scientists: my Dad was a TV repair man, my Mum was a bookie and my brothers were in the Guards and Dublin Fire Brigade, so my decision to study Science at University College Dublin (UCD) was in no way following any kind of family tradition. 

Following my first year at UCD I did well enough in my exams in Biology, Chemistry, Physics and Maths, to get a place in the sought-after Pharmacology course, after which I never looked back. I never set out with an ambition to be a leading academic, to work in drug discovery, or even in technology transfer, I just knew I really loved lab-based science and fortuitously I took to lab work like a duck to water. 

Once I had completed my 4th year project placement, as part of my undergraduate, I knew a PhD was the route I wished to pursue. My undergrad supervisor offered me a PhD before I had completed and I jumped at the opportunity. 

On completing my PhD, I didn’t have a burning ambition to go into academia, but I loved lab-based research so it seemed like a natural progression to move onto a postdoc. I held several postdoc positions in a variety of Institutes and Universities over the next 8 years, with work mostly focusing around platelet homeostasis, coagulation and oncology. 

Why did you move beyond academia? 

Having worked as a postdoc on several short-term contracts (varying from 1 year to 3 year contracts), the uncertainty over a steady income and constantly looking for a new position or further funding to support the current postdoc eventually took its toll, which prompted me to speak with my current supervisor about opportunities outside of academia. 

At the time he was in the process of setting up a spin out company from Trinity College Dublin called Solvotrin Therapeutics, based on IP developed in his academic lab which I had worked on. He asked if I would be interested in working for the company. The company was by no means secure, as university spin outs often do not succeed, however, the challenge of working with a small team and setting up a business in drug discovery from scratch really appealed, so I decided to take on the challenge. 

The spin out company was based between Trinity College Dublin (where the labs were) and University College Cork where the Head Office was situated. Working for the spin out I learned about pitching to investors, due diligence, project timelines, engaging with Contract Research Organisations (CROs), and managing students on placement. 

Eventually I made the decision to move on from the spin out to a start-up company based in the UK, this was largely due to the changing economic climate in Ireland at the time and the uncertainty around investment in the company, and also because my partner at the time wanted to move back to the UK! 

Thankfully, my extensive academic experience and my experience in working in the Solvotrin Therapeutics made me a great fit for a start-up in Liverpool called Redx, which was a biotechnology company with a focus on developing small molecules as therapeutics in oncology. 

I continued with Redx for 5 years, enjoying the continuous opportunity to learn and develop, while working with a fantastic multidisciplinary team across multiple projects. 

Why did you choose the sector you’ve moved into? 

In 2017 Redx announced a change in their strategic plan with more focus on clinical assets and a decrease in their R&D. It was around this time that I was assessing where I wanted to go with my career and I felt I had developed well as a principal scientist in drug discovery and wanted to develop other skills and wanted a new challenge. 

I thoroughly enjoyed all of my interactions with my business development colleagues at Redx and wanted to build on developing my skills here. It was during this time that I saw the position for IP Commercialisation Manager for the Faculty of Health and Life Sciences at the University of Liverpool advertised and I made the decision to put an application together. 

I set to work on drafting a cover letter and modifying my CV, pulling out the key expertise and experience I had that I felt would make me a good fit for the position and which I hoped would help me be successful in the position. 

How did you prepare for the interview? 

Fortuitously, the person who currently held the position of IP Commercialisation Manager at UoL was an ex-colleague of mine, who had worked in Business Development at Redx, so I got in touch to find out as much as possible about the job opportunity. Some of the things I discussed with her were: 

  • What is the job really about-the good, the bad, the ugly? 
  • Why was she leaving the position? What was she moving onto? 
  • Did they feel that my skill set was transferrable for the position?
  • What were the people like to work with? 
  • What gaps are there in my experience? How can I make up for these gaps? 
  • What skills do I have that I should emphasise at the interview? 
  • What websites would she suggest to look up to help me prepare for the interview? 
  • What in her opinion are the key attributes required for the person holding this position? 
  • What did she find was the biggest challenge?

Do former postdocs often get hired by your employer? 

Yes. Sometimes industry like to hire straight from PhD/Masters or after a short postdoc stint. There can sometimes be a perception in industry that if someone applies for a job after a long postdoc career they can be a bit institutionalised (to doing things a certain way and may find it difficult to adjust to industry), or that they want to be an academic and their application for an industry position is a second choice. 

However, there is much more flow from academia to industry and back to academia these days so my advice would be not to discount a move from academia to industry to academia as many have followed this career route. 

How did you approach the job search?

  • Research the jobs you think you might be interested in, try to speak to someone currently in the position, ask about the good the bad and the ugly, look at the job descriptions from several different sources to identify key skills, attributes and identify your transferrable skills. 
  • Know what types of jobs/opportunities you are looking for. 
  • Search across different websites/jobsites/LinkedIn, use different keywords for your searches. 
  • Let former colleagues know you are on the lookout for a position, you might hear about a position before it’s advertised, and former colleagues will know your skill set and will know if it fits with what they are after. 
  • Register with recruitment companies and let them know what you are looking for. Also, use them to help with CV and interview preparation, especially for positions you don’t already have experience in interviewing for. 

Was there anything you found unexpectedly challenging while navigating the job market beyond academia? 

CVs are definitely structured differently depending on what job you are applying for e.g. a list of academic publications was not necessary for a job in technology transfer, but experience in drafting patents and working with patent agents was key to include. 

Always tailor your CV. Look at the job description and highlight the key attributes and skills which make you a good fit for the position. Don’t just list all your skills: the interviewer will get bored and wonder why you are applying. 

Which transferable skills, developed in academia, have particularly helped you in your current role? 

  • Ability to plan and manage my own work: timelines, deliverables, risk assessment and risk mitigation is very important not just for a postdoc, but in any position. In any position you don’t want to make any promises you cannot keep, so it’s really important that you look at the whole picture: can I get the task done? What may set me back? building in time for this, etc. etc. 
  • Prioritising: the ability to prioritise what is the most important task on my list to get done-what will be the biggest impact for my team. 
  • People management and stakeholder management: learning how to identify your stakeholders and how to manage their expectations is very important for success in any role. Also, managing people (e.g. student placements, PhD students) can be transferrable to managing a team in a new role – all the same soft skills are transferrable. 
  • Presentation skills: though my presentations now are fairly light on the science and focus more on the market opportunity, the ability to build a coherent presentation (story) and present it well is a skill set required for pretty much any job. As a scientist, the ability to break down complex science and explain it to a lay person in a compelling fashion is especially important, knowing your audience and how to pitch to different audiences is a great skill set to have. 

What were the first few weeks of being in your new role like?

A baptism of fire! 

Unfortunately, the Head of IP was off on long term illness so there was no induction. Thankfully, there was some overlap with the person leaving the role, so I tried to get as much time as possible with her to get handover of all the projects she was managing and get up to speed on the next steps for all of these projects. 

The first few weeks were really spent trying to figure out who was who in the University, introducing myself to people, and getting up to speed on ongoing projects. The next few weeks I concentrated on getting to know my colleagues in the office and learning all of the procedures for how things are done in the University. This was quite daunting as my previous experience was in the Irish system as a postdoc, so the ways things were managed were quite different! 

Now, I feel like I know lots of people in professional services as well as lots of academics with projects in our pipeline and have excellent working relationships with everyone I work with. I’m very familiar with all of the projects and am on top of the office actions (rather than being reactionary). 

I have developed networks and links with many of the larger funders such as Cancer Research UK (CRUK) and National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), and have developed a pool of consultants I can call on for advice or bespoke work when projects arise requiring this. I’ve developed excellent working relationships with the patent agents we work with and with other collaborating University Technology Transfer Offices (TTOs). 

A key focus now is identifying new exciting IP at the University and developing business plans and marketing material to commercialise. 

Can you describe a typical week in your job? 

There isn’t really a typical week in this job: it’s different almost every day. A typical week might involve some of the following tasks: 

  • Reviewing the pipeline and updating MyIP with project progression: identifying the key tasks which are a priority for that day/week. 
  • Reviewing emails-answering general IP queries quickly where possible and attending to any immediate office actions for patents etc. which are time sensitive. 
  • Arrange and attend meetings with PIs to discuss new disclosures, to develop patent strategy, to discuss commercialisation activities, generate slide decks and flyers for marketing purposes. 
  • Evaluate new disclosures to determine if they are novel, inventive and commercial, and make recommendations to IP team and academics on how best to commercialise. 
  • Identify and meet with potential consultants regarding specialised work on certain projects. 
  • Review, negotiate (and sign) Confidential Disclosure Agreements (CDAs), assignments, licence agreements, term sheets etc. with licence partners. 
  • Liaise with legal on collaboration agreements regarding IP clauses and any licence or option terms included within. 

That’s an incredibly condensed list, too – IP is incredibly varied. 

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

Yes, the workplace culture is different. I found industry much faster paced than academia, but with quite large restrictions on where your research is going, though that said it does not prevent you from making recommendations and pursuing avenues which were supported by evidence as the right route to pursue. Working in industry is about collectively working towards the needs of the company, with commercial revenue in mind. 

I found moving into technology transfer different yet again, as it’s an overlap of science, business and law. It was a move back into academia, but not as I knew it! A move into professional services rather than academia was a big change and a move out of the lab. Working in technology transfer is largely about building relationships and networks within and outside the University and utilising those relationships and networks to help progress and commercialise University IP. 

How have your impressions of employment options beyond academia changed? 

I think I was unaware of the numerous options open to me. I always thought working in industry would be boring: just following Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) and not having any real impact on the science delivered. I also assumed people would be too busy and uninterested in helping me progress my career. 

Now I realise there are so many career options for scientists, because the skill sets developed as a PhD/postdoc are very transferrable. Working in industry was nothing like I had originally imagined! In an R&D department, I was responsible for running whole projects and multidisciplinary teams, putting all kinds of resources and propelling the work forward at a very fast pace. It was quite honestly exhilarating, and I learnt so much about drug development and getting products to market. 

I’ve also come to learn that most people are really open to giving PhDs and postdocs a helping hand, being a mentor to bounce ideas off or just advising on pulling together CVs or talking through options (even interview preparation). Once I started asking, I realised people were really happy to help, and would go out of their way to make introductions etc. 

What are your favourite parts of the job? 

  • Identifying an exciting new technology with commercial potential, and developing a development and commercialisation plan. 
  • Getting a signed term sheet for a technology leading to a successful licence (nothing like a good win). 
  • Supporting ECRs through programmes such as iCure and Lean LaunchPad, and seeing how their commercial understanding develops and impacts the way in which they carry out their research. 

Is there anything you miss about academia? 

  • Being the first person to see and analyse the results and planning where the research will take you next. 
  • The flexibility. 

How would you describe yourself now? 

Confident! 

I was a postdoc for 7.5 years in total, I thoroughly enjoyed it, but I was at the beginning of my career (if you can call it that!), and I was very unsure of my abilities and skills. Now I’m much more confident, and I realise the value of my skills and the experience I’ve gained working across academia and industry and how it benefits me in my current position. 

I’m more certain than ever that I’ve got a lot to learn, when that stops being the case I think that’s when it’s time to move on. I’m constantly learning and I know I don’t know everything, I’m not afraid to ask questions or look stupid because I know when I do I’ll learn something new. Equally, I now realise the value of my knowledge and experience and try to apply that to the way I work. 

Overall, I’m more confident in my ability to do a good job, as I know if I don’t know what to do or how to progress I have an excellent network I can reach out to, to seek advice and I’m not afraid to do so. 

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

Go for it, academia isn’t for everyone! 

Seriously though, go out and speak to people who are working in different sectors: ask about the pros and cons (no job is perfect!) and see what the job really entails – nothing beats speaking to a person actually doing the job. 

If possible, speak to more than one person who is in the role as often people will have wildly different views of the same position, largely impacted by who they work for and how they get on with various managers (this is true for academia too). See if you can do a placement in your desired career, as you would be surprised how many people will allow you to shadow them for a day or two (providing there are no confidentially issues) to give you a true picture of what a day in the role is like. 

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