Keren Abecassis

Welcome to The Student Spot – a brand new feature on the Radleys blog where we invite those who are studying, researching, or practising chemistry to share their thoughts on the latest developments in the scientific world.

In this inaugural edition, our very own Keren Abecassis offers advice for anyone who wants to work in STEM while spending as little time as possible in the lab.

So you’ve got a science degree or even a PhD but ‘oh no’ – you have come to the realisation that working in the lab is not for you?! Guess what? You are not alone! And more importantly, there are career options out there that you might not have thought of yet.

I thought I would share my personal story with you, in the hope that it will help a few of you out there on your journey to figuring out your career plan. I’ll start by introducing myself and my background up until I came to that ‘famous’ realisation that I needed to leave the lab.

Early ambitions

This might seem strange as you read on, but I started my studies with a very clear career goal in mind. I wanted to work in research in the pharmaceutical industry. I am a French national and studied Chemistry in France at Chimie ParisTech and in 2006 I graduated with the equivalent of an MSc. I majored in Organic Chemistry as it was my favourite subject and would also get me closer to my career goal. Early on, however, I was told that I would need to study for a PhD afterwards.

My PhD journey

So I applied for PhD positions, mainly in the UK as I wanted to go to a prestigious university, but also in a couple of French labs. I wanted to do a PhD in Medicinal Chemistry or Total Synthesis as these specific subjects were the two obvious ‘entry tickets’ into drug discovery in industry. I did not get quite what I wanted. However, I was offered the opportunity to do my PhD at Imperial College London, and I felt I couldn’t pass it up.

I worked on Organic and Organometallic Synthesis, and I think it’s the best thing that could have happened to me in terms of improving my lab skills. I worked for 3 years on air- and light-sensitive chemistry, stereoselective reactions etc. – for those who don’t know: pretty tricky stuff. I also was extremely lucky to have an amazing supervisor, which made my PhD experience a lot more positive than I could have hoped for.

Followed by two postdocs… A step too far?

After the PhD, you’re told you need a postdoc or two, even to work in industry. So I did just that, two postdocs, almost 4 extra years in the lab! And don’t get me wrong, I never disliked it, I actually loved being in the lab, mainly the hands-on side that most people grow to hate over time. BUT, as I was going for job interviews in pharma and CRO companies, I personally was getting more and more put off by the idea of a career in research.

That’s also when I slowly realised that my soft skills, those that make me who I am as a person, did not seem to be that important for the roles I was applying for. And that got me thinking: is this really what I want to do? Or do I want to use my other strengths, such as my communication skills, and make the most of who I am as a person and as well as a scientist, but in a different career?

I don’t know if this is the case for most of you but I was lucky enough to have access to the careers service at the University of Cambridge and to be able to attend a couple of workshops to help me figure out what was important to me, as well as my likes and dislikes. The only problem is that the careers service’s picture of my options was missing an important section which turned out to be the best fit for me: customer-facing/commercial careers.

The unexpected

I ended up contacting a recruitment agency specialised in customer-facing roles in the scientific industry. And something unexpected happened… I was asked if I would be interested in working in recruitment myself. And it suddenly made sense. I was getting the opportunity to work in a commercial role, while using my science background and helping people.

Let’s be clear, recruitment is not for everyone, and I may not have gone into it in a different company, but the one I chose was I felt extremely professional. Sadly the reputation of recruiters is often poor because unfortunately some are not that good. Recruitment is a very competitive environment and some recruiters appear only to care about the bottom line and their commission – forgetting along the way that they are working with people.

Also, recruitment is not just about recruiting by the way, it is first and foremost a sales role (sometimes in disguise). You need to find new clients to give you vacancies to work on, you have to justify your prices in a very competitive market, you have to ‘sell’ your candidate’s profile to the client etc. Most people would compare it to being an ‘estate agent’ for people instead of houses.

In my next post, I will tell you a lot more about these customer-facing careers in science and why you might want to consider them.

From customer-facing in science to customer-facing in chemistry

I worked in recruitment for a year and a half and I loved it. But at the back of my mind, was always chemistry. I worked so hard prior to this to get a strong chemistry background, but in my recruitment role only my more general science background and understanding of the different types of chemistry really made a difference. I needed more.

I needed a role like those I was recruiting for. Something that allowed me to use my chemistry and communication skills. By luck, the networking activities I was involved in to secure new clients to recruit for led me to my current company. I knew of them from previously using their equipment in the lab, so it was exactly the kind of company I wanted to work for. Indeed I think most people who make the move from the lab to the commercial side tend to gravitate to the companies and equipment they have used. After all, it’s easier to sell companies or equipment that we really believe in.

Some advice

My advice is to speak to the scientific sales people; engineers and technical specialist who visit your lab or you speak to on the phone, and ask them about how they find their job. What was their journey like? What are the differences? What’s good and what’s bad? The grass always looks greener on the other side of the fence, but is it really?

Give it a try. I have heard of a number of scientists spending a day shadowing a sales specialist. It’s the best way to see what it’s all about, to really see if it’s the career for you.

If you have decided it’s for you, be prepared to start learning again. You might have years of experience in the lab, and your new employer will want that of course, but you will also have to learn some tough commercial lessons. So be ready to listen and adapt. The pace can be hectic, but fun.

Find a good recruiter

There are lots of jobs on platforms like LinkedIn and other forums and if you have plenty of time and contacts you can certainly find jobs. But, beware there are often hundreds of applicants and it can be hard to separate yourself from the crowd.

If you really want to find the right career then find a recruitment agency that specialises in the scientific sector and if you want a customer facing role, then one that specialises in sales, marketing and technical support. They can guide you to the wide variety of careers in the commercial sector, jobs you maybe never knew existed.

Good luck

Dr. Keren Abecassis MRSC is our Business Development Coordinator, and we thank her for kickstarting our Student Spot!

If you’re currently studying, researching, or practising chemistry and you wish to share your thoughts on the latest developments in the world of chemistry, get in touch.

If you want to write for us but are unsure of a topic, get in touch anyway and we can bounce some ideas around.