1. What is your current position?
Press and Public Enquiries Officer at the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA)
2. How far in advance of your planned starting date did you begin looking for jobs?
Approximately 4 months before my PhD was due to end I started looking for jobs. I had two interviews; one for a publishing assistant position and one for a medical writer role. I decided to take the medical writer job and started there as soon as my research contract ended. However, after 3 months of being a medical writer I realised it wasn't for me so I began looking elsewhere and saw an advert about the press officer role at the HFEA.
3. How did you learn about your current position?
I saw it posted on twitter. In fact it was retweeted by BioNews, a charity I used to write articles for.
4. Were any resources (inside or outside your university) particularly helpful in your job search?
I am sure University College London has a wide range of resources but I failed to use any them. My medical writer interview was organised by someone approaching me for the position and as I mentioned earlier I saw the job I currently have advertised on twitter.
5. What was your work or educational background before you were hired?
I have a degree in Molecular Medicine and a PhD in Molecular Cell Biology. I had also completed an internship with Sense About Science (SAS) and had worked as an assistant nurse, which I think helped in the interview when they were asking me how I would change communication tactics when talking to patients vs. journalists.
6. Which aspects of your background (postdoctoral training, internships, etc.) were required for your position?
None of my educational qualifications or work experience was strictly required but I think when combined they made me a good candidate for the job.
7. How long after your interview did you start your position? Were there any barriers to starting your position when you'd hoped (e.g. lack of space or funding available, time to secure appropriate visa)?
I started 10 days after I was offered the position. As I was still in my probation period at my medical writing post it meant I only needed to honor a one week notice period.
8. Was your mentor supportive of your career choice?
My PhD lab supervisor (Professor Stephen E. Moss) was very supportive. I also got some great careers advice from Dr. Steve Cross, head of UCL's Public Engagement Unit.
9. How would you describe the interview process and how did you prepare for it? Were there any skills or experiences in your CV that seemed to stand out?
Because I had little to no press experience Dr. Cross arranged for me to speak to someone who worked as a press officer so she could go through what the role involves and the characteristics she knew to be needed to get the job done well. This was immensely helpful.
My interview with the HFEA was very straight forward. I was asked to prepare a mock press release and media strategy before talking through my plans with a panel of 3 members of staff. They challenged me to apply my background knowledge and skills in order to show I manage the job at hand. It was very different from my interview at Ogilvy (medical writer position) where they asked me questions about my hobbies and life goals to see if I'd fit in well with the current personalities in the editorial team.
10. Had you seriously pursued other positions or career paths prior to being hired? If so, what factors led to your ultimate job choice?
Not really. As I mentioned before I had interviews for a publishing assistant role, a medical writer position and then this role at the HFEA. I managed to get all of the jobs, which I think shows you can apply a PhD qualification to many different roles. I knew I wanted to do something media / press related so I was very happy to get the job at the HFEA.
11. Has your career trajectory followed the path you'd expected when you started graduate school?
Not at all. I was so sure that I wanted to be an academic researcher and eventually run my own group. I think being a student at UCL opened my eyes to the other opportunities out there and more importantly let me experience them so that I could work out where else I might be happy.
12. Was anything about your job not what you'd expected before you were hired?
If anything it is much more fun than I thought it would be. Don't get me wrong, there are slow days but they're muddled with the crazy days and I love those!
13. Are there any skills or experiences you wish you'd had before you started?
I started this job with no real media experience and it has been a baptism of fire because of that. However, I think I have learnt much more this way so I wouldn't change anything.
14. How do you spend an average workday?
It varies greatly depending on what research has been published and whether we will be called for comment on it or whether there is a new policy we are implementing and so need to pitch stories for. I also manage the patient queries both via phone and email so sometimes there will be an emotional phone call to handle which can be draining but rewarding. It isn't possible to know how your day will be until you're in it.
15. What do you most like about your work?
The fact that something can spark off at any minute and I'll have to deal with it. I love the unpredictable nature of it and the fact that when this happens I get to draft statements and talk to people all around the office to get information and final clearance on what we want to say. I also manage a 24 hour press line, which although sometimes ruins my social life, I must confess that I secretly enjoy taking calls out of office hours. Not sure what that says about me...
16. What do you find the most challenging about your work?
Fertility research is a niche area and I have a tendency to get distracted by other exciting news stories. Maintaining my focus can be a challenge but never a problem.
17. What skills do you think are absolutely essential for your position?
You need to be able to talk to everyone and anyone in a confident, friendly and sometimes authoritative manner. You need to be able to keep calm when things are incredibly busy around you and take things in your stride with seemingly minimal stress or effort. You need to be good at assimilating information quickly and have excellent time management. It is a challenging role but if you can get a handle on it, it can be incredibly rewarding and almost, for want of a better description, a bit of an adrenaline rush.
18. Do you think it helps to have a certain personality to do the work you do?
I have been told that press officers are a "special breed" who "love a crisis and have a unique sense of humour". You'd have to ask my friends if this is a fair description of me.
19. Are there any traits that would make it difficult to succeed in your position?
You can't be the sort of person who lives and dies by routine. You need to be flexible and willing to compromise.
20. What advice would you give to someone looking for a position like yours?
That is a tough one as I essentially stumbled into the role, or at least I feel like I did. Looking at my job description now I would that that you need to demonstrate an ability to communicate complex science with a variety of audiences. You need to show you can work to tight deadlines and although I hate this buzz word – you need to be a team player. I think given the competitive job market, work experience in a press office would be beneficial as well.