Ricky Martin, HRS (Chair)
Nadia Shivji-Brown, Public Health England (PHE)
Andrew Carr, Charles River Laboratories (CRL)
Renos Savva, Birkbeck, University of London
Ricky opened the discussion by asking the panel “what does investing in personal R&D mean to you?”. Andrew Carr (Andy) began by sharing one of his personal experiences about how he has had to retrain twice during his career to get to where he is today at CRL, once scientifically and the second time as a manager to learn how to be responsible and support the people who work for him. A valuable piece of advice was made early on during the session from Andy and that was, no matter what stage of your career you are at, to allocate the time effectively with investing in the right skills and experience to get to where you want to be, you must start by understanding exactly what you want to achieve. It’s important to also highlight that you will already have plenty of transferrable skills under your belt that you can use to your advantage.
A slightly different perspective from Nadia was that she felt when she was investing in personal R&D, taking the time to reflect on what you are good at and taking time out to focus on your strengths was particularly key in helping her to find the role she wanted to be in. A challenge that Nadia faced was that, financially, quitting your job in your thirties to do an MBA was a big risk. Fortunately, she had her partner to support her whilst not earning an income for a year and that it was certainly a worthwhile ‘now or never’ decision. For women, it’s difficult when you are balancing work-life and personal-life choices especially when deciding when you would like to have children. Nadia highlighted how supportive the company that she worked for at the time was and that no one thought she was ‘crazy’ for making such a decision. The fact that those within the Life Sciences network promoted and supported Nadia with her decision, reflects just how good it is. Ricky highlighted how brave this was of Nadia in taking this opportunity in her stride.
It is common not to know what you want to do or doubt whether you are capable, so it is important to surround yourself with inspiring and motivating colleagues and friends. Renos, shared his experience of developing a technology and how he was encouraged to take the leap by Tony Jones to start his own company, Domainex. Despite having no idea what the future would hold, he successfully managed the company and a fantastic lab team. “If you are bold with the skills you’ve got you can do it”
‘The world of work is changing’ and you will find that people are not as judgemental about what is on the CV, they are more interested in what the individual person has to offer from their character, skills and experience. Whilst, yes, there are jobs that will be looking for a specific person/academic background not all jobs will be searching for this.
The panel then moved on to a discussion around soft skills. Andy kicked it off by explaining that technical skills are key and right up and centre for a CRO but developing good communication skills is essential when it comes to working with clients. He went on to say that during an interview process Charles River will ask the interviewee to present something because this is the most effective way of assessing someone’s communication skills and those that can present under the pressure of an interview, they are likely to be excellent employees.
Another soft skill that Nadia mentioned was how important emotional intelligence is. There is a debate as to whether this is a skill that can be taught or whether it needs to be developed independently. There are plenty of people who have Degrees, Masters or PhDs, it is the interpersonal skills that you learn and develop along the way that will really make you stand out in the crowd. As an employer, they recognise that it is far easier to be able to teach the technical skills such as, how to use a piece of equipment and the standard protocol, however, it is much more challenging to teach someone how to be a reflective professional, how to deal with behaviours you may not even know you have and how to manage emotions. During an interview, Renos added, you need to prepare yourself for the inevitable questions and demonstrate the key words that you have used on your CV. He describes this as a ‘3D aura’, you need to leave that interview feeling as though you have left your imprint on the company. A key takeaway from this discussion on CV’s is that a CV is just words on a piece of paper, it is your personal style that will get you the job. Practice your interpersonal skills and be self-aware.
The panel received a message via the chat box about whether there is an opportunity cost in changing fields and spending too much time on personal development. Andy explained that yes, there is an opportunity cost; he started working as a synthetic medical chemist and decided to move into a different/completely new field by accident and really enjoyed it, despite it not being a conscious decision at the time. This was a scary decision initially and going back to basics was very daunting leaving him feeling “useless”. However, he quickly realised that this was a great incentive to learn quickly. Andy also realised that because he had joined a team of people in a non-traditional pathway, with a different background, he was able to approach problems in a different way and offer a different perspective.
You don’t always need to take a year out to develop yourself, you can do it during an evening maybe a few times a week or maybe a couple of hours on a weekend. It is also important to remember that it is ok and hugely beneficial to seek advice and feedback from your colleagues about what you could be doing better. The way in which you choose to reinvent yourself is completely personal to you. Reinventing yourself doesn’t mean changing you, it is about developing and growing.
“Do universities spend too much time developing tech skills?” Renos explained that universities have to spend time developing technical skills and actually should/need to. As an individual there is an element of responsibility for yourself when it comes to developing your soft skills. The harder you are willing to work the more you will get out of any experience - “it is what you look for and get out of it that counts”.
Ricky shared that, for him, his passion for science really withered when he had to spend his time at university repeatedly growing E. coli and he quickly realised that he was passionate about speaking to and working with people to help them develop careers. This was in response to a question from the audience being, “Can you reinvent yourself within your organisation”, Ricky said that you should be able to have the opportunity to, but it then comes back to reflection and what is important to you as an individual. It is ok to explore other avenues and really find what makes you excited about getting out of bed each morning and you should frequently ask yourself this. If you are no longer excited about your job, you might need to have a conversation with your employer about it. It will always be the company’s objective to keep you in the business for as long as they can, “they are hiring you for the future and a good leader will understand what you are ready for”. Going back to the topic of reinventing yourself, Ricky highlights that you should only feel like you need to reinvent yourself if you are no longer excited or you need something to progress to the next step of your career. Finally, look at the bigger picture of what the business is trying to achieve and where you sit within that.
The discussion moved on to the importance of having a first-class degree. From an employer’s perspective it was a mutual feeling that often qualifications are only looked at when someone has just left university. People who are passionate about what they do shines through because they will be able to confidently talk about their experiences and this is far more intriguing and important to an employer. Although, the higher your grades, the more confident you are likely to feel but how can you stand out among all the other graduates? A key quote from this discussion from Renos, which again highlights the importance of self-belief was “be yourself, not a first class (degree)”.
How can I gain soft skill experience?
Whilst you are at university, working a part time job or working during the holidays is a fantastic chance to gain customer service experience. Ricky stated that “some of the best academic minds have worked in petrol stations” and this is because those who couldn’t afford to live totally off a university loan, would have to work in order to fund it. He did openly go on to say that, at Hyper Recruitment Solutions, 60% of his workforce have a background in the life sciences, because ‘if you are not passionate about science how can you help and support those who are?’
Investing in personal development doesn’t necessarily mean it is a monetary investment There are a number of free learning resources available. Some key tools to take advantage of are:
• Social media e.g. LinkedIn and Twitter. You can invest a small cost for LinkedIn learning for soft skill development. Connecting with people in the industry is a great way to learn from their experiences and gain insights.
• Join societies at universities. Some universities will offer the opportunity for students to work together to do consultancy projects under the supervision of other consultants.
• One Nucleus has free learning opportunities, on-demand content and networking opportunities that your employee could support you with because you will be representing the company. Renos mentioned that the One Nucleus BioWednesdays is a fantastic way to learn and engage with people within the industry and make human connections.
• Attend events to open your eyes to the opportunities outside of the lab.
• Support local charities.
The session came to a close after the panel discussed the importance of networking. When you initiate that first connection on LinkedIn, make the effort to add a bespoke message, this will get the attention of the person and they will be more likely to respond knowing that you are not a robot or attempting to sell something to them. Once connected, continue to show interest by engaging with their content, make comments on their posts and this will help to build a longer-term relationship. This is a great way to invest in your personal R&D. An employer is more likely to give 15 - 20 minutes of their time to talk about themselves and what they do, particularly if they cannot offer a structured work placement or work experience, this is a great alternative. It’s also so important to promote the Life Sciences sector outside of the industry to increase collaboration and really champion the sciences. When Nadia was asked what did she get the most out of by doing her MBA, she replied that on her course, she was the only one who worked in the life sciences and that it was a great learning experience being around other people from different industries.
I would like to round off this blog with one of my favourite quotes from the session - “rejection is just redirection”. Don’t be afraid to fail, you need to be prepared for rejection because this will build up resilience.
A special thank you to our Chair, Ricky Martin, for moderating our fantastic panelists, Renos Savva, Nadia Shivji-Brown and Andrew Carr.
Watch the session here.