My Question Is…Networking Lunch, 27 April 2021

Following on from a successful Building Life Sciences Adventures careers conference, our April 2021 My Question Is…Networking Lunch was dedicated to continuing discussions that arose from the conference.  I am delighted to have the opportunity to blog about the outputs from this session and to keep the conversation going.  As usual, we asked our network to pose the questions that were important to them.  So, without further ado, let’s kick off with the questions…

Question one submitted by Claire Russell, Royal Veterinary College: What would encourage companies to take on undergraduate students for work experience more often?”  As is often the case with our small group discussions, one question leads to another and the group firstly considered whether companies should take on work experience students for work experience more often.  Claire returned this with a quick yes, as in her experience, a lot of companies would not take on students for jobs without relevant work experience in the first place.  Next, the group discussed the barriers for students getting work experience as it was felt that there are indeed quite a few.  The main barrier revolved around smaller companies where planning and cash flow is more immediate and less likely to be into the longer term.  However, student work placements can provide smaller companies with onboarding experience which they will need as they grow and take on more people.  The readiness of students was also debated.  It was felt that this could be developed by having stronger relationships between industry and universities.  For example, universities could establish relationships with relevant companies in industry (i.e. relevant to their degree programmes) so that students could be available to contribute at shorter notice.  It was also thought that universities could do more to provide support to smaller companies, i.e., by providing a checklist of what would be expected from the company when taking on a work placement student.

Question two submitted by Paul Branthwaite, tranScrip: “How many mentors does it take to build a career in drug development?”  The group didn’t discuss numbers as such, but Paul was keen to define the scope and breadth of the question which was broad and ranged from defining what a mentor is, to whether they should be informal or formal.  Paul’s group had discussed the Moving Ahead programme which provides mentoring services for early career seekers and is a very good example of what mentoring support looks like.  This example was also used to illustrate that the process of matching mentor and mentee is a critical component for any mentoring programme/platform and perhaps more important than the number of mentors an individual has.  Looking specifically at our sector, Paul highlighted that funding groups are starting to look at mentors for their portfolio companies to help younger companies thrive.  Good companies that are retaining their staff also tend to have good mentor and training programmes that are built into their businesses.  Without this, businesses risk losing staff which is expensive.  Paul reminded the group that careers are rarely linear and thus, mentorship can be deeply valuable especially as it involves individuals imparting knowledge of their own lessons learnt along the way.  The conclusion was that mentoring has a very important role and there is a great need for it for careers in drug development.

Question three submitted by Tony Jones, One Nucleus: “What skills are the shortest supply in the industry that would then represent the best possible opportunities for new entrants?”  This group was fortunate to have both industry and student representatives which helped to see perspectives from both sets of eyes.  Tony’s group felt that this was a tricky question to debate as it is difficult to predict what future skills would be important and there is a danger of channelling students down one route only, which could lead to a shortage in other skills further down the line.  Interestingly from the student perspective, the issue was less to do with where their skills were applicable (as they felt there were opportunities there), but more the vast breadth of opportunities which could be quite daunting.  The group reasoned there is probably no perfect fit between a candidate searching for a role and the roles available.  Candidates should look for a role that they are interested in and then look to develop within that role and most good employers will seek to develop their staff to help them find their passion and drivers.  Tony highlighted that if individuals can identify their own strengths, then it is easier to look and apply for the right roles which might be more effective than trying to predict future opportunities.  This also fits with the multi-disciplinary teams that are very much here and now, reflecting the convergence of our sector with others.  However, looking for the right role is not always straightforward if candidates are faced with long lists of criteria which they cannot satisfy 100%.  Industry could help with this by weighting certain skills on applications, so students understand more what the employers are looking for, thereby encouraging students to build their confidence to take more risks.  Once again, it was highlighted by this group that careers are rarely linear.  In conclusion, it is less about predicting the future roles, but more about developing a workforce that can adapt to our industry as it changes.

Question four submitted by Anastassia Bolotkova, Alderley Park: “Should we be doing more to attract international companies and talent to the UK?”  Similar to Tony’s group, Anastassia highlighted that they had a good variety of attendees in the breakout room, which means our event is working as it should!  In the wake of Brexit, this question really emphasises an important point which is how we can maintain the UK as an attractive destination for employment.  The group decided that we should be proactive around this.  Access to funding was top of the list and so increasing the numbers of private funders and those with deeper pockets who can provide support to students and companies will undoubtedly help to increase business activity and thus support job creation.  Also, ensuring the process for hiring international employees does not create a barrier in attracting workforce from abroad, so the transition is as smooth as it for those students wishing to leave the UK to go abroad.  Finally, the group made a point about having the right mechanisms in place for supporting businesses so that they have an incentive to stay and grow up in the UK.  Not only is this important for attracting talent, but within our sector there is the potential for highly innovative businesses that can achieve great growth.

Question 5 submitted by Kathryn Simpson, Kathryn Simpson Consulting: “Will different change leadership skills be needed for business success in a remote working future?” Kathryn’s group discussed their experiences in a remote working environment and therefore, what different leadership skills could be needed going forward.  The group approached the discussion from the angle of what impact has remote working had on work culture and what this means for leadership.  Whilst sharing their experiences, the group identified impact as one of the challenges of working remotely.  To illustrate this further, Kathryn clarified that there are three elements in a presentation:  content, competence, and charisma.  The impact you make is 40% charisma and charisma is more difficult to convey on screen.  Another example were the challenges faced by new starters in remote working environment where it is more difficult to create relationships, so what can be done here?  Kathryn highlighted one suggestion might be to increase face to face interactions by having walking meetings with people.  There was also some discussion around lab working vs home working.  In labs, it is easier to share information and for others to jump into conversations, which can be useful.   So, an important question was how to create the social and learning interactions we miss when home working.  Is it a leader’s role to create these opportunities, or others?   The group ended their discussion acknowledging that we still have great networking conferences and events with others across the globe where we can meet people virtually, but the question is whether these interactions are as deep and meaningful?  Again, it is for individuals and leaders to think about how we foster those interactions.