As unbelievable it sometimes seems, our life does not end on the day we get our PhDs, it’s quite the opposite really- we’re starting our careers! Sometimes it’s difficult to say what your next step will be – as PhD experience gives us so much that you can be almost anything! If you’re lost or a little unsure about what you want to do after PhD, the best way to find out is to ask around and that’s exactly what we’re doing!
This time, we’ve had a chat with Rosie Bithell, she was a PhD student with Maddy Parsons and now works as a drug discovery scientist at Cancer Research UK! Rosie shares what she enjoys most in her current role and how industry jobs differ from positions in academia. Also, the secret to winning the best snowflake prize at Randall Christmas party! Check her answers below!
What was your PhD project on? What was your favourite part of the PhD?
My PhD involved investigating how novel protein interactions affect cell-cell junction adhesion and growth factor signalling in the context of lung cancer cell proliferation. My favourite thing about my PhD was variety, some days I would be making lots of protein using E. coli for a biochemical experiment, and the next I would be imaging live fluorescent cancer cells. I enjoyed the creative thinking required to address a question in different ways, and how using multiple techniques can complement each other.
What advice would you give to your past PhD-self? If you could do everything all over again, what would you do differently?
I would tell myself not to stress about the small stuff, a PhD takes a long time and there are a lot of hurdles, so keep things in perspective. Also, to remember that productivity becomes exponential with time, you will generate far more data in your final year than your first! If I could do it again, I think I would try to keep a bit more open-minded about where my project was going. My PhD took a slightly different turn than expected which was interesting, but it is easy to get a bit bogged down early on when one thing won’t work, so expect the unexpected.
When did you start thinking about your options after PhD? What helped you to decide what you want to next?
I started thinking seriously at the beginning of my 3rd year. During my undergraduate degree I did a 1-year placement in R&D at GSK so going back into drug discovery was always on my mind throughout my whole PhD. I was a bit nervous to tell my supervisor I had decided against pursuing academia, but when I did she was so supportive and had loads of ideas and advice for me. I briefly considered other types of roles I could do, but I soon came to the realisation I wasn’t ready to leave the lab just yet, from then on, I had a pretty clear idea of what I was looking for!
What are you up to now?
For the last year and a half, I have been working for Cancer Research UK Therapeutic Discovery Labs. We work in alliances that include academic and industry partners to validate drug targets and help progress them in the drug discovery pipeline. It is still a lab-based research role but also includes lots of networking both within the charity and with external partners. I am working in a completely different area to what my PhD was on which has been an exciting challenge and a refreshing change.
How does your typical day look like? What is your favourite part about your current role? What surprises you most about your work?
My typical day includes setting up cell assays to test specific hypotheses. A key part of what we do is to try and identify which patients would benefit most from a drug targeting a specific protein. Therefore, we often test several cell types, or use several cell lines with specific mutations. I spend a reasonable amount of time planning and writing up experiments, data integrity is important for us due to our industry links. I also have a lot of meetings with different groups of people. The drug discovery process is very multidisciplinary, so it requires a lot of different perspectives, and its key to understand how your work fits in with others and to gain input. I think one thing I find most surprising about my work is that the decisions you make early on can affect the success of a project later. It is important to keep the bigger picture in mind and remember what impacts each stage of drug development.
Was having a PhD crucial to get the job that you were after?
Absolutely! The skills I learnt during my PhD were invaluable for the work I do now. It taught me not just the practical and analytical skills, but also scientific thinking, critical evaluation of data and how to design and execute a project. I find it so rewarding to be able to apply these skills in developing new cancer therapies.
Apart from doing my PhD research, what else should I do to be the best candidate out there?
Reach out to people in areas you are interested in and utilise any connections you may have, no matter how distant. It may seem a bit weird getting in contact with people after a few years or if you don’t know them very well, but in my experience, people are keen to help.
What do you miss most about your PhD life?
During your PhD you are in a very open environment, with unlimited access to brilliant minds you can discuss your ideas with. In my current job I must be a bit more guarded because of confidentiality and business reasons. The alliances are set up well so that we have lots of experts to talk to, but it took a bit of getting used to.
Can you share your funniest or most memorable experience from your PhD life?
I have many fond memories from being in the Randall and laughing so hard I cried, I am very thankful to the people who made my time there great. There was one Christmas party where my whole lab cut up phallic shaped paper snowflakes, writing my name on every single one. They found it hilarious (I found it mortifying) but I can’t complain, I won the prize for the best snowflake!
Got more questions for Rosie?