Ivory Towers in the Rearview Mirror: Cecilia Fenech

We continue with our new column, featuring interviews with PhDs who have charted a course unrelated to the tenure track, putting academia squarely in the rearview mirror.

Our hope is that seeing and hearing from a wide range of PhDs who are celebrating their careers rather than settling for them will inspire every grad student, ABD and PhD to add the road OFTEN traveled to their list of options.

We are excited to hear and share your stories. If you have a PhD and are working outside of the academy and would like to share your experience with TPII readers, we’d love to hear from you!

Today we are pleased to feature Dr. Cecilia Fenech 

PhD, Dublin City University. Environmental Analytical Chemistry.

As I was finishing my MSc at the University of Malta (where I am from), and working in industry, the company where I was working was going through changes that inspired me to change jobs. I had always enjoyed doing the research bit and wanted an opportunity to leave the island and explore before settling down. This PhD opportunity was an EU funded Marie Curie ITN project, where you apply for an already funded position and project. Therefore, applying was more similar to a job interview, where I sent a CV and cover letter, and then had an interview.

As I was finishing, I knew I wanted to move to the UK from Ireland. I also knew that whilst I liked research I didn’t really want it for my career (too uncertain for my liking). I was lucky in a way that the Marie Curie ITN cohort (as is required by EU funding) had a significant effort put in the training program on alternative careers. A large part of the training was on aspects such as entrepreneurship (which I knew was not for me). However, we also had industrial partners on board where we did secondments, etc. This meant that our eyes were opened to the different options – in fact, I would say, less than half of the 16 researchers are still in academia.

However, I wasn’t sure of what I wanted to do — maybe back in industry as a chemist, maybe in project management? I got to talking to one of the supervisors of another student in the program who was based in Cranfield University, who said she had the perfect job for me. It was officially billed as a post-doctoral position but would be a project management role, managing a large grant. I could be on the way out of academia, whilst still having a door to getting back in.

While I really enjoyed the experience, by the time the project was ending, I was sure of my decision to leave. At that point, the University was setting up a new Research and Innovation Office, and there was a job I thought sounded interesting to set up and then lead the pre-award research support team. I applied and I am now the Research Development Manager at Cranfield University. Within this role, I lead the pre-award research support team and coordinate researcher development at the institution. It has been around 5 years now and I am still loving it.

Because I worked in industry before doing my PhD, it wasn’t a big change for me in terms of working in a non-faculty position. Other academics’ view of that change was more of a challenge. When my head of department learned I was taking on the Research Office role, he offered me a lectureship (permanent position) so I would not have to take the “other role.”

Leaving academia post-PhD is not a failure. It opens you up to so many other opportunities and experiences. I still get to have my pet projects (this was a worry when leaving academia where nothing is ‘yours’ again).

Secondly – think about what you want in your new role and the skills you have. Just having a PhD does not give you status outside of academia. However, you have so many skills: Think around how you can project manage (you finished your PhD that is project management right there), write effectively for technical audiences (and maybe non-technical as well depending on where you published), communicate complex ideas (think about the more general conferences you went to or any public engagement), etc. etc.

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