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Medical Research Council Programme Manager: Lindsay Wilson

Name: Lindsay Wilson

Current job: Programme Manager for Genomics within the Molecular and Cellular Medicine Board, MRC Head Office.

Length of career: Nine years.

Pull-out quote: It’s important to ask yourself early on what you love doing, and what your strengths and weaknesses are. You can then build a career plan that will keep you happy and motivated.   

Career in brief: It’s hard to be brief!  I studied biology at the University of Oxford, and then did a PhD in genomics at the University of Nottingham.  After my PhD I was very unsure of myself and of what to do.  I felt that I had wider skills that weren’t needed in science. I looked at Principal Investigators (PIs) in my field and they seemed much more assured and had very little time to commit to life outside of work. I was however becoming very involved in voluntary projects.  At the time, I thought that not becoming a PI meant leaving science behind completely.  

In the free-fall that followed, I almost accepted jobs as an insolvency practitioner with the auditors KPMG and as a National Trust garden apprentice, to give you an idea of how clear my career aspirations were at the time! Instead, I spent several years working for the Charity Commission and National Health Service. This way, I was able to contribute to the public sector that I am passionate about and I also gained excellent training in management, report writing and a whole host of interpersonal skills. 

I missed science a lot, however, and after some time working as an English teacher in Italy, I started to work towards a science career again. I did that by volunteering in a lab part-time. I then used contacts I’d maintained from a PhD conference to get a post-doc position in Vancouver. I came back to the UK to provide temporary sabbatical cover as a lecturer and researcher at Durham University, and then moved to a new post-doc position, and a new field, at the University of Nottingham. My lab moved to the MRC Toxicology Unit and my post-doc position changed to a permanent Investigator Scientist post with lab management responsibilities. 

After four years at the unit, I was ready for a new challenge. My PI was brilliant and supported me to have career coaching and then go on secondment to the MRC’s Head Office where I worked in the Capacity and Skills team. At the end of the placement, I successfully applied for a Programme Manager post, which I am just starting now. I am very excited about my new job.    

I spend my days… First of all, I do a lot of travelling, as I commute from Nottingham to London every day, working on the train as I go. I will oversee awards from application to Board decision, and have a ‘patch’ that includes Genomics and also covers some of the MRC’s centres and units, whose work I will follow closely.   

Career highlights: My brother and I were the first in my family to go to university, so telling my parents I had got into Oxford was a big highlight. I’m one of those misfits who is interested in many science subjects, but I’ve been lucky enough to work in lots of different areas across most of the kingdoms of life! I’m hoping this general interest will serve me well in my new job, where I have a very diverse science portfolio.

Biggest challenges/obstacles: Overcoming a lack of self-confidence has been my biggest challenge. Experience, and actively seeking feedback from colleagues, have helped with that. As a result, I am passionate about supporting others in science to realise their full potential.   

I wish I’d known that… The research councils provide a lot of excellent, wider support now for their PhD students that may not have been in place when I was a student. I wish that I had researched alternative science careers more towards the end of my PhD, although I would not want to lose the insight and many skills I learned outside of science. I think the MRC’s Careers Framework is a great tool for researchers.

Skills I consider most valuable: You have to be able to write well and tailor key messages to your audience appropriately. You need to care about science, find it interesting, and consider both the detail and the bigger picture, to understand how work that the MRC funds helps it to deliver its core aims. You need to be well-organised, diplomatic and professional too.

I am inspired by: My colleagues, especially when you see PhD students really catch the science bug. I also do outreach work to communicate science through art, so art and dance is inspiring to me for that reason.   

Words of wisdom: Don’t allow lack of self-confidence to hold you back. Seek out and accept positive feedback from your peers and explore all options open to you. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes.   

Next steps… I will be spending the next year or two settling into my new post – I’m particularly looking forward to seeing fantastic grants through to funding.