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Professor: John Ainsworth, PhD, MSC, BSc


John Ainsworth,

Current job:

Professor of Health Informatics, University of Manchester

Length of career:

25 years

Key quote:

Knowledge advances by challenging convention, so an unconventional career structure need not be a disadvantage.

Career in brief:

As an undergraduate I studied Physics, because I enjoyed it and since  I didn’t have a career goal, I knew it would keep my options open. After that, I studied for a MSc in Cognitive Science, to satisfy my curiosity about the brain and computation. I decided that rather than go on to a PhD, I would enter the real world and earn a living.

I worked for a number of multi-national companies designing systems and developing software. I developed skills I would never have acquired in academia and was fortunate to travel the world. After doing this for ten years, I felt I needed something more out of my career that the corporate world could provide. When personal circumstances meant I needed to relocate back to the North West of England, I took the chance to change and I rejoined the world of academia as a Research Associate in the School of Computer Science at the University of Manchester, working on grid computing. The skills I had developed in industry were transferable to this role.

Eleven years later I completed a PhD by published work in health informatics and I was made a professor in 2016. The majority of my academic activity, research grants and published outputs, has been concentrated into the last 3 years. My career history is very different to that of a conventional academic; I completed my PhD long after I had established myself as an independent researcher with significant grant income and the leader of a research group.

I spend my days:

Mostly thinking, closely followed by doing. I am driven by doing research that can have a beneficial impact on the health and wellbeing of the population.

Career highlights:

Being made a professor is a highlight, as was creating a social enterprise to put our research into practice. Affigo CIC was spun out of the University of Manchester in 2015 to commercialise the research we did into smartphone apps for diagnostic monitoring of schizophrenia.

Biggest challenges:

Giving up an established career in industry and having to start again in academia. I had no idea where I would end up when I made the change.

What I’d do differently/I wish I’d known/I still wonder if:

I think I have been fortunate to be the right person in the right place at the right time, as I have found the transition relatively painless, but I was naive about how academia works and what it values. If I was to do it again I would try to get a better understanding of how academia works and be more strategic in planning a career.

Skills I consider most valuable:

The skills that I learnt in industry that are less prevalent in academia - management, planning and delivery. These have enabled me to stand out in my academic career

I am inspired by:

For the entirety of my academic career I have been fortunate to work alongside Professor Iain Buchan and Professor Shôn Lewis, both of whom have helped and guided me through my academic career, providing encouragement along the way.

Words of wisdom:  

I have to work much harder in academia than I did in industry to succeed, but it’s worth it as I am doing something I genuinely love. My advice for anyone considering entering academia from industry is to not undervalue the skills and experience developed in industry. These skills are unusual in academia and can help you succeed.

Next steps:

As I have always done I will follow the opportunities as they present themselves.

Further information:

John's profile on his university website