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Beyond the Professoriate

Transition Q & A: Hayley Furlong, research program officer

“Fundamentally my overarching objective is to support researchers in driving their research program via securing national, European, or international funding awards and grants,” says Hayley.

BY JENNIFER POLK | MAY 07 2019

Hayley Furlong earned her PhD in radiobiology from the Dublin Institute of Technology (now TU Dublin) and completed a postdoctoral fellowship in reproductive biology at McMaster University. Since 2017, she’s been the research program officer for the Trinity Biomedical Sciences Institute in Trinity College Dublin, Ireland. With dynamic scientific training and authored publications, Hayley serves as a scientific resource for content review while mastering effective communication. Understanding and experiencing these drivers provides Hayley with a real empathy and respect for the academic and clinical research culture and individual researcher pressures that exist. Find her online on LinkedIn and follow her on Twitter @HayleyPhD_STEM.

What did you hope for in terms of employment as you completed your PhD?

To be honest, employment seemed so separate from the research that I was doing, I was making money on the side via tutoring, mentoring and one-to-one teaching sessions. I had hoped that someday I would be paid long term for doing something that I was passionate about. I was a little naive to believe that it would be as easy as that, and quickly learned the competitive process that is research. It’s not just hard work, it’s timing, location, your subject area and who you know.

What was your first post-PhD job?

I was fortunate to be employed as a postdoctoral fellow in a leading reproductive biology group in Canada. This meant that I got to experience a new country, cultures and traditions beyond my position in the lab. By Canadian standards I had relatively few publications going in to a new field of research. However, I pushed hard and that all changed pretty quickly!

What do you do now?

Now I work as a research program officer for Ireland’s most research intensive university, Trinity College Dublin. I work with global leaders in biomedical research, overseeing the funding portfolio for the Biomedical Institute working and assisting groups to best attract national and international funding opportunities to best drive their individual research programs.

How did you get this job?

I finished up my postdoctoral fellow position in Canada, packed my bags and life, and moved back to Ireland. Once in Ireland, I applied for (let me emphasize this) over 60 positions before I received an offer for my current position.

I wasn’t necessarily putting terrible job applications together; in fact, I pride myself in my ability (skill) to construct solid CVs and cover letters. It was more that I found it challenging to effectively communicate what I had to offer employers outside academia – yes, there are options! – beyond my hardcore scientific training. Anyone that has worked in a lab, or in science, will understand the superpowers that we possess. Sometimes, this is reflected in how I manage my kitchen and cooking abilities (doing lots of things at once and sometimes TOO much).

Shortly after securing a job in industry, I was offered my current position and I have not looked back. And yes, after months of CVs and cover letters, I was offered more than one position in the same week, a wise old tale I presumed, how wrong!

What kind of tasks do you do on a daily and weekly basis?

A MULTITUDE of tasks. Fundamentally my overarching objective is to support researchers in driving their research program via securing national, European, or international funding awards and grants. This is an increasingly competitive space and my job is to support individual researchers’ funding plans and find opportunities to help them create and sustain their programs. I work with a really interesting and diverse cohort of researchers (clients) spanning the fields of bioengineering, pharmacy, chemistry, medicine, and immunology. My supports are tailored to match the needs of each individual, from junior to senior researchers.

What most surprises you about your job?

The diversity of my everyday work. The wins for the researcher feel like wins for me and the same is true of the losses. It’s a roller coaster journey that we are all on together. And I am very much committed to helping researchers overcome barriers and obstacles to develop and sustain their own independent research programs. These days, the funding landscape is not only increasingly competitive, but also requires thought and effort to consider better and more effective public engagement, particularly in light of “fake news,” which has really pushed researchers to better communicate their research outputs. Data management, respect for diversity, and patient involvement are also now also central to making not only a great research proposal but also benefiting the wider scientific community and society as a consequence.

What are your favourite parts of your job?

I have a passion for science, and more generally for information and knowledge. Everyday is completely different and never boring. I meet the most interesting people and I love watching people succeed, particularly because it’s for the benefit of health and society. One thing I feared when I stepped out of research was no longer researching, learning or contributing to society. This is not the case: I still ask questions, learn, and write. In fact I now have more time outside work to pursue my other interests (too many to list), two of which are creative writing (I have a book pending) and hiking (thanks Canada!) which I am so passionate about. I found it really frustrating as a researcher to not be able to find a balance that suited me. Although each day is different, it’s so important to find that one part of every day that’s just for me.

What would you change about it if you could?

With any obstacle, be that in life or work, the key is the make changes if possible or accept the situation. Particularly in a support role, you must find balance between what you can and cannot offer your clients; this a daily challenge. Thankfully, my scientific training provided me with a set of skills to plan, predict, and manage conflicting and ever changing deadlines.

What’s next for you, career-wise?

As mentioned, the fortunate aspect of my role is that I am still continually learning (a fate of the recovering academic), and as the funding and research landscape in Ireland, Europe, and globally is continually evolving, I must also evolve with it. I would like to be in a position where I could make a more direct difference to help researchers drive their research careers forward either within academia or in partnership with industry. All in good time.

What advice or thoughts do you have for PhDs in career transition now?

If you are in career a transition, then you are potentially feeling, lost, confused, experiencing rejection, second-guessing yourself, and may be without real mentorship or guidance. There are many people (like me) that have lived this experience or are still in the midst of it. Plenty of us would like to help, support, and guide you through the process. I am happy to share my knowledge with transitioners in Europe and beyond if at all helpful.

Do not lose hope. You’ve already been through a horrendous PhD process. This is not impossible. It’s just new, and you are already equipped with a toolbox of skills and expertise. You might just need support in figuring out what those tools are and how to use them.

ABOUT JENNIFER POLK
Jennifer Polk
Jennifer Polk is a career coach and entrepreneur. She earned her PhD in history from the University of Toronto in 2012. For more information and resources, check out her website: FromPhDtoLife.com.
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  1. Hayley Furlong / May 8, 2019 at 09:17

    Photographic content courtesy of Breffni Greene (MRIAI), Dublin, Ireland.