A career in university entrepreneurship training
Dr Ruth Weir has a PhD in Neuroscience from UCL and now works as Head of Entrepreneurship at UCL Innovation & Enterprise.
30 August 2022
Ruth talked to us about her current role - its highlights and challenges, the value of PhD in her role, and about her career path.
Tell us about your current role.
I work in the Entrepreneurship team, one of the divisions of UCL Innovation & Enterprise (I&E). Innovation & Enterprise (I&E) work with UCL staff, students and organisations to turn knowledge and ideas into solutions that benefit us all. I&E provide a wide range of support for the UCL community including building partnership agreements, providing funding that supports innovation and knowledge exchange projects, and early-stage startups and spin outs. The Entrepreneurship team are responsible for extracurricular entrepreneurship training at UCL.
I started in this team as an Entrepreneurship Advisor, where I was responsible for overseeing the organisation and delivery of UCL’s entrepreneurship training programme for doctoral students and early career researchers called SPERO. To ensure the SPERO programme ran smoothly it was my responsibility to organise the schedule, room bookings, marketing, registrations, delivery, data collection and reporting for the weekly workshops.
Recently I have stepped up to be the Head of Entrepreneurship, validating my achievements as Entrepreneurship Advisor. I am now responsible for the entire programme portfolio we offer, managing a team of 5, and inspiring the UCL community about the support the entrepreneurship team can give them. I enjoy seeing the diversity of innovative thinking that occurs at BaseKX, UCL’s dedicated incubator space, and watching our residents work day-in and day-out on growing their enterprises.
How did you move from academic research to your current role?
My move from academic research to working in Entrepreneurship was a story of serendipity more than planning! After 5 years of being a post-doc at the MIND Institute in Sacramento, California, both my US visa and post-doc role both ‘ran out’. I had to leave a life behind, and move back to the UK, leaving academic research ‘happened to me’ rather than because of me.
Of course, I could’ve sought another research role, but my heart wasn’t in it, and I took a break and went travelling for 4 months. Then came a miserable period of being unemployed, where I was very unsure of what I wanted my next career move to be. I was in a privileged position of being able to wait for a role that fit my criteria of being challenging, interesting and meaningful. Every time I got through to the final stages of an interview process, only to not get the job offer was hard, and I had to pick myself up again to apply for more roles.
One evening I went out on a Hen-do of one of my friends from my UCL PhD days, who I hadn’t seen for years having lived abroad. I brought them up to date with my life and had a great night out. A few weeks later, one of the group messaged me and told me of an opening in the Entrepreneurship team at UCL, and importantly suggested I’d be really good at the role. If I would’ve seen the advert myself, I may have been put off by the big scary word of entrepreneurship, but here I am, 2.5yrs later as Head of Entrepreneurship! Sometimes you just don’t know how things are going to work out.
What does a normal working day look like for you?
The Head of Entrepreneurship role is primarily a desk based, managerial role, and with that comes meetings…lots of meetings. But there is a purpose to those meetings – it’s so we can plan, promote and deliver a full extracurricular entrepreneurship training programme for the UCL community. I also manage a team of 5 Entrepreneurship Advisors, the biggest team I’ve managed to date, so I spend time making sure they are up to speed on the projects they’re responsible for. I try and find time to catch up with the startup businesses working at BaseKX, UCL’s dedicated incubator space in Kings Cross, to hear of their progress and try to help with any challenges they’re facing.
What are the best things about working in your role?
I enjoy sharing my career journey to date, highlighting that you never really know what your future holds, inspiring people to give entrepreneurship a second thought even if they don’t ‘think it’s for them’.
As mentioned previously, I love seeing UCL students and alumni work on their businesses and social enterprises and the sheer diversity of ideas and innovative thinking that occurs at UCL. We support enterprises in MedTech, EdTech, FinTech, sustainability, logistics, fashion and many other sectors. We take two cohorts a year into the Hatchery, UCL’s incubator programme, where we offer support for up to 2-years. It does feel a bit like working on Dragon’s Den evaluating the business feasibility of the ideas, but we offer our support for free – no equity is taken by us!
What are the biggest challenges?
Other than having to regularly type the word entrepreneurship (thank you spell check!), I wish I had more time in the day, as there’s always tasks left on my to do list at the end of the day. However, it’s important to me to maintain a strong work life balance, so once the laptop is shut at the end of the working day, it’s not opened until the next day. I am still learning what it takes to be a good manager for this team, drawing on both the positive and negative experiences I’ve had in my own career from line managers. Imposter syndrome is very real, but I reframe it from ‘I’m not supposed to be here’ to ‘I’m still carving out my place here’.
I try to be as visible and hands on as possible with the team and startups at BaseKX, which can bring its own challenges. Last week I went from a high-level strategy meeting with senior staff across UCL, to being petitioned to getting a ping-pong table for the space to sorting someone’s IT issues!
Is a PhD essential for your role? If not, did you find your PhD experience nevertheless useful?
It’s not essential, but the project management skills I learned as an academic researcher are invaluable in this role. I have completely changed my mindset around what entrepreneurship is, and who it’s for since starting work in the entrepreneurship team. I used to think you were either ‘born to be an entrepreneur’ or you weren’t, but I now truly believe that anybody has the ability to work towards solving a problem they care deeply about.
The process of developing an enterprise idea and conducting academic research isn’t too dissimilar. Entrepreneurs identify a gap in the market or a problem that needs solving, researchers identify an area of unknown knowledge. Both need to collect data, be that through customer research or experiments to hone and iterate their ideas based on their findings.
Finally, both entrepreneurs and researchers must communicate their vision to the wider world! Ultimately, both careers are about having an impact on the world, which is why researchers make great entrepreneurs and I’d encourage all doctoral candidates to attend a SPERO workshop, to see how thinking entrepreneurially can benefit how they approach their research and future careers.
What’s the career progression for your type of role like?
I’m proud to have been promoted from Entrepreneurship Advisor to Head of Entrepreneurship in just 2.5 years. It’s testament to the fact that you can completely pivot your career and progress quickly if you show ongoing willingness to learn and a decent level of competence.
As I’m so new to the Head of Entrepreneurship role, I’ll be sticking around for a while at this level, gaining more management experience and growing as a leader. I see myself working in Higher Education leadership roles for the rest of my career (but I’ll never say never to other options given my career trajectory to date!).
What top tips would you pass on to a researcher interested in this type of role?
There are a lot of people with PhDs working in the higher education sector. It’s a great way of retaining ties with academia without being an academic. I would also reassure people that it’s ok to completely change career trajectory, you never know what doors might open. Working in entrepreneurship is exciting. PhD students could consider working for startups, working as consultants or even starting their own business ventures. UCL Innovation & Enterprise can help in all these options.