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Careers in university innovation and enterprise: Siobhán Hackett

Dr Siobhán Hackett has a PhD in Organic Chemistry and now works as an Impact Acceleration Account Administrator at UCL Innovation & Enterprise (Knowledge exchange policy and funding team).

Close up image of Siobhan Hackett

13 May 2022

She talks to Jana Dankovicova about her current role, with its highlights and challenges, and her career journey, and also gives useful tips for researchers interested in a similar career. 

Tell us about your current role and department.

I work in UCL Innovation & Enterprise (I&E). To quote “The team of experts at UCL Innovation & Enterprise facilitate UCL academics to help translate their knowledge externally by working with businesses, government and not-for-profits, to help solve complex challenges. This includes enabling consultancy, forging strategic partnerships and commercialising technology.

In general, the other teams in I&E do this by working directly with academics and organisations to build partnerships and networks, training students and early career researchers in entrepreneurship, supporting start-ups, providing expert advice on commercialisation and consulting, developing UCL policies – e.g., on intellectual property (IP) or conflicts of interest – and reporting to HEFCE (Higher Education Funding Council for England) to maintain UCL’s profile.

My team provides funding to UCL staff that allows them to build impact from their research and work at UCL. This supports all of the work listed above either through open funding schemes or by direct allocation of funds for strategic priorities. The funding is intended to fill the gap between research funding, and larger funds or external support, that will allow the idea to become self-sustaining. To do this we are involved in the full process – i.e., bidding for institutional funding, developing schemes, publicising the schemes, running funding calls, assisting academics in shaping proposals, allocating funding, and reporting back to the funders. This is a continual cycle.

How did you move from academic research to your current role?

After my PhD I joined the Royal Society of Chemistry as a Publishing Editor – i.e., managing peer review of their journals. I entered through their graduate scheme. This gave me good experience in review practices and also taught me how to comprehend and assess subjects outside my immediate area within the context of the journal’s remit and previous literature.

Although interesting, research papers always concluded with something along the lines of “In the future, we’ll be able to use this work for x,y,z”. However, as we were publishing research, we never had the opportunity to see these advancements. This is why I was attracted to my current job, which is specifically focused on bringing research into the real world and achieving impact.

My skills in understanding diverse subject areas and in peer review were well-suited to the job. As the emphasis was also on engineering and physical sciences, my chemistry PhD was an advantage, as well as my understanding of the research environment.

What does a normal working day look like for you?

This very much varies day by day – there is no typical day as such. Our most regular work is during a funding call. However, this can often be competing with other priorities, and we haven’t run a ‘regular’ call in a long time. However, as an example, across a funding call I would be doing the following (this takes several months in total):

  • Collate any changes to schemes and update guidance and webpages as required. 
  • Set call dates and publicise and liaise with the data team and the web team to implement the changes.
  • Meet with academics to discuss their ideas and advise on shaping their proposal to fit the remit of the schemes (if possible). I would also flag any obvious concerns that they need to iron out before application – e.g., in relation to IP.
  • Respond to any general pre-submission queries, including any issues with the submission system.
  • After submission, check all files for completeness, eligibility and fit to any specific call parameters. Contact relevant people for more information if required. Resolve any glitches in the system.
  • Select reviewers and invite to review.
  • Respond to reviewers’ concerns/queries. 
  • Review applications myself.
  • Create papers for Committee – e.g., agenda (liaising with manager and Chair of Funding Committee), minutes of last meeting, matters arising (ensuring any of our team’s actions are addressed), finance summaries, and collated reviews.
  • Create summary of reviews for the Chair of the Funding Committee.
  • Attend, administer and take minutes at the Funding Committee.
  • Draft and send outcome emails to applicants, including any requests for responses.
  • Assess and confirm responses are acceptable (liaising with manager and/or Chair where required).
  •  Create award documentation and send to successful applicants.

Outside of this typical activity would be providing post-award support (extensions etc), monitoring finances, maintaining data and our CRM (customer relationship management), supporting other teams who are delivering strategic activity on our behalf (e.g., in Public Policy). 

In addition, there are frequently other projects that I need to take part in – the most common being funder reports and bids, but also ad hoc projects such as developing activities to respond to specific priorities for funding, developing our CRM when it was introduced, changes to the website, developing new schemes and documentation etc. I don’t take full responsibility for these (either my manager or someone higher up will sign off on them) but I do tend to take an integral role/drive them. 

All in all, most days are very different. There are always the occasional mundane tasks – as with any job – but these can be quite refreshing.

What are the best things about working in your role?

As part of a small team, the variety of responsibilities and ability to come up with improvements and take these forward is very rewarding. It also provides opportunities to build new skills – e.g., I’ve begun a data science course as there’s a lot of funding data to analyse and important aspects, such as EDI, that we haven’t explored. 

I also highly value the opportunities to speak to academics and staff members about their ideas – the variety and ambition are very exciting and inspiring. It’s great when you see even a small injection of funds can make a big difference to society and/or the economy. 

What are the biggest challenges?

The other side of being a small team is that our capacity is barely sufficient to keep our heads above water. There is so much we would love to do to improve our offering, but we don’t have the time. There are also frequently competing, equally important, priorities and as we are the only two people who know how to respond, this falls on us to deal with while also managing our day to day (this challenge is more rewarding but can be stressful in the moment). 

Is a PhD essential for your role? 

I don’t believe it’s essential but as I mentioned above, my experience of research and background in engineering and physical sciences are a definite advantage. As well as this, transferrable skills, such as independence, dedication, problem solving (and identification), data management, reporting etc are all very useful in this role. These are skills that a lot of PhD students don’t necessarily talk up when looking to move out of academia, but they are hugely valued.

What’s the career progression in your role? 

I work in Knowledge Exchange Funding currently. The obvious initial career progression is to Knowledge Exchange Manager. From there you could move into higher level positions involved in shaping institutional Knowledge Exchange programmes and priorities (in response to the relatively new Knowledge Exchange Framework) and on from there. 

There are also ample opportunities to focus on building up particular skills and moving across according to your particular interests – e.g., to work more closely on business, finance, data, communications. This flexibility would presumably vary depending on where you work but I imagine not a huge amount. 

Top tips for researchers 

Most importantly, don’t undersell your transferable skills. You will have spent years really focusing on a particular topic and it can be hard to let go but if you step back and think about what you’ve learned from that experience it will all be very valuable for any future employer.