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From PhD to Life

Transition Q & A: Christine Buske


Christine Buske earned her PhD in cell and systems biology from the University of Toronto. She is a recovering academic who spent about ten years in research, studying the effects of low dose embryonic alcohol exposure on the development of social behavior and the brain. Little did she know she would be moving to a real life version of the alcohol behaviour lab she came from: London. Christine is now head of outreach for Papers, and helps researchers be more productive. She also blogs about travel and life in London, in addition to giving advice on leaving academia.

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

When I started my PhD I did not think I would be going into academia, but instead I wanted to pursue my PhD with the intent of going into industry after. I wasn’t sure what my options would be. The idea of project management appealed to me, but when I started I really had very little idea of what to do with my degree. As I was finishing up my studies, my situation had changed drastically.

At that point I was seriously considering a career in academia as an option. I suppose I fell in love with the idea of staying on the academic track. I fell in love with teaching more than I thought I could, and I loved the independence I had in my research. Towards the end of my PhD studies I received two post-doc offers that sounded very interesting and this would have been an ideal stepping-stone for me to stay on that academic track. However, while the teaching aspect was a major draw for me to consider academia, there were other factors that made me choose another path.

What do you do now?

About a year before finishing my PhD I started working part-time for Papers (the reference manager). It was a great job and I knew I had a good chance of staying on full-time after defending my thesis. Right before my defense, however, Papers was acquired by Springer SBM (now Springer Nature). I was still offered the full-time position . . . but on the condition that I move to London. We were working on uniting the team in one place, so it made sense, in the context of how my role had changed and evolved, that I should be based in the London office with the rest of the team. It took me all of a week to think about it, and in the end my answer was yes! I am still with Papers and have been living in London for about two years now.

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

What I love about my job is the diversity of my tasks and the fast-paced environment we operate in. In research it could take months to see any results in my work, and I quickly learned that effort or hard work never guarantees a good outcome for your data. In my current job the opposite is true; I see results of my hard work right away and that gives me a lot of satisfaction. As for what I do, it is definitely a mix of tasks and no two days are the same. I may be working with our head of marketing on a new campaign, or go out to a university or a company to deliver a workshop. I also attend conferences and give talks, which approximates the teaching aspect I missed after leaving academia. In fact, many of the aspects of research I loved I am actually getting from my job; the chance to make a difference, and get involved in a very diverse range of tasks. However, I work more closely with people than I did before and that suits me better. Don’t get me wrong, working with zebrafish was fun, but they don’t talk very much.

What most surprises you about your job?

Academia is reasonably predictable: you know where you’ve come from and most of the time you know the steps you need to take to move forward. Publish more, attend conferences, be innovative in your field, collaborate and produce more results. Teach a course, develop a new technique, etc. My job is less predictable and that brings with it some surprises. Our parent company recently merged with Macmillan publishing to  become Springer Nature, and with that we moved offices. What surprises me is the continuous potential for change. It wasn’t unusual for me to receive a phone call asking if I can be in New York or San Diego in a week. My travel schedule is now becoming more predictable, but when I just started it was always an exciting prospect that I could be going somewhere at the drop of a hat.

What are your favourite parts of your job?

Working with a great team, helping researchers make their work more productive and traveling to interesting places to do all this. I want to make a difference, and while in research I was able to do that on a small scale, it feels like I make a difference now across many people’s research projects. Collectively we are driving science, research and knowledge creation forward. There is no better feeling than that!

What would you change about it if you could?

I would like to warp time and space so I can reach out to even more people. I might also want to add more hours to the day so the travelling doesn’t seem so time consuming. Otherwise, I wouldn’t change a thing; I count myself a very lucky gal.

What’s next for you, career-wise?

Even if I knew, I might still not tell you! Quite seriously: I am not sure. I have learned that we create our own luck in life. Hard work goes a long way in finding opportunities and most importantly, recognizing them when they occur. If you would have asked me what was next for me five years ago, I would never have come up with the idea for my current job either. I hope to continue developing myself professionally, and take on interesting new challenges. For now that is of course within the Papers team. In the future, I trust that by exploring my interests and developing myself I will encounter the next challenge when the time for it is right.

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

Get some advice from someone who has transitioned. Preferably, bounce ideas off a few people. Hire a coach. Don’t be afraid to get out there and take risks. And remember, sometimes all it takes is one email to change your life.

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:
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