Interview: Diving into science management

Patricia Cabezas explains how science management roles require many of the transferable skills developed during the PhD and postdoc.

Patricia Cabezas has been fascinated by the oceans and sharks ever since, at the age of six, she read a magazine article by The Shark Lady (aka Dr Eugenie Clark). She went on to do research in marine evolutionary biology. After four years of postdoctoral research, she moved beyond academia to work as a diving instructor, before joining the European Science Foundation in Strasbourg as a Science Officer.

Patricia Cabezas, taking part in a family tradition – the grape harvest in San Vito di Spilamberto in Italy. Image credit: Guido Ori

When did you first think about a non-academic career?

I started to reconsider my academic career path at the end of my first postdoc. Then, during my second postdoc at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC, I was surprised by the number of people with PhDs who were working in non-academic careers in the DC area. That triggered my curiosity, and I ended up applying for the Christine Mirzayan Science & Technology Policy Program at the National Academies in DC. This was a turning point – indeed I could apply my academic and scientific skills in a complete different work setting.

So why did you move from a postdoc to working as a diving instructor?

After finishing the science policy program at the National Academies, I decided that I was better suited to working in science policy than in academia, so I quit my postdoctoral appointment and came back to Spain. However, I didn’t plan in advance the transition to the non-academic European job market. Eventually I decided to take a career break to figure out my options, and went to Thailand to work as a diving instructor. While I was there I worked on my CV and cover letter, and networked with scientists working in science policy and management careers in Europe. I looked for jobs on a portal called EuroBrussels, which was recommended to me by someone that I met through a Skype informal interview. This portal is well known for advertising science policy and management jobs in Europe.

What are the main responsibilities of a science officer?

A position like ‘Science Officer’ is mainly administrative and managerial, and can also include some policy aspects. Currently, I coordinate and execute administrative tasks for Horizon2020 projects in marine and planetary sciences, and responsible research innovation. I also get to work on the implementation of processes for the scientific evaluation of research proposals, organize scientific workshops and meetings, and more recently I started to instruct career development workshops for early-career researchers in the life sciences.

What do you do on a typical working day?

Lots of email! Follow up with many of our H2020 partners and the European Commission for the appropriate implementation of research projects. I also get to identify potential reviewers for evaluating postdoctoral proposals or research projects and implement evaluation processes: for this you have to be comfortable interpreting information from different disciplines – not just from the topic of your PhD. Moreover, last week I also had to follow up on the editorial and publication process of a book that is a result of a planetary science workshop we organized last June. And almost every single week I try to look at the literature, opinion columns and Twitter threads on topics around career development opportunities for life scientists.

What part of your job do you value the most?

I get to enjoy almost every single aspect that I liked in my previous academic life, including keeping up with scientific literature, writing grants, organizing and managing research projects, mentoring colleagues and public speaking. On a daily basis, I use most of the transferable skills that I developed during my academic career. I don't get to hold a pipette in my hand, but I get to follow up on many other things related to scientific research. On the other hand, I also moved away from things that I was not enjoying, like not being able to fully decide where I wanted to live or the feeling of isolation.

And what do you find the most challenging about your role?

It can be challenging sometimes to work on projects that are not strictly related to your scientific expertise because you have to assimilate big amounts of information in a very short period of time. The deadlines are always really tight when you are working with European projects and also with the evaluation of research proposals.

Do you find it easy to maintain a good work-life balance?

Transitioning to a career in science management has definitely allowed me to have a better work-life balance. During my academic years, particularly during the PhD, I used to struggle to decouple my brain from my research responsibilities and it was not rare for me to work long hours or stay at the lab during weekends. My partner is a researcher so we both know the challenges of keeping a good work-life balance in academia. We try to remind each other of the importance of enjoying free time and set limits for working hours at home or during weekends.

So what do you do to relax?

If I'm not in the office you will probably find me rock climbing – in the gym if it is too cold, or enjoying the sun in the walls of Spain, Italy or France. I enjoy running, particularly when I do it slow! And also travelling for diving, most likely looking for sharks in tropical waters.

What advice would you give to early-career researchers who'd like to move into science officer-type positions?

You need to keep an eye open as similar roles can have many different names – for example, science manager, research manager, program or project manager or project coordinator. You can also develop this career path in many different environments, for example at non-profits, universities, research institutions, governments and philanthropy organizations. For all these positions, transferable skills are highly valuable. If you are highly organized, have good communication skills and enjoy science broadly these careers can be a good fit for you. But in order to figure out if it's a good fit, it’s most important to work on your career planning. The earlier you start the better, but keep in mind that it is also never too late.

And more generally, which skills should early-career researchers develop to help them achieve career success?

From my point of view, self-awareness is the most important skill that an early-career researcher should develop. If you get to know yourself and your skills, you are in the best position to take an informed decision about your career. Learning how to translate your academic work experience into a language that is appealing for non-academic employers is essential (and unfortunately not an obvious task for academics). And something very important: networking. When I was in academia I was reluctant and shy at conferences, but sometimes you have to push yourself to talk to people and abandon your comfort zone. Be open-minded and take risks; opportunities can show up in the most unexpected way.

Patricia Cabezas CV

2018 – present: Science Officer, European Science Foundation, France

2016 – 2017: Junior Science Officer, European Science Foundation, France

2015 – 2016: Freelance scuba diving instructor, Thailand

2015: Christine Mirzayan Science and Technology Policy Graduate Fellow, National Academy of Sciences, US

2013 – 2015: Postdoctoral researcher, Smithsonian Institution, US

2011 – 2013: Postdoctoral researcher, Brigham Young University, US

2011: Research assistant, Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, Spain

2006 – 2010: PhD in Evolutionary and conservation biology, Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, Spain

2000 – 2005: BS in Biology (Zoology), Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, Spain