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Methodology Research Fellow: Ian Douglas


Dr Ian Douglas

Current job

MRC Methodology Research Fellow at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM)

Key quote

“I’ve had a slightly unconventional career path. I spent eight years out of academia and came back, which was not as easy as it could be. But it’s been invaluable.”

Length of career

22 years

Career in brief

I did my BSc in physiology at the University of Manchester followed by a PhD in physiology at the same university. This was a lab-based PhD and although I worked in a great team and the project worked very well, I realised that lab work wasn’t for me, so I decided to move on and went to work at the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA). My job was to assess the safety of drugs. I then moved into the pharmaceutical industry, researching drug safety for the pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline for five years, looking at both drugs in development and those that had already been approved.

I chose to move to industry to get a better perspective on how science can be used to directly benefit patients through the development of medicines. While there I completed the Certificate in Pharmacoepidemiology and Pharmacovigilance at LSHTM. This was the first time I’d come across epidemiology and I was fascinated by the idea of being able to answer big questions about the effects of exposures on large populations by using purely observational data. Over the next few years I became more interested in epidemiology until I finally left industry to complete the MSc in epidemiology at LSHTM. This gave me a gateway back into academia.

I spend my days

My research here focuses on using electronic healthcare patient data to find out about both the beneficial and harmful side effects of drugs. Day to day that means a lot of sitting at my desk and analysing data, as well as the usual admin work like emails. Perhaps unusually, I spend one day at week working with drug companies. This work is very varied, including designing studies to answer specific questions about the safety of the drugs they market or are developing and all aspects of drug safety assessments. Sometimes I work from home, but most often I work at the company’s office.

Career highlights

I really love teaching, and I am course director for the Certificate in Pharmacoepidemiology and Pharmacovigilance — the course that first got me interested in epidemiology. Every year students tell me they’ve found jobs they really want because of what they’ve learned on the course. It’s always a great feeling and reminds me how important it is to pass on the enthusiasm and skills we develop as researchers to others.

Skills I need to do my job

As well as obvious skills like a high degree of proficiency in epidemiology, statistics, physiology and pharmacology, I need to be able to manage a team of scientists and large complex projects, generally involving people from other organisations.

Biggest challenges

The academic career path largely assumes a continuous progression post-PhD, and it soon became clear that taking eight years out to work for a regulator and in industry meant I wasn’t eligible for many funding schemes. But by focusing on schemes I was able to apply for and emphasising the importance of non-academic experience, I’ve so far been able to develop as an independent researcher in a fantastic academic environment at LSHTM.

What I’d do differently

I’m not sure I’d really change anything, but I do occasionally think a medical degree might have been a good idea!

I am inspired by

Professor Stephen Evans here at LSHTM – he’s a rare combination of brilliant scientific thinking and wisdom with an enormous generosity of spirit. I probably wouldn’t have become so interested in epidemiology without being encouraged by Stephen nearly 20 years ago, and many times since!

Words of wisdom

Try to decide what specific areas interest you and seek out other people working in that area. Be open to working in different environments – it isn’t just academics who have the opportunity to work on fascinating research projects.

Next steps

My plan is to develop further as an independent researcher. In lots of ways this is my absolute dream job. There’s nothing about it that I dislike.

Correct as of: March 2015