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MRC Programme Manager: Lindsay Wilson

Name: Lindsay Wilson

Current job: Programme Manager for Genomics within the Molecular and Cellular Medicine Board, MRC Head Office

Length of career: 12 years working in science

Pull-out quote: It’s important to ask yourself early on what you love doing, and what your strengths and weaknesses are. You can then build a career plan that will keep you happy and motivated.   

Career in brief: It’s hard to be brief!  I studied biology at the University of Oxford, and then did a PhD in genomics at the University of Nottingham.  After my PhD I was very unsure what to do next. I felt I had wider skills that weren’t needed in science. I looked at principal investigators (PIs) in my field and they seemed much more assured and had very little time to commit to life outside of work. I was however becoming very involved in voluntary projects.  At the time, I thought that not becoming a PI meant leaving science behind completely.

I spent several years working for the Charity Commission and National Health Service. This way, I was able to contribute to the public sector that I am passionate about and I also gained excellent training in management, report writing and a whole host of interpersonal skills. 

I missed science, however, and after some time working as an English teacher in Italy, I started to work towards a science career again. I did that by volunteering in a lab part-time. I then used contacts I’d maintained from a PhD conference to get a postdoc position in Vancouver. I came back to the UK to provide temporary sabbatical cover as a lecturer and researcher at Durham University, and then moved to a new postdoc position, and a new field, at the University of Nottingham. My lab moved to the MRC Toxicology Unit and my postdoc position changed to a permanent Investigator Scientist post with lab management responsibilities. 

After four years at the unit, I was ready for a new challenge. My PI was brilliant and supported me to have career coaching and then go on secondment to the MRC’s Head Office where I worked in the Capacity and Skills team. At the end of the placement, I successfully applied for a Programme Manager post.

I spend my days… I oversee applications from submission through to peer review and board decision, and have a ‘patch’ that includes genomics and (epi)genetics and some of the MRC’s centres and units: I act as a 'knowledge holder' in these areas. Activities include: speaking with potential applicants, reading applications, planning unit reviews, finding peer reviewers, preparing strategically-relevant reports for senior management or external stakeholders such as government and reading about the latest science. I probably work away from the office one to four days a month – it varies. What I don’t do is make any funding decisions – that job belongs to our expert board and panel members, who give up their valuable time to help us fund the best science.

Career highlights: My PhD involved culturing many strains of enteric bacteria and I loved discovering subtle differences between them (they often smell very different!). But, the highlight to date has been this job: I was always interested in many science subjects and never wanted to focus on just one area. I was lucky enough to work across most of the kingdoms of life as a student and postdoc and now I get to follow a really broad spectrum of world-class science every day. Plus, I love writing reports!

Biggest challenges/obstacles: I’m generally an imaginative and problem-solving type, yet I walked away from a career in science because I couldn’t imagine what job I could do if I didn’t want to be a PI. I don’t regret my time 'outside science' at all, but I now take time to reflect on my strengths, weaknesses and ambitions when considering next steps.

I wish I’d known that… The research councils provide a lot of excellent, wider support now for their PhD students that may not have been in place when I was a student. I think the MRC’s Careers Framework is a great tool for researchers.

Skills I consider most valuable: You have to really listen to what people are saying, write well and tailor key messages to your audience. You need to care about science, find it interesting, and consider both the detail and the bigger picture, to understand how work that the MRC funds helps it to deliver its core aims. You need to be well-organised, diplomatic and professional too.

I am inspired by: My colleagues: as I get to know people, their backgrounds and skills invariably amaze me!

Words of wisdom: Don’t allow lack of self-confidence to hold you back. Seek out and accept constructive feedback from your peers and explore all options open to you. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes.

Next steps… Programme managers tend to do one of three things: get promoted within the MRC or UKRI, move to a new job at a charitable funder, or go to work for a university, often within the research office.


Correct as of: June 2018