Post-PhD career profile – Project Manager at Imperial College London

Post-PhD career profile – Project Manager at Imperial College London

Emma went travelling after her PhD and is currently an academic project manager

Emma Lawrence, Project Manager at Imperial College London, London, UK

Emma did her PhD in Immunology on helminth (parasitic worm) infection at the University of Manchester. Directly after her PhD she remained as a postdoc in the lab for 3 months to finish off papers and then went travelling in South America. She knew that a postdoc was not for her and categorically listed 3 things she was sure that a postdoc would not fulfil:

  1. I wanted a career with more short-term goals; I am more motivated and enjoy achievements that can be done in a shorter space of time than a publication.
  2. I did not want the responsibility of self-funding, at least at some point this is important, and eventually you are responsible for funding others.
  3. I didn’t believe accomplishments in science are fairly rewarded; i.e. it is papers not hard work that counts.

Since June 2014 Emma’s role has been Project Manager of the Immunotherapy Trial Simulation group at the School of Public Health, Imperial College London. However, because she has stayed in academia, she feels that she has not been able to exploit the full potential of her project management skills. “Because of my academic background I have ended up drifting back into research in my current role.


Even though she was sure she did not want to be in the lab, she does miss being an active researcher. “I will always miss being a specialist which is something you take for granted in research as you are surrounded by other specialists. There is a certain respect that comes with being in the key role as opposed to a support role.” On a more personal level, Emma finds that being active in the lab can occasionally be more social than working at a desk. “I think there is more [moral] support available to you in an academic environment, but that depends where you move to.However, working in a ‘support role’ (as Emma puts it) can provide a diversity of rewarding jobs that she didn’t know existed before. Also, “If you’re good you can end up tailoring a [project management] job to do exactly what you like.” By this Emma means that if you have a good relationship with your department they will want to keep you and will play to your strengths and allow you to further develop them, and you can choose to work in the public or private sector and choose what benefits are important for you.I mean that there are benefits of working for academia such as the number of holidays that you’d get there, and benefits of working in industry such as higher pay (potentially) so you can choose between the two.


Emma found that project management jobs outside of academia require PRINCE2 (Projects in Controlled Environments) training and thinking ahead for her future, she asked to fit the course into her work schedule, which her boss was very supportive about. “It was only about 2 weeks out of work, so I got certified without it impacting the job that much.” Is a PhD a requirement to be a project manager? “For a real job in project management [i.e. outside of academia] you need zero specific knowledge of the project so a PhD is not necessary. A PhD is helpful for being familiar with academia, and I guess you get a certain level of respect from old fashioned PIs (principal investigators) when you have a PhD.” To give you an idea on how going into academic project management may develop, I asked Emma what her future career plans are. “I’m considering working in account/portfolio management. I’d like to work at the Wellcome Trust.”


If you’re already doing a PhD and you fancy becoming a project manager, Emma recommends that you really understand what the role will involve and ask in the interview, and if you don’t get a clear answer you should be concerned. “A role with the same job title [i.e. Project Manager] in one institution could involve completely different tasks to another. For example, I’ve seen job descriptions where they spell out exactly the percentage of time spent on different tasks.” And in your application and interview, she says, “Experience is key, so it’s about selling what you can do. For example, you don’t have finance experience? You can handle data. No organisation experience? You’ve planned experiments.” To better your chances, you may need to spend some time in a low level support position as it’s important to build a good solid foundation and be able to sell yourself for higher level positions. “Having a PhD doesn’t make you good at everything!” A PhD is not essential for academic project management roles but if you still want to do one, Emma advises, “Pick a topic you’re fascinated in and take every opportunity you’re presented with.” Also, “The last year of your PhD is a stressful time to make career decisions, I thought it would be less stressful to defer the decision but it wasn’t – plan ahead!”


This post is part of a mini series on post-PhD careers.


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