Dr Ian Hopkinson

Dr Ian Hopkinson, research scientist at Unilever

I work as a research scientist in the area of appearance at Unilever’s Port Sunlight R&D laboratory. This means I do research mainly on products in the home and personal care area including household care products, deodorants, washing liquids and fabric conditioners, and toothpaste. In addition to my research role I also do some line management, software procurement and managing academic research.

Whilst I was at UMIST I was contacted by a recruitment agency regarding a position at Unilever. In retrospect I was extremely lucky: they made contact because of information they had found via my orphan webpage at Cambridge University (where I’d worked before my appointment at UMIST), which described my work, included links to my publications and links with industry. If I were to have my time again I would have registered my interest in looking for a new job with a few agencies.

My experience in a range of areas of science was important but not the details of my research. Being able to learn about new areas of science was critical in the early stages of the job and something I’d encourage researchers to emphasise in their applications.

The transition was undoubtedly helped by the connection I already had with Unilever, who had funded my post at Cambridge. I’d built connections with different people at the company, as well as making a point of talking to industrial scientists at conferences. My research had always brought me into contact with industrialists, so I didn't feel there was any issue with the length of time I’d spent in academia.

Although I had these insights into industrial research, there were some clear differences in culture between the universities I’d worked in and Unilever.

The first big benefit I found was that people obviously valued what I had to contribute to projects and communicated this freely. Working as an academic can be a lonely business, with little feedback as to whether your research is valued. This was also evident from the interest that my manager showed in my career. Ever since joining I’ve had serious and formal discussions about where my career was going and what needed to happen for me to be successful. I hadn't experienced anything like that in the previous 12 years in academia! Line management is a serious professional role here and staff are closely supported.

The second benefit I found was that I didn’t have to make grant applications in order to do research! This was largely what motivated my move from academia.

There are some potential drawbacks. I left a large office of my own at university and moved to a desk in a shared office; initially this was a bit of a shock but actually it’s quite nice. I can no longer pursue areas I simply find interesting, unless it is for free in my own time. I had a “permanent” academic position so in theory I have given up a lot of job security.

The skills I brought from academia aren’t limited to the scientific and technical. My experience in teaching is surprisingly useful, as a core role in my current job is explaining physics and polymer-science concepts to people who have different scientific backgrounds. The skills that are valuable are largely generic ones: having a broad scientific background rather than very specific specialist knowledge. I developed programming skills as a researcher and also from designing and coding websites, and have found these skills useful at Unilever, although they aren't ones that many of my colleagues use.

Whatever your career interests, and particularly if you are a postdoctoral physicist, I'd recommend that you think about where you want your career to go because no one else will do it for you. Even if you plan to remain in academia, think about your Plan B because most of you will not get full-time academic posts.

If you are interested in the industrial sector, it's important to understand that the environment is highly collaborative. It’s vital to develop these skills alongside your scientific expertise and to be able to describe them in your CV and at interview.

Also, start using conferences more effectively. At most meetings you’ll find delegates from industry. Start to build your network and understanding of what they do, how they work and why their companies might be interested in you. You might even want to think about what might interest you outside science. Also look for relevant networks to engage with, like RAPS for young polymer scientists. These groups often run online meetings and it is very straightforward to get involved, contribute opinions and start to build a reputation without leaving your desk.

A final recommendation is to be aware of your worth and be clear on what your current salary is – don’t be caught out making a low guess!

last edited: October 01, 2012