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Durham University

Department of Chemistry

Career Trajectories

At Durham we understand there is no single path to an academic career. Some of the best career advice is to follow the career paths of established and up-and-coming reserchers. Here we provide case examples of Durham chemistry academics.

Ritu Kataky

My route to an academic position is unusual. I relocated from India to the UK in 1981. With a master’s degree in Chemistry from IIT/Delhi, I was full of hope for the future. I obtained a PhD degree from Newcastle University in 1987. Thereafter, I was keen to pursue my academic interests, but believed it unlikely as I had a baby and was pregnant with a second time. There was a post-doctoral position available at the Chemistry Department in Durham University with Prof David Parker, which I applied for. David was, at that time, a young academic and it is to his credit that he employed me despite knowing I would be on maternity leave soon after. I continued in Durham with Prof Parker, working part-time for a couple of years. My research meanwhile had generated interesting results, which lead to Prof. Parker and the Heads of Department then, Profs. Ken Wade and Robin Harris, encouraging me to apply for an EPSRC Advanced Fellowship. The application was successful and proved a turning point in my career. On completion of the fellowship in 1997, my children were very young and I was reluctant to take on full academic responsibilities. The Department then created an alternative position based on progression through research combined with administration and services work but less teaching. This position suited me perfectly for the first couple of years. However, following the change of the departmental leadership, my role was essentially downgraded: I was not allowed any PhD students on my own and was seen as support staff rather than a core academic. This was a low point in my career. I continued publishing and doing my research as best I could under the circumstances.
As I continued to publish independently and attracted funding and international reputation, I grew more confident. In 2007, the Department, then headed by Prof Judith Howard, supported my application for a Readership which was successful and yet again opened new horizons. I have a sense of fulfilment and gratitude as I have built my independent academic career at my own pace and have raised two well-settled children.
My path to academic independence has been challenging; a combination of adjusting to different cultures, bringing up children with no family ties nearby, setting up an electrochemistry laboratory in the Department with no senior colleagues in the field. I have seen approximately 27 students, from across the continents, complete their doctoral studies under my supervision. I have served in several national and international such as the Electrochemistry Group of RSC and the International Society of Electrochemistry, in senior positions. I have organised key conferences and workshops in my field in the University. My fulfilment is in helping aspiring students from all background to achieve their ambitions. I do love my research and try to apply my knowledge and experience to environmental, industrial and clinical applications.

Richard Thompson

After a PhD (University of Hull, 1993-96) I joined the IRC in Polymer Science and Technology as a postdoc in Durham. In 2001 I became a senior experimental officer, looking after the ion beam analysis facility in the materials chemistry building. Since then my remit has grown to include AFM, thermal analysis services, various environmental roles and parenthood. I am grateful to have a fantastic research group working in experimental soft matter science who a very understanding when I occasionally have to dash out the department for a school run.

Jon Steed

I received my PhD in 1993 from University College London, working on organometallics. It was great living in London as a student but for a change I went off to the US for a stint in the alternative universes of Alabama and Missouri where I learned about Supramolecular Chemistry and pool. After a couple of years London drew me back for my first Academic position as a lecturer at King’s College London. I spent 8 years there building my research, setting up a leading X-ray crystallographic facility and becoming heavily involved in outreach, not least as Vice President of the South London (aka Southern England) Chemistry Teachers’ Association. I did open days, demos for Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) and an annual gala ‘Flashes and Bangs’ for school children. After having my own son in 2000 I spent a lot of time on the London tube with a push chair. That sucked. King’s decided to close its Chemistry Department in 2003. That sucked too. Luckily it worked out very nicely since Durham gave me a Readership in 2004 immediately solving both problems at a stroke and I have been here ever since, rising to Professor in 2007. Durham has been an outstanding environment to do research in (hence the promotion) and it is also great for kids (replace pushchair on the tube for strolling across the cow field in between my house and the department). I even had another son in 2004 who is North East born and bred. Durham students are extremely bright and a delight to teach. An academic job is a privilege because you have chance to talk about your favourite subject every day to young people who are paying to listen. Now, my older son is approaching university age himself. The North East has been a great place for him to grow up… But of course he quite fancies going to back London for University. Oh well.

Lottie Ayres

I qualified & registered as a Pharmacist in 2008 after studying at the University of Nottingham. I am currently halfway through a PhD in Mass Spectrometry and Pharmaceutics primarily within the Chemistry Department here at Durham.
Previously I trained in a Psychiatric Hospital Pharmacy in London, and worked as a Pharmacy Manager for a couple of large chain Community Pharmacies around Cambridge and most recently was a Formulation Scientist (& Pre-Reg Tutor) for AstraZeneca in Cheshire.
My route to academia has not been a direct one, but I am now a part-time PhD research student working a flexible 2.5 days per week. The remainder of my time is spent with my toddler, my husband and our two dogs (in Hartlepool) as well as working the odd locum shift to keep my Pharmacy brain ticking over and attempting to train for various sporting activities, the latest being a local triathlon.
Since starting my studies at Durham I have been involved in STEM activities including mentoring A-level students & helping with the Durham Science week and I am passionate about encouraging young people to consider careers in Science.

Hannah Blacknell

My route to a PhD was pretty conventional; I finished school, then my first degree and soon my PhD. Initially I completed an MChem at the University of Edinburgh with a long title - "Chemistry with Environmental and Sustainable Chemistry with Industrial Experience". During my fourth year, I worked for Procter and Gamble at the Newcastle Innovation Centre on a project involving novel bleach formation in Mexican laundry detergents. During that time I learnt a lot about myself, and decided that for me, I was not quite the finished article, I had more room to grow. I wanted more training, which is why I decided to apply for PhD positions. I took up a position with Jas Pal Badyal FRS at Durham University in September 2014, working on plasma modification of surfaces. I am now in the final throws of my lab work, and after deciding academia isn't for me just now, I am looking to move into the industrial sector in the next few months.

Hanna's Linkedin profile

Athena Swan Bronze