In search of the bigger picture

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Only a few months ago, I was trekking around Ilulissat in Greenland, my one-year-old daughter strapped to my back, admiring some of the most spectacular scenery on earth. After more than a decade in the UK, mostly in London, it is a thoroughly refreshing experience to visit Greenland.

The contrast, in terms of space, solitude and raw nature, could hardly be greater and the landscape is magnificent. But equally striking is how the Greenlanders are managing a remarkable transition, from a culture centred on hunting just a few generations ago to a modern society combining deeply held traditions and culture, while building a sustainable economy for the 21st century.

Trying to imagine what life must have been like here until very recently and how astonishing the rate of change, I begin to see my own challenges in a somewhat different perspective.

So it is with some sense of humility that I consider the changes I face in my own life over the next year. In September, my husband, daughter and I moved from London to Cambridge, where I have enrolled on the MBA programme at Judge Business School. We have left behind our home, friends and, in my case – scarily – my job.

The idea of pursuing an MBA first started to take shape when I was writing my PhD thesis in neuroscience and the decision to leave the lab-bench for good was becoming clearer in my mind.

My enthusiasm for science was alive and well, but four years in the lab had shown me that I did not thrive in the lonely atmosphere of academic research and missed the lively banter of working in a bigger team. While writing my thesis, it was with great satisfaction that I could finally step back and take the broader view, place things in context and discuss the bigger picture, rather than delve into the endless minutiae of experimental detail. So it was not a hard choice to leave the research path I had initially set out on – but I found myself suddenly wishing for some more generalist skills as opposed to the specialised science skills I had spent years acquiring.

An MBA seemed a logical step to bridge the gap. Of course, I wanted to get a job first and have a few years respite from academia, but the idea had started to stir in the back of my mind.

Challenges

I was offered a job with Cancer Research UK, which gave me the opportunity to stay in science, but move away from the lab.

The move into this sector was fascinating – neuroscience is an amazingly exciting area of research, but very academic, with most of the clinical applications some way in the future. In comparison, cancer is very “happening” at all levels, from basic research, genetics and epidemiology to detection and biomarker development.

Cancer Research UK is a rapidly growing organisation with a highly motivated workforce and is a great place to work. I loved the challenges of my new job and the practical learning, but I found myself wanting to know more about management tools, so the MBA idea still lingered. After a year I moved to a new role in the organisation, working on impact assessment. In my new team we sometimes felt concerned that we were reinventing the wheel instead of learning from the best practice of other organisations, both within and outside of the non-profit and medical research world. A year later when I saw an advert from Judge entitled “What MBAs can do for Non-profits”, I knew it is was time to revisit the MBA plans more seriously.

My search for the right programme started and finished with Judge in Cambridge, with a quick detour around the main London schools and Oxford. Although I did consider some US schools, I quickly came to the conclusion that it made more sense to stay in the UK if this was where I wanted to work afterwards, as everyone I spoke to during the application process emphasised the importance of the networks gained during the course. Although all the big schools have impressive international reach, the links are naturally going to be stronger where the school is based.

Opportunity

Cambridge was an easy choice – having done my undergraduate degree in Oxford, I knew I would love the return to the college system and, although LBS had a lot to offer as well, I felt the strong emphasis on collaboration in Cambridge had more appeal for me. The consulting projects undertaken during the MBA were also a big draw and with the huge cluster of biotechnology start-ups around Cambridge, it seemed a natural fit.

Six months later, in addition to the offer from Cambridge, I had been lucky enough to gain scholarships both from the Sainsbury family’s Monument Trust as well the business school – everything seemed to have come together. Having enjoyed my two-and-half years at Cancer Research UK, it was with some trepidation that I handed in my application for a year’s leave. But I knew that the opportunity I had been given to go to Cambridge for a year was one to be seized with both hands and made the best of.

We have only been in Cambridge a few weeks and so much has happened, so many new impressions, new faces and new topics to get to grips with that our life in London feels a long time ago. Everyone I have met seems incredibly bright and excited to be here and the atmosphere is buzzing with anticipation. I am surprised by the huge diversity of backgrounds. I had expected to feel like the odd one out, but the reality is that there is no single dominant industry profile. Many of the students from commercial backgrounds are keen to move into non-profits at some point in their careers and there is already plenty of interest in the non-profit special interest groups, where people get together and explore shared career interests.

Although the days feel a lot more hectic than working, I also feel a huge sense of privilege at just being here to learn and challenge myself and develop, without having to deliver on a job every week. The schedule is demanding, with classes both morning and afternoon, leaving evenings and weekends to prepare and do group assignments.

I have lost count of the number of times people have looked at me in disbelief when they learn that I have a child to look after as well. I cast my mind back to our trip to Ilulissat, which seems a lifetime away, and I am filled with excitement about the year of learning and exploration ahead of me, and a quiet belief that I’ll find a way to meet the challenges.

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