"The skills I had acquired during my PhD were 1 to 1 transferrable in my role as a Development Scientist"
Susan Taylor completed her PhD at the Laboratory for Electrochemistry at the Paul Scherrer Institute in 2017. Today she works as a Senior Analyst at S&P Global and reflects with us on her PhD years at PSI.
Why did you choose to do your PhD at PSI?
Part of my Master’s degree in Chemical Engineering at the University of Cape Town was in collaboration with PSI. During that time, I did a 3-month summer placement at PSI in the field of catalyst development for fuel cells. This is what sparked my interest in electrochemistry and batteries, and lead me to pursue a PhD at the Laboratory for Electrochemistry (LEC) at PSI.
What were advantages of doing a PhD at PSI?
For one, PSI has excellent facilities and is involved in many multi-disciplinary projects in collaboration with industry, academia and different research institutes around Europe and globally. This exposure gives an invaluable understanding of the important link between research and industry and has been beneficial to me when transitioning to the commercial side of R&D. Furthermore, PSI is a multi-national research institute, which means there are many opportunities for expanding your network and collaborating with other institutes around the world. PSI does not only focus on fundamental scientific research, but importantly considers scale-up to real world applications which is extremely important for taking research from concept to commercialisation.
My PhD topic itself focused on carbon material development for vanadium redox flow battery applications. This experience proved extremely valuable for my R&D role in an industry environment, especially since energy storage is such a hot topic right now.
What did you do following your PhD at PSI?
After my PhD, I moved to Scotland where I worked as a scientist at an advanced materials start-up developing graphene for energy storage and biosensor applications. The skills I had acquired during my PhD were 1 to 1 transferrable in my role as a Development Scientist. In this role, I worked on an Innovate-UK project, one of various UK government funded energy storage projects, where I worked on the materials development for graphene supercapacitors for three years. The day-to-day was very similar to my PhD at PSI in terms of the R&D lab-work, but it was more application and scale-up focused, with considerations such as what products and markets to tap into.
What challenges did you face after your PhD in an industry environment?
Generally, I felt well-prepared to transition into an industry role because of the industry collaboration projects at PSI, thanks to which I already had a lot of exposure. I suppose I did not know a lot about the market aspects back then, since coming from academia you do not look much beyond the fundamental research - so this was a learning curve for sure.
What and where exactly do you work now? And how did you get here?
After three years working as a scientist in industry, I needed a change and wanted to do something different where I could get a broader view of the energy system and how this related to my research work on energy storage. Having worked in R&D for a long time it can be difficult to understand where your skills are transferrable outside the lab. I mainly looked at analyst roles as I wanted to understand the bigger perspective beyond R&D, and was looking to move away from the detailed science, and rather gain a higher-level understanding of the energy system and other clean energy technologies. This lead me to a job at the European Association for Storage of Energy (EASE) in Brussels, where I worked as an Energy Storage Analyst.
EASE mainly focuses on advocacy and policy work for different energy storage technologies. In this role, I supported the policy team on technical topics and worked at the interface of EU-policy, market and technology in the energy storage sector, with particular focus on the role of energy storage in decarbonising power, heating, industry and transport in the energy transition. The scope of work was therefore much broader, looking at where energy storage fits in the energy system, what policies are in place and where the funding goes.
Given my technical understanding of different energy storage technologies, I could communicate well with the different members of the association, which are often research institutes or startups. At the same time, I could communicate to policy-makers on a higher, non-technical level. This bridge between industry, policy and R&D is certainly a role well-suited for someone after a scientific PhD. The Jargon is different but at the end of the day, it is the same – research: reading articles, gathering data, formalising and communicating it clearly etc.
As of September I have transitioned into my new role as a Senior Analyst at S&P GLobal.
What difficulties did you encounter moving away from a scientist role into your current analyst role?
Transitioning into a role away from hands-on lab research was a big challenge I faced after my PhD and working for three years as a scientist in industry. It was a daunting task understanding what non-lab roles could fit with my skillset. Many roles require a different way of thinking – in R&D you know one topic in a lot of detail. Working at EASE on the other hand, a broader understanding and overview of many different topics was needed, such as different technologies, how they enter the market, what policies are in place to enable this, and where funding goes to different projects. At EASE most people in the policy team have legal and policy backgrounds, however there was a need for someone with an in-depth understanding of different energy storage technologies to be able to provide a link between policy and technical aspects of the industry – which I had.
I think that this is important to know - that the basic skills you acquire as a scientist, such as writing papers, doing research, or reading articles, are all very much transferrable.
Interview: Michelle Kalousek