Careers Spotlight: Oliver Severn, Singer Instruments

In this series of blogs we have been contacting past BBSRC-funded students to talk about their careers after the PhD. The aim is to show you the variety of jobs a PhD can help you obtain!

In this second post we talked to Oliver Severn, who is a Quality, S&S and Research Manager at Singer Instruments. Ollie completed his PhD in 2018 at the University of Nottingham. He studied Quorum Sensing System B and how it affects the production of butanol by Clostridium acetobutylicum.

Oliver Severn, Quality, S&S and Research Manager at Singer Instruments

So Ollie, we know your job title but what does your job actually entail?

So as a senior manager at a SME (small-medium enterprise) you take on a lot of roles. As a research manager I manage a small team of research scientists working on a variety of projects both with academia and other industrial partners. My service and support role involves rolling out all the support for our instruments worldwide so they continue to work smoothly for our clients and then my quality role is pretty much what it says on the tin!

My career progression in Singer has been fairly flexible. I had the option to remain as a bench scientist but chose to move into management, I like solving puzzles more than I like the answers and I can do this at a much higher cadence in a management role when I have more people working for me.

What first interested you in working for Singer Instruments?

My initial interaction with Singer was actually via an internship – I did my PIPS with them. I had no idea what I wanted to do for my PIPS, but I met these guys at a conference and they were using one of their instruments at the time, a plate pourer, to pour vodka shots! I had an awesome time with them and decided I wanted to come back once I had finished my PhD. We still take students for PIPS placements and frequently use it as a recruitment pool.

You are fundamentally a robotics manufacturer, how did you find the transition from biology?

As a PhD student you’re trained to attack every problem that’s presented to you and be an expert in whatever your PI needs you to be. The tendency is to carry this forward into whatever role you do next, which is good and bad. Good because it allows you to analyse complex data really quickly, but bad because you often don’t learn when to ask other people for help. At Singer we only have ~50 employees at the moment so you work incredibly closely with engineers, mechanics, software developers, etc. The joy of being in this group as a scientist is that you’re not expected to solve the robotics problems!

Which coding languages do you use most often?

Python – it’s almost expected these days for you to have a fairly comprehensive overview of Python, even if you’re not fluent in it. R is another good one, especially for statistical analysis, but the robotics team tend to use C# and C++. It’s unlikely you’ll need to use these though!

What skills from your PhD are most relevant to your job and what would you like to see students do more/less of?

During a PhD you’re taken to the brink of human knowledge in your area and that takes a lot of mental resilience. It allows you to approach complex problems in the workplace without being fazed by them and that’s so important. Also, the ability to think on your feet and apply techniques from other areas to fresh problems. I would like to see more students take a risk and try to learn something new, even if the results don’t work out as you wanted. Generally, I’d say you can learn business on the job and most of the opportunities related to business won’t be of much use to you. Focus on the science, that’s what you’re being hired for!

How would you say your work-life balance compares to academia?

So much better! PhDs are known to work every hour they can, but we routinely work 9-5. Adjusting to this can often be really difficult for people coming out of a PhD but we find that when they do, their work output tends to increase. You’re better mentally balanced so can manage your time better.

So do you have any tips on time management for stressed-out PhDs?

The to-do list is only going to get longer so learn to prioritise your tasks, life is too short to do everything. I find the Eisenhower Matrix is a useful way of looking at this as it categorises tasks by their importance and their urgency. If you’re struggling with this then consider doing a retrospective at the end of each day reviewing what went well and what you struggled with.

And finally, what could students expect to do on a PIPS placement with Singer Instruments?

Not make the tea! I expect all PIPS students to be involved in business-critical projects from the 1st week. Previous projects have worked on calibration techniques that have been rolled out globally, done prototype testing and process driven work. When it comes down to it, you’ll be doing technical scientific work on a robot but don’t worry – you won’t need programming skills at this point.

Editor’s Note: If you’re interested in doing your PIPS with Singer Instruments, you can find their PIPS advert here and read Lukas Jasaitis’ PIPS Case Study here.