We trace the career path of Dr Alastair Campbell Ritchie, a lecturer in biomedical engineering at the University of Nottingham. Dr Ritchie was previously a lecturer at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University. Having lived and worked in Singapore for over decade, Dr Ritchie discusses his career in higher education and offers valuable advice for those considering moving their academic careers abroad.
1 How did you start your career in higher education?
I was fascinated by the field of biomedical engineering, and the best path into that field was a postgraduate qualification. I obtained my Ph.D. at the bioengineering unit at the University of Strathclyde, and then followed the standard progression – post-doctoral researcher, lecturer. I gave a few guest lectures as a post-doc, and found I really enjoyed teaching - sharing knowledge is very fulfilling.
2 What led you to your current position and what lessons have you learned along the way?
While my Ph.D. was in medical devices, and my post-doctoral experience in biomaterials and biomechanics, my current research focuses on studying the effect of the mechanical environment on cells and tissues - tissue engineering. I have learned that the influence of the people around you is a key factor – particularly so as a junior academic. I first got involved in tissue engineering as part of a more senior colleague’s project. I discovered that there was a niche for my particular area of expertise, and this gave my research a boost.
It’s all very well to have an idea, but you have to convince others to fund your research, and so the idea must appeal to others. If you can convince colleagues to work with you, then you can also convince the funding bodies.
3 Your last position was in Singapore. How did this location factor in your decision and how did you go about looking for a job abroad?
I was looking for possible post-doctoral positions and met a professor from Singapore who was setting up a research group in a new research institute. It was an exciting opportunity - I applied and was offered a position. Then, two years after arriving in Singapore, I was offered a position at one of the universities there, and took it.
There are many resources now, and it is easy to see various positions advertised on the internet. This also means that there are many applicants for every position, so it’s important to be as impressive as possible. In 1997, job advertisements were featured in journals and you had to apply in writing!
4 Many people may be in the middle of a job search, and even considering moving their academic careers abroad. Were there any steps you took that you feel others may benefit from?
The most important thing was updating my CV and getting back into the routine of selling my skills and experience to potential employers. There will be inevitable rejections. Do not give up. Treat these with the attitude that there was a better match for the requirements, rather than not being good enough. Also, get help and advice with your CV and cover letter – a fresh pair of eyes is a great asset.
5 What advice can you offer to those who may be considering a job change which includes relocation?
Consider the impact it will have. A mid-career change of employer will have an effect on your research, and it will take time to get the momentum going again, particularly if you’re not in the position to bring your research group over with you. You should also ensure that you know about the country and culture you are moving to, as expectations at work may be very different.
6 When you were interviewed for your position in Singapore, besides your credentials and experience, what has changed for you in terms of the interview process between then and now?
In Singapore, you don’t meet your fellow interviewees. For overseas candidates, there is a two/ three day programme, in which you meet future colleagues, visit the campus and the laboratories, have a formal interview, and give two presentations – one is a sample lecture or teaching seminar, the other is a presentation on your research. In England, it varies from university to university – at Nottingham, the interview day consisted of a tour of the department, a presentation on research and teaching interests, and a formal interview.
7 What is Singapore’s higher education system like compared with the UK for e.g., academic networks; research and teaching; facilities, etc.
Singapore’s facilities for research are excellent – the republic has made significant investments in research, and you have access to the best equipment available. The teaching rooms and laboratories are also very well equipped. There is more funding available, although this goes through a similar competitive funding process to the USA and so bad ideas tend not to get funded. Research in Singapore puts great emphasis on deliverables – publications and patents, much more so than in the UK. In terms of networking, the main problem is that in Singapore you are a long way from the best groups in Europe and North America, and this can limit your networking opportunities.
8 Why have you chosen a career in higher education?
It is a new challenge every day, you never stop learning, and you get to work with bright, enthusiastic students. It is very rewarding.