Turning social science into a business
By uczjsdd, on 1 June 2015
Dr Zuleyka Zevallos earned a PhD in Sociology from Swinburne University, Melbourne, where she remains an Adjunct Research Fellow. She currently runs her own business, Social Science Insights, a Research and Social Media Consultancy working with small to medium businesses, government, and not-for-profits who require social research, training and policy advice. She also provides research-driven social media content to help public education and health campaigns. Here Zuleyka shares her career journey, and offers tips to researchers thinking of moving out of academia.
How did you move from studying for a PhD to starting your own consultancy?
After completing my PhD at the end of 2004, I continued to work as a lecturer. I left in 2006 because there was no job security in academia. I found it difficult to find full-time academic work in my field, but once I started looking in business and policy sectors, the job choices were surprisingly abundant. I’ve reflected on the fact that, at first, it was very disheartening to give up on my dream job in academia, but once I realised the multiple career possibilities in other industries, the decision to leave was empowering.
A career beyond academia leads to diverse experiences, and the work will likely take you to places you may not have expected. Having had little luck for months trying to get an academic job, I decided to apply for unconventional roles that sounded interesting. I received a number of different offers, which showed me how valuable my PhD degree was to non-academic employers. I took a job in federal government as a Social Scientist. I moved interstate to take the position. Within five years, I had led two interdisciplinary team projects working on social modeling and intercultural communication, and I also conducted research on a range of topics, from political violence to media analysis to the socio-economic outcomes of migrants and refugees. The role was varied so that I worked with many different clients, and I also attended conferences and published articles, which kept me engaged with my academic peers.
In late 2011, I decided to move back to my home state permanently. I worked as a Senior Analyst on an environmental health and safety investigation. I led a team of 23 researchers examining 30 years worth of reports and company data, as well as analysing interviews with 300 emergency service workers. We evaluated the connections between training and environmental practices, the chemicals used during exercises, and the high rate of cancer and other illnesses amongst emergency service workers.
After the investigation ended, I decided to set up my business. I had plenty of leadership experience, and had worked autonomously in setting up various projects in my previous roles, plus I had worked with many different client groups. Setting up the business required a lot of research, and I also took a business management course. I’ve been working as a consultant for the past couple of years.
What does a normal working day look like for you?
There’s no normal working day for me, per se, but my days are long (I work late into the night) and I also work seven days per week. The only thing that’s constant is that I read a lot of research and media articles. When I’m working on social media, I spend the first half of the day liaising with clients or their partners and stakeholders if we’re collaborating on a community event, a product launch, or cross-promotions. I constantly monitor and analyse social media metrics (what works, what doesn’t, industry trends and so on). I write blog articles, which means conducting research and writing, or I otherwise write social media posts and respond to reader questions on Twitter, Facebook and so on. I tend to leave the second half of the day to work on design, like making posters and artwork for clients, as well as taking photographs and making videos for their Instagram and blogs. When I’m working on research articles and projects, my day is similar to my day as an academic: I spend most of the day reading and writing. In between, I am always working on future projects that I want to get off the ground, and I work towards applying for grants and otherwise seek funding for my own research.
What are the best things about working in your role?
I have a high degree of flexibility about how I structure my daily activities, but this depends on what work needs to be done. The best thing about the social media aspect of my role is the interaction with followers. I’ve worked with very different organisations and I never cease to be amazed by how generous people are in sharing their stories. As a sociologist, I’m invigorated by the opportunity to interact with different types of people and learn about their lives. I love answering their questions about science in particular. There’s a lot of misinformation on health issues, so it’s interesting to see how the public engages with lifestyle and health advice that they read in the news. I’ve also been very lucky to be able to work on research projects that directly speak to my passions, such as gender and diversity in the workplace.
What are the biggest challenges you face in your work?
The toughest aspect of my job is that consultancy is contract-based and therefore ultimately impermanent (ironical, given I left academia for its casual contracts!). Being a woman of colour, and being relatively younger than my clients, my professional knowledge is often questioned in a way that would not happen if I was a White man. Most of my clients have been lovely, but I’ve unfortunately also faced many other pressures such as having my work plagiarised and misappropriated.
It is difficult not having someone else to take over when you’re feeling ill or when you’re overwhelmed with work and other unforeseen issues. Working for yourself is a joy, but it’s also exhausting and it can be alienating. I’m constantly asked for professional advice by peers who think my work should be free, including friends, former colleagues and academics. Potential clients constantly ask for discounts or expect you to give away work “for exposure.” This is highly demoralising as it is a constant aspect of interaction; but unfortunately it is a common occurrence amongst consultants and freelancers, especially for women.
How is the role similar/different to your time in academia?
The role is similar in that everything that I do requires research. Whether I’m writing a blog post, or putting together a report or creating images, I use social science concepts and research to guide my decisions and my writing. It’s different in practice because I cannot use jargon language. I’m answering everyday problems for the public, or addressing specific business and policy concerns. You can’t end a report or project saying, “More research is needed.” I need to give concrete answers and I’m expected to directly demonstrate the immediate benefit for clients. I rely more on visuals to convey ideas than I did as an academic. Businesses in particular do not like to read long reports with lots of text; they want succinct responses to specific problems.
Where do you see yourself going from here?
I’ve learned not to expect a clear trajectory as my career evolves. As a student, I had seen myself as having this neat career path from student to early career researcher, to lecturer, to senior lecturer and so on. Moving outside this academic path, I have gone on to work with many different organisations doing work I would have never imagined. I’ve learned to adapt wherever opportunities emerge. I’d like to focus more on my own research in the near future and ideally, I’d like to be in a position to work on longer-term public education campaigns.
What top tips would you pass on to a PhD student/post-doc interested in this type of work?
There are lots of opportunities in social media at the moment. The market is over-run by SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) hunters who may have some technical skills, but lack research training and strong writing and communication skills. This means there’s a niche for science writers. Many local governments and councils in particular are looking to hire people with degrees to run online public health and community engagement campaigns. Research opportunities in social policy have been shrinking in Australia and other countries due to funding cuts, but there is a higher demand for research skills in industry. One of the best things I did as a PhD is to take advantage of various interdisciplinary courses. I did a two-year leadership program with other postgraduate students from different fields. This helped me tremendously in getting my first job outside of academia, as I showed that I had experience working with different scientists, and I could speak with authority about how to navigate issues in cross-disciplinary collaborations. Most employers beyond academia are looking for researchers who can work with people from different fields, and who understand how to problem-solve across disciplines.
While my specialty is in qualitative research, my degree also exposed me to quantitative research, and during my time as a student, I did short courses on running focus groups, working with analysis software (NVivo and SPSS) and bibliographic software (Endnote). University libraries run these courses free all the time; students should take advantage of these courses, and play around with as much software as possible, and it would be wise to take a coding course, even if it has nothing to do with your thesis. If you can weave these skills into your PhD research, all the better, as mixed methods are especially impressive to employers. If you’re able to do an internship, or address an applied research question, this will give you a competitive edge. Having a strong understating of the practical applications of your thesis will be a bonus at interviews.
Students should also use social media but approach it professionally. This means being focused about what you write and share. Start working on the job you want at least a year before you finish your degree, using social media. Tweet about your research, share your papers and slides if you can online, write a focused blog and think about it as your online portfolio. Make sure you have a well-filled in LinkedIn profile, and be discerning about whom you connect with and what you share. Many employers explicitly ask for your LinkedIn profile, or at least use it to screen applicants and head-hunt talent. I’m always amazed at how poorly students use LinkedIn; it’s a great resource for job searching.
My final piece of advice is to be open to change. Most students think of non-academic work as a failed career. The reality of the job market is that we have a surplus of PhD students and not enough academic jobs. The likelihood of needing to seek work beyond academia is a certainty for the overwhelming majority of graduates. Going into a PhD with this knowledge will save much heartache later on. This is why I set up Sociology at Work; as I met more applied researchers, I realised how poorly academia prepares researchers for an applied career. We are an international not-for-profit network offering articles and resources to support the career planning of students, and raise the professional esteem of practitioners.
Science lets us answer lots of different problems; the world beyond academia is filled with many adventures and possibilities that should be savoured, not feared. My career beyond academia has made me a stronger sociologist by allowing me to work with, and help, people from many different walks of life. Applied science in action improves policies and processes, changing lives before your eyes. Make the most of your career by expanding your horizons early on!