Making the move from academia to the civil service
By uczjvwa, on 3 July 2015
How did you move from academia into your current role?
I’d done 5 years as a postdoc in two labs and I was unsure about what career was for me, but I knew another postdoc was the one thing that wasn’t for me. My line manager was moving from Sheffield to Southampton and offered me a job there, but it was time to move on into something that was much more suited to the way I enjoy working. I like being part of a team, contributing to shared work, and solving problems. I had outgrown solo project work and I was looking for new opportunities in a professional environment.
I went to a university seminar all about careers for post-PhD researchers available in the Civil Service. The presenter was someone I’d done my PhD with a few years back and I suddenly saw the analyst / government researcher in a new light – a way I could really use the analytical skills from my research. I decided to go for it. I wasn’t interviewed the first time I applied, the recruitment process was geared towards undergraduates and postgraduates with quite specific academic backgrounds (maths, physics, engineering etc.) so getting across how analytical my biology PhD and post-doc roles had been was crucial. I just failed to do this first time because I blindly followed the instructions without thinking. But after the initial rejection, I got feedback, made a real effort to improve my form and in the next recruitment round had another go. In the meantime I worked for the University of Derby as a business analyst and learned some great analytical skills as well as getting a taste of life beyond the lab.
How did you find the move from academia to the civil service?
I was worried about retaining the lack of flexibility and ownership I had in my post-doc role. I was also apprehensive of going into the unknown, what if someone asked me to do something I didn’t know how to do? What if everyone spoke a different language? In reality I’m old enough and wise enough to ask for help when I need it, but actually people anticipated I’d need time to get up to speed and helped me with it.
I found that some key differences in the Civil Service were:
- You have the back up of a team, you don’t feel alone and solely responsible.
- You get your life back, hours are 9-5 (or 10-6 as some people prefer!) and overdoing it is discouraged.
- People take your development seriously, it’s not a do it on the side thing any more, you’re expected to grow and learn, and contribute to the organisation as a whole, not just your projects.
Is having a PhD necessary for working in your current role?
It’s not specifically needed to get an interview but actually the project management, initiative, problem solving skills, and self-motivation you get so well practiced at as a researcher are infinitely applicable and put you in a position to progress upwards fairly quickly. Striving to create new ways to collect, analyse and report data are directly transferable. Analytical techniques and statistical techniques I used frequently are all relevant and I’ve learned a lot more since joining the DWP (Department of Work and Pensions).
What does a normal working day look like for you?
It’s a cliché but there are no normal days; within a job role projects can be many and varied and new ones appear all the time and there are also frequent opportunities to move job roles. But to actually answer the question, if I constructed an average day from all the projects, I’d spend an hour replying to emails or in phone calls trying to understand exactly what analytical product is required, a couple of hours wrestling with a data source (or two) (we have an embarrassing wealth in data in DWP but it can be challenging to get exactly what you want from them), the start of the afternoon performing the analysis and discussing the quality assurance process with my team, the afternoon writing/presenting the report and half an hour working being really creative with a project that contributes to the department as a whole.
What are the best things about working in your role?
I really enjoy being part of a larger team, that’s something that I didn’t get in academia. I can be creative and attempt something that might not work but have the support of my managers and advice of really great people around me. Oh and there’s a career structure and genuine opportunities to progress!
What might be the downsides of your job?
There was a significant culture change to get used to, but after 18 months in the job I’ve got over that. Otherwise, from my background, it’s hard to get used to using data generated by others, and not having a say in how it’s collected. A lot of time is spent adapting your approach because the ideal data source doesn’t exist. Cross-site working can be difficult too, my team work between 50 and 200 miles away!
It can be hard working on a policy that might not exactly align with your personal politics, but there is no policy that can’t be improved by considering the empirical evidence, and it’s satisfying producing a sound evidence base for any decision. Also, if you’re completely obsessed with your research area, a job where you move from project to project may not be for you.
Where do you see yourself going from here?
Progression within the Civil service isn’t ‘dead men’s boots’. There are regular opportunities to progress in terms of responsibility and salary. I’m still learning a lot about being an analyst so there’s definitely some mileage in this job for me. It’s likely that at some point I’ll move departments to get new experiences, these opportunities occur all the time too.
What top tips would you pass on to current PhD/ post-doc researchers interested in this type of work?
Make contact with the nominated person on the application form, and ask them to put you in contact with someone ‘like you’ in their department. It can be a real help to get an understanding of what the organisation is looking for. Also, really think about the application form. You might not be the usual candidate, so make it easy for the person reading the form to see that your work history/PhD easily proves you’ve got the experience and intellect to do the job. Don’t just provide your thesis title to describe your PhD (even if that’s what the form asks for!), people reading the applications don’t have time to try and understand it. Translate it for them (science communication courses came in handy!) and really show what a PhD gives you, in addition to an amazing ability to transfer small volumes of liquid about, or program control systems in obscure computer languages, or discover the Higgs Boson.
Want to work within Government Operational Research?
- There are two recruitment schemes 1. Mainstream and 2: Fast stream – Ed applied to the Civil Service via the mainstream round.
- Both recruitment schemes will reopen in the autumn.
- Analysts in the Civil Service are from one of four professions: Operational Researchers, Statisticians, Social Researchers and Economists.
- Those who apply to a central recruitment scheme are allocated a job within a department based on available vacancies and geography (the location in which they want to work).