A career in research management
By Sophia Donaldson, on 16 January 2020
Dr Robyn Parker has a PhD in Medieval History and now has two job titles! She works at UCL as a Public Policy Manager and as a Centre for Doctoral Training Manager. She took time out from her two jobs to have a word with us about her career.
Tell us what you’re up to now
My time is split between two roles. As Public Policy Manager I’m responsible for a year-long project based within the Bartlett Faculty Office 3 days a week, to create an engagement programme that amplifies and deepens the policy work of Bartlett academics. My other role for 2 days a week, which I was previously working in full-time, is managing a Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) in heritage science. When I first started the split allocation I tried to demarcate the two roles cleanly into separate days, but that just doesn’t work! Now I split time more flexibly between them over the entire week.
How did you get from your PhD to here?
Very circuitously and unexpectedly. When I was doing my PhD I only wanted to be an academic. My supervisor went on maternity leave in my final year, so I applied to cover her teaching. I’d taught all her courses already so I thought I’d at least get an interview. I didn’t, and I wasn’t sure what I’d done wrong and it really knocked my confidence. Looking back I can see I’d written a pretty rubbish application! At the time I didn’t fully understand the value of networking and publishing, so just concentrated on producing a really brilliant PhD.
After I finished I moved home and was pretty burnt out emotionally and stressed because of money, so money came first over academia. Off the back of teaching and student engagement I’d done during my PhD, I got my first role at Chevening, an international scholarship programme funded by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Making the move to a non-academic job was hard; I’d had this vision of being an academic and my future seemed tied up with that. I had planned to write post-doc applications and publish on the side but I wasn’t making an effort to do this on top of a full time job…
Six months into the job my mum took her own life and everything came to a head. I really needed a change of environment and since I was still considering academia I moved to UCL Laws doing PhD administration to be in a university setting. It was one of those jobs where you get there and think “What have I done? This isn’t advancing my career at all”. In hindsight it was exactly what I needed – a very supportive environment where I focused on both my own mental health and the mental health support and initiatives for PhD students.
During that time I had this slow rebuilding of who I felt I was, and what makes me happy and I realised academia might not be part of that anymore – it didn’t feel as important. My time outside of work has become super precious to me as has time with family and friends which I probably didn’t prioritise enough when I was doing my PhD, it was very all consuming for me.
After time and bereavement counselling, it’s been easier to think about my career and what it might be outside of academia. I got a secondment at UCL to manage a Centre for Doctoral Training in heritage science which I thought looked interesting and I was made permanent after the secondment finished. It was jumping in at the deep end to some complex financial and project management, and a steep learning curve!
After a couple of years I’d done a lot in the role to make it run smoothly, things were ticking over and I was wanting to do something less admin heavy. I went for the Public Policy Manager role because it was a lot of the project management skills I’d been using and I knew people involved with the project. I’m interested in making the world more just and fair, and that’s what people in the Built Environment are also trying to do. It’s been eye-opening because I didn’t do much knowledge transfer during my PhD so being part of the Built Environment has opened me up to a whole different way of being an academic.
What does a normal day look like?
CDT Manager: mostly it’s fire-fighting and establishing what needs dealing with urgently. Queries can be students asking about money, finance asking about transfers between accounts, contracts asking about signatures, social media posts to schedule etc. There can also be student support questions or dealing with management issues. A lot of balancing spinning plates.
Public Policy Project Manager: this role is all about strategy. Today we’re planning our launch event on tackling inequalities through our policy work. So I’ve been researching government areas of interest in terms of inequality and exploring what academics in the faculty have done regarding inequality, and considering how to bring these together to form event themes. There’s a lot of planning and strategic oversight and meeting the board members for interviews to see how they’re characterising the approach of their departments towards policy.
What are the best bits?
Public Policy: I love talking to people and finding out what they’re doing. I also like jigsaws; being a historian is about taking all the pieces of evidence and slotting them together so they make one picture someone might not have seen before, because of the particular way you’ve put them together. That’s what I’m doing with the public policy role, I’m meeting people individually across the department and the wider university – every little tendril that deals with policy – then combining it into one image of how we can approach this particular issue. I find that very rewarding.
CDT Manager: the best bit is working with students and running events. It’s fantastic to watch events you’ve organised work, and to chat to people and see they appreciate the effort you’ve put in. It’s also nice to know the PhDs think of me as their support contact.
So overall I suppose the best bits for me often seem to involve working with people.
What are the challenges?
Juggling two quite different jobs at once is pretty challenging! But individually:
CDT Manager: financial management. Our centre grant is about £6million, which isn’t the biggest, but it’s a very complex grant. You have to be very detail-oriented, and that’s not my natural orientation, so I have to get myself into a certain mindset in order to work like that. Saying that, my own financial management has vastly improved as a result of this experience.
Public Policy: My role is new and doesn’t really have equivalents across UCL, so I can feel out on limb sometimes and creating something more or less from scratch is really satisfying but can be quite draining.
Is having a PhD useful for your roles?
A PhD isn’t necessary for either of my roles. But a lot of people who work in policy across the university do have PhDs. I think it adds something that you understand the research process. I often use skills I developed in my PhD, such as quickly pulling evidence together to see the whole picture. Also writing skills and narrative creation – which is what I was studying during my PhD – because to engage and persuade policy makers at a higher level you need a compelling narrative.
For the CDT role having a PhD helps me build empathy with the students more quickly and easily than if I didn’t have a PhD. There’s an acknowledgement I know the experience, especially with the mental health work I did in Laws. That’s not to say that you can’t be fantastic at the job without a PhD, and many people are, but I think mine helps me in that way.
Where does one go from here?
I’m not sure to be honest! I’m still exploring what I enjoy. Through my policy work I’ve realised I’m really interested in how the university interacts with those outside of it. I enjoy creating conversations between people so something that combines these – policy, stakeholder management, something like that. Mainly I want to be part of something that makes a difference.
First of all learn how to write applications and talk to people! I’ve got jobs because I’ve spoken to the people advertising the roles beforehand. It gives you a better idea of what they want from the job, whether it’s right for you, and you can put that knowledge into making a better application and giving a better interview performance. Nearly everyone is willing to help.
Don’t get too sad when things don’t go the way you want, or you end up in a position you think isn’t right for you, because you can always get something from every situation, and nothing is permanent.
Make the most of your current situation and what you can get involved with now. Some of my most rewarding moments at UCL have involved people I’ve met when I’ve gone and done stuff. Getting involved (while being mindful of your mental capacity for things) makes your work experience more enjoyable, and there needs to be a recognition that networking and relationship building isn’t only this ambitious thing that helps your career, for most people it actually also makes your life more enjoyable!