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Researchers Careers in Communication guest feature!

Isobel EPowell28 February 2020

Researchers Guest Feature:

Taking a closer look at our monthly employer-led events topics

During our themed months, we will be taking a deeper look into each key topic. In these posts, we will be investigating what a career in this industry looks like for a researcher. Each month there will be insights from an expert who has been through the process of transitioning out of academia. Each contributor will give us their key tips for following a non-academic career path whilst letting us in on the things they wished they had known before taking the leap. Find out about the roles their organisation has to offer and get some key tips on applying.

This month it’s all about Communications…

Taking a deeper dive into the communications industry from the perspective of producer specifically looking at what this is like for a researcher, we have our contributor – Nikolay Nikolov.

Contributor Nikolay Nikolov, Senior Producer, Mashable, PhD in Anthropology UCL

Describe your role and the organisation you work with..

I manage a team of two video producers who are tasked with news-gathering, interviewing, shooting, and producing short-form videos that cover the intersection between technology and sustainability. My role is to drive the Mashable video voice forward, creating thought-provoking documentaries and series that introduce our work to new audiences and challenge norms.

Mashable is a digital media company that focuses on our shared life in the digital age and all that that entails. Each editorial vertical – video is one – has a focus that ranges from entertainment through culture to social good and science. The role of video, specifically, is to experiment with ways to tell powerful stories in different mediums – one video can be posted on Snapchat, for example, another on TikTok. The key is to find how the narrative and story corresponds with the platform and anticipated audience.

Give a brief overview of your industry and the opportunities that are available to researchers…

Journalism – and digital journalism – is a very difficult field to break into and one that often falls victim to preferential treatment, influence, and connections. Oftentimes in my career I have been encouraged to omit my academic background because it might make me seem overqualified and unemployable. That said, there are a number of incredibly successful journalists who have a strong academic background – Anne Applebaum is the first to mind. Having a PhD, at the very least, can help one build a strong career as a reporter, analyst, or opinion writer. But those type of positions tend to occur later in one’s life and are, as you may assume, highly competitive.

In terms of job titles and options for researchers, it is difficult to say without specific discussions of expertise. The world we live in is increasingly marked by disinformation and digital propaganda and I can see how certain areas, specifically in journalism, benefit immensely from people who have an academic background – climate change is one; technology is another, specifically when it comes to Open-source intelligence (say, Bellingcat or the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab). The New York Times and BBC Africa have both now created digital forensic teams that have made groundbreaking investigative work that is based on tools and knowledge that derives from a variety of academic fields.

Describe your academic background

My research was about finding a way to track how much daily life changes before and after huge societal transformations – like the socialist regimes in Europe. The way I approached it is by looking at the mass housing complexes, called ‘panelki’, which can still be found to house large portions of populations of the former socialist bloc. Because these complexes were prefabricated and largely resembled one another (in Bulgaria, for example, around two million people live in largely identical flats), my research traced how people made changes to their homes over the years – changes to the functionality, to the external facades, to the interior designs; but also social changes – who lived there, how, for how long, where are they now, etc.

What were the key skills you used during this time…

One of the key skills I learned is conducting interviews, taping conversations and taking photographs. When it comes to ethnography, especially in the urban setting, it’s a valuable skill for a journalist. Knowing how to adapt to different individuals, how to enter unknown settings (someone’s home, say), how to ask and repeat intimate or private questions and then how to transcribe and use those quotes is essentially what a lot of the hard work in reporting is all about. Particularly when it comes to features and long-form articles, that is essential.

My role is to tell powerful stories that educate people about a changing world. My academic work largely looked at how those changes occurred, so it hasn’t been useful in a direct way. But academia helps in other ways – having access to and being open to reading research papers that sometimes include incredible innovations and becoming the first to break the story that way. It helps in terms of the in-built sense of critique, where the search for plausibility and certainty is an innate goal in itself.

What did you find challenging about transitioning out of academia and how did you overcome this?

I started working as a journalism within three months of starting my PhD. I learned that, in my field specifically, an academic career was hard fought and required a lot of sacrifices in terms of financial independence and settling down. I also found academia stale – in the sense that many people, both academics and students, would end up fixed upon one subject area for extended periods of time. For me, that was simply not interesting or appealing – I wanted to have the flexibility and freedom to have more direct choices about what I could do, where I could live, and how I could earn a wage.

Conversely, what I found challenging when I started working in journalism is having no freedom over my own time and struggling to find meaning in what I did. At UCL, I got to teach first year students Philosophy, to travel across Europe and write about a subject I was deeply curious about. It’s a privilege that I took for granted because, particularly in journalism, you are accountable to both readers and editors and it is a difficult balance at times.

What do you wish you had been told when looking to transition out of academia?

I wish I was told to branch out, stay curious, meet new people. Academia can be clique-y and isolating, especially if you’re trying to change sectors all together. Staying curious means being
versatile and being able to adapt to the world as it is, not as you were taught to see it. A lot of people I know, who are around my age, have ended careers and started anew because they succumbed to the churn of a 9-to-5. Anticipating that is crucial for anyone moving on from academia. That said, some of the most considerate and nuanced people I’ve ever met were people I met during my PhD. Perhaps, at times, an undercurrent of self-confidence affected us all when it came to imagining our prospects outside of a strict academic career. I can safely say that any such worries are misplaced and, in fact, the world requires more people with expert knowledge working in places like journalism.

What is your top tip for researchers when applying to roles with your organisation..

Have a website that showcases, in a sense, your portfolio. In my case that’s www.nikolaynikolov.co – it shows all the video and radio work I’ve done. Maintaining active social media channels (Twitter, LinkedIn) are key for journalism. Cover letters are key because they can provide context for someone’s interest in an entry level (say producer job) that is not reflected in their resume. My first job in journalism, at AJ+, taught me everything I know about editing video. They didn’t hire me because I was doing a PhD, they hired me because I expressed a keen interest in the areas they were covering and was ready to learn new skills.

A big thank you to Nikolay for sharing your wisdom on those key transferable skills from academia to industry and giving us a great insight into your industry. Want to hear more? Come along to our events and hear from PhD level speakers across a range of industries all with valuable insights into what life is like after academia.

Life as a management consultant at BCG

Vivienne CWatson11 May 2016

Alex Bostrom graduated from Oxford with a PhD in History. He tells us how he started his career in Boston Consulting Group and what being a management consultant is like.

Tell us about your jobBCG

I work as a management consultant at the Boston Consulting Group. Consulting covers a wide range of activities, but essentially our job is to help companies to improve their performance, working with them to find solutions for existing problems and develop their strategy to move forward. We generally work with clients for two to three months at a time, so our projects are short and intense, but always interesting.

How did you move from a PhD to your current role?

I studied History for my undergraduate and Master’s degrees, and then for my doctorate. It’s fair to say that I did not originally see myself as a consultant. I loved my PhD, and thought seriously about being an academic, but I realised that while I was fascinated by my research, my thesis was only likely to be read by a couple of people, and one of those would be my mum! I applied to consulting as my research drew to a close, attracted by the opportunity to experience a wide variety of challenges in a very short timeframe, and the chance to work on real life practical issues. Once I got started, I never looked back!

What does an average working day look like?

 The great thing about consulting is that there is no average working day. It sounds like a cliché but it’s true. The pace of the work means that each day we are continually encountering new challenges and tackling new problems. One week I might be flying off to the client site to discuss the company’s recent performance, others I might be in the office brainstorming ideas or training. The exciting part is not knowing what new projects you might be working on next.

How does your PhD help you in your job?

Despite the apparent disconnect between French military history and modern business, my PhD comes in useful every day. Studying for the doctorate taught me key research skills: being able to assimilate data quickly, formulating and testing hypotheses, and communicating findings clearly and concisely are pivotal tools as a consultant.

What are the best things about your job?

The job has many things in its favour. Working on fascinating projects for multinational clients is exciting, but the best part of the job is the people I get to interact with. Everyone is highly motivated, intelligent, but also humble. There is a great culture where everyone is eager to offer help and advice whenever you encounter a problem. The willingness to go the extra mile to help out a colleague never ceases to amaze me.

What are the downsides?

The workload can be challenging, but everyone is aware of that when they join. Part of the job is being willing to turn tasks around at short notice to meet tight deadlines

What tips would you give researchers wanting to move into the same, or similar, role?

I would highly encourage researchers to consider consulting, even if they feel they do not yet have deep business knowledge. While it is useful to gain some preliminary understanding of business strategy, at the start, all that’s required is the ability to think logically. You will quickly learn all the rest. The best approach is to attend one of the many recruiting events held by consultancy firms, and speak with them to get a feel for the industry and whether it would be a right fit for you.

What is Data Science and how can you get into it? Tips from a Data Scientist

Vivienne CWatson1 April 2016

Shaun Gupta has a MSci in Physics from UCL and a PhD in Particle Physics from Oxford. He tells us how he started his career in Data Science and what being a Data Scientist is like.

GuptaTell us about your job.

I am currently employed as a Data Scientist at a startup called Row Analytics. Data Science is an emerging field, and it involves using a mixture of coding and statistical analysis to answer questions using big datasets. The company is very small (less than 10 people), which means my role actually covers a wide range of different activities in addition to just Data Science. It is an exciting place to work as I am helping to build the company from the ground up, in a sector that is still relatively new and constantly evolving.

How did you move from a PhD to your current role?

After undertaking an MSci in Physics at UCL, I pursued a PhD in Particle Physics at the University of Oxford. During my final year, I spent a month taking part in the 2015 Science to Data Science (S2DS) bootcamp, based in London.  The school was a pivotal opportunity to learn more about the emerging field of Data Science, and showed me how relevant my skill set was in industry. As part of the school, I spent time working on an exciting project with my current employer Row Analytics, who offered me a full-time position once the school was over.

What does an average working day look like?

As the company is currently very small, I tend to perform a variety of tasks as part of my job. My time at the moment is split between helping to set up an infrastructure in the cloud on AWS, setting up and configuration databases (noSQL and graph based), building a web application (both front and server backend), writing programs to scrape unstructured data, and performing Natural Language Processing (NLP) on the data.

How does your PhD help you in your job?

In essence, my role is very similar to what I did during my PhD, only using data from a different source. As a result many of the techniques and practices I learnt during my PhD are useful in doing my job. These include programming, problem solving skills, strong mathematical skills, statistical analysis techniques including knowledge of learning algorithms, and the ability to work independently in a research driven way to develop new ideas/products.

What are the best things about your job?

I enjoy working in a constantly evolving field with many opportunities to get involved in new projects and learn about new cutting edge techniques. I also find it exciting working for a company at such an early stage in its development, and being involved in shaping its future. I am also lucky in how flexible my work is, with the ability to work from home a couple of days a week.

What are the downsides?

As the role involves a lot of coding, a lot of time can be spent fixing bugs. Also a lot more time is spent working with the data and structuring it in the correct way for analysis than one may expect initially.

What tips would you give researchers wanting to move into the same, or similar, role?

Data Science is a new and exciting sector that is rapidly growing, and so now is the perfect time to get involved. I would say solid programming skills coupled with good analytical ability is key. Therefore, I would advise to brush up on your coding skills in languages such as Python and R, and your knowledge of statistics. Attempting challenges on sites such as Kaggle is a useful way to do this. Attending a school such as S2DS will help you to learn more about the industry, and get involved in real world applications of Data Science with companies. There are also many meet-ups around London and boot-camps that are worth attending.

Leaving a PhD to become a social entrepreneur

SophiaDonaldson12 August 2015

Most of our researcher career case studies focus on people who have completed their PhDs. But what about those who leave before the end of their doctoral degree? Considering your career options is a big task for anyone, but it may feel even more daunting if you’re leaving a course early.

I’ve worked with students who for a variety of reasons have given up on their PhD, and despite their concerns, it hasn’t hampered their careers. Although they may not have gained the title, they still gained the valuable transferable skills of a PhD-holder.

Fiona Nielsen is a nice example of this. She left a genetics PhD in her final year, but used the skills and knowledge she’d acquired to set up Repositive, a social enterprise that aims to speed up genetic diagnostics and research through efficient data access solutions.

Fiona came along to our Researcher Life Sciences Careers Fair, where she told us about her career journey. You can watch her interview here.

Fione Nielsen

A researcher’s experience of working in science policy

Vivienne CWatson20 May 2015

profile picJavier Elkin, PhD student in Translational Cognitive Neuroscience at UCL took a 6 month break from his PhD to work in science policy at the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS). He explains how he benefited from this experience below. 

How did I get the role:

I was always interested in Science Policy but didn’t know how to find out more about what it entailed. I attended two UCL Careers events which gave me the confidence to apply for a secondment during my PhD. The Newton’s Apple workshop at the Houses of Parliament provided an introduction to the different roles of government departments and politicians. At the UCL Careers Future in Government and Policy Employer Forum for PhDs and Researchers I had the chance to meet people from different policy organisations that helped me explore the different possibilities to funding the months away from my PhD.

What I liked about working in my role:

I enjoyed the fast-paced and varied nature of the work. I was always working on different projects simultaneously that appertained to a range of scientific topics and had real impact on the world. I was able to contribute to high level policy documents like the Science and Innovation Strategy which the Chancellor of the Exchequer mentioned on live television during the Autumn Statement. In research we usually have to spend at least a few years on a single project before we see the impact of our work and even then it rarely departs the scientific community.

What were my biggest challenges?

A lot of policy involves pre-emptive work in case it is later required under severe time constraints. It is impossible to always accurately foresee the exact task that will be requested due to the nature of government proceedings and Ministers. This means often dropping that piece of work you have been tirelessly working on for days, to concentrate on the next task because a new deadline has been set or new priorities have been issued. This also means accepting that your final work will never be perfect because it generally requires input from many people and deadlines are much tighter than in science.

To what extent did I use my specialist knowledge and/or higher level skills obtained from my PhD?

Previous experience communicating my research during public engagement events was useful when writing compelling case studies of the most recent UK scientific breakthroughs to ensure higher spending in science and research. I compiled simple and compelling paragraphs to be used as examples in the Science and Innovation Strategy. I also went from being the worse programmer in the lab to a BIS IT buddy, running around the floor and helping people with computer issues. When I was in the team analysing the Capital Consultation responses, I proposed a solution based on my experience with Big Data analysis which earned me a £300 bonus for increasing efficiency!

My top tips:

Be proactive in networking. I had a great conversation with the Brazilian Ambassador over champagne and also met senior people at events.

Go full time! Immerse yourself in the placement. You will be able to take ownership of your work, assigned to interesting tasks more often, and create meaningful relationships with your co-workers.

Encourage others to do the same. When I completed my placement, I gave a presentation to the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience to share that Policy is a seldom mentioned but highly relevant part of the research process that impacts all levels of academia.