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Careers in Government: key messages from our Beyond Academia Event

By uczjsdd, on 19 December 2017


In November we ran a Beyond Academia event shining a spotlight on careers in government for PhDs. We had two great UCL alumni speakers discussing their current roles and career paths: Dr Patricia Idaewor, who has a PhD in Transport Studies, and is now Policy Lead on HS2 in the Department for Transport’s High Speed Rail Group; and Dr Sarah Livermore, who has a PhD in Elementary Particle Physics and is now the Modelling Lead on the Committee for Climate Change, as part of the Government Operational Research Service (GORS). Here are the take home points from the event:

A career path isn’t always a straight ladder, it can be a winding staircase.

Patricia’s PhD supervisor told her this some years back, and her and Sarah’s careers have reflected it. Both took their modelling skills into government, using techniques mastered in their PhDs, but in subject areas and settings that were new to them. Since then, Patricia found she enjoyed using her softer skills, and so has moved from modelling to project management, programme assurance, and now policy lead.

Government careers can be great

Patricia and Sarah were able to use skills developed during their PhD in their current roles; the technical knowledge and analytical skills, as well as softer skills such as giving presentations and project management. They spoke of the ample opportunities they are given to develop new competencies within government, with allotted time for skills training. They both loved the fact that their work was fuelling the decisions that can make positive impacts on people’s lives. They also commented on the good work-life balance and flexibility in many government roles.

There are downsides too

Patricia spoke about the slow pace of some government decision-making processes as a potential challenge. The checks and balances are necessary as massive amounts of taxpayers’ money are on the line, but it can still be frustrating. And Patricia and Sarah both discussed the unpredictability of civil service work as a downside. The modelling Sarah carries out, and the policy work Patricia does, are both dictated by the agenda of ministers. If they change their mind, Sarah and Patricia must change their direction. Even predicting whether you would be called to speak to a minister could be unpredictable day-to-day, and so Patricia always keeps a change of smart shoes in her office just in case!

If you have a numerate background, the government wants you

The civil service is a huge and diverse employer, and all sorts of skills can be transferred there. But Sarah particularly emphasised the desirability of highly numerate people. The Government Operational Research Service has a large intake every year, and they struggle to find enough candidates with great analytical/modelling skills. Their current recruitment round has just closed, but Sarah assured us they’ll be opening for applications again in January. And the Government Economics Service or Social Research Service may also be of interest to the numerate amongst you. Whatever civil service role you’re applying for, numerate or otherwise, both Sarah and Patricia advised focussing heavily on the civil service competencies called for, because this is how you will be assessed.

Listen to representatives with PhDs talk about working in the government and policy sector

By uczjvwa, on 16 March 2016

Book to attend ‘A Future in Government and Policy: Employer Forum for Researchers: Employer Forum for PhDs and Researchers’ on Tuesday 22nd March 2016 from 5:30pm to 7:30pm.

The aim of this event is to help researchers with their career planning by providing an opportunity to question, to hear from and network with employers from the government and policy sector who are PhD holders themselves. The panel of speakers will give tips on how researchers can use their qualifications and experiences to enter this field as well as information about their sector.

Panel of speakers will be:

Dr Jacob Parakilas – Assistant Head, US and the Americas Programme, Chatham House

Dr Gemma Bridge – Programme & Change Management Lead, Cabinet Office, Civil Service Fast Stream

Dr Joseph Elliston – Senior Scientific Officer, Government Operational Research Service (GORS)

Dr Hadjer Nacer – Researcher, The Health Foundation

Dr Daniel Jones – Operational Researcher, Forecasting and Model Development Unit, Ministry of Justice

Dr George Windsor – Senior Policy Researcher, Nesta

To find out more and to read the speakers’ biographies please go to: http://courses.grad.ucl.ac.uk/course-details.pht?course_ID=2214

Research Students book here

Research Staff book here


Making the move from academia to the civil service

By uczjvwa, on 3 July 2015

EGuccionne(1)Dr Ed Guccione has a PhD in molecular microbiology. Here he tells us about his current role as a Government Operational Research analyst within the Department for Work and Pensions.

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:

  1. You have the back up of a team, you don’t feel alone and solely responsible.
  2. You get your life back, hours are 9-5 (or 10-6 as some people prefer!) and overdoing it is discouraged.
  3. 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.

More profiles of people who work in GORS

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).

Bookings open for A Future in Government and Policy: Employer Forum for PhDs and Researchers

By uczjvwa, on 6 March 2015

26th March 2015 – 5:30pm – 7:30pm

The aim of this event is to help PhD students and other researchers with their career planning by providing an opportunity to question, to hear from and network with employers that come from a variety of roles within the government and policy sector, who are PhD holders themselves. The panel of speakers will give tips on how research students can use their qualifications and experiences to enter this field as well as information about their sector.

Panel of speakers will be:

Dr Richard Malham – Senior Policy Officer, Academy of Medical Sciences
Dr Joseph Elliston – Higher Scientific Officer, Government Operational Research (GORS)
Dr Rory Yeomans – Senior Research Analyst, Ministry of Justice
Dr George Windsor – Senior Policy Researcher, Nesta

To find out more and to read the speakers’ biographies please go to: http://courses.grad.ucl.ac.uk/course-details.pht?course_ID=2214

Research Students book here

Research Staff book here