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Who wants to hear about working at WHO?

By uczjsdd, on 19 May 2022

Dr Sarah Paulin gained her PhD in Pharmaceutics and Microbiology here at UCL, and is now a Technical Officer in Antimicrobial Resistance at the World Health Organization. Sarah kindly took the time to chat to us about her career journey and current role, and shared tips for researchers wanting to follow a similar path.

What are you up to at the moment?

I work at WHO headquarters in Geneva in the area of antimicrobial resistance, which was the topic of my PhD. Now I focus less on the microbiology and more on supporting countries in their efforts to contain antimicrobial resistance, primarily focusing on lower-income countries, in all regions, but largely the African region.

How did you get from your PhD to here?

My PhD was laboratory-based, and while writing up my thesis I realised I was motivated by working with people and building capacity in under-resourced areas. Lab work can form part of that, but it’s one small aspect of the larger picture, and I really enjoyed working with that larger picture. For me, that meant moving into Public Health. Knowing this, I took every opportunity to ensure my thesis had a focus on the public health aspects of my work. I also took advantage of UCL courses, in particular for PhD students wanting to move out of academia, where I gained insight into what was possible, and learned more about my personal skillset and what was transferable from a lab-based PhD. I also attended a UCL CV session, which helped me get my CV ready. And I started talking to people within UCL and externally, trying to understand my options.

WHO was not the first or only place I applied. I also applied to The Clinton Health Access Initiative, for a role straddling lab work and public health. In the end I didn’t take the job, but it was a great experience in trying to sell myself outside academia. Then I saw a consultancy role based in a WHO regional office in the Philippines. I tailored my CV, sending it to a few peers to check it made sense, and I was given an interview. They were looking for someone specialising in antimicrobial resistance, and at the time few people had completed a PhD in that area, so my background helped. It meant relocating to the Philippines, but that fit in ok with my life at the time. And the role was only for three months, but everyone has to start somewhere, so I went for it!

I was a consultant for one and a half years after they extended the consultancy from its initial three months. It didn’t have the permanent nature or safety net of some other options, but I was willing to stick it out and wait for a staff position, and when it came up I won it and stayed in Manilla for three and a half years, travelling around the 39 countries and areas the region covers. After that I was recruited to move to headquarters, where I have applied and moved up into two different jobs, and that’s where I am now.

What were the toughest parts of the transition?

Going into the unknown was challenging. Once you go outside of the academic path, it’s hard to get back in, so it’s a difficult decision to make. I was also unsure I would even be accepted into a public health role – and I was actually willing to take a volunteering role to begin with because of this. But taking the classes UCL Careers offered, and meeting others who were also looking to make the jump beyond academia, was incredibly helpful and reassuring, because then I knew I wasn’t alone or crazy in wanting to get off the academic path. It’s only when you start talking to others and go to these presentations of others who have made the transition successfully, that you realise you can do it as well. I realised I just needed to try and believe in myself, which is not always easy! But one of the qualities you can learn during a PhD is to be able to believe in yourself.

It was also challenging financially at times, and it helps if you have a bit of a safety net as well, which not everyone has. Volunteering and internships are often unpaid or low pay, consultancy can be poorly paid (I lived in a tiny studio in Manilla when I first started), but at the end of the day I felt it was worth it.

Thankfully, things are slowly getting better for people wanting to enter the field, as today there is a small stipend for WHO interns, and of course Geneva is a more expensive place to live, so people should also look for options in WHO regional or country offices, which can be more affordable. There are also many opportunities for scholarships once you start looking into them. It takes longer to apply, but there are possibilities to get additional funding to the stipend for these opportunities.

Is it normal to start as an intern at WHO?

Definitely. In non-COVID times, WHO offers internships, which is something I had done during my undergrad. Mine was a very short internship, just to get an insight into public health before going into the lab side, and at the time I didn’t think I was coming back, but now I’ve come full circle! So people usually join as an intern, maybe during the summers of their Bachelors or Masters programme. Internships are anywhere between 6 weeks and two or three months, so some people may be able to fit it in during a PhD if that can be agreed upon with a supervisor etc., and then you’d have some public health experience on your CV by the time you graduate. Then an appropriate consultancy opportunity might arise, and once you’re a consultant you get to know a region and technical area, so of course your CV is much more favourable if a relevant staff role becomes available. If you want to move into global public health, getting to know the realities on the ground through in-country experience is a great place to start.

What does a normal working day look like for you?

Currently, I’m creating a new global guidance document to support countries in developing their policies around antimicrobial resistance. This covers technical innovations that need to be brought in, labs and diagnosis being one of the facets, but it also looks at infection prevention control, and at appropriate treatments. So you might find me working on that. But I would also have regular calls with different regional offices to organise training within countries; most recently we’re supporting Jordan for a leadership and governance training in this area, and I had a call with a regional office based in Egypt and the country office based in Jordan, and spoke to the country counterparts to organise the planning.

I would also probably join a webinar series and present on my area of work, and an external meeting with other implementing partners to offer input and advice into what they’re doing. And I would also do very normal admin, such as putting out a request for a proposal because the WHO needs support in technical assistance in country “X”. For example, in Sierra Leone we need someone to fly in and support them in the costing of their national policy, so I must run through the recruitment process and competitive bidding and get the contract in place, and then manage the resource mobilisation and financing for the role. So in any one day, or maybe week, there’s a big spectrum of work, from global technical to very country-specific support, and from bigger picture work to more fiddly admin work that supports all of it.

What are the best bits?

Definitely seeing the public health changes at the country level. When you organise and deliver a successful training to countries, be it in how they more effectively use their resources in terms of interventions, or ensuring their plans and policies are comprehensive and fit for purpose, and then you see that put into practice, it’s great. For example, if in two or three years down the line from your work, you see a reduction in inappropriate use of a certain antibiotic, that’s the most rewarding part for me. I also personally enjoy working in different locations and getting to know different cultures and health systems, I find it exciting, even if others might find it challenging, so that’s been one of the best bits.

Also, although no one works in public health because they’re chasing money (!), the UN does have quite a few benefits; there is great pension, child education, and health insurance for example. So if you view it as a whole, it’s a good package from an employer.

And what about the worst bits?

Admin, admin, admin. Working in a large UN organisation can be very bureaucratic. There are a lot of processes we have to adhere to and lots of forms to be filled out. This is all for good reason, but it makes putting things into practice rather slow, so that’s probably the most challenging thing. Another challenge is having to be careful about representing the organisation appropriately, because when I speak in my role, I represent the WHO.

Is a PhD an advantage in your role?

The PhD wasn’t asked for as a consultant, but for my most recent position, having a PhD was a desired educational background. So the further up you go at WHO or other public health agencies, the more advanced educational experience, such as a PhD, helps. And at the next level up from me it may be basically mandatory. I think there’s a mixture of reasons for that. There’s the very specific technical expertise that can be useful. There may even be slightly added credibility that the title brings. But there is also the transferable skill-set a PhD develops. I did my PhD in a very specific bacteria with a very specific resistance-mechanism, but it gave me the foundational science for the big-picture global and technical planning and policy work I do now. And as immediate results are rare in public health, the self-motivation, self-discipline, and perseverance a PhD instils is also extremely useful. And the communication skills, gained from writing papers and a thesis and presenting at conferences, are key.

What’s the progression like?

There aren’t many levels at the WHO, and it’s not automatic that one would progress through them. You have consultancies and staff positions. As a staff member at WHO we have “P” levels, from P1 to P6. I started as a P2 in my first contract after the consultancy, which I think was because of my PhD, I suspect if I hadn’t had that I would have started at P1. Where you start is based on years of experience generally, but you’re not automatically promoted as the years pass, you have to look for new opportunities as and when they arise, and then re-apply. I was in the P2 staff role for two and a half years and then moved to Geneva for a short-term role and then applied for my position at P3 level, usually requires five years of experience plus the educational qualification, usually a Masters, and then as of one year ago I applied for a P4 position, which is usually seven years of experience in the relevant area. The PhD usually counts partially as experience if it’s related to the area, and if say, you also had teaching responsibilities, that would partially count, so anything you did away from your pure research will count towards your years of experience. And then you can keep applying, and the goal for me is to eventually work in a country office again. So there’s not so many levels, and you do have to constantly re-apply. There is also not a great deal of job security – nothing is forever – but that also keeps it interesting because you’re kept on your toes, looking for work that continues to intrigue you.

So you’re not on a permanent contract?

No, the concept of a permanent position does not exist at WHO anymore, we generally have one to two year contracts that will be extended based on availability of funds and need. So even though it seems like it might be more stable than academia, sadly, it’s really not. People do tend to find new jobs if they want them though, so it’s a bit different to the precarity of academia in that way – and especially if you’re willing to be more flexible and move location, there will always be opportunities. I was flexible in moving to Manilla and Geneva to get these roles. I now have a family so the next decision will probably be to move again to another country, but that will be a decision I have to make with my family. But for me, I love the work and the travel, it works for me, but I know it wouldn’t work for everyone.

What are your top tips for researchers wanting to follow a similar path?

  • Find opportunities to volunteer or learn more where you are, and add those types of experiences to your CV to set yourself apart from others. For example, I took part in the Brilliant Club, developing educational materials based on my PhD area and supporting and educating pupils from underprivileged areas in London, which strengthened my communication skills and my CV.
  • Take any opportunity you can to test out whether public health is even something that would interest you – it’s not for everyone. Of course, those opportunities will also help build your CV.
  • Talk to people. And start that as soon as possible. UCL has many opportunities for networking, and LinkedIn and other online platforms are increasingly useful for this. And in the world we’re now in, there are so many opportunities to join webinars and virtual conferences and listen in and then reach other to speakers or other attendees.
  • Don’t just wait for the recruitment process to take its own turn, be proactive. One of the things I’ve learned through getting the consultancy role and later positions is that sending a personal email to the person recruiting may be helpful. They may not respond, but they may, and either way they may remember your name as someone enthusiastic with good questions.

Any extra advice for people graduating into an uncertain climate?

There definitely aren’t fewer opportunities in this field at the moment, and it actually may be that our more flexible and balanced working environment – with more people being able to work remotely and not necessarily having to immediately change country – means that these opportunities are open to more people. So I think it’s actually an exciting time to get into the job market. And as the world is a lot more virtual now, gaining additional skills to suit the world we’re living in will be beneficial for any area of work.

A career in research management

By uczjsdd, 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.

Top tips

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!


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.

From Ivory Tower to City Hall

By uczjsdd, on 14 August 2017


Dr Katherine Drayson’s PhD explored the treatment of ecology in the English planning system. After leaving academia, she worked for nearly three years in the think tank Policy Exchange. During this time she presented at the 2015 British Ecological Society Careers Conference, and we wrote it up! If you want to learn more about work in a think tank, check it out here. Since then Katherine has moved into local government. She’s now a Senior Policy and Programme Officer in the Greater London Authority. She spoke at our Government and Policy Researcher Careers Forum in February, and now she’s been kind enough to tell us about her career journey for our blog.

How did you move from academia to your current role?

I was lucky enough to gain funding for interdisciplinary PhD research from my university. But unless you work on a few select topics, like climate change, it’s really very difficult to obtain funding from Research Councils for interdisciplinary research. I didn’t like the idea of having to justify my research every three to five years. I also didn’t like the fact that my work would likely never be read by anyone who could make a difference (let’s be honest, no-one reads theses, and very few policy makers have access to paywalled journal articles), so I decided to leave academia, initially for the think tank world.

How did you find out about the sector? How did you go about applying/selling yourself to employers?)

I always knew about the public sector as a career, mainly because the Civil Service advertises very effectively. But I wasn’t so aware of opportunities outside the Civil Service, i.e. in local government. This developed while I was working at a think tank. London is unique in being the only form of regional government left in the UK. This means we can work more strategically to help change things for the better.

Whilst I was working at Policy Exchange, I was lucky enough to be invited to join the Green Infrastructure Task Force, which was chaired by the Deputy Mayor for Environment & Energy. Through that, I got to know some of my current colleagues and became interested in the work they were doing. By speaking up in Task Force discussions and contributing ideas, I was able to make a good impression.

What does a normal working day look like for you?

There’s no such thing as ‘normal’! For the past seven months I’ve been working mainly on the London Environment Strategy, which is a big project bringing together eight existing separate strategies into one coherent (and shorter!) document. It’s involved a lot of learning (not least coming up with concepts for infographics) and some long hours. But it’s one of the best opportunities in recent times to improve London’s environment – it’s very exciting.

Apart from the Strategy, I also work on smaller projects, some of which I designed myself. For example, I am working with the GLA’s GIS team to develop a map that will help decision-makers better target funding for green infrastructure improvements. Shortly after I arrived, I was also responsible for managing a £450,000 programme of sustainable drainage retrofit projects across the city, and on my own initiative created some webpages to highlight the good work that was done (more learning required!).

What are the best things about working in your role?

The fact that you can get involved with almost any project or programme that takes your interest. And if you make a decent business case, you can create your own. The flexible working environment is also great. I also love that there’s a continual learning curve, whether it’s creating and editing webpages, or improving your GIS skills. Although I don’t need to take advantage of it, I understand that the support for parents is also outstanding.

What are the biggest challenges?

It’s a perennial challenge to avoid siloed thinking and working (as with any organisation, large or small), both in your team and others. The environment cuts across many different topics, so we have to work hard to make contacts and connections across workstreams. A challenge with any role is the deadlines that you have to meet. In the case of the public sector, these can be unusually challenging, as you not only have to respond quickly to new situations, but your briefings and reports also have to go through several layers of sign-off, which means even less time is available for writing them.
Is a PhD essential for your role?

A PhD is inessential for my role. However, the skills I developed during my PhD are either useful or essential. For example, I am now the ‘go to’ person in my team for Word and Excel questions because of my experience in formatting a thesis, and in managing and analysing a spreadsheet database (e.g. using Pivot Tables). I taught myself GIS during my PhD, and so also create maps and analyse spatial data for others in my team. Setting up a twitter account during my PhD also helped, as I was asked to help manage the Environment team twitter account when our comms lead was on leave.

I’m lucky in that my thesis topic is relatively relevant to my work. Although it was more specialist than I need, the PhD gave me a good understanding of many of the issues that local government faces when it considers the environment as part of the planning system.

Where do you see yourself going from here?

I really enjoy working for the GLA – I’d like to stay in the Environment team as long as I can (with a new Mayor, there are always opportunities for progression). But I’m also curious about working in the Civil Service and utilities companies at some point in my career. Though since my career so far has mainly been a series of lucky opportunities, who knows?

What top tips would you pass on to researchers interested in this type of work?

Develop the art of writing under pressure and to a tight deadline! Also work on distilling messages down as far as possible without losing their meaning – this is a useful skill whatever role you go into. Very few people are interested in the minutiae or in nuance. It’s important to understand the political context of the organisation you’re working for – both internally and externally. Read the news, sign up to the organisations newsletters, scope out the website (you can pick up a lot about an organisation from how it’s structured and how easy it is to find information). Try and talk to people who are already working there to get an idea of what the work and working life is like. Attend conferences and events on the topic you’re interested in, and make a beeline for the relevant public sector attendees (good events will have an attendee list). And make sure your social media profile is clean and professional!

Listen to speakers with PhDs talk about their career in government and policy

By uczjvwa, on 24 January 2017

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

16th February 2017 – 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 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 (International Affairs Think Tank)

Dr Saquib Sultan – Generalist, Civil Service Fast Stream

Dr Luke Stanbra – GORS Faststreamer, Department of Work and Pensions, Government Operational Research Service (GORS)

Dr Katherine Drayson – Senior Policy & Programme Officer, Greater London Authority

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

Research Students book here

Fully booked for Research Staff 

Turning social science into a business

By uczjsdd, on 1 June 2015

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADr 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!

You can find Zuleyka’s professional writing on consultancy and social media on Social Science Insights, and her research blog is The Other Sociologist. Connect with her on Twitter @OtherSociology

Zuleyka is one of the three founders of STEM Women, a site adressign gender inequality in science. You can read more about the site here.

A researcher’s experience of working in science policy

By uczjvwa, on 20 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.