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Working at Advance HE

Dr Peny Sotiropoulou discusses her work as a Mixed Methods Researcher at Advance HE

  • Name: Peny (Panagiota) Sotiropoulou
  • Current position: Mixed Methods Researcher
  • Organisation: Advance HE
  • Date of interview: November 2022

Give a brief overview of your organisation

Advance HE is a member-led, sector-owned charity that works with institutions and higher education (HE) across the world to improve higher education for staff, students and society. Our strategic goals are to enhance confidence and trust in HE, address systemic inequalities and advance education to meet the evolving needs of students and society. This supports the work of our members and the HE sector. We are experts in higher education with a particular focus on enhancing teaching and learning, effective governance, leadership development and tackling inequalities through our equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) work.

If you know of any, could you tell us a bit more about adjacent roles to your own?

A postdoc would definitely be a good fit for a researcher role in my team. They would also be great fits for EDI advisers posts as well as for posts relevant to the development of teaching and learning. Some relevant job titles that spring to mind are policy analyst, programme development manager/executive, learning and development adviser, lead/senior consultant. As mentioned above, Advance HE is an expanding organisation, so, vacancies seem to be always available. Check out https://advance-he.promotingpeople.co.uk/current-vacancies/

Are there many opportunities for highly skilled people from a range of disciplinary backgrounds?

That is the thing I can say with confidence; Advance HE is a great fit for skilled people. There are people with postdoc experience in my team as well as across the company. A very good an efficient way to get a taste of what working for Advance HE research and insights team looks like would be giving the research associate status a go. Associates are people that work for Advance HE on an ad-hoc basis, and my team is always looking to develop its associate pool.

Specifically, we are looking for people to assist in data analysis and report writing. Remuneration is good, it can work around other commitments and it is a top opportunity to get an insider’s perspective of the company. If this is something that sounds of interest, please, either pop us an email (insights@advance-he.ac.uk) or visit our team page, where you can submit a relevant inquiry directly.

In some other teams, like teaching and learning, you can find people who have moved from full academic posts from all sorts of disciplines. Although most people I know from the company have a social sciences background, there is nothing that would stop someone from the Sciences from moving into a role in Advance HE. For example, I think that a postdoc from STEM subjects with interest in promoting under-represented communities within their field and some experience of involvement in relevant activities (e.g. research on the topic, advocacy work etc.) would be a perfect fit for our Charters team. They are responsible for the development and promotion of our Athena Swan and Race Equality Charters. All in all, it depends on what people can bring to their roles and how they can help the organisation fulfil its goals.

Give a brief overview of your role.

My role is based within Advance HE’s Insights team, a team of experts in higher education research. Our team is comprised of mixed-methods researchers, like myself, but also specialist researchers (quantitative or qualitative only). As a team, we design and deliver a variety of provisions, including EDI audits, desk-based literature reviews, programme and policy evaluations as well as bespoke consultancy research pieces. In general, we specialise in EDI issues and our research is underpinned by sector-wide datasets from our student surveys and our sector-leading higher education statistical reports.

Give a brief overview of your professional experience. 

I completed my PhD in Human Geography at Loughborough University in 2018 and my area of expertise is multicultural teacher training and multicultural education oriented towards equity and social justice. I have since worked in UK HE, spending a year as a part-time Lecturer in Human Geography straight after my PhD at Loughborough University, before moving to an evaluation researcher role for Prosper.

Why do you do your job?

My heart lies in EDI advocacy and that’s what drew me to Advance HE. I am excited to be part of an organisation that is a real pioneer in this area and offers me the opportunity to use my research skills for relevant contributions, spanning across the other two key strands of Advance HE’s work, namely teaching and learning, as well as leadership and governance. I chose to apply for the mixed-methods researcher role because I had attended several courses offered by Advance HE (for example, Tackling Racial Harassment in HE) and was already an associate fellow, so I was

quite familiar with the organisation’s work. I also read the annual equality statistical reports Advance HE publishes for staff and students in UK HE and I pictured myself being part of this publication. This actually materialised, as I have been majorly involved with this piece of work since starting my role. 

What I love about my role is the variety of things I get to do. I am working on a number of projects, collaborating with Advance HE colleagues from across the company as well as with multiple clients, like UKRI, the Committee of University Chairs and individual HEs across the UK. This variety of projects and collaborators keeps my interest high! To give you an indication of what my role involves, I conduct evaluation design for internal or external development opportunities and write literature reviews on various topics related to EDI issues (like barriers to doctoral studies).

I also design and conduct surveys, focus groups and/or interviews to explore staff and students’ experiences and perspectives on a variety of topics, from institutional research culture to inclusive leadership. I also love the flexibility of working from home. Although I find this aspect challenging sometimes as well, because I do miss spending time in an office space and the social aspect of hanging around with my colleagues.

What is it about the industry that keeps you motivated?

Advance HE is a growing organisation. There is currently a restructuring plan with new divisions being created, which will result in many more job roles becoming available. There are opportunities for career progression both within the Insights team (e.g. becoming a manager) as well as in other teams across the organisation (e.g. moving to training delivery, getting involved with the programmes and events team, becoming an EDI adviser etc.). The fact that all new posts are advertised internally first is a big bonus, as it gives employees the chance to have an idea of what sort of roles are available at any given time.

Moreover, it is very good that Advance HE employees can enjoy free access to all the training and development opportunities offered by Advance HE (e.g. attendance of annual conferences on EDI/ leadership & governance/teaching & learning/student experience etc.). It is even better that employees have the chance to actively contribute towards these conferences after getting their line manager’s approval (which is not hard, as everyone is really supportive of internal initiatives). Examples of contributions include reviewing conference submissions and chairing panels depending on one’s individual interests.

There are also opportunities coming in on an ad-hoc basis, for development activities. These are accessible on a short application basis. For example, last year I applied to become a Mental Health First Aider (MHFA). Advance HE advertised a relevant call for interested employees, offering free online training with the commitment to offer MHFA services internally for 2 years, post the training completion. I was successful and thoroughly enjoyed the training and I am now co-managing the MHFA Advance HE’s network.

I also recently applied to become a member of the organisation’s Race Action Group and was successful, so, I can’t wait to start getting involved with the group’s initiatives, aiming to provide oversight and leadership in delivering Advance HE’s race action plan. Finally, I know that there is currently an intranet building up, which will curate a variety of training opportunities on issues related to Advance HE roles, which will enable Advance HE staff members to find relevant development opportunities for them and pursue them online and at their own pace.

Could you compare and contrast your current position with your experience of academia?

Having worked on a fixed-term, part-time, teaching-only contract in academia for a year, I cannot reiterate enough that there is a real life beyond academic posts! Working beyond academia has given me the opportunity to properly enjoy weekends and holidays, without any guilt trips or commitments that I have to fit outside my working hours. Sticking to a 9-5 rota is important to me, especially after a health crisis I had at the end of that year of my academic contract, where, admittedly, my work-life balance was really unhealthy.

My current position is much more team-based than my experience of academic work within the Social Sciences. There is a lot less time to produce deliverables, but, the way that research is carried out and the way I interact with clients and other stakeholders makes me get a really good feel of the impact of my work here. Research findings are communicated so that they are publicly accessible by a large audience, instead of packaged to meet journal articles requirements and institutional REF commitments. For me, it was always important to work on the ground and offer my research skills for the advancement of EDI issues within higher education and the wider society. In other words, I wanted to work with people and for the people. I really feel that my role allows me to do that and that my organisation provides me with adequate support to thrive. 

What attributes do you think someone needs to be successful in your organisation/function?

In my team, data and research skills are probably the most valuable. Either knowledge of quantitative research skills or qualitative ones are mandatory, and experience and expertise in both is considered an extra asset.

Similarly, writing and communication skills are super important, as without them, research communication is impossible. Collaborative working with a range of stakeholders is also really valuable, as our work is almost exclusively co-created and requires a lot of meetings with clients and other stakeholders. Managing expectations and time management are also essential skills, as we are requested to provide tangible and efficient solutions that address our members’ needs and clients’ requests, which need to be delivered in a timely manner, sticking to deadlines.

Also, multi-tasking is essential, as in real world situations, multiple projects run simultaneously and we are required to keep on top of things, making sure that progress is made across all of them, prioritising tasks to be completed as needed. The last three characteristics could also be grouped under project management, I guess, as members from my team are tasked with delivering a project, from its inception (involving responding to a tender or writing a bespoke research proposal based on a clients’ request) until its completion.

What type of person would thrive?

People who know how to work independently, while also being strong team-players will thrive at Advance HE. A lot of the time, researchers are left to their own devices, but there is always the need to co-create with clients and colleagues from the wider organisation, so, collaboration is always a core value. People who like to get involved with various things would also love working in Advance HE. I promise, you will never be bored!! Finally, people with strong EDI considerations will thrive in Advance HE, as it is in the core of the company to help HE and the wider society be the best it can be, through taking actions towards our vision of developing higher education providers and systems that are inclusive, sustainable and high-performing in all that they do.

Could you describe the application process from your point of view?

I remember well that I spotted the opportunity on jobs.ac.uk. It was straight after I had received a rejection for a lectureship post which had disappointed me quite a lot, because I had spent a lot of time on that application and thought I was a really good fit. But everything happens for a reason, as they say! It was a Friday and the deadline to submit an application for the mixed-methods researcher role was on Tuesday, so, I saw it as a challenge and decided to go for it!

My application process was great! Very time-efficient and straight-forward. I downloaded the job specification and relevant criteria and then got redirected to Advance HE’s website, where I had to complete a Word template with pre-defined questions. That made addressing the job criteria a lot easier and also helped me to get an idea of how much space I should devote to each answer, as my entire cover letter should be 2 A4 pages.

I started writing straight away. I also did a deep-dive into the organisational webpage, to pick-up some jargon and tailor my contributions to organisational priorities. What I absolutely loved about the application was that it was entirely anonymous and required no CV! After the tedious application process that I had just gone through for the aforementioned academic job, this smooth and straight-forward process really made a difference and made me want to work in this organisation even more! I heard back that I had been shortlisted for an online interview three days after the application submission deadline.

My interview was scheduled for 1 week after the submissions’ deadline and I was over the moon! As a task, I was given a topic upon which I had to prepare a 10-minute presentation for a lay audience. The topic was examples of my research work that required mixed-methods, including specific approaches, outcomes and dissemination examples. My interview lasted for about 1 hour and there were three people on the panel. The panel chair, who was the Insights’ team manager, made me feel really at ease and that further boosted my confidence.

The interview started with my presentation and each panel member asked me a series of questions in turn. All panel members were very nice and a good balance of small-talk and humour with the professional content required for a job interview made me have one of the best interview experiences of my entire life! I was so hyped after the interview had finished.

Fortunately, my anticipation did not have to drag for long, because, even though the panel told me that I would hear back from them by the end of that week, they gave me a phone call that same afternoon to confirm that I was successful. Pfff, even narrating this moment makes me smile, that’s all I can say!

Any other comments/tips/insights for postdocs looking to move into a similar role to your own?

Don’t hesitate to look and apply for roles beyond academia! There are so many employers out there that would really value your skills and experiences. If you are a fan of a healthy work-life balance and a permanent job, that will help you feel financially secure while also allowing you to enjoy all the joys in life that lie outside work, beyond academia is the perfect place for you!

What would be your top tip for getting a role in your organisation/function?

My top tip would be to read the job specification and tailor your application to the job criteria. Use bullet points or sections, to assist those reading the applications to spot easily how you meet each one of the criteria. I would also say that it is important to use language from the job advertisement and specifications. A look at the organisational website would also assist with terminology and a better understanding of the company’s strategy and goals.


Advance HE website

Contact Dr Peny Sotiropoulou


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