I think we have to remember that both our PhD students, our postdocs and ourselves, have lots of relationships with organisations outside the building. Those relationships are really important to building good research collaborations and good proposals, and routes to impact. For PIs, I think we also need to think about how we can’t do all of that ourselves. Both of the previous examples have talked about how working with both postdoc and PhD colleagues, you can build those relationships. I think we always have to put that in context.
For me, I think the issue for me is I’ve done very few funded research projects that were pure research, pure science, pure social science and so on. Nearly all the ones I’ve had funded have had a stakeholder or an impact part to it, and at the middle of that relationship has been PhDs and postdocs, particularly postdocs. Different to the other two colleagues, of course, I’ve predominantly worked in social science and the arts sector. I’ve also worked with big IT companies, a bit like Simon. I’m not going to go to those examples, I’m going to go to my social science and arts ones.
My very, very first postdoc – I usually tell the story that my very, very first postdoc married my very, very first PhD student. That’s a different story! She came from a, in and out of academia a little bit, from after her degree, first degree, with some journalism background. The project was on some of the very first uses of websites by political parties. While she was a postdoc, she really wanted to stay engaged with the journalism element because she thought it was relevant to the project. She wasn’t sure whether academia was her thing, and so on. I just said, ‘Well, if you want time, you’ve got development time if you want to use that to do your journalism qualification, learn shorthand, those kinds of things, then go on and do’, and she did. She, in the end, became a journalist for the ‘Guardian’, originally in political stuff.
Then she became their gardening editor because her hobby was gardening. Very recently, she’s gone freelance, writing books and blogs about gardening. If you look at the work she does, it has a, there’s a strong research element in it and it’s not just, these are things in my garden, it’s ‘Gardeners’ Question Time’ type stuff. That was her career journey. Also, it means I’ve always got a contact in the press, not so much these days because she’s gone into gardening, but historically, always had a contact there. I think the second example I’d use is when, before I came to Liverpool, I used to run a big research institute. Within it, we had a group that was constantly facing industry around the relevance of both packaging and product design.
Now, a lot of what they offered was a consultancy service and contract research service to small businesses and so on. Actually, there was a bit of a two-way flow going on there between these research, essentially people appointed on PDRA contracts with research backgrounds, a number of which, who then went on to work in small companies or large companies, essentially got poached from us, to take their research skills into – or, to be honest, one of the packaging companies we worked with, we thought, that person there is brilliant. We poached them in to become a researcher. There was a very two-way street there. The revolving door we might like between research and industry was there because it was built in. Now, the advantage there was we had a big pile of funding.
We had a couple of million pounds over five years to do that kind of relationship. It was written into it. Importantly, as Simon, as everyone has been saying, that two-way street between the clients, the stakeholders and us, kept setting the research agenda, or we could take a research agenda like environmental packaging out to these companies that weren’t previously looking at it. That was an example of quite a lot of two-way backwards and forwards. Two last ones then, when I was running the ICC at Liverpool, when I moved here, again, we spent most of our time working with small stakeholder organisations. Our researchers were often people who had come in from the arts sector, the cultural sector, where they’d had a role doing research and evaluation.
They came into the university to do that in an academic research context. When they left, they’d either moved into academia, or they’d moved into doing that to, say, a large arts or a charity organisation, taken those research skills out into there. Lastly, I think I want to talk about one last thing, is activism, and my current postdoc, Helena, doesn’t mind me saying this, she’s had a career doing activism around data and digital rights. Data and digital politics, what citizens’ rights should be, what our rights should be to look after our own data and so on. She’s written on that. The project she’s working on is on that. What she wants to do is still have that activism impact.
All the way through the last couple of years, I’ve been supporting her to go to events, to do things, to publish in non-academic contexts, where she can take that forwards. Now, she’s about to have an interview next week for a one-day-a-week placement in Parliament, to work with the Online Harms select committee, to bring that, both the, so that brings together her academic research work, her activism and so on, and of course, gives us a fantastic route to impact for stuff from our project. I think, what I’m trying to say is that, sometimes, I think the idea is you just need to think about where the people that you’re working with, the postdocs, want to be, what’s the creative space they want to work in, and supporting them there.
Then, I think, everybody wins. The other couple of quick things I’d say was, if I look at – as Simon said this, I was just trying to toss up some numbers. I’d say it’s been about 50:50 of postdocs and PhD students of mine who’ve gone into academia or non-academic roles. A couple of colleagues are now lecturers at universities, including Liverpool. Others are on their next postdoc-type appointment. Quite a few have moved into arts organisations, a couple into big IT, educational, technology, IT industry, strangely enough.
Then, obviously, design companies. Again though, that was not by default, hopefully, that was by design, that was where they wanted to go. I think it’s important that we provide that opportunity as much as we can. We can’t control everything. Who knows when the jobs come up, whether they’re an exact fit, etc.? I do also think we advantage colleagues, both when they are trying to move into academia or elsewhere. If they’ve had a variety of experience and they can bring that, as was just said earlier, to an interview, then they stand out as a candidate, and so on. I think those are some examples from me. I just couldn’t think of working not like this if that makes sense. I think it’s pointing out that, what is it you want to do? Academia, if your next job after your postdoc is not another postdoc, right, it’s likely to be a lecturer and so on.
Well, that includes the teaching, administration, and all the other stuff we have to do. It’s a specific type of career path and so on. The person we probably should have here is my wife, Rachel who’s spent half her career outside of academia and half in. She’d probably tell you the dark sides of both, as well as the whatever. She worked for research-facing organisations in the public sector. She did nothing but research when she was in those roles. She did, five days a week, research. Some of us would beg to do five days a week research.
There’s lots and lots of roles out there that people can take on. We have to remember that the vast majority of PhD students and postdocs do end up working in industry or other things. I think it’s about telling those stories, that if somebody doesn’t – and telling the truth about what an academic job means. An academic job means the teaching and the research and the chasing grants and so on, whereas some research organisations, you can spend your whole career doing research, never have to worry about chasing a grant or teaching anybody, and so on. I think it’s about getting over that fear that if you’re not capable of doing something outside academia – the number of academics who tell me that, which I just weep at because the amount of skillsets we’ve got… As was just explained, about doing a scientific brief for a minister, I’ve had to do that. ‘We want something for the red box in two days’, and you just sit down there with a big pile of paperwork, and so on. I got a secondment into government for a while.
There’s huge amounts of skillset we’ve got and it’s talking to people about, well, where is that best used? What do you want to use your research skills for? One of the examples, a thing we’ve got on the Prosper site is a colleague I work with in a charity, who’s got a geography PhD and so on, but spends her time managing and directing research in a charity, research to have impact on a daily basis. That sounds like an exciting job to me and it’s a researcher’s job. I think it’s about unpicking that. Also, making people feel confident that if you move out of academia, you’re not losing the academic-ness, and so on.
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