Tell us about your current role [00:05]
So my role is head of research at Good Things Foundation. We’re the UK’s leading digital social-inclusion charity. Since 2010, we’ve helped over three million people improve their lives through digital, and we are focused on helping ensure that no one’s left behind, and eradicating digital exclusion.
How has your postdoctoral experience helped in your current role? [00:35]
I think you don’t lose the love for learning; that’s one of the key things that having a postdoc taught me. I just really love learning, and I’m now more humble, but the only way that I can learn is just to learn and work with others – rather than thinking it’s all on me.
Team working or team building; both during my PhD and my postdoc, I had a collaborative approach to the work I was doing. I was already working and engaging with a number of organisations and individuals with different roles on that project. That has been completely transferrable. I think understanding how to build a research team from the ground-up in practice was completely drawn on having good relationships with other team members during my postdoc, and with other organisations during my PhD.
This idea of complementary skills, so looking at where your skills within a team start and finish, and then what you need to bring in, or work with other people to add value, and that’s very much what we have done with the research team. So, we have data scientists, we have quantitative researchers, we have qualitative researchers, researchers who are good in ethnographic work, peer research. I think that’s been really key for me, is recognising that no one individual has to have all of that, and if you’re going to have a really successful team, you need people who can play different roles, but recognise how to collaborate.
Writing; writing really well is another really key transferable skill. You don’t realise how rare that is. As a charity, and a national charity, we produce a lot of reports, both evaluation reports for projects, but also reports that advocate for certain policy changes and recommendations, so they have to go to government departments. Actually being able to write a really good narrative so the reports that I and the team have produced for those different government departments, has been critical in securing follow-on funding, in making space in the policy landscape that maybe was going in a direction that did leave people behind -or people who we were concerned about behind- because you’re making a really concise argument.
The other thing is having a really good methodological approach to your work. So, being able to plan and set-up a project or program and to use your experience from your postdoc about what are the end goals and aims, so that particularly if you’re working with other people or leading a team, that the plan doesn’t deviate from that. It’s very hard, also, when you’re working with multidisciplinary teams not to get drawn off, but I think that from a postdoc perspective that was one of the key things, being able to see where the original aims and objectives were delivered by the work that we were doing, and to pull it back if it wasn’t happening.
What is different working in industry compared with academia? [04:01]
It’s very, very fast in our organisation. So, because it’s a multidisciplinary team, decisions and actions get moved very quickly. So, within a 48-hour period we can have developed a new project. There isn’t so much time to be – I’m going to use a strange word now – “precious” about what you’re doing. You just have to be agile and you have to get it out there. So, a lot of the time is kind of, ‘What is feasible to do? What can we test? How much insight do we know that’s necessary to inform it?’ and then, ‘When is good enough?’.
There aren’t so many review processes or iterations. You have to be very motivated in terms of your individual contributions. So, when I was working previously, I think there’s something about you’re on a project and you’re working with other people who understand how you work, and I think that’s true for a lot of postdoc projects. Whereas, this is: I make a contribution, someone else takes it on, I probably don’t see anything more of what I’ve done. So the individual motivation is to get your work complete and ensure you leave it in a good place for someone else to take on and use what they need.
Also, simple things, like we have a big, open-plan office when we’re in an office. That’s very different from the quiet, research culture and environment that I was used to before. You’re bombarded by people coming over and talking to you, or you’re drawn into meetings, so you’ve only got a 45-minute gap between one thing you’re doing and the next. I think that was quite different, because I didn’t have days to work on something; I just had short intervals.
I think adjusting to a greater diversity – which was really lovely – of people, because of the very nature of it being a multidisciplinary team, it drawing on different people, who are interested from different perspectives, and who had different backgrounds, and I think that’s something I’ve really, really liked. Again, it’s that point about just learning and being interested in people. I think the workplace is diverse and better for it. You have a lifelong commitment to something, rather than feeling you are tied and driven to good outputs. It’s about a long-term outcome.
What advice would you give to postdocs considering a career beyond academia? [06:54]
I think talk to people outside of academia. Think about the things that make you happy. Don’t focus on where you are at the moment, but think about what would make you happy long-term, because I think it’s sometimes difficult, if you become too focused on, ‘Does this job description speak to my skills?’. Well, actually, it’s, ‘Would working within this sector…?’ Is having a job that applies what I do within this sector…?’ those seem to be more the right questions than, ‘Can I do this?’. Because you will continue to learn, and hopefully, we all do life-long learning. So, where we are now, isn’t necessarily the position that you will always be in.
Experiences that you can gain before – so, it’s kind of ‘try-before-you-buy’- are really critical. Being within a certain sector, you also quickly read whether there’s a cultural fit that’s right or not, but I think, actually, getting as much experience as you can at the same time as finishing your postdoc – we have a lot of postdocs who are either doing voluntary placements, taking internships, or taking up short-term fixed research contracts. It’s a really good way, because organisations always need that kind of flexible support, and you can bring in a skill for a certain amount of time, but you’ll get a sense whether actually this is going to be a culture that works for you.
Getting experience does overcome some of those confidence issues, does help you prepare for interviews. I think when I’m now interviewing both for fixed-term positions within our team or permanent roles, one of the things that’s really telling is whether people have invested that time to really understand a sector and an organisation. I think that comes through really clearly. Also with charities, you haven’t always got the time, if you’re creating a permanent role, to upskill someone in that.
So, I would say getting that experience is really critical for postdocs, and anyone thinking about moving from academia out into practice or other sectors. Also, not to feel that one organisation represents a whole sector is another piece of advice that I wish someone had said to me, because I’ve worked with other charities, and it hasn’t been the right fit. So there is something about what is the ethos and what are your principles, and when you come across the right organisation you’ll know that that’s the right fit. It will be reflected right back, and it’s not just a case of sector; it is also principles.