Why did you move beyond academia? [00:05]
I suppose it was more of a process rather than a single moment and a decision. My research particularly during PhD and my first postdoc was quite – not blue sky – but not particularly applied. Through the course of my first postdoc and then into the second and third postdoc I did, I became a lot more interested in actually the real-world application of science.
Why did you choose the sector you’ve moved into? [00:38]
I suppose that it was attractive from still using a science background, still using science and technical knowledge but in an environment that had a better work-life balance, good career progression prospects, and also really I think chimed with my values and value set that I had in terms of making use of a scientific endeavour for public good. That’s how I ended up on civil service. I suppose part of it is just the right opportunity at the right time.
How did you approach the job search? Did it require a shift in perspective? [01:15]
I try to focus on not necessarily the area of the science, but more of those transferable skills, more of the thinking about values and what I actually wanted out of a job. It came down a lot more to, rather than being just professionally fulfilled, that aspect of work-life balance and working for the company or working for different companies who I may or may not want to work for. That was a slight shift in perspective.
How did you approach making applications for roles beyond academia? [01:54]
My aunt was actually a really good source of advice. She works in HR in the corporate area. The time invested in individual job applications does show on the application in terms of how you’ve tailored your particular expertise and skills to that job role.
How did being a postdoc prepare you for your current job role? [02:19]
Actually one of the important things about the academic background is those technical and scientific skills that are separate from the actual thing you’re applying them to. So how do you analyse data? How do you assess a piece of information? How do you assess evidence for its robustness? How do you communicate that evidence to people who may be non-experts? Project management I think is a really important skill that I’ve had, I learned through being a postdoc.
A lot of these things I think postdocs do without really even thinking that they’re doing. Independent working, how you structure a programme on a project, how you meet deadlines, how you meet targets and keep to time and keep to resources available, communicating your research. I don’t necessarily communicate. I was used to communicating my research to other researchers. Now I communicate other peoples’ research to policymakers within the department.
So slightly different nuances, but the same things are true of; how do you distil down into the key messages using appropriate communication tools? What are the real actual conclusions? What does this research mean, as well as all the technical details of understanding it? Where are the uncertainties? That’s one, I think, quite important thing again; where are we uncertain? Where are we not sure and where do we need more research to fill these gaps?
Just paying attention to the skills that you take for granted. Actually they’re really, really valuable skills and it can be quite difficult to see those skills because everyone around you has them as well, whereas if you move into an environment where not everyone has that background, actually these skills are really, really valuable.
Have you found the workplace culture to differ from that in academia? [04:15]
It feels more supportive in that sense of trying to be supportive of understanding people have different objectives for what they want out of their job and what they want out of their career and how we can foster and develop that. If you’ve got too much work on, particularly at the level I was joining at – less so now.
But at the level I was joining at, if you’ve got too much work on then that’s a conversation for you to have with your manager and for them to take away and manage that process about what they can deliver and what we can deliver as a team. Actually being able to say, ‘You know what? I want a break’ and actually when you take a break you’re fully away from work.
What are your favourite parts of the job? [05:01]
One of my favourite parts of the current job is still getting to speak to researchers and speak to academics about what they’re doing. There’s some really awesome, really exciting science and research going on which has real-world impact, and really innovative stuff. I actually quite enjoy some of the management stuff, particularly the development and passing on my experiences.
It’s really satisfying for me when someone I’ve managed or helped has a success in their job and I’ve been part of that – not by doing it or not by helping – but giving them the atmosphere and environment and support required that they can deliver their best work. That’s really satisfying. It’s actually being close to policy and understanding, being close to the workings of government.
Would you still describe yourself as a scientist? [06:05]
Yes, definitely still a scientist. What I will say is, scientist in a different way. It took me a while in that role to understand that I wasn’t a subject matter expert but I didn’t need to be. That was really difficult, that slightly different science role. Being a scientist doesn’t necessarily mean being an expert in that subject matter area.
Actually a lot of these transferable skills you have are really important for being a scientist. Of course, my chemistry background was still important and still relevant in quite a lot of areas. But in other areas it was much more about having those transferable science skills. I did struggle for a while of not being the expert. Particularly with the number of areas that I was trying to cover in terms of project management, that was really difficult. It made me realise that the skill in that job wasn’t about knowing everything. It was about trying to understand the questions people were asking, going away to your network of people who did have the expertise, and bringing together their expertise that distil down to provide a succinct answer.
I didn’t need that expertise, but it was still a scientific role and a science role in the sense of needing to understand how the science process works and how you distil down their expertise and understand what those experts are saying to translate it through to the policymakers.
What advice would you give to a postdoc considering a career beyond academia? [07:37]
Think about what you want out of a job and what you want out of a career. Speak to people who have been through it. Speak to people who are outside of your immediate management chain. Speak to your professor if they have any contacts in an area you’re thinking about.
For example, if you want to move into industry, see if you can speak to someone in industry. Reach out to people you don’t know. Look for mentoring schemes. I found them really helpful in getting perspective and having someone to bounce ideas off – even if it’s someone you don’t know.