Why did you decide to move beyond academia? [00:05]
A mixture of necessity and circumstance, quite common I’d expect, where on the one hand my girlfriend at the time, who’s now my wife, was working in London. She was working at the Royal Academy of Dance, and I was coming towards the end of a research fellowship and was looking for permanent academic roles, and there were none in what I was doing. None which would mean I didn’t have to move to the other side of the world, and that wasn’t going to happen.
In terms of making that move completely out of higher education and into what I’m doing now, it chose me really. It was one of those things where I think, as any researcher finds, if you’re in a particular situation, you find that there’s something burning away that you think you can fix, then you start fixing that thing. Careful what you wish for: you end up fixing and then it takes you off on to a completely new direction.
Which transferable skills that you developed in academia have particularly helped you in your current role? [01:11]
There’s a long list of things. There’s the project management element, of course, and the independent thinking that goes behind that. Initiative, and ability to sit back and think around a whole load of issues around a problem. Think about unusual and sometimes abstract ways of approaching those problems that help you to come to solutions you might not otherwise have come to. I think as a postdoc, that’s actually a lot more focused, even more focused than you get in your PhD, because in the postdoc you are expected to be that much more independent and you don’t have quite so many of the structured support networks that you have as a PhD researcher.
Some of the skills that I was developing in terms of coding and programming, those go way back for me anyway, but seeing some of the digital humanities related work that I had done, that gave me new perspectives on how things, some of the coding language that I have to be involved in now, even fundamentals like php and so on, they’re just enormously helpful. When I’m now working with a software developer, it’s not necessarily that ability to go and code it yourself but to understand actually where the limits of your expertise are, and then be able to have an in-depth enough conversation with the person who does have that expertise to understand what the limits and the possibilities really are.
The issues facing researchers, postdoc students, the university sector as a whole, that’s years and years of knowledge that’s just completely ingrained now, which is completely invaluable. I’d say linked to that project management and the independent thinking point, a consciousness of what integrity really is. I’ve hopefully thought that I’ve had integrity, but a clearer understanding that integrity is about delivering when you say you’re going to deliver.
I think the thing you get as a postdoc, or I got as a postdoc that really helped me in terms of a business, the fact that you do have to sell something. As a postdoc you have to sell yourself all the time, constantly, and you always have to think about every single particular angle that means you’re enacting that sale.
Also, I think a good postdoc does not take no for an answer and they persist, and they get to the bottom of if something is not going the way they expect, as they would hope it would go, evaluating clearly and understanding really what the reasons are and if there’s a way forward. Not just thinking, ‘Oh well, that’s not going to happen,’ so walking off on to the next thing, but taking that more meticulous approach to everything.
What were your impressions of employment options beyond academia? How have these changed? [04:23]
In terms of the impressions I had of the employment options, I had the wrong impression that those options, I think I thought they were very limited. You know, I had done a PhD in Shakespeare, what relevance is that to anybody beyond that little clique of Shakespeare people? Actually I think, ‘Thank God I did that,’ because it has given me all sorts of perspectives, part of the fibres of my being, and influenced my approach to everything I do.
All the more tangible skills that come from doing a PhD and being a postdoc in terms of just being a shit-hot researcher and being able to apply that thinking and that way of doing things to anything. That’s the misconception I had, that that wasn’t a real thing; that it was just all people taking about transferable, it doesn’t matter, when actually I’m living proof now that things do transfer and that is the case.
Can you describe a typical week at work? [05:34]
Always different, very difficult. That’s one of the best things about my job; it’s also one of the most challenging. You have a plan, of course, and I have a fantastic board which helps bring structure to things overall. You have specific business objectives, you have specific objectives in my role as well, of course.
We might be doing everything going from doing presentations to prospective clients to, you know, we’ve just put through a big accreditation exercise so we get a badge of approval from a UK body, which involved a huge amount of work.
I could be dealing with things to do with HR, I could be dealing with everything to do with accountancy, talking about, just filled in an R and D Tax Credit case and doing our end of year accounts. I could be dealing with the marketing and working with the parts of the team that work on that.
I obviously have, like I said, corporate responsibilities to the board, so I’ve got to report to them and chair our board meetings. Working with and informing our investors on where we are, thinking about staying in touch with the potential next round of investors, and if there’s a fundraiser that we have in the future to really scale quickly, then always that momentum there. Working on the strategic direction of what we’re doing, doing a bit of coding, sticking stuff on a website.
You name it, all in different combinations, every week, and then of course you have people coming on and asking for interviews!
What do you enjoy most about your job? [07:25]
I love the fact that I can talk to people and get into what is a really challenging context with them, and that there are lots of people thinking about the kinds of problems that I’m thinking about. Your project for instance, the Prosper project resonates a lot with everything that we’ve done. Bits that I really enjoy, when you get those little senses of when you’re making a tangible difference to someone that has made things better for them.
Also, doing something, feeling that you’re part of something, building something that’s much bigger necessarily than I would have been able to do in academia. I can probably count the people who have read my thesis or anything I’ve published on these two hands, whereas you’ve got thousands of people using Inkpath, and that’s a quite significant difference. I think in terms of the other favourite part of what I’m doing, of course it’s working with my team, who are fantastic. They will pick each other up and inspire each other, and there’s huge energy that comes from that. I’m just really lucky to have been able to pick and choose the people I want to work with.
What advice would you give to postdocs considering a career beyond academia? [08:45]
Be ready to listen. I think that’s just the first thing. The more you can listen and not necessarily impart, or give the impression of imparting a closed way of thinking upon a particular person you’re talking to outside academia, the better.
Again, I’ve talked before about trying to wash away some of those preconceptions, and go in open minded. I think if you’re a good researcher, that’s what you’re naturally inclined to do. That’s part of the skillset, but also, to be honest, be ready to not be terribly important at the beginning, and that be okay. Realise that actually, if you’re in there, then you’ve got the opportunity to become important quite quickly.
Going into a career beyond academia, you have to network hard. You have to do that as part of being an academic anyway, but the more you can reach out to people and the more you can go out and just talk to people and understand what it is they’re doing. Start to imagine yourself working in that context.
I think getting involved with agenda like knowledge exchange, public engagement, researcher training, it’s just massively useful. If you want to be able to have that experience that you can go and show an employer that, ‘I didn’t just sit in a library, I didn’t just sit in a lab, I went out and I thought about the importance of what I’m doing with other people,’ then that’s going to be massively useful. You’re just going to have those case studies that you can refer to.
Keeping track of the things you’re doing, extracurricular things, and being able to think constantly about how those things are not just transferable, but also as I said, they are singular experiences and unique experiences.
Not everybody will have done what you’ve done, and there will be a really specific configuration of experiences you’ve got from a particular project you’ve been part of or something like that, and being ready to just have that right on the tip of your tongue and deploy that stuff.