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  • Hour glass icon70 minutes : 13 minutes reading | 57 minutes video


  • Policy landscape
  • Working in policy
  • Policy career journeys

Policy and working in a cause-driven context is of interest to many postdocs. This is likely due to the close connection between research and policy. There is also an increasing focus on impact in research. Alongside, and often closely connected to policy, is working in a cause-driven organisation. Working in an organisation with a clear ethical or altruistic mission often appeals to postdocs.

During the Prosper pilots, we held a workshop with a range of employers working in policy and/or a cause-driven organisation. The employer contributors* were:

* roles accurate as of November 2022.

Each of the employers introduced themselves, their organisation and their roles within that organisation.

Policy landscape

When you consider working in policy, what types of organisations and sectors come to mind?

Policy is a very broad area, not confined to a single sector. Policy roles can be found across a range of organisations.

Examples include:

  • government
  • NGOs and charities
  • IGOs
  • the private sector

Duties when working in policy

Policy involves many different areas and duties. These include:

A model for the policy landscape

Taking the different types of organisations and areas of policy into account, we developed this model of the policy environment.

Three central text boxes linked together with arrows. The text boxes say 'Drafting, developing and disseminating', 'Interpreting and implementing' and 'Influencing and agenda setting'. Around the outside are seven other boxes that read 'IGOs', 'National Government', 'Local government', 'Public sector bodies', 'NGOs', 'Third sector' and 'Private sector'

In conversation with the employer partners, the model was considered a useful and accurate portrayal of how policy works on a systemic level.

But the partners wanted to also emphasise the important role of civil society in policy making. These are the individuals and communities who are affected by policy and for whom policy is made.

Working in policy

The employer partners were asked to comment on how the policy landscape model relates to the day-to-day realities of their roles. As the employers were from a diverse background, we had the perspective of central government, an IGO and cause-driven organisations.

If you would like to hear more detail from each employer about their role, watch here.

Skills needed when working in policy

Ahead of the workshop, the postdoc audience was asked to provide their thoughts on the top three skills needed to work in an academic research context, a policy context and a cause-driven context. Their answers are depicted in the word clouds below. How do your perceptions of these areas compare?

Image of a word cloud. Key skills represented in the word cloud include communication, critical thinking, analysis and technical skills
Skills required to work in an academic research context
Image of a word cloud. The major skills depicted in the word cloud are communication skills, management skills, networking skills and analytical skills.
Skills required to work in policy
Image of a word cloud. Skills depicted in the word cloud include communication skills, networking, passion and management skills
Skills required to work in a cause-driven context

The employer partners were then invited to discuss these word clouds and give their views on the skills required to work in these areas.

A number of additional skills and competencies were mentioned in the discussion. These include being impact-driven. In policy, you are held accountable for the change that you make. This was contrasted to academia, where your research output may be prioritised.

Negotiation and influencing skills are vital and require a higher level of communication. You need to be able to influence others when in a policy role beyond academia.

The best policy is made from an ability to synthesise evidence from a range of disciplines and approaches. An appreciation of multiple disciplines and interdisciplinarity is important. This is perhaps something you are familiar with as a postdoc.

Respect for others, working in teams and managing yourself were also considered vital competencies.

It was agreed that many of the most in-demand skills are transferable across academia, policy and cause-driven work. There are several roles within policy organisations. Some more technical specialist and some requiring synthesis of technical and non-technical elements. There are opportunities for a diverse range of people, no single desirable skillset and people can have different strengths.

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“As you progress through your career, you don’t necessarily have to stay in the narrow corridors of the research building that you’re in now, or even the topic that you’re in now. Whatever you decide you want to do as a career, you can do it as the skills are so critically similar”

Gavin Wood, UNICEF

Policy career pathways

The employer partners then shared their personal journeys in policy to date. Some key themes emerged. There are no ready-made routes to career satisfaction and professional development in policy. You need to have a sense of purpose and knowledge of your motivations. An ability to identify and understand the value of your transferable skills is essential. Listen to each of the employer partners share their stories below.

Gavin Wood, UNICEF

Gavin shares his inspiring journey from senior research fellow, to musician, to disaster relief work in Haiti, to UNICEF.

“I thought, I have nothing to offer. There is nothing I can offer in this role, but I went into it and suddenly found that it was what I was waiting for. It was very motivating to see the impact of the work immediately.” 

Al Mathers, The RSA

Hear Al share her passion for participatory practice that has driven her career.

“At the heart of research is about asking questions and if you have a really good focus on ‘what’s the question that’s not being answered at the moment?’ or ‘what’s the question we should be asking?’, that is something that you can carry across” 

Ed Latter, DEFRA

Listen to Ed’s insights into the nature of policy work and how his postdoc experience has prepared him well for this. 

“For me, it came down to wanting to use my scientific skills and experience to have impact. Also, wanting to have impact for public good really attracted me to the civil service.”  

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