In this blog Jonny interviews Ashley Austin, Research and Evaluation Manager at Mind, to discuss research roles outside of academia. Ashley has had a range of research roles across the public, private, and voluntary sectors. Ashley currently spends the majority of her week at Mind in the Strategy and Insight team whilst doing her PhD part-time.
Often, as students, we ask ourselves “What’s next?”. Deciding not to follow the ‘typical’ academic path can sometimes be stigmatised. However, leaving academia does not mean leaving research. A recent study by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPLI) found that approximately 70% of individuals who completed a PhD no longer work in academia three years post completion, but that just over half still engage with research in their work. It is therefore important that postgraduate students have sufficient information about searching for and working in non-academic research roles.
As job hunting can often be gruelling, especially whilst trying to study, here are some tips:
1) Seek guidance from individuals within and outside of academia.
2) Make a list of the network you’ve built during your time in academia.
3) Acknowledge what you have to offer. Your academic skill set contains highly valuable skills (e.g., communication, project management, analytical, and problem-solving skills). A useful tool to remind yourself of the skills you may have acquired is the ‘researcher development framework‘ – it may help to read through the framework and reflect on what skills and attributes you have gained.
This blog highlights some differences between a research role in academia and a research role in the voluntary sector and which skills are relevant to each. To reiterate Ashley’s advice when applying for jobs: “read the job description and see if anything excites you – don’t undervalue yourself. Don’t think, ‘oh, that’s not my specialism’ or ‘I would never get that job’. Put yourself out there and have confidence.”
Jonny: What does your role in Mind involve – If somebody doing a Master’s, a PhD, or an academic researcher was thinking about joining what could they expect?
Ashley: There’s a variety of different things that we do within Insight and Strategy. We do some field work – you might have a day where you’re doing interviews with people experiencing mental health problems or running focus groups. You might have a day where you are analysing survey data. We do lots of collaborative working, with programme teams who are looking to design mental health programmes or who are already delivering programmes, to understand how existing services are impacting people.
Sometimes we commission other agencies to do research for us, so there is an element of project management and managing other partners. For example, you might have day to day contact with external partners to review materials and advise them on what kind of research methods to use. We also have a capacity building function in terms of upskilling other people in the organisation to support them to be better consumers and producers of knowledge. We provide guidance on how other teams can do research and advise them on how to involve people with lived experience. We also prioritise workplace wellbeing – something that is really important. We make time to check-in with each other and do wellbeing activities in a semi-structured way.
Jonny: What are the positives of going from an academic position (e.g., a PhD) into a research role outside of academia (e.g., the voluntary sector)?
Ashley: One positive I’ve experienced is having expertise in a specific subject area. Also, knowledge of research methods that you acquire in an academic environment can be really valuable. In terms of the team here at Mind, I think it’s good to have a balance. We wouldn’t necessarily want a team that’s full of academic researchers, because the way that we’re working is quite different. We need a mixture of adaptable and transferable skills. In academia a skill you often gain is motivation (a self-starting nature) – you have to be motivated to create your own deadlines and that is something that is really useful to have in any kind of team.
Jonny: How do you find the balance between your work in academia and your work in the voluntary sector?
Ashley: I think in academia you have more long-term projects, and you go much more in detail on a specific topic. At Mind, I’m juggling lots of things and having lots of meetings – I’m managing multiple projects and meeting multiple deadlines. In my role at Mind I can see how the work we do directly impacts people with mental health problems and I see how it’s making a difference to the services that we deliver. But sometimes with my academic research it’s hard to see the impact that it’s having, because often it’s not having that immediate or direct impact, so I find it more difficult to stay motivated. Working at Mind has made me more conscious of trying to make my research as impactful as possible.
Jonny: How does writing reports and sharing findings differ between academia and the voluntary sector?
Ashley: We’re often writing to inform teams who design mental health programmes, and this writing doesn’t require the rigour that you would find in academia. It’s writing recommendations that can have an immediate impact, so it’s a quicker process.
Jonny: Thinking about your management position at Mind, when you’re looking at hiring someone what do you look for?
Ashley: The sort of experience that we’re looking for is any kind of experience in research or project management. Additionally, there are lots of skills that individuals gain from academia (e.g., planning and designing your own research) that are valuable, as we are fundamentally a Research and Evaluation team. It’s definitely good to have a specialism and we encourage people in the team to have a specialism. But we generally like to see a broad range of research skills across both qualitative and quantitative methods. We look at people’s ability to manage their own workloads, to manage multiple priorities, and have experience in working collaboratively with other teams and organisations. We also look for report writing and presentation skills – we love to see creative ways of sharing research findings and creative ways of conducting research.
Jonny: Do you think students and academics know about the opportunities to leave academia and apply for research roles in the voluntary sector?
Ashley: I think that there is a perception that once you’re in academia that’s where you are forever, and I think sometimes academic supervisors aren’t always that clear about what the other options are.
It would be really valuable for universities to promote other research options – this includes more openness to talking about these options. I think there’s less openness as you progress further into academia. I was always quite upfront with my supervisor and informed them that I didn’t want to work in academia after my PhD. I explained that I wanted to see (my) research in a real world setting and she was supportive of that, but we never really talked explicitly about what the options were. It would be great if academics had more awareness of different options available.
Jonny: What advice would you give to students who are interested in careers outside of academia?
Ashley: I would firstly reiterate what I said previously, which is get any experience that you can in the field that you want to work in and that will help you to understand whether that is something you want to do. For example, there’s placement opportunities – don’t be afraid to approach organisations and ask if there are any opportunities to get involved. Also, do your research, even if you’re not actively job seeking, just have a look, see what’s out there, read the job description and see if anything excites you – don’t undervalue yourself. Don’t think, “oh, that’s not my specialism” or “I would never get that job”. Put yourself out there and have confidence. Don’t be afraid to do something that feels slightly different to what you originally wanted to do – all these steps can help get to where you want to go.
Jonny: You’ve probably already mentioned it, but what is your favourite thing about working in a voluntary sector research role?
Ashley: My favourite thing is seeing the impact – being able to see your journey from start to finish is really rewarding. I’ve been able to see how research is translated into service delivery and then I’ve been able to be involved in the evaluation of that delivery. It doesn’t always happen that way and sometimes you dip in and out of bits and pieces of research. But to me seeing that journey from start to finish is really rewarding.
- Hancock S. The employment of PhD graduates in the UK: What do we know. Higher Education Policy Institute. https://www. hepi. ac. uk/2020/02/17/the-employment-of-phd-graduates-in-the-uk-what-do-we-know. 2020 Feb.