Dr Karen Bateson transitioned to the voluntary sector after 20 years of working for the NHS as a Clinical Child Psychologist. She is currently the Head of Clinical Strategy and Development at the Parent-Infant Foundation. In this blog, Karen was interviewed on her career transition and current role by former EDIT lab MSc student, Elena, who completed her MSc placement at the Parent-Infant Foundation. Karen provides advice to those who may (or may not, yet) be considering work in voluntary organisations.
Our EDIT lab blog series covering research careers beyond academia has unpacked potential research positions, the role of research in non-academic settings, and how to consider and approach these careers, especially when coming from an academic background. The series has addressed the following topics:
This blog provides the following insights:
1)A research-related position in the voluntary sector can differ in its tasks and their nature, the way that research is conducted, the way that the findings are disseminated, and entry pay. The transition can be intimidating at first, but after entering, it is an exciting space to navigate.
2)The voluntary sector hosts people from diverse career backgrounds with diverse thinking, making it very vibrant. As in any position, it is important to collaborate and communicate well with colleagues.
Throughout the interview, Karen also reminds us that some roles may suit us better than others at different stages of our careers, but that the experiences, skills, and connections we collect along the way can always be useful as we take our next steps.
Elena: What does your role involve? If somebody pursued a position as Head of Clinical Strategy and Development, what could they expect?
Karen: I oversee activities designed to support the growth and development of parent-infant relationship teams (see also next paragraph), and that includes some research. These activities involve providing resources, such as our online toolkit, learning webinars, one-to-one consultations, and face-to-face networking events. In terms of research, we commission, conduct, and/or support others’ research. All these are meant to ensure that parent-infant relationship teams are developing and delivering a quality service to families.
To clarify, parent-infant relationship teams are specialised and multidisciplinary teams of mental health professionals, such as clinical psychologists and child psychotherapists, that support and strengthen the relationships between infants and their caregivers. There are currently 39 parent-infant relationship teams in the UK.
Elena: How did you find the transition from 20 years as part of the NHS to the voluntary sector? What motivated you to make this transition?
Karen: My passion was to work in the earliest stage of life, and what motivated me to leave the NHS was the reduced opportunity to work with very young children due to financial pressures. I was having to look families in the eye and say, “Your child is in great distress, but I cannot fit the intervention in six sessions.” After 20 years of this work, I understood that being able to deliver an intervention in the first place was based on hundreds of other people doing research, strategy, and policy work, fields that are levers for change and impact a larger number of people. When I entered the voluntary sector, I found it liberating because you can set your own direction, budget, and strategy much more easily. Naturally, I also found that liberation a bit scary as there weren’t the restrictions that keep you feeling safe. But that passed quickly: the vibrancy and diversity in people’s backgrounds and thinking are very energising.
Elena: If you could go back in time, is there anything you would change in your professional path?
Karen: Not massively because I really valued my clinical career, and I use what I learned every day in my strategy and development role. Perhaps one thing I would have tried is to keep more connection between clinical practice and research because I went whole scale into clinical practice. In hindsight, I wish I would have kept foot in both camps. Also, I would have probably moved to the voluntary sector a bit sooner.
Elena: What has remained constant in your two careers?
Karen: First, my continual fascination for the psychology of babies and families. I find learning about the science of relationships completely enthralling still. Second, the importance of relationships in how you operate as a professional. Whether you are newly qualified or in a senior role, treating people well and establishing good communication should never change. There’s a constancy to how you behave as a person, no matter what your role.
Elena: How does writing reports and sharing findings differ between academia/clinical settings and the voluntary sector?
Karen: I did a little bit of research as a clinician, and it was really formal. Dissemination was a small part of the task because usually we were doing research for a specific purpose: to tell a business case or commissioner that something worked. Sometimes, we published an article and occasionally, we presented at a conference. In the voluntary sector, dissemination is completely different. We have a communications plan at the start of every project, where we think about all the different people who might be interested (the public, other researchers, other teams) and our dissemination plan is far more segmented and “colourful.” We disseminate through social media, blogs, podcasts, and recently, two really lovely films. Even when we write a report, it’s not a standard document; we have it typeset so that it’s visually appealing. Overall, we are much more interested in making sure that not just the findings of the project are shared, but the learning about the process of research is shared.
Elena: Is there anything else that is different?
Karen: People talk a lot about the discrepancy in salary. When I went from the NHS to the NSPCC, I had a salary drop of about 40%, but I’ve gone back up again. In the voluntary sector, it’s about finding the right job and being able to tolerate a temporary change in salary, because once you’re in it, then you’ll get to learn what the opportunities are for progression. Still, I think my salary is entirely appropriate because I’m not the one seeing families, doing safeguarding reports, and having to wonder whether I’m going to get called into court to justify a clinical opinion.
Elena: What is your favourite thing about working in the voluntary sector?
Karen: The diversity of people in the voluntary sector is one of my favourites. I don’t actually work with many of the psychologists or even mental health professionals, and to be learning from so many people from so many different disciplines is fabulous. The other thing I love about the voluntary sector is you can be the master of your own destiny in a much greater way. I don’t have to follow NICE guidelines, a government green paper, or what my NHS Trust has decided. I have a much greater influence over the day-to-day and strategic decisions. It is interesting to think that when I first qualified as a clinical psychologist, I assumed it was a career for life. Now that I’m in the voluntary sector, I feel that I have my own personal kayak — it’s exciting, interesting, and stimulating.
Elena: Do you think students know about the opportunities to apply for research roles in the voluntary sector? What advice would you give to those who are interested in careers outside of academia?
Karen: Broadly speaking, all careers in the voluntary sector are not widely promoted, and people don’t know enough about how great it is to work in this space. In terms of specific advice to those who are wondering about a career in the voluntary sector, I would say go and make a relationship with an organisation you’re interested in. Chat with them, do a joint project with them, co-apply for a research grant; that is a really good way to dip your toes in the water. Try it out before making a whole scale career change. In my experience, voluntary sector organisations want relationships with academics and invite their diverse thinking and help with research ideas, planning, stats, data collection, etc. My advice would be to try it out, before making a big leap.
Any student on the MSc DEV programme at KCL reading this can apply for a placement to work with one of our voluntary sector partners and “dip their toes in the water.” Making a connection with voluntary organisations can be exciting while still working within an academic setting, and a great way to explore if this path might be a suitable future career.