Each Friday we post a new v i s t a profile, a career beyond the academy story (use the post tags to find the entire list). These posts accompany our curated events to support post-PhD career transitions, v i s t a mentoring, and also #sheffvista on Twitter.
Job title and company: Senior Performance Analyst, Department for Work & Pensions
Approximate salary range for your type of role: £30,000 – 40,000
My early career was pretty uninteresting as academic backgrounds go, moving directly from my degree in Microbiology, to a PhD, to two post-doc contracts. I did relatively well academically but I stayed at The University of Sheffield for my whole career, only moving departments for my last contract. Obviously going against the pressure to move around constantly in your work.
I’d had an unintentional six month gap of unemployment between my first post-doc contract and my second, which I didn’t want to repeat, so I started work early in my contract to understand where I was going. I joined the researcher mentoring programme, had some hard conversations with my caring but firm mentor and began to face up to the difficult fact that I didn’t want to continue in science. It wasn’t that I thought I wasn’t good enough to continue in the job. I had requests to apply for a number of jobs but I wanted to start building the foundations of a solid career I was actually enthusiastic about. I’d realised that I didn’t want to be an independent academic, and I’m pretty sure you can’t coast into that job passively.
So armed with a better understanding of what I enjoyed from my academic career; the data wrangling and influencing rather than the actual data generation (midnight readings on a Friday night begone), I looked for roles that needed an analyst.
I immediately failed, twice, to get a job as an analyst. The first time as an analyst in the Civil Service and the second time at the University of Derby. Luckily through, whilst I didn’t have the experience to get the permanent job at Derby, I did manage to impress the interviewers enough to be offered a 6-month contract as an analyst in Business Insight.
This job was great, and whilst not the contract, the salary or, if I’m perfectly frank, the job that I’d dreamed of, it gave me great experience of work outside of academia (even though it was in a university). I took a hit on my post-doc salary to make the shift, and it was worth it to get a foot in the door. My contract was extended and I got promoted within the first 6 months, putting me back on par with post-doc earning power.
I got renewed confidence from this and reapplied to be a Civil Service Operational Research Analyst and was this time was accepted. Again I had to take a slight reduction of my newly increased salary but it was worth it to get the job in government data that I originally wanted.
I spent 18 months working in the Department for Work and Pensions as a Strategy Analyst, and was appreciated enough to again get promoted and regain my salary. You could see this as two years of effort to stand still, but I managed to go from the top of where I could be in academia to the bottom of a long career ladder as an analyst on the same salary. It took some sacrifices but I’d managed to acquire a career with a ladder that I’d already started to climb.
For the past year, I’ve been working as a Performance Analyst in the digital side of DWP, promoting best use of evidence for decision making in digital government. I’m really enjoying this role, it allows me to use my academic background in a new way, and it helps me to communicate to a new group of people who want to use data to drive their design but need help understanding when and how this data can be used.
I use ‘R’ and Excel every day for my work, so if you are good at these, you might find my role a fairly easy switch. I still process, clean and analyse data, make figures, graphs and tables, present my work, write reports for non-experts – all work you’ll be familiar with from research.
I work across two sites in two DWP offices, one is open plan with banks of hot-desks with managed desktop computers, it’s a uniform space but even with that, it’s a good environment to work in. There’s an analytical community where ideas and techniques are shared in a similar way they are in academia. The other office I work in is a digital hub, this environment is a bit more colourful and energetic works more like a tech company as we’re focused on creating digital products.
I’m considered a technical expert so I met often with teams to get their analytical requirements, and then I go away and do the work and present it back, a bit like an internal consultant job. The Civil Service has a big focus on analytical integrity so my job is to interpret what they want and then make sure they get what they need to be able to use good analyses to make good decisions. Rather than being tied to and solely responsible for a whole project, I now get to work on many, which suits me far better.
I find it really positive that the Civil Service is a diverse workplace, where inclusive recruitment, promotion and retention policies are taken very seriously. It’s recognised that whilst doing pretty well, it, same as many places needs to improve at senior levels. One significant difference to academia is that there are rules about nationality, the full details are here and quite complex but if you are not a British, Commonwealth or EEA citizen then you can only get a job with the civil service if no British, Commonwealth or EEA citizen can be recruited to a post. We’ll have to wait and see if this changes post 2017.
I’m often asked whether my opinions as an analyst make a difference, or whether I just have to tow the party line. As I mentioned earlier above, analytical integrity is really important to us, and so I do feel that the fact I am well trained in how to do robust analyses makes a difference. If a policy maker makes decision that’s contrary to a piece of analysis, then we have channels of scrutiny to understand why. Analysts in general do feel listened to the majority of the time, but occasionally there’s a bigger picture and the decision makers have to take our analysis as just one of many data sources. This transparent process is really important to me.
In a role like mine, independent working is valued, so be independent in the way you operate now, and generate some good examples for your application. I don’t mean you have to drive your own research areas necessarily, I mean be independent in whatever you do. Find your own solutions to problems, come up with new ways of doing things, be prepared to make a case for why you are doing things a certain way.
Where can researchers look for jobs like yours? Civil Service Jobs Page
Ed joined the Civil Service through the OR route, but if you have a similar subject area background to him and are now thinking this role is for you, it’s a better option to join through the Statistics or the Data Scientist Route.