Each Friday we post a new v i s t a profile, a career beyond the academy story (use the tags at the bottom of the post 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.
Profiles: @a_n_s on Twitter, find me on LinkedIn
Job title and company: Public Engagement Facilitator, The University of Oxford
Approximate salary range for your type of role: £30-40k+
From an early age I knew I was going to be a researcher. Fast forward to the third year of my PhD in molecular biology and sadly this dream seemed unsuitable. Turned out that whilst I found it all fascinating, the actual lab work, looking at just one or two proteins, wasn’t for me. I wouldn’t say it bored me, but the seemingly never ending, soul-destroying inability to get sensitive experiments working chipped away at my motivation and morale. Dream broken, it was time to look ahead. I’m not going to lie: I was pretty panic-stricken to suddenly be without a clear direction.
As most advice suggests I started thinking about what sorts of tasks I enjoyed and what I thought my strengths were. I knew that I enjoyed writing and talking to people so I talked to the careers service, thought about journalism, broadcast, and lots of other communication based activities that on the surface seemed suitable. I also wanted to find something that would help others in some way.
As luck would have it, there were other PhD students who were in a similar position to me to me. We joined forces to start a science communication charity called Science Brainwaves. It was here that I found that I was keen on working with museums, figuring out ways to motivate fellow volunteers, and generally keeping things organised – but was less of a presenter or performer. This experience was excellent CV fodder and helped me develop a whole bunch of skills that I use and have built on to this day.
Whilst I was writing up my thesis and doing an internship at a science centre, a job at the UK Association for Science and Discovery Centres (ASDC) came up to be ‘special projects manager’ all about getting molecular biology experiments for school children into museums and science centres. I applied the evening I saw it and got it.
Starting off was a steep learning curve but my earlier experiences helped a lot. I really enjoyed many aspects of the job; the problem solving in planning a project and then delivering it – efficiently and to a high standard, without making people hate the process; the interactions with people to develop projects and to understand their needs; considering the strategy drivers from funders… and more. I went on to manage further projects and because ASDC was so small I also got an insight into the workings of the board, finance, recruitment, interactions with government, etc.
When the benefits of a small organisation also turned out to be it’s undoing for me (there was nowhere to move up) I was excited to take up a job at the University of Oxford as Science Communication Officer for the Maths, Physics and Life Sciences (MPLS) Division.
Initially, the job had a great mix of project management as well as working with creative professionals to commission animations and podcasts, supporting researchers and working in partnership with others.
Because I had a fair amount of autonomy, as I developed my understanding of public engagement at the University and more generally, I had the chance to mould the role into what I thought I was important.
My current role, now ‘Public Engagement Facilitator’, is about creating an environment where high quality public engagement can flourish. This means making sure researchers and support staff are confident, skilled and equipped, have opportunities open to them, and rewarded and recognised for what they do. There’s a lot of behind the scenes ‘culture change’ work involved rather than doing things for researchers.
I work with people from all over the University, including other Divisions and on University-wide initiatives. Listening skills and being diplomatic is important; Oxford is a large and devolved place and like many organisations or networks you can’t simply tell people what to do. Sometimes you have to be at one with the apparent chaos to work out what to do.
I have a pretty varied role as I sit across a number of teams even with MPLS, but a typical week involves a healthy dose of meetings, delivering or arranging training, planning and managing projects, writing reports, and contributing ideas or giving feedback to reports and proposals, etc. I still get to let my imagination run wild and come up with new engagement events and activities and take up any opportunities to get involved with initiatives that align with my interests; mostly around equity and equality in science and informal science learning.
Roles like mine exist in many Universities, but also charities, museums and learned societies. Related roles include outreach and widening participation, knowledge exchange, researcher development and also research communications/engagement. Some are specifically about doing activities whilst others, like mine, are focussed on coordination and facilitation.
There’s no one pathway to my kind of role but there’s lots of training out there. The most useful thing I did was the NCCPE’s Public Engagement Academy which is specifically about developing strategies for culture change in public engagement.
Communication, interpersonal and organisational skills are all very important. I use a lot of transferrable skills from my PhD (like time management and critical evaluation of information) and I know having a PhD was highly valued by my first employer. Now in my current role it helps to have an understanding of the researchers and their pressures when trying to think of ways to support them.
I am in no doubt that my extra-curricular experiences during my PhD helped me land my first job. It meant I had experience and skills I could demonstrate through tangible examples, and it greatly helped me build up awareness of how things actually work.
In comparing what I do now to my PhD; I still have a lot of autonomy and flexibility; I still get to problem solve and do research – just about different things; and I still get to learn a lot about science – but all the fascinating research going on here rather than a particular field. I find my job is a lot more social and there’s a lot more team work involved compared to my lab experience. I see admin as a challenge to make as effortless as possible, but at least here there is a fair amount of admin support. A definite pro is that I find I get a lot more out for what I put in. If I work extra hours it’s because I want to, and it pays off. But of course it’s not expected, so work-life balance is easier.
My advice would be to be enterprising and just get stuck in; you won’t truly know if something floats your boat until you have a go, and in doing so you’ll build up vital experience that employers will be looking for. My dad always says, “it’s not what you know, it’s knowing how to find out.” It’s always worked for me to just have the confidence to give things a go.
Where can researchers look for jobs like yours? jobs.ac.uk, Guardian, mailing lists like Psci-Com and NCCPE-PEN – directly on websites of Universities, charities, etc that you’re interest in.
What professional/accrediting bodies, or qualifications are relevant to where you work? There are science communication Masters degrees, and there are academic disciplines associated with various areas of engagement (that you could do doctorates in), but there are no accreditations. As mentioned there are also shorter practical training courses e.g., NCCPE, etc.