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.
Job Title and Company: Senior Behavioural Scientist, Department for Work and Pensions, UK Government
Approximate salary range for your type of role: £50k-£55k
Academia, my first love: history of a breakup: It is safe to say that psychology has always been my biggest (academic) love. I even managed to elbow my way into university whilst I was still studying at school in Germany – I was that keen on it. This early experience of studying Psychology at university led me to realise that the UK has a slightly stronger focus on research which I found particularly attractive, and I therefore made the decision to move to London in 2008 to do my BSc in Experimental Psychology at UCL.
I was hooked. Studying here, I fell even more in love with psychology, but also found a passion for research methods and science in general. In fact, I fell so hard that in 2011 I decided to jump (pretty naively) into a PhD. My PhD was in the areas of social cognition and decision sciences and whilst it wasn’t a walk in the park, I truly loved most of it (and I would do it again anytime!) My identity was pretty strongly defined at this stage: I was an academic.
After my honeymoon with academia was over (all that careless fooling around as a PhD student!) reality started to dawn on me. I was offered an 18-month postdoc position in Germany, but that would have meant leaving the UK and taking my partner with me for an uncertain future (where would we have to move to next, for how long?) What I also found mildly unsettling was that there were many people I looked up to in terms of their academic career who struggled to find permanent positions, finding themselves in an infinite circle of more postdoc jobs, disappointments, grant applications and uncertainty.
Whilst I had an incredibly positive experience with my PhD supervisor, I also had been exposed to enough poor management behaviours (which I think go much more unchallenged in academia than elsewhere!) that I was worried about where I might end up next. That, in combination with an academic field that was in a self-inflicted replication crisis, made me genuinely question whether we still had a future together.
I started flirting with ‘the real world’ (as academics call anything but academia) when I became fascinated with an emerging field that saw methods and approaches from the behavioural sciences applied to policy problems. During my PhD I co-founded a small consultancy in Germany which aims to achieve sustainable behaviours from citizens by means of applying scientific approaches and findings from psychology. For instance, we ran a trial for the German Development Institute trying to encourage greater adoption of energy efficient light bulbs in a large slum in Kenya. Through this work I realised that this could potentially mean that I could work scientifically, applying psychology, and have a measurable impact on people’s lives. This suddenly looked like a realistic alternative and a way out of a difficult relationship.
Whilst I wanted to keep doing what I love, I had decided that I didn’t want to be in academia anymore. In the words of Eminem, “when it’s going good it’s going great, but when it’s bad it’s awful”. I still craved the good bits (the rigorous scientific working, the exciting problem solving, the amazing, passionate colleagues), but not the challenges (the short term contracts, the work life balance, the imposter syndrome). I wondered if we could stay friends.
After a brief stint teaching at LSE I spotted an opening on civil service jobswhich sounded like the perfect job for me: applying behavioural science in the Department for Work and Pensions. Before accepting the position I do remember having huge doubts, however:
- My work can’t possibly be as interesting
- I will have to conform to a system and will have less freedom (which seems one of the biggest fears for people leaving academia)
- I’ll never be able to work with someone as great as my PhD supervisor
- What can I realistically learn?
- Can I reconcile this with my identity as an academic?
- Am I able to be ‘professional’?
It turned out that my concerns were unfounded. My work is unbelievably interesting – I get to think about how we can embed better assumptions about human behaviour in policy making, attempting to solve some of society’s most important problems (e.g. how can we help people back into work?) It really doesn’t get much more interesting than that, for me! It also turns out that my freedom was not infringed as expected. Whilst there is undoubtedly more bureaucracy, there is also no expectation to work on the weekend, there are no emails in the evening – it feels like in fact I have more freedom over my personal life as there are no implicit expectations.
I do still miss my PhD supervisor, but I’m lucky enough to work with exceptional colleagues (and a lot of academia leavers) who come from a myriad of different backgrounds (philosophers, psychologists, economists, sociologists, policy professionals…).
And Iearning hasn’t slowed down in the 3 years I’ve been there. I have enough control over my work to steer it in directions I find personally interesting, and I get to look into areas other than psychology. I do still feel like I get to work academically, too. For instance, I spend a lot of time analysing whether problems are approached scientifically, I get to think through mechanisms (how would this realistically work?) and I can help colleagues make better assumptions about behaviours (applying learning from my field – which also means spotting where psychological research doesn’t fit!).
Finally, I am undoubtedly not the most ‘professional’ person in the department. I still dress largely similar to how I dressed when in academia (minus the tracksuit bottoms, possibly!) and I don’t necessarily buy into corporate language very much. But I’ve learnt that this is okay.
My new day to day work is varied. I’m overseeing the health & disability and labour market portfolios of our team, currently leading a team of 5. I review work from my team members and have a lot of discussions on how to approach problems (as Behavioural Science is still a new field, we’re almost always working up problems from scratch, which is incredibly fun!) With the team also come management responsibilities, which is undoubtedly one of my favourite parts of the job. I love developing others, learning from them and growing together – seeing how these relationships flourish over time is hugely rewarding. I also spend a lot of time thinking about how Behavioural Science can be positioned in the department, and give presentations on the topic in and outside of government.
Probably because I have the reputation of loving science so much, I also get to sometimes review scientific outputs / external papers for others to provide second opinions. We even have a journal club every other week to discuss interesting topics and papers, which is particularly amazing due to the multidisciplinary nature of the team (and the topics discussed). There are of course some bureaucratic elements associated with project and stakeholder management (this is government after all), but this is quickly forgiven if the rest of the job is as great.
I do think my time at UCL has equipped me with a vast set of transferrable skills which enable me to enjoy these tasks. Critical and scientific thinking above all (thinking through mechanisms), being able to challenge jumping to conclusions and pointing out uncertainties (I’ve been called a ‘complexifier’ more than once). As a result of the replication crisis, I’ve also become much more critical of psychology and science in general, which has made me better at assessing the applicability of academic findings to ‘real world’ policy problems.
I did have to learn a lot as well of course. Communicating to a lay audience (a lot!), and not trying to sound smart. There was a realisation that sometimes even the high quality academic research isn’t all that useful, as there are huge context dependencies. And the complexities of making decisions in public policy were nothing short of mind blowing. Finally, stakeholder management, project planning and managing in a corporate environment have been skills I had to learn.
To sum up, I’m glad I was brave enough to break up with academia and lucky enough to find my current role. I can’t see how I could possibly ever have a more interesting, rewarding job that fits my interests and skills more than working as a Behavioural Scientist for the Government.