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Dr Shivonne Gates has a PhD in Linguistics from QMUL and is now a Researcher at social research agency NatCen. She tells us what it’s like to be researching in a different domain to her PhD.

In a couple of sentences, what do you do day-to-day?

I do qualitative research into social problems that then informs government policy. I work in a team called Communities, Work and Income – working on projects such as transport and inequality, an evaluation of shared parental leave policies, and discretionary housing payments.

How did you make the decision to leave academia?

In the end, leaving academia wasn’t a decision I made, it was the reality of the situation. I went through the academic job cycle during my fourth year to get a permanent lectureship or postdoc and I didn’t get any interviews. I was surprised not to have gotten at least one as I had done all the right things: I was published, I had teaching experience, and I’d done public engagement, impact work, conferences etc. But because I had been aware of the nature of the academic job market, I was in a good position to go in another direction.

Linguistics is quite niche so I knew I wouldn’t be able to work in my exact domain (adolescent language) outside of academia. But I decided that I did want to work with kids or do research in education. During the third and fourth year of my PhD I researched other career options outside academia. I looked into social research and found there was a lot of overlap in the skills needed for this area and the research training I received during my PhD. From that, I was able to identify different organisations that I would potentially like to work for such as NFER (education research) and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (welfare research).

What attracted you to the role of Researcher at NatCen?

I looked at NatCen’s research pages online and I remember thinking ‘that’s cool, I’d like to work on something like that.’ I liked the fact that social research used a lot of the skills I’d gained from my PhD, like interviewing and report writing. I was also interested in doing research in an applied context, so you’re not only thinking about what would be interesting intellectually or theoretically but also things like ‘What social change does this government department want to effect? Is it possible? What impact would it have?’ A common criticism of academia is that it’s very blinkered and not applicable to real life so I think, from a long-term career perspective, it’s good to have a balance of being involved in research from both sides.

Do you think the skills you developed during your PhD help you in the role?

Yes! Everything I do at work draws on skills learned from my PhD. For example, synthesising information – I used to do that for conferences and teaching, now I do it for reports and client presentations. I had to do transcription for my PhD and while at NatCen we outsource that, I do have to analyse the transcriptions. NatCen give you lot of training in analysis and research methods once you get the job but the skills from my PhD continue to be helpful.

Experience of archival research would also be useful in social research. We do ‘desk research’ within social research, which is very similar to what you might do for the initial stages of a PhD thesis literature review. And there’s a research method used in the sector called ‘Rapid Evidence Assessments’. That’s basically where you have to read a lot of information very quickly and make transparent decisions as to whether it’s relevant to your research – essentially a systematic literature review!

Did the job require you to have a PhD?

No. The job said a masters was desirable. But the job also required a few years’ experience of doing research. I had 4 years of professional research experience through my PhD so that ticked that box. And here at least half of my team have a PhD (and there are about 15 people on my team). As a Researcher Assistant (a level below my position of Researcher) you really don’t need a PhD but at all other levels lots of people do have them and it is seen as useful and relevant experience. To get a job as a Senior Researcher, you need to have postdoctoral experience if you don’t have experience in an applied research setting.

What else, apart from your PhD, helped you to break into the business?

I think the fact that I had done teaching and other administrative responsibility showed that I was well-rounded. It gave me lots of useful experiences that I talked about in my application e.g. that I had managed a team (organising a group of student volunteers). At the interview they said they were particularly impressed that a PhD colleague and I had pitched for (and won!) some ESRC funding to run an event. I think it showed I was a self-starter.

How else did you make sure your applications and interview performance was as good as possible?

I really thought hard about how to draw connections between what I did in my PhD and what the role involved, and I think that paid off. I know that this field is really competitive and employers are not going to make those connections for you. For example, for my PhD research I did quantitative analysis specific to linguistics, but I didn’t go into detail about that in my application or interview, I just talked about how I could use linear regression models which people recognise as a statistical method. I also talked about my experience with qualitative methods and interviews rather than the specific linguistic approach or research questions that I was trying to answer. And I demonstrated my project management skills by talking about how I had managed my own project (my PhD) and juggled that alongside other responsibilities like teaching.

Before being invited for interview, they got me to do a research task over a couple of days and I had to write a proposal. This echoes what you’re doing in the job so it was good to see what that was like before I started in the role.

What other career options do you feel are open to people from a similar background to you?

If you’re interested in doing research and getting your hands on data and you don’t mind so much what the data is about then market research is a great option. UX, or user experience, is another field that uses research skills, but I think that’s one where you might have to get an internship or take a low-paid position to initially break into. The Civil Service, thinktanks, and charities are also organisations that often advertise research-related jobs.

Any other advice to current PhDs?

Two things.

  • Don’t worry if there’s not an explicit link between your PhD topic and jobs out there. You’re used to being an expert in academia but outside of academia you don’t always need to be one. You don’t actually have to know that much about something to do research on it – I find in my job that it’s more about being a quick learner and being able to engage with and understand a policy area in a short space of time.
  • After you have settled into your PhD, you really do need to develop your broader skill-set. The Doctoral College at QM is really good at giving postgrads opportunities to do this (e.g. GradFest), so engage with those things. It would have been really difficult for me to get a job outside academia if I hadn’t done things outside the PhD.