A career in community research management
Dr Anne Laybourne has a PhD in PhD Gerontology from King's College London and now works as a CRIS Manager (Community Research Initiative for Students) at Students’ Union UCL Volunteering Service.
18 May 2022
She is talking about her career background, her current role, its highlights and challenges, and also giving tips for researchers who would like to work in a similar career.
Tell us about your current role.
I am developing and delivering the Community Research Initiative for Students, or CRIS for short. I aim to provide support and advice to master’s students, their supervisors, and voluntary sector organisations to bring about collaborative research partnerships. The idea is that students can focus on real world problems for their dissertation, learning from, and also supporting, a “community partner”. The Partner gets a useful and useable research product - because they were allowed to influence, advice, and contribute to the research in the first place.
So my role is incredibly varied – I create new content, plan and deliver events, line manage a student staff member, support all the stakeholders through the process of trying to set up a collaboration, facilitate stakeholder intro meetings, deliver training… as well as try to collect evaluation feedback and communicate the merits of CRIS to UCL staff and senior management! I also try to connect with networks nationally and internationally so there’s lots of practice sharing and some presentations/conferences too.
If I had to summarise, there’s a lot of networking, teaching, and influencing! I completely love it, in a way I have never loved a role before!
How did you move from academic research (PhD/postdoc) to your current role?
After an epiphany, I did a major soul search, I suppose. I reflected and retrained. I did a bunch of Public Engagement training, reframed myself in trend of my skills, and started applying for jobs! I had been in fixed term research associate roles for 11 years. There was a great deal that I liked - an end point in something can be a good thing. Research is about relationships and sometimes relationships go sour - so that’s a plus, knowing you can move on if you want to!!
I loved the variety of being able to work at a different university each time, often different topics, and I started being strategic and gaining experience in different methodologies too. This part of my career really got me some skills! However, as I got older and therefore more skilled and more experienced, there wasn’t any more autonomy or responsibility. It got boring and I didn’t like not being able to influence the research!! So I started looking for other things to keep me interested - and I took part in something called the Evaluation Exchange in 2017-18 and this is when I had a total epiphany!!
I worked in a team of PhDs and early career researchers with a charity who had self-identified an evaluation problem they wanted support with. Suddenly all my skills and creativity that were unwanted in research (as a fixed term postdoc) were essential and totally valued! Plus, it was a real team effort - 4 of us working towards the same thing that we had co-created and had buy-in for. As a postdoc, you are just working for the Principal Investigator. The celebration, reflection, and gratitude embedded in Evaluation Exchange is totally absent in research - other than papers and grants! And even then, you’re already onto the next thing as the process is so strung out over rejections and reviewers’ comments!!
The reflection was the main thing that helped me move – in research, papers and grants are the only success metrics, really. I was skilled enough at writing papers, though I found the whole system tedious and frustrating most of the time. What I was really skilled at were the earlier research stages around mapping out a project, recruitment (people!), and project management (people!). All needed in research but not what success is measured on!
Once I worked out what I was skilled at, and the discovery of this new world of public engagement, it was a case of finding the right job. It was hard – the CRIS role was the 5th I interviewed for. So 4 interviews, 4 rejections. But I realised I was effectively starting in a new field, even though I was a really experienced jobbing researcher, I was a newbie public engagement person.
What were the main challenges in the transition from research to a professional career in academia?
I was worried about stability actually! Although I was on research contracts, in London there’s so many brilliant universities and the job market was great at the time. This role is permanent - but therefore subject to redundancy was my first fear!! Also - there’s not equivalent roles across the sector so I can’t move so easily if personal circumstances needed that, for example. There’s no promotion pathway either. So they are all challenges.
The realisation that I was new in this field and kind of starting again was a bit challenging, but also really exciting – I was pretty experienced at research associate interviews by this stage!
Working out a new culture of working was challenging in that I felt a bit alien for a while – I definitely felt almost institutionalised in the research culture, including all the toxicity. Related to this was learning to work in a healthier way – to stop having late evenings or weekends at the back of my mind to pick up the slack if I hadn’t finished my work. I still feel ‘on’ all the time about my job but I am better now at working out priorities and seeing things over a longer term. Everything can’t get done now, so with the luxury of permanency, I really feel like I am building something and so I can’t do something this year, I’ll do it next academic year. That was really hard to get used to!
What does a normal working day look like for you?
Hmmm. I’m not sure there is normal! In terms of what I do, it can be picking up on student queries. I always have around 30 x 15-minute student appointment slots in my calendar that student can book themselves into, so most days, I’ll have student meetings. Charities and UCL staff can also book time though this happens less frequently at the moment. I do a lot of my work over email and Teams or Zoom meetings – it’s a lot of about connecting with people and having conversations.
I am often planning the next academic year. I always speak with my administrator on the days they are in – often being reminded of things I have not done yet! Most days I have lunch at my desk, which is an awful research habit, but for now that’s the way it is. Maybe one day, I’ll learn what to do with a lunch break! I usually start between 8 and 9 in the morning and try to finish by 18.00 or 18.30. I work up to two days in the office and the rest from home which, while I am building the service is perfect.
What are the best things about working in your role?
The best bits about my role are too numerous to mention but - I feel free and valued. And valuable, actually. I get the opportunity to meet with such a huge range of people because of my three stakeholder groups. I listen in on so many incredible research meetings – from public heritage in a Victorian graveyard to refugees living in hotels in London. I get to work across sectors and see the really grounded work local charities and communities groups do. It keeps me grounded and really knocks down that ivory tower, I can tell you.
Getting to listen to overwhelmed and scared master’s students and help them feel more in control, give them advice or tips of how useful a Gantt chart can be! That’s the most rewarding thing – enabling students to get excited about their dissertation rather than dread and see a different way to approach research… it’s the absolute best.
What are the biggest challenges?
Not having a defined career path. There’s nowhere to go in the Students’ Union. I think the only roles to move into would be central professional services roles where I might be less student-facing and less delivery-focused.
Keeping on top of the day-to-day while also developing and strategizing.
The size of UCL!! Literally 1000s of students to meet! Plus the culture around master’s dissertations and research really - having students co-create an idea for their dissertation is uncomfortable to some supervisors and researchers.
Working out how to take a lunch break!
Is a PhD essential for your role? If not, did you find your PhD experience nevertheless useful?
A PhD is definitely not essential.
I guess my knowledge of postgraduate study is really helpful - but that’s learnable knowledge, not contingent on PhD experience necessarily. I feel confident in an HE environment and the Dr can help in some circles and I speak “academia” - so I am a known entity to one of my key stakeholders - researchers. I get their frustrations, the hard-working environment etc, the success metrics they face.
What’s the career progression for your type of role like?
As I said - there’s not. I guess I need to make that up. Does CRIS build into a larger UCL unit, so from initiative to a Center or a department or something? Do I join in with other similar services? In terms of skills, there’s definitely progression into central departments.
What top tips would you pass on to a researcher interested in this type of role?
Really honestly think about what you’re good at. What are your skills? If it’s not writing and rewriting papers - at the moment, the main researcher success metric - then have a think!! I love working in higher education, so the wider university and Students’ Union offer really exciting and different roles.
Do secondments. Go on training. Get out the research group or department and meet others - not just other researchers!!! Get off any research Twitter feeds!! Research works for some and it’s great and we need robust academic knowledge, of course. But the research world that’s been built fails many. If you’re not feeling great about it, it’s important to look up and out and realise it’s probably not you that’s the problem!