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Careers in research management: Rosie Anderson

Dr Rosie Anderson has a PhD in Politics from the University of Edinburgh and now works as a Research Impact Manager for Life and Medical Sciences (SLMS) at UCL.

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9 May 2022

She talks to Jana Dankovicova about her career background, her current role, its highlights and challenges, and also gives tips for researchers who would like to follow a similar career path.

Tell us about your current role and department

I am the Research and Institutional Impact Manager for Life and Medical Sciences in the UCL Impact Team in the Office of Vice Provost Research, Innovation and Global Engagement. We’re a small central team that coordinates and supports all things Research Impact at UCL, especially monitoring and evaluation, training and professional development and supporting faculty staff to achieve their impact goals. 

Impact is usually defined as the demonstrable benefit of excellent academic research to society or the environment outside of academia itself (although sometimes that’s included too). To that my team would also add the impact and value of research institutions themselves. In my role, I look after the four Life and Medical Sciences faculties at UCL (Medical Sciences, Population Health Sciences, Brain Sciences and Life Sciences). I have three colleagues who focus on maths/ engineering/ physical sciences, social sciences and arts and humanities respectively. There are local Impact Managers in many faculties in UCL but none in the ones I work with, so my role is slightly unusual in that I work directly with Principal Investigators (PIs), programme managers and faculty leadership quite a bit. It’s both prospective (planning for impact and helping to deliver it where appropriate) and retrospective (monitoring and evaluation of research impact, reporting to funders and stakeholders).

How did you move from academic research to your current role? 

I was lucky: it happened fairly organically. It’s also important to point out that my academic research was only one phase in a longer career, so I’m a bit of an outlier. I was a journalist and then I worked in policy and public affairs for about a decade before I decided to do a PhD, and even then, my doctoral research was heavily based on my career experiences up to that point and involved nearly two years of fieldwork in policy and politics. In fact, deciding to take that time to do the PhD was by far the bigger mental shift than “leaving academia”. 

I absolutely loved my PhD and the work I did after in Public Health, and I still miss teaching so much, but… I kept finding myself doing impact-y and applied stuff in the research projects I worked on and frankly enjoying it more as a workstream than the pure research. I was looking for a space in which I could bring all of myself into my work – my comms, public affairs, policy, political experiences and my deeply geeky research knowledge. Eventually the need to apply for a substantial postdoctoral project became unavoidable and I found I just didn’t want to do one enough if it meant giving up those other things. It was clear I was on a different path to my colleagues, but I still hadn’t figured out what that meant. Then an old friend invited me to do some evaluation work for a REF impact case study about his research design project and that immediately clicked. I worked as a freelance research and policy consultant alongside a part-time job as an Impact Manager in Kingston University for 18 months. Then I came to UCL full time.

What does a normal working day look like for you?

I’m not sure there is one! I think the variety and unpredictability of my role is one of those things you’d either hate or love and it’s one of the biggest differences between it and my academic life. Of course I love it, and it was something I loved about being a journalist all those years ago. 

Everyone who does this role in any institution has to be able to respond reactively to things beyond your control – new funding streams, changed priorities, world events – but my specific job is rather more prone to that than most. In part this is because there aren’t many people in my role in-faculty, unlike other parts of the University, so if people need extra capacity to do something big then I can be called in. It’s also because I work in the broad field of health, care and wellbeing and that is very exposed to external factors and has to be agile in responding to them, as the last two or three years has sadly demonstrated very well. 

I’m not a clinician or biomedical scientist, but I do have to keep on supporting our researchers whatever happens and sometimes that means doing some long hours and suddenly freeing up my diary to do some intensive work on a big bid or reporting exercise. Part of the skill of doing this job is to be able to balance that responsive work with setting proactive aims and delivering them. How exactly I divide up my days and weeks depends a lot on what’s going on around me. At any given time, I often have a couple of major infrastructure or strategic projects going on, training and career development to deliver, creating and managing impact evidence and data tracking systems with colleagues in-faculty, doing analysis or evaluation of that data, meeting with PIs to discuss their support needs, reporting to internal and external teams, attending sector or other events, seminars, briefings etc. And then I also liaise with the various Comms teams across the University quite closely. I am hosting a podcast which will launch this Summer, so I’m doing the editorial and interviewing work for that right now. 

Finally… I can’t avoid mentioning the REF (Research Excellence Framework), but I have left it until last because I’m keen to emphasise it’s only one of the things we do. The REF only happens every seven years or so. That said, when it does, it dominates every working day, and it’s all about the case studies for us. They’re worth 25% of the REF outcome for each subject, and each one requires a complete dossier of evidence as well as a carefully crafted 3000-word narrative. So times that by 50 or so and you can see how it takes over your life. For a several months you will be eating, sleeping and dreaming impact case studies!

What are the best things about working in your role?

At its best, this job is about advocating for research, researchers and research institutions and proving that we matter, helping us tell our story in our own words and upholding our values. What could be better than that? In my team, we very much see our mission as championing the research and researchers at UCL, and showing that we are greater than the sum of our already brilliant parts. I am a doer as much as a thinker, and I love that I get to hustle a little and make things happen as well as step back and analyse how they could be better. 

In social studies there’s a concept of being a “boundary worker”, someone whose expertise is in bridging the different worlds that need to come together to make things happen but which typically prefer to stay separate. I am 100% a boundary worker and that in itself is extremely exciting to me. It means that not only do I get to venture into lots of different people’s worlds and think about how things look like from their perspective and how our research can meet their needs, I also get to work with a wide range of amazing researchers and professional services staff in my home faculties. Every day I am in absolute awe of their dedication, their bravery, their passion and their ingenuity. Seeing the connections between them and helping get their work out there is humbling and inspiring and it’s an honour to do it. I am lucky in this role that I get to work on bigger strategic things like major bids or new research centres.

What are the biggest challenges?

Starting with the big picture, “Impact” isn’t necessarily a framework that Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) in the UK chose for themselves. One challenge in my role is to acknowledge that lots of people have negative associations, assumptions and experiences about the “impact agenda”. I do sometimes need to win staff members’ trust that I am in their corner, and that’s always best done with actions rather than words. I always try to go above and beyond to demonstrate the opportunities in thinking about the impact our research can have/ is having on society, and to make sure I’ve really listened to why they do their work and what they value about it so we can build from there. 

On a more prosaic level, there are always frustrations around the sheer complexity of an institution like a university, the precarity of talented early career researchers’ employment here and everywhere, and funding is not just scarce, but it can also be a bit sporadic. This is a role in which you’ll find yourself suddenly needing to deliver a project with unexpected money from funders, government departments, bits of underspend etc., and in very short periods. Being creative but resilient and focused comes in handy.

Is a PhD essential for your role? If not, did you find your PhD experience nevertheless useful? 

A PhD is rarely listed as an essential in a job description, and people do come to these roles from outside academia regularly and they bring real strengths. However, you’ll find most people in them will have serious research credentials of some kind, and equivalent experience. That can take many forms, of course (independent industry R&D, PhD with postdoc experience, arts or professional practice, some combo of these etc.), but in my immediate team four of the five of us have doctorates and several years postdoc research experience, while the other has a long record of arts practice and management. 

I draw on my academic and non-academic research experience every day, and breadth of research literacy helps a lot in this role. I have to plan and execute a lot of data collection, analysis and so on, and it has to be very robust but deliverable, appropriate and persuasive to specific audiences. I use both the qualitative and quantitative research skills I developed as an academic. I also draw on that research experience when supporting UCL staff. 

There’s a common misconception that impact activity is a separate thing you do after or in parallel to your research, but it only really works when it’s an integral element of your research design. It takes skill and experience to spot the opportunities without distorting the original research aims or compromising the project’s methodological integrity.

What’s the career progression in your role? 

Research impact management is a pretty new field, so there’s no one established route in and there’s no set progression route once you’re there. That suits me fine. Personally, I see myself going back into the non-academic world next, maybe heading an impact or strategy unit in a big health funder or a charity, even going freelance for a time. It’s a career that travels fairly well if you’re happy to be open-minded. Lots of international NGOs, foundations, Intergovernmental Organizations (IGOs) etc., have impact-type roles. 

I do also see myself always having an ongoing role in academic research too, perhaps as faculty staff, perhaps in professional services. If you want to progress solely within HEIs from my role, however, you’d probably become a Head of Impact for a University, then eventually the Director of something in professional services, although of what exactly would probably depend on your particular skills and experience.

Top tips for researchers 

  1. Develop a thorough knowledge of HE and of the research landscape beyond it.
  2. Work outside of HE in earnest and figure out where you fit beyond the academy: get to know the culture, career structures and the ups and downs of places that aren’t universities, because those are the things that motivate the decisions people make about the knowledge we create.
  3. Figure out what about knowledge and society fascinates you – for me it was the politics and policy of health and inequalities – and dive in deep.
  4. Find the best people in that field and learn all you can from them and remember that even the disappointments and uglier realities are part of what makes the world turn.
  5. Foster your diplomatic skills and your entrepreneurial spirit: you need those in this job!