IOE - Faculty of Education and Society


Transcript | Academia et al: S02E02

Careers in civil service

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You're listening to an IOE podcast. Powered by UCL Minds.

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This is Academia et al, the podcasts for anyone and everyone figuring out life in academia.

00:00:47 Dr Alina Pelikh

Hello and welcome. You're listening to Academia et al, the podcast for early career academics brought by early career academics. My name is Alina and I'm a Senior Research Fellow in demography at IOE, UCL's Faculty of Education and Society. I'm one of the co-hosts for this podcast, and like you, I'm just an early career academic trying to figure it all out. In this episode, I'm thrilled to be chatting with a special guest about a really timely topic, that is academia, should I stay or should I go?

With the rise in living costs globally, many have felt the impacts on a daily basis from seeing the rise in prices on basic goods like milk, to the increases in rent and energy prices. The realities of working in the academic bubble has really hit early career academics quite hard.

As some early career academics are now considering how sustainable their profession is, the theme of our conversation today is whether the grass is indeed greener on the other side.

How does life outside of academia look like? Is it really an option? What do we gain and what do we lose?

Joining me today is my special guest, Dr James Robards. James is the Head of Population and Household Projections in demography at the Office for National Statistics. Prior to his current post, James worked on international migration statistics and was part of the team designing the Census 2021 questionnaire, which I hope you all participated in.

Prior to joining ONS, James held two postdoctoral research posts at the University of Southampton, where he also completed his PhD in social statistics and demography.

James also completed his Master's at the University of Sheffield, worked in research consultancy and spent a number of years living in the Midlands and north of England.

I feel incredibly excited and privileged to be welcoming James on the podcast as we navigate some tough questions today. Welcome to the podcast, James.

00:02:37 James Robards

Hi Alina, great to be joining you today.

00:02:40 Alina

Excellent. Let's go straight into it. Leaving academia can be daunting for some. Could you please tell us about your academic journey and share with us how you were navigating getting the job outside of academia?

00:02:53 James

Sure. So I guess I've worked with census data for many years and really developed an interest in UK demography through the course of doing my undergraduate degree, my Master's and also with my PhD as well. And I guess over the years I got to know the statistics.. Clearly, they have a focus on demography and produce a wide range of statistics. And also as I work more and more with the data, I got to know the staff and different teams at the office.

I also attended many conferences that the office organised over the years and so I got to know the areas of work and some of their priorities and new projects through attending those. I also worked on a number of projects using 2011 census data when that became available through the course of sort of finishing my PhD and then starting a postdoc, I was able to use an early release of some longitudinally linked 2011 census data and do some early research. And that was in a team with members of staff from ONS as well.

So I guess over the years I've built up that awareness of what the office was doing, had the opportunity to work closely with with many members of staff from the office, and so my decision to move over was based on working, as I've said, with the data and with them for a number of years already.

00:04:07 Alina

So it all sounds very clear and very logical that you went to work for ONS, but how did you come to the decision to leave academia?

00:04:15 James

Well, my career before I started my PhD also included phases of working in private consultancy, and I think having that experience after my undergraduate degree and having worked away from academia already, I was certainly aware of some of the opportunities for those with research and demography skills outside of academia.

And when I started my PhD, although I had an ambition, probably at that point to have an academic career, I was open to the idea of other opportunities outside of academia. I think later on, through the course of doing my PhD, it became clear that at least in the short term, I would be able to do some postdoctoral work and to carry on afterwards. And that was so much fun and fantastic to do research in slightly different areas compared with my thesis as well.

But overall I judged that I wanted to make a break from academia and to work for ONS, work on the population statistics there, rather than in an academic environment.

00:05:19 Alina

I have a more practical question. For someone who hasn't considered a career at ONS, for example, for among our listeners, where would you begin looking for jobs? So did there, was there a specific job advert that you replied to?

00:05:31 James

So it's well worth looking on the Civil Service website, where jobs in the Civil Service are advertised, including those from ONS.

I saw some specific posts on work that seemed really interesting. That was part of my decision making process in terms of moving I think, because I realised in some more detail about the types of research and work which was being done and thought that those types of things were particularly attractive to me and that I would want to be involved in doing that sort of thing. But as I've said, the Civil Service Jobs website is very helpful. The ONS website also has a jobs page on it I believe, so well worth a look there. If you're interested specifically in ONS jobs.

I think one of the things to be aware of is the wide range of different jobs in the civil service and also the government professions.. I'll probably come back to that one a bit more later on and and talk to you about that.

00:06:23 Alina

So it was pretty much one job application, one job received, or a straight win for you was it?

00:06:29 James

No. it wasn't so simple for me. It took a few attempts in terms of applying and having a success in in making an application.

00:06:29 Alina

That's good to know because we like to hear stories of successes and unsuccess because behind every success there's a story of multiple iterations.

00:06:47 James

I think with that one, I'd say that it's important to learn from when you're not, when you're unsuccessful, right? Clearly, I mean, I think that's true for anything that we're doing. But I think if you, if you can really ask for feedback on what you've been doing and to seek advice from others on what you're doing, then try to be open and receive that. I think I'd sort of offer that up as a piece of advice, just generally with applying for jobs, just try to get that feedback on others on how you're presenting yourself.

00:07:15 Alina

Yeah, that's an excellent tip for those of you who are looking forward to applying for many jobs; asking for a feedback is something that's we come across quite often. Moving on to our next question is, you know, there is a phrase that the grass is always greener on the other side. So how true is this for your life outside of academia and maybe something about your work life balance changed, maybe not. So how would you describe this?

00:07:39 James

So again, I think having worked before starting out on doing my PhD and also my post doc led me to work at them very much in a sort of structured way. Like it was a job. So very much trying to do as much as possible through the course of the week and potentially still doing some fairly long days at times I guess. But trying to keep sort of work life balance with weekends to do interesting stuff and and go off and do things which chill out really I guess. But I mean that said, of course there are always those times when you've got to really sort of potentially up the hours a bit, and it's probably never more true than at the end of a PhD is it, when we're trying to bring everything together and finishing off.

I guess what I would say is that it's been really good having the sort of flexible working system where I am at ONS and for me as a parent now, it's really helpful in terms of the compatibility and being able to drop off my daughter and take care for her as well.

00:08:34 Alina

Well so far you've talked about how wonderful and employers at ONS but how would you describe the challenges that you face, so whether anything different because people say oh you when you leave academia you lose all this freedom and you kind of you have to play by the rules more strictly. I mean you clearly had an experience of working in a similar environment before, but would you say there were anything in particular that surprised you or any challenges of switching to your different career that you that you find particularly hard?

00:08:52 James

I think one of the incredible things in in academia is our ability to be able to think of a particular piece of research or how our question can be addressed and to just go ahead and explore it right or to go ahead and seek some funding and to do that. So we've definitely sort of been able to do that in the past and greatly enjoyed it and I guess probably is one of the changes in terms of not having quite such the same liberties in terms of the focus of research on what you decide to do.

But that said, I think depending on the role on what area you're working in and what you're doing, we still value all of those core research skills about identifying ways that we address the problems that we have, how we do that, you know statistically with data whether it gets done elsewhere by someone else outside of the office or however, we address that to help our end user.

There's the opportunity to still to shape research and to look at how we address particular areas and issues which we're facing. So I think although it's different and you might be in a sort of thematic area, which is perhaps a bit different to your background in some way, if you have those core research skills and you're able to work out how you might overcome a problem and then pursue that, then there's still a similarity in terms of the research process, right, and with so many of the things that we're doing in the office, they're working through that.

00:10:23 Alina

It sounds like it was a really smooth transition to you, so you're not getting me any dirty gossip. OK, so moving on to our next question. So reflecting on your journey, academic and post academic, like, which transferable skills should early career academics be aiming to develop to make the transition easier, regardless where they go afterwards? So looking back at your journey, which advice would you give to early career academics, how to be strategic about developing personally and professionally in the career that you choose, if they're currently in academia?

00:10:57 James

OK, so I think there are probably three in this one. I've come up with the top three for you, Alina, I guess.

So I think the first one is about the communication of research findings. And I know that there's already a lot of thought that goes on amongst other PhD and postdoc community more widely within academia about how that's done. But I think really knowing what the findings from a piece of research mean and the role or impact that they could have and what's the context of them is just really important. And I think that's clearly true within academia. But also if you're thinking about approaching non academic roles, I also believe that that's of great importance to be able to take that wider view of what you've done and what it all means.

So I guess there's an element in that also about who should be interested and why. And perhaps it is the case that you haven't necessarily been able to communicate with them so easily. But is there a way that you could do that a bit differently by reaching out perhaps more directly on Twitter and at them or something like this? Or to use these types of things that we have in our toolkit, including blogging and so forth? So that's my first one.

My second one is on skills and I put quantitative sort of methods or coding more specifically, but I know I've probably got colleagues who are doing qualitative research or other types of research as well. And I guess in this sort of domain, I'm thinking more about the ability to use your proficiency in one area there. So for example, a coding language that you might have learned and perhaps to swap that to a slightly different language. So if you use R, can you use Python as well? What's your ability to transfer in that way? And that's my second one.

The third thing which I think is important, is about the management and coordination of research. So if you're looking or applying for perhaps non academic jobs, then it's really important to hear about how you have gone about managing that research process from beginning to end. So in designing the research, what were your considerations in approaching it? What were the outcomes of the research? So that impact point I was mentioning just before, how did you clarify what the major items were that you needed to do in your research as you went along? There were probably many issues which you overcame as well, so you would have probably managed some of those and also about the input from others, which you've probably had to coordinate so that perhaps it's difficult data set which you've managed to access and be an early user of. Or if you've had to coordinate impact from colleagues who haven't perhaps had so much time to input, how have you managed to achieve their input? Where you really needed it for that research to be done and the highest standard that you could achieve. So those are my thoughts on this one.

00:13:47 Alina

Thank you so much. Well, early career academics, you have a lot to learn from James, so a) communication, b) improve your hard skills and c) time and people management. These are all kind of lifelong learning goals I would say, but thank you very much for this. This is really, really, really good tips.

So if you could travel back in time and tell your younger self or more junior self, what would be some things that you wish you knew about ONS or civil service more generally before leaving academia?

00:14:15 James

I think I'd say how many people not dissimilar to myself and probably others who've had an academic background actually work in the civil service, first off. And then secondly probably about the different professions and the wide range of roles in the civil service. I mean, as I mentioned probably earlier, when you're asking about jobs, we have so many different types of skills that are important for the delivery of what we do, of the statistics that we publish. So I'm not sure I'd fully appreciated the government professions and and the differences between them. So statistics, research, operational delivery and that it's been really fantastic to work with members of those different professions and benefit from their different specialisms on where they come from and to work together in the delivery of of what we've done.

00:15:01 Alina

Thank you. That's really excellent answer. I really like the part about that there are other people not that dissimilar from you. OK. So related to that and to you working in a in a very multidisciplinary team as you've described it, in your multidisciplinary team, do you get to still work with the academics every now and then or do other teams work with academics?

00:15:21 James

In the team which I lead, we have a process where we engage with academic experts who are experts in in UK fertility migration and mortality, and we talk to them about the latest research which has been done and ensure that we're aware of all of that and that we use that through the course of the development of our statistics. So that's certainly one way that just my team does that.

And then there are other ways in which we speak and work with academics as well because it's so valuable, all of the research which is being done within UK academia and more widely on different aspects of the population. So as an office, we remain aware of that and very much want to to hear and understand about this from those academic experts.

00:16:10 Alina

So it sounds very much like you still have one foot back in academia. OK. But coming back to the core question, everyone has a turning point at some point where they think, OK, now is the time, now is the time to leave or try to leave. Not everyone succeeds. So do you remember what was your turning point when you decided it's OK, now is the moment to go or to try and leave?

00:16:37 James

Well, I felt like I'd seen the the office and some of the work being done there changing over the over the years and I felt that with changes in the way that they were using data and some of the new aims with use of administrative data that would be really great to be part of that and get involved in it. And I was also aware about the census coming up in 2021. I was keen to be sort of part of the upcoming census and to somehow have some sort of role in that and potentially contribute to it. But I was weighing up around a sort of contracts and that I'd worked on fixed term contracts for some time. I was probably at a point where if I was going to move on in academia as well I would perhaps need to move geographically as well and that wasn't something that sort of so easy for me I guess, which I wanted to sort of particularly to do.

I'd moved around a bit in terms of my doing my undergraduate and a Master's work and then sort of eventually moving to Southampton and felt like I wanted to stay in in the area and sort of making a move in in the direction I did was sort of helpful in terms of being able to stay locally as well.

00:17:44 Alina

Thank you very much for your honesty. I think that's something that I can totally relate to. I've switched quite a few countries and universities and fixed term contracts is something that we talk about a lot on this podcast and something that unfortunately academia is not making any easier. Now moving on to our next question.

How do you think your academic career set you up for success at ONS?

00:18:11 James

You know me and you know about the demographic research I've done in the past and some of the sort of particular points of focus and things I've done with that. And really I've had more of a UK focus in the work that I did in the past.

So I guess first of all, I have a sort of broad understanding of the UK population, it's been really helpful. But I guess more than that, I think it's that ability to try to resolve problems with research and to sort of help with the progression of what we're doing when we produce statistics. There are just so many stages to doing that and many things to think about along the way as you're trying to progress some statistical release. And I think that the experience I have from working in academia has been really invaluable in terms of all the things I've learned from the people that I've worked with and that that's been really helpful for my approach and how we work on producing our statistics here now.

00:18:57 Alina

Excellent. Thank you very much. And I think that's really good that we as demographers, we have a route to go if we wanted to. There's quite a few demographers who left academia for ONS. And my final question of the day, James, we ask all of our guests to share their tip of the day. What would be your top tip for early career academics today?

00:19:19 James

My tip would be to find a mentor. I feel like I've really benefited from mentoring in the past. And I'd also say make sure they're the right mentor for what you're trying to make a decision on or particular areas where you'd like to receive feedback and mentoring from others.

00:19:31 Alina

Thank you very much. I absolutely agree with that. And as a moment to advertise it, IOE holds regular meetings for both mentors and mentees, workshops on what does it mean to be a mentor, what can you gain as a mentee? And I highly recommend to all of you out there if you see the next call for for a mentoring programme or enrol yourself in a mentoring programme and look for opportunities, and talk to us if you want to learn more about it.

Thank you, James. Thanks again for this great tip. And thank you all for listening to Academia et al. I'm Alina Pelikh and joining me today was my great guest, Dr James Robards. You can learn more about his work in our show notes or follow him on Twitter or LinkedIn.

You can also follow the IOE Early Career Network Twitter account at @IOE_EarlyCareer. If you have suggestions for content or want to be on our next podcast as a guest, send us an email at ioe.earlycareer@ucl.ac.uk. Thanks for listening.


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Academia et al is brought to you by the IOE's Early Career Network. This podcast is presented by Dr Keri Wong and Dr Alina Pelikh. The theme music was created by Roni Xu. Amy Leibowitz is the series producer, and Sarah-Jane Gregori is the executive producer.

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Thanks so much for downloading and listening to this IOE podcast.