Anna Tarrant

Leverhulme Trust Research Fellow, University of Leeds.

Previously research officer for a third sector charity and former research associate at the Open University, UK.

This story comes from our What do research staff do next? project, investigating the careers of research staff who moved from research posts to other occupations and employment sectors. You can use these stories to better understand how these researchers transition, what careers they have and their reflections on the transition process and current career paths.

Anna Tarrant

Research staff experience

I’m a social scientist who’s completed three fixed-term contracts in academia. I’ve also had two positions outside higher education. Recently I returned to academia again.

After finishing my doctorate my first posts in academia were two, 10-month fixed term contracts as a Senior Teaching Associate in Lancaster Environment Centre at Lancaster University. Next I secured a two-year contract as a research associate at the Open University, based in Milton Keynes.

In this role I supported Prof Brid Featherstone in her research around complex and marginalised families and its application within social work practices. I worked on several projects: as researcher for an evaluation of an advice and advocacy line for the Family Rights Group; conducting qualitative interviews on an ESRC-funded project which explored young men’s relationships with services; conducting interviews for an evaluation of the health impacts of a local urban regeneration project.

Each project allowed me to develop my interests in men and masculinities, grandparenting and family research. I published several journal articles, presented conference papers and chaired a seminar about ageing masculinities, from which I edited a collection of articles. I also submitted a proposal for research to the Leverhulme Trust, which I subsequently found out had been successful.

I felt that I had to leave higher education research, though, because I was coming to the end of my third fixed-term contract and was struggling to cope with the stress of academic job-hunting. As mother of a young child (18 months) and with a partner thriving in a stable and successful career, I decided that uprooting my family was not an option unless I could secure a permanent job. Permanent research positions are few and far between in academia and very few permanent lectureships were advertised at the time.

Managing transitions

Eventually I accepted the position of research officer for the bid team at a large charity. I felt that this would still allow me to conduct social research while using some skills gained in higher education research. The role was permanent and also local to where I live so it offered security and the potential to develop my social networks. 

I had considered several possible directions, mostly within the third sector because of my political views and my desire to work for somewhere that cared about people, particularly those who are marginalised and rendered vulnerable by this marginalisation. I searched for research work, public engagement work, education support work and charity work. I considered doing another degree with an applied focus but rejected this due to financial constraints. 

I found the transition to another career outside academia difficult and emotional, mainly because I didn’t want to leave academia. I experienced a palpable feeling of loneliness and lack of support: I felt like I had failed. My institution offered plenty of academia-related career development opportunities but few that focused on career opportunities beyond. I did attend a careers workshop which provided an open space for thinking about all career options but unfortunately this didn’t help with the practical aspects of job searching. 

Coping with lack of continuity in my career, which has required a lot of personal energy and time, was not a new challenge. After my first senior teaching associate position I worked briefly in market research for a small company. I left this job because the teaching position became available again. 

I overcame these difficulties by conducting extensive research of the job market online in my spare time and by developing my non-academic CV in readiness. I talked to friends about their jobs and career journeys to get a sense of what I might be able to do. It was by chance that I spotted my eventual job. I noticed the organisation’s offices when out at a restaurant, checked their website on getting home - and found the position on the vacancies page.

My second return to academia was even more unexpected than the first. I took the Research Officer role under the knowledge that I would not get the Leverhulme Trust research funding I’d applied for. But someone turned it down at the last minute and I was awarded it instead.

The insecurity and timing of contracts and funding in academia can be really tricky to manage and very stressful. I had to really consider whether to take another risk and accept the fellowship. In the end, the prestige of the award, the flexibility to do it part-time and the length of the contract of three and half years (longer than my previous posts) helped make up my mind. Research remains my passion and I feel I am edging that bit closer to the ‘holy grail’ of a permanent position.

Work outside academia

While I now work as a Research Fellow at University of Leeds, my previous position as a Research Officer provided me with invaluable insight into life beyond academia. In this role I supported colleagues bidding for social care contracts either to retain services that the organisation already provided or to secure additional contracts for new service users. I researched the policy context in which local authorities were operating, local activities and support infrastructure, and demographic data and local area characteristics. 

This research was very different from higher education research because it was used to help to secure finance from local authorities. In this sense the job was a market research position. I did not need to be as critical about the data. What was generally needed was descriptive background data to help optimise the bid responses. 

I also did research to provide an overview of strategic directions for the charity: I produced one report about specialist social care markets and considered the potential in the markets for people with complex care needs. 

When my research support helped to win a bid and secure multi-million pound contracts and a good quality service, this was a definite high. I also enjoyed writing the research report and thereby being part of business planning. 

Competencies old and new

In my research staff role I gained competency in researching online in order to contextualise research questions. This was helpful when selecting information that would most effectively support bid writing, as were my critical reading skills: these enabled me to pick out key points within policy documents swiftly. In academia I’ve also gained strong written and analytical skills that helped me to express my ideas clearly through reports and other written outputs. Other transferable skills like meeting deadlines and contributing in meetings were also put to use.

I had to learn about how the charity sector works very quickly. Deadlines were more frequent than in academia and I had to learn to summarise information more succinctly. I also had to learn how to be managed in a different way. In my charity role, management was more task based, while in higher education I had more freedom and more opportunities to develop my own career experiences.

Reflecting on my career path

My career path has been anything but what I expected. While I’m glad to be back in higher education, my jaunts outside have been valuable: gaining a greater understanding of the charity sector and how it works has helped me to make more sense of my academic interests.

Social research has been my passion for a long time and I feel that it is the most challenging and rewarding work that I have done. My aim is to remain in academia and to secure that long-sought-after permanent lectureship.

If this isn’t possible, it’s good to know that there are options beyond academia with opportunities to use research staff skills. However, I still feel that I know very little about possible routes to a successful and rewarding career outside higher education. It would be useful to be better supported in terms of finding work outside of academia that is suited to someone with qualitative research experience and a passion for the humanities.

Suggestions and advice

I would recommend thinking about and researching career options both in and out of academia very early on so that 1) it’s not a shock when the end of the contract approaches and 2) you can avoid ‘leaving-academia-is-failure’ thinking. Work elsewhere can allow you to use your skills in new and creative ways, provide unexpected insights, and lead to new directions.

Try and seek out any help and support that you can. Attend seminars and events for researchers and establish relationships through your research with other sectors in order to open up possibilities for the future.