Emily Brown

Research Impact Officer, Oxford Brookes University.

Four years’ research staff experience in the UK as a plant pathologist.

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.

Emily Brown

Research staff experience

My PhD studies were focussed on atypical isolates of a wilt-causing fungus of many globally important crops, which at the time were causing problems in oilseed rape crops in northern Europe but not in the UK. After completing my thesis, I was fortunate to get a 14-month research staff post working on a contract research project followed by a 5-month post, then finally a 24-month post all broadly on molecular diagnostics of diseases of Brassica crops, all within the same institution.

Transition to new career

It was probably a few months into the first research staff post that the feeling that I could not, maybe even didn’t want to, do research for the rest of my life came about. However, it took a long time to be able to admit it to myself. Coincidentally, it was around the time I met my now husband. Looking back, I was finding it difficult to fit in with my new group and the project didn’t feel like it was going well (it wasn’t!). There were times when I was very lonely, almost bereft at the passing of my PhD (as strange as it sounds).

After RAE2008, the vibes from senior management within the department seemed to change as, even though the department had performed very well in the research assessment, it was under tremendous financial pressures, and later on it became clear that the university wished to change the status quo; when I looked to the future I just couldn’t see myself justifying my position there. Yes, I could have looked elsewhere for a research position, but my partner had (and still has) a stable post in an excellent lab in medical research at Oxford and my area of research was niche to say the least. I decided that for us to succeed in our relationship and have the best chance of a happy future, we both couldn’t be in research. His post had better prospects and, on paper at least, it was an easy decision for me to try to make the move to a new, non-research, role.

I had a careers interview at the university careers service, and as preparation, was asked to look at jobs that appealed to me and highlight parts within the job description I liked the sound of. I knew that I didn’t want to retrain (I’d spent enough time and money in higher education), that I really didn’t want to be a secondary school teacher and that I liked working in universities. Most of the jobs in higher education were around research or grants administration, with maybe a couple of sexy sounding science communication jobs thrown in! After that I spent time talking to, then shadowing research-support colleagues at my university and doing a lot of reading around seemingly dry topics like full economic costing. 

I finally got to a point where I felt confident that I could apply for a job and make it to interview. Over the space of a year I had interviews for three research support-type jobs; the first two I didn’t get but learnt lots from and had really useful feedback that helped me prepare for the next one. The final interview was for a Research Support Officer post at Oxford Brookes, which I am very pleased to have got. 

Since coming to Brookes, I’ve worked in research support, business development and back to research support. I’ve been very lucky to have been able to work on such a variety of things, with tremendously supportive managers.

Current job

I am currently Research Impact Officer at Oxford Brookes University. It’s a post that came out of our preparations for the most recent national research assessment, REF2014. I support impact across the institution – so I can be talking to artists in the morning and computer scientists in the afternoon; it has tremendous variety, which I love. 

My role involves working across support teams to develop a systematic approach to identifying and tracking academics’ impact. I also provide guidance and advice on changes to funders’ policy and support academic colleagues on the routes that they can exploit to develop their impact.   

To my mind, impact is about demonstrating how research matters to the wider world and, to be honest, I have yet to come across a subject area that is unable to do this. In my work I am able to work strategically with senior management and in an operational capacity with academic and research support colleagues.

To be honest, there is very little about my job I dislike. As in many other universities, navigating our internal bureaucratic structures can be challenging at times, but the obstacles are certainly not insurmountable. 

Competencies old and new

I think that the basic approach to any experiment is a highly transferable skill. My PhD supervisor always encouraged the ‘thought experiment’ prior to undertaking any piece of work and I keep to this principle today. The ability to analyse complex sets of data, quickly develop competency in bespoke software applications, adapt to changing agendas internally and externally, present and write effectively - these are all things gained from my research career that I use regularly.

Something that was completely new to me was the value and articulation of processes – so much of what we do is about working with researchers to make their research practices better. If a process is unworkable for colleagues, then it fails but if it works it can be of great benefit to all parties. I think I still find it challenging, within my own mind-set, to consider the human side of things that need to come together for a process to work.

Reflecting on my career path

I wish I’d known that I am not a failure for moving out of research, and that it shouldn’t be seen as such. I did feel that I had let my PhD supervisor down somewhat, and this is probably something that I still carry with me. 

After five years in a support role I do feel that I am at a point where I could look to progress my career - but at the same time my current job is enjoyable, challenging and works with my home life and I’ve finally realised that there is nothing wrong with this!

Suggestions and advice

Research, as it turned out, wasn’t for me but that doesn’t mean it isn’t for you. If you love your discipline, being a researcher should be the best job in the world. But if you do want to try something else there are jobs out there.

It sounds obvious, but it’s really easy to slip into the mindset that just because you have a doctorate it means that you are instantly employable…you’re not. It’s just as, if not more, important to prepare well for interviews; if it’s a non-academic job go the extra mile to demonstrate how your experience in research is applicable for the post in question and spell it out!