Jennifer Anderson

Athena SWAN advisor and facilitator.

Former postdoctoral research scientist at the University of Oxford, 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.

Jennifer Anderson

Research staff experience

I had research staff positions at the University of Oxford for eight years, researching radiation and DNA damage. During this time I was invited to present at three international conferences and was an author on seven peer-reviewed papers (including two as first author). Other highlights were being selected to participate in a NASA Space Radiation Summer School held at Brookhaven National Laboratories, Long Island, New York, (one of only 15 students) and being awarded the 2007 Jack Fowler award from the Radiation Research Society (selected from 247 abstracts).

I left higher education research as my fixed-term contract came to an end. I was never interested in becoming an independent researcher or establishing my own research group, which limits the opportunities to continue in research. Also, although I worked in the same lab for eight years, I was employed on a series of four short contracts and I wanted greater stability. It was this combination of factors that led me to consider other career options - I was not specifically attracted towards other careers.

Transition to new career

Being employed on a series of fixed-term contracts, I had to consider my next job each time my contract was coming to an end, and I took advantage of a range of opportunities provided by my university, such as courses on CV and interview skills. The ‘alternative careers’ seminars I attended were the most helpful. Several seminars were given by former higher education researchers who had successfully made the transition. Their research backgrounds were similar to mine and it was easy to identify with their reasons for leaving higher education research, as well as the skills that they had developed during their careers. During these seminars they discussed how they were able to ‘sell’ their research skills to fit non-research jobs. For example, publishing papers successfully is evidence that you can meet deadlines and complete a project. As a researcher I had found it difficult to identify what other jobs I was qualified to do, so being exposed to this range of careers made me consider a much wider range of possibilities. It also helped me to identify my ‘transferable’ skills and showed me ways that I could highlight these effectively when applying for jobs. 

Attending these courses and seminars also provided an opportunity to meet other postdoctoral researchers in a similar position to me. Talking with these people and comparing experiences provided some reassurance that I was not the only person to feel unsure of my future career. 

I considered any and all career options and applied for other postdoctoral positions, industry jobs and administrative roles in higher education. I didn’t want to feel like I was wasting my time spent as a researcher, so considered research/science related jobs such as radiation protection, grant administration and patent work. I was invited for interview for a range of jobs, and although unsuccessful with some I was offered other jobs, which assured me that I was capable of making the transition. 

Current job

I am an Athena SWAN advisor and facilitator employed by the University and my role is to support departments who are making applications for Athena SWAN awards, which recognise a commitment to advancing women’s careers in STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Medicine and Mathematics). What I actually do is extremely varied, but the main part of the job is to guide departments - including heads of department, senior academics and administrative staff - on the Athena SWAN process and areas of good practice. This can involve attending departmental meetings or running workshops on key topics. I also extract, analyse and present demographic data required for Athena SWAN applications using university and national databases; set up and analyse staff surveys; prepare reports for university and divisional level committees and working groups; and source, edit and produce copy to ensure that Athena SWAN initiatives are well communicated across the Division for which I am responsible, Medical Sciences.

I’ve only been in the role for six months so the main lows come from a perpetual feeling of not knowing what I’m doing! As a result though, the highs come from working through tasks that I wasn’t sure how to undertake and then receiving positive feedback once they’ve been completed.

Competencies old and new

Other than the specific research techniques I would say that I use all of the competencies that I gained as a researcher. For example, I worked very independently as a researcher and this is a key aspect of my current job. Working with a range of people has helped me greatly when liaising with individual departments and the central university. My research background has also been extremely valuable as I’m able to understand the difficulties that researchers face.

However the most useful skills that I gained as a researcher are communication skills. Communicating my research in writing (journal articles or conference abstracts) or verbally (teaching students, lab meetings, departmental seminars, international conferences) has definitely helped me in my new role. For example, meeting new people at scientific conferences and discussing our research is very similar to meeting new people at university or departmental level committees and discussing gender equality. Part of my role is to analyse and present demographic data or survey results, which again is very similar to analysing and presenting experimental data.

I don’t feel that I’ve had to develop entirely new competencies; however I do feel that I’ve significantly developed my existing ones.

Reflecting on my career path

Including my undergraduate and postgraduate degrees I spent over 15 years working towards a career in research and have mixed feelings about whether this was wasted as I now move away from research. If there were permanent research jobs available I would not have left higher education research and I definitely feel frustrated that so many highly qualified, highly trained researchers are being forced to leave from a lack of career options.

Having said that I don’t think that I would have done anything differently, as I thoroughly enjoyed my time in the lab and do feel that I will continue to use the skills that I developed in future jobs.

Having been employed on fixed-term contracts I have never made future career plans, as I feel it’s more important to be open to opportunities. My current job is maternity cover and is for just 12 months, but has been invaluable experience in transitioning away from bench work and shows that I do have the skills and adaptability to take on different roles. I have always had an interest in gender equality so being able to combine this with my research background is definitely rewarding. It is something that I would like to continue doing, but this will very much depend on the availability of jobs.

Suggestions and advice

Two tips:

1) Get involved in activities outside of the lab, such as outreach or committee membership. You need to make yourself stand out from other researchers as well as demonstrate your range of skills to a prospective employer.

2) Find a mentor. They don’t have to be within your department, your research area or be that senior to you but meeting regularly with someone outside of your research group helps you to find that space where you can focus on your career development rather than just your research.