Rosa Fernandez

Research Director, National Centre for Universities and Business.

Former Research Fellow in Economics 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.

Research staff experience

I came to the UK in 1999 upon finishing my PhD to take up a post as research fellow in the ESRC funded centre on Skills Knowledge and Organisational Performance (SKOPE), which was hosted in the Department of Economics at Oxford University. For the following ten years I undertook and published research and policy evaluation reports in the areas of labour and education economics and the economics of crime. While labour economics and the economics of education were my main areas of specialisation at the time, I’d always had an interest in the economics of crime and my time at Oxford enabled me to pursue interests beyond my areas of specialisation. I was also a tutor in economics in Worcester College.

From early on I realised that my interests and approach to research were much more cross-disciplinary than most of my peers. As a result of my choices to broaden my horizons my ‘identity’ as an academic researcher was blurred. This hampered my publication record: some of my papers that applied economic theories to wider social science questions were rejected by editors; misunderstood both by economics journals and non-economic journals, though for different reasons.

I had however multiple other achievements that helped my development as a researcher and opened my eyes to alternatives to academia. I valued belonging to a community of scholars enormously, and still regard election to the office of Senior Pro-proctor, an office of the University normally reserved for established staff, as one of my career achievements. Admittedly junior contract researchers are not encouraged to take up administrative duties, but I thought raising the profile of contract research staff in the high offices of the university was an opportunity I could not reject, and I absolutely did not regret it either. It aided my developing skills beyond research activity and, as an economist, made me curious about policies and incentives in academia and the challenges of how to decide on the allocation of budgets for science and research. This turned to be instrumental in my future choices.

These new interests coincided with changes in SKOPE and I was facing increasing competition from junior staff and pressure from senior staff to invest in my specialisation and publish. But after a decade at Oxford my career interests and aspirations had moved on. It was clear that I’d lost my fit for the type of research careers that were promoted there at the time and I started to look elsewhere.

Transition to a new career

I applied for some lectureships in more multidisciplinary departments, without success. The process of attempting to move within the academic market in the UK was disheartening. My recollection is of experiencing a poor match between the advertised position and what the interviewers were portraying and of trying to second-guess the attributes of the ideal candidate that panels were actually seeking.

These rejections and the perception that the process was rarely fair and transparent drove me to look elsewhere. Access to the Government Economic Service is through an exam, of course also with interviews, but the GES was less likely to have one single type of recruit in mind.

In 2009 the GES advertised the post of economic adviser for science and research, part of the team that justifies spending in and allocates the research budgets in the UK. Linking back to my time in Oxford, it was a great opportunity to put my skills to work still within the research sector but without specifically doing research. I prepared for and passed the exams and took post in the same year.

Competencies old and new

For the following four years I remained the economic advisor for science and research in the UK, learning a great deal of new skills that were either latent or developed by doing this job. I recall being particularly surprised and proud of the team-work and the respect with which different areas of work come together. I also recall realising the value of my PhD outside academia: I could put at the service of others analytical skills that had before been confined to my papers, and now were benefiting not only my colleagues but generally helping get a better deal for science and research in the UK.

A further career shift

Four years into public administration I was missing time and resource to explore areas of inquiry that were untapped among researchers in the areas of science and innovation. Also, public administration is such that they encourage mobility of staff across areas of policy to broaden their experiences. Although I’d changed job and specialisation successfully before, I was not ready to change again soon. So my choice was to remain working in the areas of science and innovation but look elsewhere for this.

Upon being created in 2013, the National Centre for Universities and Business (an independent not-for-profit membership organisation) advertised for the post of head of research, looking for someone to set up and run the research function in the Centre. I applied to this post successfully and have since been made a director.

Current job

The NCUB aims to bring together all relevant stakeholders in the area of university business collaboration; it is funded by collaborating business and universities and funded directly by the public funders of science and research in the UK. NCUB activities therefore have to serve the purposes of research performers, users of research and decision makers for funding allocations. The post of Research Director at the NCUB entails elements of research and administration.

I design and manage in-house research plan and resources, which, to match the small team we have, is currently limited to three or four outputs a year. These span original new research into relevant topics, such as skills demand, and growth in knowledge exchange income, as well as the centre’s flagship publication, the State of the Relationship report. The research team also supports analytical operations across the NCUB in specific projects. This support function is very similar to what I did as a civil servant – only at a different scale. To fulfil multiple roles the team brings together and works closely with researchers in member organisations to exploit both internal and external expertise; as evidenced in the State of Relationship report.

Comparisons with the research staff role

As a director I work with the senior management team in ensuring a smooth running of operations, developing strategic plans and delivering outputs as per our agreed delivery plan. As a researcher I had never had to deal with the responsibility of other people’s jobs and the knowledge that bad resource allocation would harm the whole centre, its contributors and funders, not just lose me a grant of have a paper rejected.

Academia did not prepare me well for being responsible for resources that were not just my ‘research grant’. When you depend on customers, be those other civil servants, other government departments, or public and private funders, you develop a focus on delivering what the client needs while upholding precision and rigour. As a Fellow of the Royal Statistical Society I’m supported by its Code of Conduct in performing my role as a researcher to a high standard of reliability and trust, which also gives users of my service the confidence that I will not misrepresent evidence.

Reflecting on my career path

I feel fortunate that I have been able to pursue different interests and that so far my career path has been driven by opportunities that came about in moments of need. Seeking solutions to complex problems is a skill one learns in a PhD, and in every transition I had to seek a solution that would fit my needs, so in my view doing a PhD implicitly prepared me to advance in my professional life in ways that I can only identify in hindsight.

Finding solutions and using evidence for decision making are useful everywhere. Outside academia I have found that co-workers value greatly the ability to come up with ways forward and the confidence to challenge established opinions using evidence. I’ve also found respect and constructive criticism is much more prevalent outside academia.

Suggestions and advice

Being aware of path dependency – meaning that my past choices determine where I am now – has been an instrumental tool in my evolution. Path dependency does not determine the future though, only the current situation, there are many ways to learn new things and teach others that are not within academia.

You’d have heard that the working environment and rules are very different outside academia and you’ll not know what it means until you try it. You’ll lose some flexibility in terms of timing or which topics of research you work on but you will gain some flexibility in terms of what you want to do next. Career progression outside academia is much broader and less directed.

I found meeting the people for whom I am making a difference very rewarding. When I was in government it was seeing a new facility or a new line of spend being delivered to researchers. At NCUB it is receiving positive feedback from our members and funders about the things we do for them. I consider understanding ‘delivery’ one of the best lessons I learned outside academia.

Delivery in research and policy analysis does not mean misrepresenting evidence or saying what the client wants to hear, it means providing your clients with the best available evidence and let them decide if they want to use it. So far in my non-academic career I have not had robust evidence rejected – unlike some of my papers.

Going out in the non-academic labour market is daunting, especially if, like me, all your life has hitherto been in academia, but my experience was that within academia the process was not that transparent either. I do believe there is a language barrier in the transition. I knew the names of many skills I had but had a very poor understanding on how to evidence them (which for someone with a PhD in empirical economics is telling). I would recommend seeking and following advice on how to demonstrate your value from someone who has made a successful transition.