Sarah Gutteridge

Higher Education Policy Advisor, UK.

Former research staff in physics at the University of Nottingham, 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

After completing my undergraduate degree and doctorate at the University of Nottingham, I remained within the School of Physics and Astronomy as a postdoctoral researcher based in the Sir Peter Mansfield Magnetic Resonance Centre. Unilever sponsored me to work on a two-year project mapping the representation of sensory perception of the fingers within the brain.

I began to take a very active role in the professional and academic support side of my School, for example helping at open days for potential students and with registration of new ones. Although I found my research career rewarding I was increasingly drawn to the policy and practice development side of higher education and the positive support I could provide for students.

When my project with Unilever came to an end I started to apply for new research grants, but at the same time was investigating career paths which would allow me to pursue this other area of interest. I was also keen to find a career where I could use some personal skills less utilised as a researcher, such as (what I now know as) stakeholder relationship management, strategic development of ideas and facilitation skills.

Sadly, the prospect of a job with more security was a further reason for leaving research. By now I was signing contracts which only lasted a couple of weeks at a time whilst I sought new funding.

I also felt that, although competent in my field, those I knew who succeeded in research careers had a confidence of approach, significant professional drive and career priorities which did not truly suit me.   

Transition to new career

Although I’d decided to leave higher education (HE) research, I was certain I wished to stay in HE. This made the transition easier: I was not moving to a totally unrecognisable environment. Even so, I hesitated at the prospect of office life after several years in a lab − concerned I’d become desk bound and fixed to an office routine. I had to reassure myself that a different kind of job would still hold my interest. Deciding to leave research for a positive reason, rather than because I was unhappy in my job, helped me to be motivated about discovering a new role.   

All the career options I considered were based around research or education. These included research librarian, professional support for research grant writing, university academic support services, and schools science liaison officer. 

I found it very challenging to know what other careers were out there that would suit my skills. As an undergraduate you are encouraged to think about what you might want to do when you finish your degree, both in terms of services provided by the university and conversations you have with peers. As a postdoctoral researcher, considering options is a much more solitary affair. It’s a very big decision to leave research, as once you have done it, the longer you are away from the field, the harder it would be to go back. This definitely made it a big step to make − but an exciting one with lots of opportunities. 

Another challenge was recognising and valuing my skills set, especially in the context of the world outside research. However, I did find that thinking more creatively about my skills set helped me identify my transferable skills. This allowed me to map my existing experience onto a role that was (seemingly) completely different. For example, designing and completing experiments is a form of project management, and teaching undergraduate lab practicals showed that I could tailor the explanation of complex ideas to match my audience. 

I found the Prospects graduate job website extremely valuable. It provided a career planning tool which looked at my strengths, weaknesses, likes and dislikes and suggested areas of work to which I might be suited. This gave me both a number of new career options and weblinks to job adverts in these areas − one of which was my first job outside research.  

In this subsequent role I actually received a lot of support from my employer to help with the transition. I was given time for training courses (for example in policy development), attended briefings on HE issues, and shadowed a senior member of staff at a university. I was also provided with a peer mentor to help me settle in. 

My route to my current job has always been in higher education. My first job was with the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) as an HE adviser, working with a set of universities. I then moved back into the sector as an assistant academic registrar at the University of the West of England, focusing on quality assurance and enhancement of teaching and learning. This included managing an internal review of the postgraduate student experience at the University. The experience I gained working in an HE institution enabled me to return to HEFCE in my current, more senior, specialist role. During this period I’ve also had maternity leave for my two children.

Current job

My current role is as a Higher Education Policy Adviser for HEFCE. My job is split between two main areas of work: 1. to provide information, advice and guidance for a group of Universities regarding funding, regulation and implementation of government policy; 2. to work on national policy development for the funding of loans for students and quality assurance at alternative (for example private) providers of HE.    

One of the best aspects of the job is working with a wide range of stakeholders from senior university staff, to students, consultants, other HE funding bodies and civil servants. My colleagues are all highly motivated and educated (a number with doctorates in fact); there is a lot of informed, positive, debate about work and we all support each other in working towards a common vision for the Council. The landscape of higher education is very dynamic, so the knowledge needed for my role is always changing, which keeps me interested and engaged. I also feel that I am part of helping to support a wider agenda regarding the social mobility and increased economic impact which can result from engagement with higher education.

My role differs from my experience of research in higher education in that I’ve a permanent position with clear lines for personal development and career progression. There is a much more formal structure − no more scrabbling around under dusty equipment and more time in a suit attending meetings. I also have much more regular working hours. Weekends in the lab/office are a thing of the past.    

Competencies old and new

Some of the most valuable competencies I gained as a researcher were numeracy skills and and analytical approach to problems. Teaching undergraduates, writing papers and presenting my work at conferences gave me transferable communication skills. Working as part of a research team meant that I already had good understanding of the challenges and benefit of collaborative working. Being a researcher also taught me resilience in the face of unexpected outcomes. When work does not go to plan I learned to have a positive attitude to seeking alternatives.

The experience of working in HE research has been invaluable in my subsequent roles. I knew what it was like to work at a university, what was important to postgraduates and how a university works at a ground level. I was also familiar with learning and teaching terminology and quality assurance processes.

Although I no longer work in research my role still allows me to talk to universities about research strategies and bids to support research and development activities.

I’ve had to gain new competencies too, of course. These include: learning to write in different styles, for example for board papers and policy documents; how to assess funding bids and provide constructive feedback; how to chair and minute meetings; and how to analyse consultation responses.   

Reflecting on my career path

It would have been helpful to know that overcoming the challenges associated with a research career can be hard − but if you choose to do something else, moving away from research is a positive option and not (necessarily) a second choice.

I’ve been happy with how my career path has developed so far. I’m proud to be able to say that my research career made it all possible (and still refer to myself sometimes as a recovering physicist). In the future I’d be interested in working more on the policy development side of higher education − if possible around the postgraduate student experience or research areas. Another option might be to work for one of the Research Councils.

Suggestions and advice

The experience and skills that you’ve developed as a researcher are desirable and valued by employers. It’s important to think of your competencies in terms of transferable skills, which can be applied to disciplines outside your own. If you have the chance, take advantage of training courses provided by your institution in areas outside your direct interest, for example budget/project management, facilitation skills or a foreign language.

Also be prepared to take a possible pay cut as part of any substantial career change. This may be inevitable as you move from an area of expertise to a new one but it will worth it in the longer term and you will always have opportunities to progress in your new career.