Sushma Tiwari

Senior Policy Manager, Research Councils UK.

Former research staff in genetics at the University of Bath, 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.

Sushma Tiwari

Research staff experience

I got much job satisfaction from my ten years as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Bath.

I’d done my PhD in India in plant biotechnology, working on generation of herbicide and insect resistant cotton plants. My project was very closely aligned to the needs of various seed companies that the lab was working with.  My research contributed to the suite of work enabling the lab to develop India’s first home grown GM cotton (insect resistant) crops approved for commercial release.

Following a brief exchange experience in the Laboratory of Genetics, University of Ghent, Belgium, I joined the Biology and Biochemistry Department at the University of Bath, in South West England. My research was to understand epigenetic regulation and how it impacted on seed development.

Through my research I was able to identify endosperm specific promoters which were very handy to drive gene expression with specificity and also identified the fifth known imprinted gene in Arabidopsis (only a handful imprinted gene were known in Arabidopsis at the time, whereas, over 70 had already been identified in mouse).

I successfully published my research in peer reviewed journals and presented my papers at major conferences. As a postdoctoral researcher, I not only did my own research, I also trained and supervised PhD and project students.

However, I then left higher education due to family circumstances. My son was born at a time when my career in academia was at a critical juncture. Even though I was happy to continue as research staff, I felt that I was expected to establish myself independently. I decided that as a new mum with no family support for childcare, the commitment required was unfeasible.

I was provided with a bridge funding from the University of Bath when my contract ended but was unable to successfully bid for a new grant in that time.

I began looking for a job within travelling distance where I could use my experience and interests in science and have the flexibility to bring in a work-life balance. I’d previously applied for research funding to the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and thought it would be a good idea to work for the organisation and see what the other side was like.

I joined BBSRC as a Peer Review Officer and subsequently moved to the Corporate Policy and Strategy Unit in BBSRC as a Policy and Strategy Officer. I’m currently working as a Senior Policy Manager in Research Councils UK (RCUK), the strategic partnership of the UK's seven research councils. 

Transition to new career

It was important to me to work in an area where I could make use of my scientific understanding and methodology. At the time, I did not have a lot of understanding of different places which might offer that. 

I had an understanding of peer review, although not in a grant award context. I identified areas where my experience would add value and where the gaps were in my understanding. At interview, I was able to communicate this by practical examples and landed in the job. 

I found the civil service environment more formal than the one I was used to in academia, but also supportive and accommodating of my inexperience. 

In my new role my research staff background gave me an advantage in communicating with academics. Also, since I understood the academic system, I could work in a way which provided help to the academics, postdocs and research development offices of the universities. 

The inflexibility in peer review processes was a bit frustrating at first, but as I began understanding the organisational complexities and constraints it became easier for me. I also found not being able to drive things quickly a difficult adjustment; in the research environment there are less dependencies and you are more in control of your project. 

I wanted to move into the strategy and policy area and have now made the transition. Again, in contrast to defining the strategy and policy in the academic environment, where you are the expert and drive the agenda, here you identify the experts and then get them to help you define the strategy and policy. This took a bit of practice. 

Current job

I’m now responsible for developing and managing research policy and strategy development as part of the work of the high level cross-council RCUK Research Group. 

I manage a portfolio of cross-council policy initiatives and a programme of associated activity – examples of areas covered include interdisciplinary research and the cross-Council research themes, capital investment strategy, demand management and RCUK input into the Research Excellence Framework (REF). I also help co-ordinate research council submissions to the Department for Business, Industry and Skills for the periodic government spending reviews. I engage with key stakeholders to maintain effective dialogue and collaborations between research councils and external partners.

Competencies old and new

In academia, you forget how many skills other than research you are constantly developing. The organisational skills, ability to focus, extract information, motivate, lead, train, supervise, think strategically; building networks and horizon scanning  - all of these helped me establish my career in a policy environment. 

Other competencies I brought from academia include time management, prioritising, multitasking, working and delivering under pressure, setting and managing deadlines, team working, managing budgets and pitching information at the right level.

New competencies I’ve had to gain include: how to make policy; adopting writing styles for strategy and policy documents; handling data and awareness of data protection; facilitating meetings; assembling group of experts to deliver a strategy document; political awareness; and working with multiple stakeholders with conflicting priorities.

Reflecting on my career path

I had not thought about an alternative career to research till very late, and I wish that I had given it thought before, as this has turned out to be satisfying as well.

I wish I’d a better understanding of the funding environment, not only in terms of where to apply for funding, but of how that area functions.

If I were a researcher again I’d actively engage in more areas outside research. I would also read more policy documents and keep an eye on select committees’ evidence sessions in parliament to keep abreast of political drivers and decisions.

When you are research staff, you are so involved in your subject that you just wish to be left alone to get on with your research. I now appreciate the importance of ‘distractions’ such as organising workshops, participating in science cafés, school engagements, managing the budget, and negotiating pricing on equipment.

My future aspirations are to gain deeper understanding of science strategy and policy and work on an international level. I’d also like (depending on viability) to do some part-time work in melanoma research. This is a personal target and I hope my molecular biological skills will still come handy then and would be desired.

Suggestions and advice

I strongly feel that we need more support for potential returners to research. Most of the current support is only available to those who have taken a complete break from their careers, and that too focussed mainly on women. If people knew that there were opportunities to come back to research, I believe that they would be more willing to engage in different activities to broaden their scope. 

Research is fascinating but there should be at least 10% of the time devoted to other activities and this should be inbuilt in the system, not dependent on individual supervisors and research leaders.

Engage with as many external entities as you can - funders, politicians, and so on. If you’re not already doing it, ask for more delegation in activities like coordinating REF responses, etc., where there are opportunities to develop the so-called soft skills.