Careers, Interview, Resources

REBLOG: Think Ahead Blog #sheffvista – Dr Ross Drayton

This post is a re-blog of an interview piece produced by the University of Sheffield  Think Ahead blog, in which Dr Ross Drayton (a Cardiff University alumnus) eloquently and engagingly describes his transition between academic life to the civil service. Enjoy…

Beneath Ross’s story a short footnote that describes how this post came to be.


#sheffvista 35 – Operational Research Analyst, Dr Ross Drayton

Link to the original post

Job title and company: Operational Research Analyst – Home Office

Approximate salary range for your type of role: £30-£40k

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Dr Ross Drayton

Ross’ LinkedIn profile

At 18, I took what now seems like the hopelessly quaint view that if you could, you should go to university and study something that interests you (admittedly, this was when tuition fees were a grand a year, and maintenance grants were still a thing). I ended up studying Biochemistry, and then, keen to experience my field from the front line of research, I stayed on at the same University and did a PhD.

By any measure, I had an absolute shocker of a PhD, but put that behind me. Even at that early stage in my career, I realised my experience was not typical, and resolved to give research a fair crack of the whip somewhere different. Then followed eight years of postdoctoral research on various projects themed around DNA repair.

There was never a specific moment I resolved to leave academia. I liked the day to day work, the mix of practical and analytical. And I particularly liked the communication aspects. I took every opportunity to present work, do outreach, write reviews or give lectures.

As the years (and postdocs) went on, I hit a tipping point where I was sufficiently motivated to start looking outside of academia. My research output was alright, but I didn’t have a blockbuster paper that had put my name ‘out there’. I didn’t fancy my chances of getting a fellowship, I looked into a full time teaching post but decided that wasn’t for me, and I knew that just being a good postdoc for ever wasn’t really an option. I was also settled in Sheffield and didn’t want to move. I was finding it hard to imagine what my future career might actually look like, which I took as a bad sign.

Also, if I was honest with myself, I knew that while I enjoyed a lot of the aspects of my job, I was not being kept awake at night worrying about which phosphorylation sites were critical in regulating the Ubiquitin-activating enzyme.

As the push factors intensified, I still didn’t really know what I could do. I suffered from the common postdoc problem of only ever considering the skills and experience I had built up during the last ten years through the narrow lens of academic research, and so was only thinking about things that were university/research related or starting a new career completely from scratch. Neither really appealed, and so I carried on, and applied for another postdoc (which I got), which kicked the can another three years down the road.

Then, thanks to a vista seminar on careers in the Civil Service, I found a something that provided the pull I needed to yank me out of academia.

I had looked into Civil Service jobs, but assumed the only thing I would be qualified for was doing some kind of Government-sponsored laboratory science. At the seminar I learnt about Government analysis, and in particular the Government Operational Research Service (GORS). I couldn’t believe it – the job seemed perfect! They were actively looking for people with skills in analysis, statistics and scientific problem structuring to work as Government analysts.

The competency based recruitment procedure was a world away from my “have a nose round the lab and a chat over a cup of tea” experience of previous postdocs. And I needed some help from others who had made the same transition to reframe a lot of the things I had done in academia in terms that would make sense in the Civil Service. Once I started thinking in these terms, I was able to demonstrate my competency in the key areas required by GORS for the application form and interview. Things like project planning, identifying, escalating and mitigating risks, and building capability in others – all things that are part and parcel of academic research but that needed spelling out as part of the application.

I was first assigned to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). Working first on Fraud, assessing the likely financial impact of various anti-fraud initiatives, and then within the finance department, modelling the changes in the Department’s productivity.

Analysts tend to start at the bottom of the analyst pay scale (I did), and to work in small teams of 3-6 people lead by a more senior analyst. While starting at entry level was a backwards step in pay from what I had left behind as a postdoc, unlike in academia, I could see some clear options for progression in the near future, (and also unlike academia), a set of fairly explicit and unambiguous criteria that would need to be met in order to get there. I found that skills and experience I had gained during my PhD and postdoc helped me to get promoted twice in fairly quick succession. First within DWP, and then on transfer to the Home Office.

A typical week for me involves a fair amount of actual analysis. This can be interrogating huge (and I mean huuuge) datasets using R and SAS (neither of which I had any experience of before joining the Civil Service) or smaller pieces of ad-hoc analysis using Excel. There’s a lot of learning to be done to support this work, so I spend some of my time learning and developing skills. Everything from formal taught courses to self-directed learning at the desk (and looking on Stack Overflow).

I’m also involved with the development and maintenance of the datasets I use, so will attend meetings through the week to discuss issues that others have found, options for developing the data further to increase its usefulness, and to get a sense of what others across Government are doing with the data.

I’ll typically spend some time writing up the results of my work (or talking them through depending on the audience).

The Civil Service also walks the talk on flexible working and work life balance. It’s very common for people to work part-time, compressed hours any number of other arrangements.

One thing that struck me on leaving academia was how conditioned I had become to working in an environment where everyone was a scientist (and thought like a scientist). In my new role I work with people with a much broader range of professional experience which is more interesting for a start, but it also took me a while to realise how much value I could add to a situation just by offering my take on things, or by suggesting a few simple steps that might help up to understand things better. It’s a really nice feeling to be able to help, and much more immediate than anything I experienced as a postdoc.

It also took a while to get used a world that wasn’t focussed on finding a single highly-robust answer to a single problem. Now I work on many problems simultaneously, and trading off the appropriate amount of analytical effort against the accuracy of the final result and its intended use is something I’ve had to get used to (and get used to communicating to people).

The final thing I’ll say is that leaving academia has significantly broadened my horizons. Not just because I now know there are other jobs out there that I can do, but because I now have a much greater appreciation for the skills I already have (or could develop) and how they could be put to use, not just in the Civil Service, but anywhere.

Where can researchers look for jobs like yours? Government analyst jobs are usually badged as either Operational Researcher, Statistician or Data Scientist roles on Civil Service Jobs.

What professional/accrediting bodies, or qualifications are relevant to where you work? Exact entry criteria are slightly different for each profession, and tend to be based on evidence of formal study of numerate subjects, so be sure to check the person description for each advert. In most cases, the analytical aspect of a scientific PhD should be fine.


Footnote: behind the scenes of this post

There are many occasions when the World reveals that it is indeed a small place and this is for me one of them – Dr Ross Drayton’s academic career began here in Cardiff, undertaking his PhD over the campus with Cardiff School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences. Ross was in a lab where at the same time I was tackling my second postdoc position. In my experience he was as insightful and talented a PhD student as I have had the pleasure of working with. Besides working together the two of us also happened to learn to row together with a lab team, but there’s a whole other story!

This re-posting from the University of Sheffield Think Ahead blog was first published by them on the 15th September this year. The Think Ahead blog regularly post new v i s t a profiles, which are intended as ‘a career beyond the academy’ stories. These posts accompany their curated events to support post-PhD career transitions, and v i s t a mentoring. You can also find their various outputs on Twitter by searching the hashtag #sheffvista.

Think Ahead: a framework for the continuous professional development of researchers at the University of Sheffield, supporting individual career ambitions in and beyond academia.
Contact – thinkahead@sheffield.ac.uk

I would like to thank Think Ahead editor Dr Kay Guccione as well as Ross for the permission to share this story with our audience.


Images – Ross Drayton’s profile image from the v i s t a blog. Featured image built from a pexels.com image – static.pexels.com/photos/163064/play-stone-network-networked-interactive-163064.jpeg > graphics applied using  Canva – design tools