Moving from policy research to research policy
“Dear Prof X, Three weeks ago, I sent you a draft of the study we did together. Have you had the opportunity to look at it? Please send me your comments and corrections, so I can incorporate them into the paper and submit it. Best, Cathelijn”
This was the kind of email I would send to my co-authors as a PhD candidate whenever I needed feedback . Especially the big-name professors were usually not very fast in their responses. (My eventual PhD advisor was a big exception, luckily!).
In this blog, I offer my perspective on my transition from doing research as a PhD candidate and postdoc to policy advisor. Mainly, I go into what is different between my jobs on a day-to-day basis. During my PhD, I actually did research on the very same topic: the transition of PhD graduates to non-academic jobs. Why do they leave academia to work in industry or government, or start their own companies? Which skills did they obtain during their PhD that they still use in their current jobs?
Personally, I made a similar transition, because I now work as a policy advisor at Leiden University. In this role I provide advice to university leaders on areas within HR and research. These areas include university rankings, bibliometrics, diversity and inclusion, survey design and analysis, and research grants. In addition, I am the Young Academy Leiden’s project manager and help the members with all kinds of tasks.
Why did I ‘leave’ academia?
After my PhD, I first worked at my current job at the Administration and Central Services department of Leiden University for a few months on a fixed assignment on university rankings. While I really liked the position and received a job offer afterwards, I wanted to work as a postdoc for, at least, a short period of time, to see if academic life would suit me. So, I became a postdoc for 11 months. I liked the position, but realized that I didn’t want to do that postdoc job forever. The reasons for this were complex.
One factor was that I found the field I moved to (educational research) somewhat less interesting than the field I did my PhD in (higher education policy and bibliometrics). Bigger factors though, were the uncertainty of my postdoctoral contract and the academic business model where you need to ‘sell’ your ideas to obtain funding. I think the uncertainty of temporary contracts is a common issue for many postdocs, and I was no exception. (And right now, I guess it’s even worse, as at least I didn’t have to worry about a pandemic affecting job opportunities.)
The pressure wore me down, and it grew even more when my partner and I decided we wanted to try for a baby. In addition, I felt the pressure of securing research funding – or rather, the fact I had to sell my ideas to funding organizations. In order to do that successfully, I think you have to be convinced your own research ideas are brilliant, and I didn’t feel that way. I thought: well, I have a nice idea, but I think the other people’s research ideas are much more brilliant than mine.
I hope this doesn’t sound too ‘complainy’ – I did like my job, but simply felt I had to move to something new. Mine is only one story in a very diverse set of ‘quit lit’ stories (read this excellent blog explaining the genre).
My insights led me to reach out to my managers at the Administration and Central Services department and luckily, they were open to me applying for a job there. So, having switched from academia to university administration, what are the core differences I encounter on a daily basis, although I am working for the exact same employer?
Differences between academia and university administration – and what I like and don’t like about them
The main difference lies in the fact that I now have to switch tasks much faster, and deadlines are shorter. In academia, it was very usual for, at least some, collaborators to only respond to emails after a few weeks. Or I had to remind them three times to get an answer. That email in the introduction really wasn’t an exaggeration.
Much to my surprise, many of my colleagues nowadays respond to emails within a few hours. Sometimes they even deliver data or feedback to a policy memo within 24 hours.
Of course, it is kind of expected that you reciprocate this speed. I find this difficult sometimes, being used to longer deadlines. I prefer setting up a to-do list at the start of the day and tick that off. I do not know whether other PhDs in non-academic jobs also find it hard to have to drop what they are working on because ‘management wants something, and they wanted it yesterday’, but it is something I’m still getting used to.
Of course, this ‘relative warp speed’ in work comes at the expense of depth. I cannot get to the bottom of all things like I did in my PhD research. My managers and the university leaders I advise are already extremely happy with the answers they are getting that you obtained with 70% of your best efforts. I sometimes find that difficult because you’d rather give it your 100%.
At the same time, I’m usually satisfied with that, though. In my research, I enjoyed finding answers to asking interesting questions. I also really enjoyed writing up the answers in the clearest way possible, supported by insightful figures. However, once I had the answer myself and written it up, I was basically ‘done’ with the subject. Over and done with in the good sense of the saying – I had the answer and that was what made me feel satisfied. However, the submission process and review rounds at scientific journals usually meant I would have to work on the subject for another 1 to 1.5 years before it was finally accepted for publication and published. Compared to that I find the speed needed in my current job a welcome change.
Transferable skills, or: what did I learn in my PhD that I still use?
During my PhD, I learned several skills that I still use and that I think set me apart from others who did not do a PhD. Above, I already mentioned that I prefer to work on certain tasks that I put on my to-do list for that day. That makes me relatively bad at switching tasks, but exactly because of that, I stay focused on whatever I wanted to do that day. I also think PhD graduates like myself are usually quite good at doing longer projects and tasks. We tend to be able to split up a project in manageable tasks and perform them independently. This type of self-direction is a valuable transferable skill that I find many other PhD graduates in non-academic jobs have.
Another skill that I obtained in my PhD and that I think many other PhD graduates have, is to analyze a problem from different angles, gather (way) too much information and then report back on what you found – but only the main findings. Usually you have to deal with too much information rather than too little information in research and being able to extract the main bits and pieces of information, and to present them clearly, is a really valuable skill.
Both as a PhD candidate and as a policy advisor I had the same employer, Leiden University. However, the jobs are quite different and I really had to make a transition from (science) policy research to research policy. For me, the main differences are changing focus much more often as a policy advisor, at the expense of some depth. But as someone who’s worn both pairs of shoes, I hope to be able to walk the middle ground.
About Cathelijn Waaijer
Cathelijn Waaijer is an institutional researcher and policy advisor at the Administration and Central Services department of Leiden University, at both the Information Management and Human Resources Management directorates. As part of her job, she is the project manager of the Young Academy Leiden. Previously, she was a PhD candidate at the Centre for Science and Technology Studies and a postdoc at the Onderwijs Expertise Centrum (OEC) of the Leiden University Medical Center.