How to get a job in research policy

November 20, 1998

If research is getting you down and you believe it could be better organised, maybe a career in research policy is the answer.

Guy Rickett, a research council employee on secondment to the House of Commons, showed in our November 6 issue the possibilities of a career in policy. On a more everyday level, research policy work offers a wealth of opportunity for anyone who has become a little disillusioned with research and would like to have a part in changing it.

Catherine Price is the chief personnel officer at the largest of the seven research councils - the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. She takes on five or six PhD graduates a year, half straight from PhDs, half with some postdoctoral experience. Most join as associate programme managers and work their way up. The APM band is quite broad - some spend up to ten years getting a portfolio of experience of science funding, moving between different science programmes. There are opportunities for secondment, and those who leave often move into university administration.

At EPSRC, the starting salary straight from a PhD is about Pounds 16,800 per year, while those with postdoctoral experience get close to Pounds 18,500. The salary reaches Pounds 22,000 after about five years.

Most of the research councils share a red-brick multistorey building in Swindon. Nestling next to a mainline railway station, it is not the most glamorous of locations. But the staff there are buoyant and positive about their jobs, saying it offers a challenging and supportive environment.

James Gordon and Martin Penny have worked at the EPSRC as associate programme managers for a year and a half. Mr Gordon has a more traditional research council employee role. He handles research proposals, selects and contacts referees, briefs the decision-making panel and gets to break the good (and bad) news to academics.

Mr Penny's job is very different - he works on across-programme groups, so he deals with areas such as postgraduate training, which cross disciplinary boundaries.

Messrs Gordon and Penny came to EPSRC with several years postdoctoral experience in chemistry - they are 30 and 29 respectively. Both realised they did not want to stay in academia: "I decided I would not miss the bench and the bench would not miss me," Mr Penny says. "I was aware that after three postdocs and a PhD I was getting into a very narrow area of science. I wanted a career where I could have a broader picture." Mr Gordon agrees, saying his work now gives him an overview of a large "chunk" of research at all sorts of different levels.

Both Mr Gordon and Mr Penny say they enjoy the variety in their work and the opportunity they have to "influence the system" and meet the community. There is also good access to training of all kinds, in anything from management to computing. "I am more computer literate than when I was in science," Mr Penny says.

The downsides to the job?

Both agree: "Swindon on a wet weekend in winter." But with research councils taking on many young academics, it seems that the active social scene more than compensates.

The largest number of opportunities for this type of work are in science policy, working for places such as the research councils, the Wellcome Trust and the charities that award research monies. But opportunities are also coming up in the research awards department of the Arts and Humanities Research Board.

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