Beyond Your Research Degree

Episode 16 - Alexandra Smith (Public Health Research Support Officer at Devon County Council)

June 28, 2021

Welcome to the Beyond Your Research Degree podcast from the University of Exeter Doctoral College! The podcast about careers and all the opportunities available to you... beyond your research degree!  In this episode Kelly Preece, Researcher Development Manager talks Alexandra Smith, who is finishing up her PhD and has just started a job as Public Health Research Support Officer at Devon County Council.

 

Music from https://filmmusic.io ’Cheery Monday’ by Kevin MacLeod (https://incompetech.com) License: CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses

 

 

Podcast transcript

 

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Hello and welcome to the Beyond Your Research Degree podcast by the University of Exeter, Doctoral College

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Hello and welcome to the latest episode of Beyond Your Research Degree.

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I'm your host, Kelly Preece, and in this episode, we are continuing our series on securing jobs during covid-19.

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I'm speaking to another of our current PGRs who's not quite finished writing up, but has started a job in a local authority.

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So, Alexandra, you happy to introduce yourself? So my name is Alexandra Smith and I'm a student at the University of Exeter.

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I based in business school, but my PhD is on what I call the holistic health benefits of working groups.

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So essentially I'm looking at five different variables organisational landscape, physical health,

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mental health and social capital and their influence on working group participant motivation for joining, remaining and leaving.

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So at the moment, I am working with Devon County Council.

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I'm a public health research support officer and it's a role funded by the NIHR.

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That's the National Institute of Health Research, and it sits within the the CRN the Clinical Research Network.

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So essentially, NIHR is really interested in expanding its public health portfolio.

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So my role is to sort of link up researchers to populations to to get data from so I can

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do that through Connections that I have through the team within Devon County Council,

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but also to to create spaces for collaboration for public health.

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So I work across lots of different teams, so I will work with different individuals in D.C.C public health, but also broader DCC.

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So I'm also linking up with people in sort of who work more in the environment who are

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interested in working in transport and also working with sort of more partners as well.

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So community and voluntary sector NHS CCG Trust those different kind of partnerships, academics as well.

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And at the moment I'm working towards creating a webinar which DCC will be hosting on the 8th of July,

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and that's really a great collaborative forum to get academics and other partners together,

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to really talk through some of the pressing public health issues that we have in public health is such a huge area,

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really covers all aspects of life, really.

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It's very interconnected. So it's really important to have those collaborative spaces.

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And currently what I'm designing is a kind of like a platform.

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I'm looking to do this through sort of SharePoint and also through Microsoft teams to enable

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researchers and other collaborators to get together to put together grant applications.

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The role that I have public health research support of is a new role. And there are about 20 of me across the UK with this title.

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And next week I have my first meeting to meet the rest of the team on that.

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So I am new to a local authority.

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I'm new to public health, I'm new to NIHR, are very much started off like I did.

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I did a bachelor's in human psychology. I did a Masters in psychological well-being and mental health.

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And I worked as a research assistant to the University of Nottingham in the nursing, midwifery and physiotherapy department.

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And from there, I kind of thought clinical perhaps isn't quite for me, but I've got more.

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I really wanted more of a holistic perspective to individuals.

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So that's when I moved to Exeter to do my PhD. And then it just started shaping more into a kind of public health policy,

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kind of feel to it  then my supervisor suggested actually public health and maybe a local authority might work for you.

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And this really this is a fantastic opportunity because it kind of brings those two things together.

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It brings up public health interests and it brings that research element as well.

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So what I've been doing is engaging with different people. So I've been having one to ones with different members of the D.C.C public health

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team to understand their research about their area that they're working on.

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And these could be really broad themes, you know,

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that there could be children and young persons or it could be mental health or it could be planetary health.

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And they've been working on this for years.

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And I have to understand what it is that they're doing and what specific research element could be within that.

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So it's been a big learning curve if you don't if you don't know anything about that particular field to begin with.

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So it's very much you've gotta swap your

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head from learning about one topic and then something, you have to give somebody else an entirely different project and an entirely different topic,

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and it's just understanding those kind of connections that you can make to have like a broad you know,

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we need something researched into this or we need this really specific kind of population.

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So it's it's been a steep learning curve. I wouldn't have it any other way.

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Yeah. And I think that's a really important thing.

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to acknowledge that quite often when you're moving from research into any other sector, but particularly kind of,

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you know, the public policy kind of area that you're working in, it's going to be a steep learning curve.

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But that doesn't mean that you don't have valuable knowledge and skills and expertise to apply in those areas.

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Exactly.

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And it is really just about, you know, that that frame of mind when you start applying for jobs that are outside of academia because I don't know,

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certainly certainly I found that I perhaps didn't want to work in academia, although I did really still like research.

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But I wanted to get more into public health and understand that.

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But I don't have a public health master's, and that's just not something that I could go straight into, you know, to get a job.

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And I need to get some money. I can't just go study again.

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And it is really just about I found LinkedIn incredibly helpful for that process, actually,

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because you can follow different organisations and you can follow different people who are interesting to you.

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Interesting to you. And you can learn about opportunities that you never would have thought about.

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And that there is a learning to and where you have to understand and unpick some of that language.

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But some of it is just about immersing yourself in it.

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And for me, It's just constant exposure. The more exposure you get to it, over time, you pick it up.

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And I found that incredibly invaluable because then I broke out of my understanding the language

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of academia and the language of other organisations and therefore what they were looking for.

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And that actually I had those skills. I just needed to understand it in different words and they needed to sell it in different words.

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So I would say LinkedIn was actually invaluable for that it really was

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And then, you know, it's just about going through those applications.

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Give yourself enough time for it. So I suppose I take like I took two different strategies to it, like applying for loads of jobs,

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but also like I really want this one, or I think I could really get that one.

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And I would probably say if you have the time, try and do it more focussed.

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But also it can be really interesting to just apply more generally.

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So I, I got an interview that was more about, you know, turning academic projects into, like the business ventures.

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I don't know if that's the direction that I want to go into.

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And it was really helpful to have that interview to understand maybe this wasn't something I wanted to pursue now,

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but I never would have got that experience had I not applied for something totally different.

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So it can be a really useful learning strategy to to apply for a variety of different things that perhaps in the

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first instance and I suppose something that I would say is you can be a bit overwhelmed with interviews suddenly,

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like I would have, like, I don't know, like for interviews.

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Four days in a row, that's exactly how it could happen, and you've got to do a presentation for it and you might have to do like a group work for it.

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So there is there is a big time commitment to it.

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Don't underestimate that because there's a lot of work you need to put in, particularly for my current job.

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Fortunately for my other interviews,

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I'd also I'd already been looking into public health things and obviously public health stuff has been going on for years.

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Public Health England has been around for a while now. So there's lots and lots of information and there's lots of changes.

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The language is very involved. So it does take time if you're moving into a new area.

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But it's just the fact that exposure, that commitment, trying different things.

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And yeah, it just got to the point where I know I knew enough and I knew how to kind of frame myself.

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I knew what my I knew the things that I was particularly strong in.

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And I would say I don't want to say like it's unique selling point, but.

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What is it that you have to offer and what is it that they have to offer?

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Like yeah ok, you need a job, but it's probably going to be way worse if you just have a job that you hate.

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It's much better to have a job where you're much more aligned with the values.

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So I would say I think it probably depends on you as an individual,

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but personally being involved in how it's like my values are really important to me.

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So my organisation, the organisation that I want to work with,

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I need to make sure that my values are aligned with those, because if it doesn't, then it's just not sustainable.

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I'm not going to do a good job. I'm going to get fired. Then I'm not going to get like a very good, you know, like a reference, that kind of thing.

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Is it really worth it? I think it's worth just thinking about what do you want?

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What do they have to offer? You know, it's very true that people say, you know, it's not just that you are being interviewed.

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You're also interviewing them. You know, do you just feel like maybe this is a bit of a toxic environment going on?

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Or do you feel like this this team really works as a team,

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that they really have this this combined overall sense of leadership in this respect for one another.

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And that's really what I found at DCC I couldn't be more happy.

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I really couldn't. I feel so much part of the team.

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And I love this this mutual respect that everybody has for everybody, you know, from the top down, everybody.

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feels you know, everybody has that combined sense of of feeling valued and heard, and I think that I really appreciate that personally.

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And something really important I want to pick up on there is that a lot of people are using things like LinkedIn as a kind of an awareness

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raising to see what's out there and what's possible and where your skills and experience could be highly valued or sought after.

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Don't don't underestimate your value as a researcher.

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You're trained to be creative in your thought.

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You're trained to look out for those little nuances and question everything.

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And I think that that's something that I found really interesting working at DCC

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because people are obviously trying to understand what is best practise,

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what is the literature so that we can understand how we can support our populations the best.

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But there's also this kind of practicality of like we need to do something now.

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And research works at a completely different time to local authorities who need to be helping the populations

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now that they don't need to know the findings of a randomised control trial 10 years in the future.

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So it's really trying to sort of bring those two things together. And that's that's something where I sort of really come in to help them with.

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And I suppose the thing about, you know,

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a local authorities that they're trying to they've got to sort of split their population

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up to understand how we can how can we support this population or that population,

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this geographical area or children and young persons or whatever.

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And research takes quite a can take quite a different approach. We will go.

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Don't make any assumptions and you know, where where are things that we can connect,

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where are the similarities, where are the differences I have a background in psychology

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So I'm sort of trying to understand more about how we can incorporate individual differences more into research.

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You know, it's this kind of within and between group differences.

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So this is kind of like this two is two different needs going on,

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and it's about understanding how we can pick those apart and come up with a strategy going forward.

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Can you talk a little bit about the process of finding this, the job that you're in at DCC and this opportunity?

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The job that I actually got now, I got off the back of an interview, so I'd applied for like like an intelligence analyst job DCC.

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So I'm I'm based in intelligence as well. That's just where I sit in the team.

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But I actually straddle so many different, like pretty much everything in public health.

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because research is so broad and public health is so interconnected.

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So that's what I applied for. And the because obviously I got that analysis background.

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I've got mixed methods, background so quant and qual and I didn't get it.

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And the feedback that I got was great is just that you didn't quite tick some of the public health boxes.

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So get more familiar with with public health language and, you know, the JSNA the joint strategic needs assessment, those kind of things.

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And then, yeah, then I got sent through the like the the job advert.

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I applied for it, I.

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Then had the interview and managed to secure the job and, you know, and you're always going to get feedback and feedback is incredibly valuable.

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This isn't something to shy away from embracing. It is really important and valuable things in there about values.

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And, you know, like you said earlier, about buzz words.

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And there are certain things that when we talk about careers, are buzzwords and and feel like like platitudes and like kind of management speak.

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And one of those is kind of the importance of knowing your values to finding the right career path for you.

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But actually in practise, it is it's cliche and it's it yeah.

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It feels like kind of business speak, but it is actually true. Yeah, exactly.

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And I suppose, you know, I fought it in the past and just gone like, oh, no business speak buzz words

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Same, oh, it just turns me off completely.

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It makes me feel like it totally goes against my values.

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But I look at I suppose I look at it more as a language tool that I use to communicate a concept to other people.

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And that message and that communication is more important than perhaps preconceptions I have about it.

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Yeah, absolutely. And then the other one, I think really comes up in what you're saying is also the hidden job market,

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which is another one of those kind of management speak things, Business speak things that you hear and you shudder.

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But it is so true in practise. Yeah, I know.

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I suppose what I would say about this is that it's it's totally different to what I thought that it was like.

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It's you know, it's not sort of like I mean, I don't know how it works.

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And other things like DCC has a structure and lots of other places do where, you know,

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you have like tick boxes and you score a value based on like, you know, they're looking for a topic or a theme or something.

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And they will judge your answer, you know, I mean, this is how I understand it to be, you know, give you a score on your answer for that topic.

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You know, that particular thing that they're asking you about during the interview. And whoever gets the most points gets the job.

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So, you know, it was totally different from what I understood to be that kind of hidden job market,

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because I suppose the hidden job market, I assumed it was sort of like, oh, here's this job and you should just go for it.

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And I would, you know, you. But it doesn't it doesn't work like that.

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Every job's going to be advertised. You know, legally, this has got to happen.

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And in terms of fairness.

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But if if somebody sees something in you and goes, actually, I think that this could be really useful to you, then you will know about it.

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You'll know about it in advance. And you might not you know you know, you might know about it a couple of days.

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You might know about it a week or something. And that can give you a bit of lead time to think about, is this what I want to give that person?

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Thanks. Do some research into it. So, yeah, it's completely different to what I thought I was that it was some sneaky thing.

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It's not. It's not. It's more about somebody seeing something in you and going, actually, this might interest you.

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I suppose, to begin with, I found this idea of networking quite scary and I felt quite awkward with it.

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But actually, if I just bring it back to what my values were,

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my values are helping people and helping the broader theme of of helping people generally with, you know, with physical activity or whatever.

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And so in that respect, that's why it immediately struck me.

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Oh I'll send this person, you know, that paper or that link to that grant funding because I'm helping somebody.

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Exactly. And I think, again, you know, you hear networking and again, you think management people and speak.

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But actually, you know, it doesn't let you say about the hidden job market.

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It's not necessarily your perception of it as a term. It's not necessarily how it works in practise.

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I think we've we've uncovered so much in this about kind of like actually the importance of your values to driving you and thinking

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about how you investigate and look at different jobs and be a bit more targeted than just using those kind of a big job site,

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then the kind of hidden job market actually in applying for jobs.

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It creates new opportunities for you because you might not be right for the particular position that you've applied for,

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but there might be something else coming up that they go, oh, actually,

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we spoke to Alexandra and although she wasn't right for that job, she'd be perfect for this job.

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And also the kind of, you know, networking doesn't have to be clinical. It's about, you know,

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being collegiate and having conversations with people and kind of helping basically some advice that I got about networking was about.

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Sort of keeping a contact and that sort of stuff.

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I mean, there was just too much to do in a day, you know, and I don't know that all of that would be completely genuine if you had to.

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I mean, nobody can do that. That's just too much. If something just happens to crop up and it seems relevant to that person, then I'd send it.

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If it's kind of general like chit chat, I just don't know that's that valuable to anybody.

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But it depends on who you are, depends on who the other person is,

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depends on and sort of what stage they're at before we kind of bring and bring this to a close.

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I wondered if we could talk a little bit about what you think. So one of the anxieties people, a research degree students have tends to be about.

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But what skills do I have that are relevant to, you know, relevant to industry or relevant to public policy or the public sector and.

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The answer is so, so many. I wondered if you could talk about your specific role and what are the what's the knowledge,

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what the skills that you use from your day most in your in your work life?

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I think perhaps the reason why PhD students struggle with understanding the values that they have and the how do you say those broader skill sets

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It's because you're doing a PhD

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these things are very the environment is is completely different to other environments and it's kind of like very much your project.

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And it can get quite intense and quite lonely sometimes.

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Even if you are attending a seminar or you're collaborating with somebody else, it's still your project at the end of the day.

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And I think when you're that close to something over time.

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It can start to just feel like everything it can just feel like it's the entire world and you don't know where you finish and the PhD begins.

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And I kind of feel like I mean, I don't know it might happen to other people it certainly happened to me.

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And it's it's there that those kind of that value or those, you know, those flexible skills,

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I think get lost because you don't understand how to advertise it because it's just one.

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You know what I mean, you are the PhD are just one. And I think probably the the biggest thing.

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for me that I use every day is collaboration, I mean, my PhD was very much just,

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you know, me sat at my desk, you know, and occasionally I would attend seminars.

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But they were I mean, there's really not very many people studying the area that I do this,

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like one main person that I know in the world who's studying it.

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So, you know, it can feel very lonely. But I've had different opportunities for collaboration and I've worked on different projects,

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different things that have come up within the university.

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I kind of grasp those opportunities and made the full use out of them as much as you can so that you can demonstrate that you have those skills.

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And don't forget, it's not just about putting it on the paper.

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You know, in your cover letter or in your CV is then demonstrating that you have that at the interview.

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You know, if you want to if you're trying to say, I have great listening skills,

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then listen, I really make sure that you're having those active listening skills.

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You're really listening to what those questions are. You're picking them apart and then you're answering those questions specifically.

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So I would say my interpersonal skills are the biggest thing that I use.

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And so I definitely would say.

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It can be it's the same with like talking to other people and using people as sounding boards, they can help you pick apart what your skills are.

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I mean, yes, there were those kind of hard skills that you have. I've learnt this bit of software.

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I taught myself that if you've taught yourself something, say it.

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That's really important because it shows that you're able to to learn and to adapt and to

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identify a need and fulfil it to be that reflective like to have that self reflection and to go,

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OK, this is like a gap or like, OK, I'm going to call it a gap rather than a weakness.

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And to be able to sort of fill that. I mean, you're trained so highly in teaching yourself.

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That's really what a PhD is it's teaching yourself to teach yourself and teaching yourself to learn.

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So that's kind of the biggest thing. And that can really take you places.

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Thank you so much to Alexandra for a really fascinating and deep,

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and involved discussion about how she came to her role working in public health

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and the kind of career journey that she's been on the application process.

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And you know what she's doing now and she's how she's applying her experience from her PhD.

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And that's it for this episode. Join us next time when we'll be talking to another researcher about their career beyond their research degree.

 

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