Beyond Your Research Degree

Episode 22 - Amy Creese (Clerk to the International Relations and Defence Committee, UK House of Lords)

July 15, 2022

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 we talk to Dr. Demelza Curnow, Quality Enhancement Manager for the QAA!

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

 

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 today I'm going to be talking to Dr. Amy Creese,

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who has worked variously as a policy analyst and now a clerk in the House of Lords supporting various select

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committees and is going to give us a real insight into the role that researchers can play in Parliament.

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Hi, my name is Amy and I am currently a committee clerk in the House of Lords.

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So clerk is just a fancy parliament term for I guess, team leader.

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So I lead a small team in the House of Lords that support the work of a select committee.

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Currently as the International Relations and Defence Committee. And previously.

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Sort of. I've been doing that role for years, and prior to that, for a couple of years I was working for the Science and Technology Committee,

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also in the House of Lords as a policy analyst, which is another team member that supports a committee.

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And that was a bit more of a subject specialist role, whereas now I'm a little bit more of a generalist.

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So that's my, my current job. And prior to working in the House of Lords, I was doing a Ph.D. at the University of Oxford.

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I was in the geography department. And but my focus was on climate science and in particular the performance of global climate models.

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oIf the Central African region say, I was on a doctoral training programme funded by NERC

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but I was also heavily involved in a sort of a big project that was funded by the Department

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for International Development and NERC looking at central and southern African climates.

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So that was a really interesting experience to be part of that.

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Yeah. And then go even further back if you'd like to. I did a geography degree, so that's where my roots are before my PhD.

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So on the surface, geography degree to clerk in a House of Lords feels like quite a big jump or quite big, quite a big shift.

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um. Can you talk a little bit about.

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How that particular role came about.

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Was it something that you were always interested in or you know, and maybe about what the connections are with your research and what you do now?

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Yes, definitely. So no, definitely wasn't always my career path,

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and I think I probably only knew what a clerk in the House of Lords was when I joined the House of Lords.

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But I had always been interested in a career in policy and when I was doing my undergraduate

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degree I thought I'd be interested in working in policy and maybe the civil service.

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And then I happened to do a climate science project for my undergraduate dissertation,

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and my supervisor told me about this thing called a Ph.D. where it's basically an extended dissertation and several years,

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and if you can get funding to do it, that's even better. And I just thought that sounded very interesting.

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Again, I think I knew very little about PhDs before I was at university, and although I still was very interested in working in policy,

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I didn't really see any harm in spending four years doing something really interesting and,

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you know, carrying on with with this interesting work I'd done for my dissertation.

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So I was very fortunate to get funding through NERC to do that.

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But I still had it in my mind that ultimately where I wanted to end up was in policy somehow.

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And I was trying I wasn't really worrying about how I'd how I'd end up there,

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but I definitely wasn't sort of planning to be an academic, which I think I think is well in my experience was kind of unusual.

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But maybe there are more people like that and you just don't hear about it and hence why I'm very happy to talk about about my sort of career today.

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So, yes, I did my PhD and while I was doing it, I applied for twice and was successful the second time by getting a policy internship through.

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It's now the Ukri policy internship scheme.

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This is this is pre UKRI days but it's that same scheme now where you can do a three month placement in a policy organisation,

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including several hosted by Parliament.

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And so I did that. I worked in Parliament three months and realised I definitely wanted to do that kind of thing as a career.

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And that's probably what opened my eyes to the opportunities in Parliament in particular, which is obviously, you know,

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slightly different to the civil service because you're scrutinising the government rather than working for the government,

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but similar kind of types of jobs? I suppose so, yeah.

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So then after my PhD, I had a kind of a good network of people I'd met in Parliament.

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I was on Facebook group and that's where I saw an advert for working at the Science and Technology Committee in the House of Lords.

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That role didn't require a Ph.D., but it did require a science background.

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And, you know, you had to prove at interview and in the application that you had a sort of strong science

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background because you could be working on really any area of science in that role.

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And so, yes, that's how I ended up at House of Lords. And then about a year ago I was well, I applied for and I was given a promotion to a clerk,

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which slightly sadly took me away from the science policy side.

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But as I said, I was a geographer originally.

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So international relations is actually really interesting for me as well, and I enjoy some of the more generalist parts of the job as well.

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So it's worked out really well for me.

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Yes, it sounds like a really kind of interesting, slightly circuitous path to kind of wanting to go into policy,

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to doing the research degree to think then coming back out kind of the other

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end and things kind of coming together and coalescing in your current role.

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So I was really interested in what you said about the internship because it's something that is becoming more

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and more common as part of a research programme that people are engaging with these internships and also that,

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you know, there are things like the UK policy internship programme.

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So I wondered if you could say a little bit about applying for that internship, but also what like.

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What benefits it will be when you are actually applying for your first job.

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Yeah definitely so I really I really rate the the care I scheme and just doing an internship in general just from

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a very and from a big picture perspective I think taking three months out of your PhD is a brilliant thing to do.

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I'm sorry if I'm upsetting any supervisors by saying that, but and the great thing about the UKRI scheme is I think for most,

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for most funders, unless an internship is a requirement,

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of your doctoral training programme most funders extend your funding by three months so you're not sort of losing time or money on your PhD.

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But yeah, it was it was really good for me to take some time to do something completely different.

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It really helped to reset my brain for going back to my Ph.D. when I kind of got into that slightly miserable valley in the middle of my third year.

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So yeah, I, I' really rate them just from the kind of mental health resetting perspective and so the process.

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I try to remember much about the process of applying and the the scheme, the UKRI scheme,

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if it hasn't changed too much and has it has a range of places where you can

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do an internship and I think you put down your preferences when you apply,

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you know you're not guaranteed it, but you, you might you're more likely to get one of your preferences and that includes UK Parliament.

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It also includes some of it's devolved administrations and includes some policy organisations like the Royal Society and some government departments.

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I think so.

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The Government Office for Science, for example, was one of the options when I applied and they all offer, you know, well, they'll be quite different,

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but they're similar things in terms of the skills you'll have under the kind of people and institutional knowledge that you'll gain,

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so, and I think the Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology does a lot of even if you don't end up being

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placed there they do a lot of the work for sort of setting up the internships and sending people out.

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So that's that is where I ended up doing my internship at the Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology.

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And they take a lot of fellows every year but their main task is to produce what's called post notes,

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which are four page briefings for parliamentarians on, well, science and technology topics.

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So that's a very broad remit and include social sciences and yeah, lots of things fall under that, that remit.

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Um, so yeah, you spend your three months kind of researching that note and it has to be impartial,

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has to be very accessible and lacking in any kind of technical jargon.

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And the idea is that an MP or a peer can just pick it up and quickly get a flavour of the key issues on this upcoming.

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Um. Science or technology topic. So yeah, it's a it's a pretty busy process.

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There is a huge amount of you have to do you kind of interviews with stakeholders

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you then once you've written this note and four pages doesn't sound long,

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but it's very difficult to actually get it that short.

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Um, you, you then kind of, it goes back to external review with, with some of those stakeholders.

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There's also internal review processes. It's pretty full on.

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But it, but it was brilliant and really, really help me understand how just how policymaking works and how parliament works.

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The difference between parliament and government, which is something I wasn't particularly clear on in the first interview I had at the first.

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Yeah, yeah. And other placements within parliament include being on select committee.

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So I've since being sort of full time employed at the House of Lords.

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I have hosted a policy fellow on our committee for three months placement and they were absolutely brilliant and it really

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helps the resource for the committee and hopefully it was well I'm sure it was a really good experience for them as well,

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learning how the committee works and helping us with running a committee enquiry.

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And so that's the kind of the background to to the internships, at least the way that I did it.

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And then in terms of how that helps with my job, I mean, as I think I said before,

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I don't even if I had seen my my first role in the House of Lords advertised, if it wasn't for the kind of networks I had from that internship.

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And when I did my application and had my interview for the House of Lords,

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I had that understanding of the role of Parliament, the role of select committees,

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the importance of impartiality when you're working for Parliament and it's really

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important because you are working for people from across the political spectrum,

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you have to be able to give impartial advice that isn't skewed by any of your own views.

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And, and it has also given me experience of writing the kinds of things that I then went on to write in my job.

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So I really can't recommend it highly enough.

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But I also think, you know, I was I really did want to go into policy and therefore I was on the look out for these kinds of schemes,

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but I know lots of people who've done them. Who still want to stay in academia or did it and actually found that working in policy isn't for them.

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And I think that's just as valuable as an experience.

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And you're not you know, you're not losing anything by doing the internship just to just to find out if it's for you.

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You have a really interesting experience and get to come to Parliament and, you know, maybe get to PMQs if you're, if you're lucky in the ballot.

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And yeah. And that can really help open doors, but also close doors if you decide it's not for you after you've done it.

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Thank you. That's really helpful and really interesting kind of breakdown of what the internship involves and and yeah, its benefits.

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And I think we, we undersell sometimes the benefit of having those.

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Well, no, actually we don't undersell it. So we, we're constantly saying about the importance of networks and about making the most of them and,

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you know, your connections and, and, um, various different things.

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But it's really great to have really tangible examples like that of where having being involved in a network

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and having those connections in that sector leads to a job and have that as a really tangible example,

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not just as a kind of a person standing at the front of a room or on a zoom call saying It's really important for you to have networks.

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It's and it's helpful. It's I think it's helpful to give examples of how you how you get these networks, because I during my Ph.D., I felt the same.

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I was sort of told your network is important. And I, I don't know, I envisaged networking being stood in a conference room, you know,

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being a bit feeling a bit awkward and wondering whether to approach someone at the next table to talk about science and I've always felt really rubbish.

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at that. Whereas this is, you know, you,

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you don't have the choice about being in this network because by taking on the internship and doing the doing the work, you just develop it.

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And that really worked for for me. Right.

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But my personality doesn't doesn't suit the very kind of traditional idea of how you how you network and how you gain contacts

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Yeah, exactly. And I think that there's some demystifying of of that.

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But it's also really important and. You've talked about kind of what you did on the internship and Post Notes and all that sort of stuff.

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I wonder if you could talk a little bit more about what you did in your first role at the House of Lords and the promotion that you're.

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That you've got now and that you're working on as a clerk.

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Can you talk a little bit about what what that actually involves on kind of a day to day or just regular basis?

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What are you actually doing? Yeah, of course.

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So both roles are relatively similar actually working for a select committee and you're supporting a committee of normally

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about 12 members of either the Commons or the Lords or sometimes sometimes they have joint committees.

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So they're are groups of backbench parliamentarians who come together to scrutinise the government in various areas of policy,

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say in the House of Commons,

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most of the committees are they shadow a government department so this an education committee that shadow the Department for Education, for example.

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And in the Lords the approach is a bit more cross-cutting and that's in part to sort of avoid duplicating the work of the Commons,

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but to be have more thematic committee,

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say science and technology which might be scrutinising the Department of Health one day and then the Department for Business,

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Energy and Industrial Strategy the next day.

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And similarly in my committee now, the International Relations and Defence Committee scrutinises the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office,

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the Department for International Trade, sometimes the Ministry of Defence.

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I think I haven;t forgotten any there. But we can, we can be much more cross-cutting and so the MP or peers in the

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committee might have some expertise or background in these areas but they might not.

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And the job of the team, which in the House of Lords is usually three people,

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is to provide them with kind of technical and procedural support for conducting enquiries,

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which is the main thing that committee staff say a committee will decide that, you know,

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this year or this quarter we'd like to look at the Government's policy into well, on science technology.

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An example I worked on was ageing and sort of healthy ageing and the government's policy and strategy around that.

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So the committee will sort of decide with some advice from experts and from the staff as well, what topic they'd like to look and see.

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They'll put together a kind of call for evidence or terms of reference for that enquiry, a list of the questions they want to answer and then.

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We as a staff put together a programme of witnesses and expert witnesses that come and sort of give evidence on these topics, say others.

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And and then at the end of that process, the staff collate together all the all the evidence that we've had,

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and in a lot of consultation with the members of the committee,

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produce a sort of draft report usually that is a sort of full of recommendations for the government,

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the things that we think the government should do differently or change in some way.

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So my first role was as a policy analyst for committee.

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And every committee has sort of an equivalent role in the commons it's called something different,

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but basically a subject specialist whose main job is to kind of provide

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briefings to the committee on the topics they're going to be covering that week.

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I mean, they're very busy people. And as I say, they might not be experts in the topic or every subsection of the topic.

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So a policy analyst does a lot of writes a lot of briefing.

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They also alongside that in the middle of an enquiry will be writing suggested questions for members of the committee to ask.

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The witnesses so members of Parliament can can ask whatever they'd like,

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and they often do, which is absolutely their rights and is informed by the process.

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But we'll the staff and the policy analysts will sort of provide them suggestions for

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the kind of areas you might want to cover to get the most out of particular witnesses.

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So that's a pretty interesting skill to develop.

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I don't know if you have that in many other jobs, but something I really enjoyed doing.

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And then you sort of provide a briefing to the members as well around that. And then another core part of that job as well is identifying witnesses.

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So you have to sort of understand the field, know who the experts and know who to ask.

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So that's where it's really helpful to have a background in the in the policy area.

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And then you will normally be closely involved in writing the report, which is again, a lot of drafting, a lot of editing,

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ensuring that it's very objective and well objective in that it reflects the evidence,

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but it also reflects the views of the committee who might decide to take a.

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A political with a small p stance on something. So that's so that's that role.

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And I, I think well, I've really enjoyed it.

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But I also think that doing a PhD really set me up to say, well, for that role in terms of drafting skills, I think,

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you know, there's not many other experiences like writing a thesis to prepare you for writing reams and reams of stuff.

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But also yeah research skills knowing what what a trustworthy source is, knowing how to read scientific papers.

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I didn't have to do that all the time. But if you often if you're reading some kind of grey literature,

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some government or think tank report and you see a statistic and you're not quite sure where it came from,

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understanding the scientific process and how to go back to the original source and work out if it's

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been interpreted correctly is such a useful skill that I think you get from a research degree.

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Um. And yeah,

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also I think working it's quite it's quite a different style of working than a Ph.D. which in part can sometimes be quite an isolated experience.

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Whereas, you know, in the House of Lords I've always worked as closely with the team,

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but I did find particularly doing a science degree that teamwork was a huge part of that anyway.

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And my my supervisor was sort of famous for saying that scientists hunt in packs.

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You know, we don't we don't sit on our own for years trying to solve a problem.

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We have regular lab meetings and talk through all our issues.

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And we are very collaborative in our papers, say.

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And that kind of skill of working with other people and bringing together different people's needs was it's been absolutely vital.

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Um, and then just, yeah. So going on to my current role, which is as a clerk and day to day is actually quite similar.

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I work very closely with the policy analyst on my team.

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Um, who in my current team is an international relations specialist, so I still do a lot of drafting.

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So I still actually have to get to grips with whatever policy topic the committee has decided to do.

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But I have a specialist on hand to answer my stupid questions as they come up and I do a little bit more.

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I suppose it's kind of. Administrative administration and kind of management, you know, checking everything's running on schedule,

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liaising with the chair of the committee to make sure that they're happy with how everything's going.

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And something actually that I'm doing at the moment, which I didn't do my previous year, was planning visits for the committee and that.

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Well, we've not been doing that for a while for COVID anyway. But that's that's another aspect.

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Commitees can kind of go out of Westminster and see other things and as part of the enquiries as well,

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so that's slightly further away from the core policy drafting skills that I used in my previous role, but still very fascinating.

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It sounds like it's incredibly fascinating and I think incredibly varied.

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Yes, definitely. That's. And I think that's. That's probably what drew me to this kind of job rather than staying in academia.

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And that's not to say academe is not varied at all, but I, I knew that I thrive in an environment where there's relatively high kind of pace of,

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of activities and you're kind of doing different things relatively regularly.

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So I like the fact that we tend to work on enquiries for no more than about six months, say every six months or less.

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I get to, you know, to start a new topic completely and yeah.

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And week to week that's there's quite a lot of you know, we tend to have a big committee meeting every week where we take evidence on an enquiry.

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So there are lots of weekly deadlines and that works really well for me and my personality.

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The what didn't work so well for me in my Ph.D. was sort of having this four year deadline and a few points along the way to check in and so

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I think that's just something that.

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You work out for yourself as well as you're doing your Ph.D. or whatever in your early stages of your career, you sort of work out what?

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What type of work suits you. Yeah, and that's really important.

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And something that we really do undervalue is kind of what kind of work and what kind of environment suits you better.

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Mm hmm. And from what I hear, what you're saying is you're using the skills that you developed during a research degree on a regular basis,

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but you're doing it on much shorter projects. Yeah, definitely.

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That's a very good summary. And I think that's really, really vital and and really important as part of all of this process is.

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Yeah, that what environment works. It works for me.

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How do I like to work? So.

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Thinking about kind of the way that you use kind of your research skills in this role.

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What are the kind of aside from the internship, which is obviously very directly related,

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are there are particular things that you did during your research degree that have been

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really informative or really beneficial once you've moved on to your professional career?

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Yeah. So I think. Aside from the internship, which as you as I make making clear, I think it was one of the best things I did.

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And I think working in a within a larger project, which I appreciate is completely out of your hands sometimes,

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but working on a on a bigger project that sort of got big external funding as part of my PhD

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was really beneficial because there were opportunities there to do a few policy related things.

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So the projects that I was sort of.

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Connected to my PhD was called Future Climate for Africa and sort of across many universities across the UK and in Africa.

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And there were opportunities to write sort of short summaries for on the work that we were doing for the UK and regional in Africa.

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Policymakers so I sort of took these opportunities when they came up and they were they weren't especially time consuming because at this point,

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you know, at the end of your Ph.D., you're the expert in your area. So, when someone said, can you write a page on Central Africa climate models?

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I felt pretty qualified to do that.

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But it helped hone the skills of, you know, writing for a non-technical audience, which is key, a sort of the key skill really in in policy and yep,

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just practising practising that you know, by the medium of your own work, which is the best way to start.

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Similarly, I sort of in my doctoal training programme, we had to write blogs on various things with the same kind of for the same reason to practise

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communicating your work or communicating things that we learnt on the doctoral training programme,

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but in a non-technical way. So things were just, you know, not particularly time consuming but really helpful, helpful things to do for anything else.

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I, you know, I didn't I think it's a important to say. I didn't spend, you know, weeks and months of my PhD focussed on other things.

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I was basically working on my Ph.D.

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One thing that I think was probably beneficial, but again, it's maybe out of lots of people's hands, is that I did a sort of paper route for my PhD,

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so I did have a bound thesis at the end, but it was made up of four papers that I had to submit to.

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I had to submit to journals throughout my Ph.D. and then I kind of talked about it with an introduction and conclusion.

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And so that kind of regular writing and refining my writing skills through style throughout my Ph.D. was really helpful.

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And I think, you know, the style of writing papers and writing for a thesis is, is similar to what you might end up doing in policy work.

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It's a bit more technical, but I definitely I had a had a very good supervisor.

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He was very keen on making papers, very accessible.

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So he really helped me to ensure that when I was writing papers they were understandable and they weren't full of jargon and acronyms.

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And so really, yeah.

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Using any example, any opportunities that you have throughout your Ph.D. to hone in these kinds of skills, I think was the main thing I did.

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I can't think of anything else I did on top of that as we kind of.

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Think about wrapping up i wonder if your could I always like to be able to sort of say, what advice would you give to somebody that is thinking about?

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Going into policy or a similar area when they finish their research degree.

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What what do you wish that somebody had told you and.

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Well, I think kind of a broad message, which is not just not just the people who are thinking of already thinking of getting into policy,

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but just I hope that we are academia is starting to turn away from this idea that you somehow failed if you did stay in academia,

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because that's really how it felt when I was there and I didn't feel that other careers were really discussed.

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Things like this are obviously a really good step in the right direction. So I hope that that can be a bit of a mindset shift in individuals as well,

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that if you if you're thinking that academia is not for you or if you realised on

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the first day of your Ph.D. that you're not going to do this the rest of your life,

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that that's absolutely fine. And actually the world needs people with your sort of skills and knowledge in all other sectors,

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whether that's policy or or industry, field or wherever, say and.

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I think I kind of took on myself and told myself that message early on, and that kept me happy and healthy and well throughout my PhD, so

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I hope that that message is slowly trickling through.

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And then I think just being. And this is easier said than done to basically being open to.

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Different careers and not kind of closing things off before you've sort of tried them,

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whether that's through an internship or whether it's through going to the seminar or going on to some kind of visit or something.

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And if it unless you're sort of absolutely sure that academia is the only career for you, there's absolutely no harm in exploring these other options.

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And as I say, you can you can do an internship or whatever and you might realise it's definitely not for you.

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And that's. Also absolutely fine. That's part of the process.

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And yeah, I think, as I said, just that just now, I didn't I didn't spend loads time worrying about this during my PhD

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Obviously, I worried about job prospects and all the normal things, and I'm actually a bit of a worrier overall, but I.

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I still you know, I did it didn't take up all my time.

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I don't want people to go with the message that if you want to have a career in policy, you need to spend half a week working on that.

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And it is time on your Ph.D., you know, that's that's doing your Ph.D. is important.

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The research you're doing is is important. Even if you don't stay in academia, you'll still made a contribution that that matters.

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And that work will have moved your field forward, however many steps.

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So enjoy the time you're doing your research degree if you if you're able see and and then you know you can think about what's next.

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And this is a broader message that I feel.

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I tell people a lot that, you know, we can move away from the idea that you sort of have one career for your life.

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And I only saw my Ph.D. as a bit of a mini career.

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I was a researcher for four or five years, and now I have a different career, but I might not do this for the rest of my life either.

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If we're going to work and so we're in our seventies,

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we probably would want some change along the way and so, Yeah, these are my slightly jumbled bits of advice.

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No, I think it's fantastic. And that final point about.

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But you know, we're like we're likely to have many careers is really,

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really important because people think when they're coming out of any form of education

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that whatever they decide to do next is has got to be like the end goal somehow.

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It's got to be the final thing, the final decision. This is what I'm going to do with my life.

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Whereas actually that's just not what the working environment is like anymore.

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We shift and change and our interests change and our likes and dislikes and the working environment we want or need.

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And and so I think that's just such a really important and positive message to end on.

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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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