Beyond Your Research Degree

Episode 6 - Dr. Denise Wilkins, Researcher at Microsoft Research

July 27, 2020

Welcome to the Beyond Your Research Degree podcast from the University of Exeter Doctoral College! The podcast about non-academic careers and all the opportunities available to you... beyond your research degree!  In this episode Kelly Preece, Researcher Development Manager talks to Dr. Denise Wilkins, Researcher at Microsoft Research.


Music from ’Cheery Monday’ by Kevin MacLeod ( License: CC BY (


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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It's Kelly Preece here research development manager ing the University of Exeter Doctor College.

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And I'll be your host for this episode.

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I'm delighted to be talking to another University of Exeter doctoral alumnus, Denise Wilkins, who is currently working as a researcher in industry.

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Denise, are you happy to introduce yourself, I'm Denise Wilkins and I'm a social scientist and I work at Microsoft Research in Cambridge.

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So my job there really is to conduct research. So I'll be trying to understand people.

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Social scientists trying to understand their needs and really try to feed insights back

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to people who are looking at the future of technology development to really think how,

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you know, what I'm hearing, what I'm talking to, people might translate and be applied to products that we might want to develop in the longer term.

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And so at the moment, we're working in a theme called The Future of Work.

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So we're really interested to understand what the work might look like in the future and how technology might support that.

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And my project is looking at knowledge in large organisations, say,

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trying to find ways to help workers in large organisations share knowledge and have knowledge kind of more available to them in their work.

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What was your research degree in at Exeter? My degree was in psychology.

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Say it was it was very kind of similar themes.

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I was looking at technology and in particular I was looking at a social media and how it might affect people's willingness to engage in activism.

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So to put it, I was really inspired by things like the Arab Spring and where you might have

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seen or have kind of had news stories that social media played a role in,

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acts as a catalyst by inspiring people to go on the streets. But at the same time, there was also kind of a slacktivism narrative going on which said,

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well, you know, people are just like him things and sharing things on social media.

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And they're not really kind of going on the ground and doing the hard effort. So really

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Well, what I tried to do in my PhD was to really understand when and how social media might facilitate activism

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and social change and what are the type of circumstances where it might maybe have a different effect.

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And reduce people's willingness to do that. On what? When might it have more kind of negative effects and social change?

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So although I was in psychology,

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my research will always have the interest in people and technology and how technology can be a positive driver for change.

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And that's kind of followed me on to my work at Microsoft. So I'm interested to know what what your plan was, I guess,

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when you were doing the coming to the end of your research degree in the write-up, which is incredibly challenging in and of itself.

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Did you have a clear plan of what you wanted to do afterwards? Was the plan always to go into a research career in industry?

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Yeah. Well, at the time, I don't think I was aware.

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of the different options and career paths that there were.

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And I knew that I love researching. I knew that I love talking to people.

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And I knew that I wanted to have an impact, say,

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thinking about how technology so pervasive in our everyday lives and how new technology is being created all the time.

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I was aware that, you know, that there are kind of negative impacts that technology can have, say how can.

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And so the idea as a researcher take a role in shaping that.

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And I wasn't really sure then about the opportunities that existed in industry.

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It wasn't something that I heard much about. You know, psychology's part of STEM in Exeter.

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So I often heard about people with like a chemistry or biology degrees and how they might go to kind of pharmaceutical companies.

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But I didn't really hear much of the narrative about what kind of psychology PhD could do with their degree.

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So I wasn't really aware and I was mostly looking for the kind of jobs in academia and postdocs in academia.

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And I actually I went on. And prior to working in Microsoft, I did a postdoc and I Exeter.

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So that was with the same P.I.

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He supervised me for my PhD. And that was looking at a different form of technology in different contexts.

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And I was looking at block chain and how and how it could be used to create new peer-to-peer energy markets.

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I was looking at the energy sector there. It was only when I started doing that postdoc

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One of the other researchers on the same project really told me about kind of user research.

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They told me about HCI as a field. And they told me about my research in Cambridge and how they do lots of they have lots of engagement,

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kind of which social science and which social scientists that there really is a role for kind of social scientists in large

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organisations like that and engaging with different users and generating insights that can be used by design and developers.

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So was that an immediate move?

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So when you finished your postdoc, did you go straight to a job at Microsoft Research or was there something in between?

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Yeah, there wasn't anything in between. So from talking to her it just sounded really inspirational

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It sounded kind of exactly what I wanted to do

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So no, on the one hand and. So Microsoft research is slightly different from like Microsoft, so there's kind of two arms to Microsoft.

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You have sort of Microsoft and the product groups and they'd be directly they still do user research

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and they and they would be directly trying to impact the products we use every day in the short term.

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So it really is. As far as I totally understand that it's about sort of what really focussed on finding insights that can improve specific products.

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Whereas Microsoft Research has its longer term or indeed vision.

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So I'm not part of any particular project, product group, but I hope to have insights that could perhaps impact and shape any of the products.

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And other large tech companies have similar.

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You have Google and you've got Google product groups, but you will see what people research.

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So, yeah, that's that's kind of one of the splits that you have.

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So really what I liked about Microsoft research is that you have the opportunity to have the real world impact on the products.

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And by really doing that I'm aiming for that kind of thought leadership and find it,

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finding these insights that can impact the longer term vision that there really is this kind of academic community.

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So we're encouraged to write publications and to submit them to journals and to conferences.

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Really, really there is this academic engagement.

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We also have. So that's another reason why that's those kind of opportunities with Microsoft Research really appealed

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to me because I felt like it ticked both of the boxes of what I really loved about being in academia.

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So on the one hand, trying to have real world impact or say being part of a broader academic and scientific community where you're able to sort of

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push your learnings out more broadly and beyond kind of the immediate project that you might be working on through publications,

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for example. Yes, and what you're saying about not being aware of the opportunities in industry,

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but particularly where social science type research might be happening in industry is something we hear a lot for from students.

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So from what you're saying, it sounds like there were a lot of similarities between the role that you're doing now and a research role in academia.

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So could you talk a little bit about what the differences are? So what's different about researching in industry compared to academia?

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Yeah. So I think, you know, one of those pieces that I like, which is much stronger is is the impact.

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Say, I feel like maybe for me as a junior researcher in a university, that idea of impact was probably quite far from my mind.

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So I want to see the research I wanted to write out for publication.

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And then you heard stories about people talking about impact are more senior.

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Well, I never really knew what that meant. I didn't really know how I would go about having impact.

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And I think sometimes on a personal level, I would think I'm I'm doing research and I'm I'm writing papers.

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But who's reading them. Who's going to do something with them.

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Is is it other folk from the psychology community, which is great.

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But, you know, how can you go beyond your community and and really encourage people who are designing technology to do it differently?

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And for me. That was just perhaps a kind of psychological gap in my head,

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like I couldn't see how those steps joined up, whereas in my soul, for me, it's much clearer.

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And so I'm just a really practical examples. We have regular meetings, we have different product groups, and I'll be sharing my insights with them.

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So really, the stakeholders of the research are really clear.

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And, you know, you have those in mind when you're trying to design the research and you have the opportunity to really think,

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well, how how might this kind of shape shape their thinking?

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So that's the kind of steps are a lot clearer to me, which is one thing that I really liked.

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I think it perhaps changes some of the type of things you might produce.

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So I think sometimes in sort of academia where we're taught to write

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Kind of papers and the papers can be really long. And, you know, people are really interested in the details.

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So they want to know exactly what methods you used and they'll want to know a

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lot about kind of the background and your kind of theoretical justification. And again, I want to know at the end,

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how does how what other kind of impacts of this and other academics will really have time to kind of read those long papers.

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And we need to still learnings from it.

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But I think one of the things in industry is that you're trying to communicate # to lots of different people.

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And some people they might be the same specialism as you.

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So there might be other social scientists and I might have a lot more time to read all of that.

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But you also might be talking to kind of leaders or designers or people need to make that decision about their product really quickly.

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So they will just really want to have something that they can absorb like, say,

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really a PowerPoint and they just want to know on know even two slides, like what are the key things I need to know?

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And so it's about communicating a lot and a lot more kind of concise ways.

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And also perhaps not being afraid to have an opinion and how they're a strength and say these are tje recommendations is what I would advise you today.

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And again, for me, at least in academia. I felt like that wasn't something that I did before.

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I didn't really make lots of presentations, only occasionally of us going to a conference, for example.

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And again, I, I think it was just my personality but I would shy away from making really strong recommendations and say,

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well, because of this study, we need to be X, Y and Z.

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But that's really what people are looking for in industry.

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You to give the practical recommendations for that for that work and what they should do next.

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So I'm hearing a lot and what you're saying about the core skill set that you use in your current role

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and communication in a variety different forms and formats seems to be an important part of that.

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But I wonder what other sort of general skills did you learn or develop during your research degree that you use on a daily basis now?

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I think because of my degree, I think one of. The core skills that I learnt was really planning research and then sort of learning

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how to conduct research on having sort of a variety of different research methods.

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So really that kind of expertise with people and being able to interview people and get them to talk to you about whatever,

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whatever topic they might they might have and then really been able to put that together into a narrative.

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So I feel that's one of kind of the strongest, the strongest skills that I've kind of taken from my PhD

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So something that I think would be really interesting for our listeners is that you've

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interviewed and been successful for a research job in academia and in industry.

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So can you talk about the interview, and application processes for those roles?

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And if they were similar or if they were different and if so, what the differences were and they were different.

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So the the entry process at Microsoft was much longer.

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So there were a number of calls first.

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I think first I submitted an application, which was I think it was a CV and maybe maybe a statement, a short statement as to why the job was with.

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Interesting. And then I had a call from a recruiter.

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He just really wanted to cover some kind of fundamental thing.

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So the job I actually have with Microsoft, it is called a postdoc.

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So it was just really checking things of, you know, how have I finished my PhD?

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And just trying to get the basics to kind of field. And then I was passed on to a telephone interview with the person who is now my manager.

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So I think she interviewed me, for about an hour.

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And then after that, I got invited to the lab where I would give a presentation, say the presentation was an hour.

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And then I had an interviews with one to one interviews with a number of different researchers at the lab.

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So it really was like a whole When I was there, it was really like a whole day event, the number of different activities.

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Whereas my postdoc, Exeter, I did the I think it was the normal application of the CV and the cover letter.

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And then I got invited to an interview and I was interviewed by a panel of three people who ask questions.

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And I think, you know, that interview was for less than an hour.

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So I think that the length and the number of stages was much different.

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And in industry compared to the university, you know, and I think because the task the difference I didn't give a presentation,

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was interviewed at the university, say again, that had a different type of preparation.

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So I had to kind of put the presentation together.

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But I think in terms of like the the fundamental preparation for the interview and thinking, you know, why do you want the job?

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Why what have you got to offer? How does that fit into your career path?

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Why this organisation? Why this role? And those things were great.

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And also say when I was applying for both jobs I got help from the career service at Exeter.

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So I had a one to one session with one of the career advisers.

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She specifically helps PhD students. And that was really sort of invaluable both times in terms of sort like just helping me think about it.

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So I really felt like that kind of preparation that I did beforehand would be really key.

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And I would encourage anybody who's applying for any type of job, reallu to put the work into that preparation.

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You know, any any might even that work might even span a few days when you go away and you'll really be searching and understanding things.

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So, yeah,

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I feel like that was something that really helped me with both with being able to do that kind of up from preparation and get my my head into space.

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So I need kind of a story that I wanted to tell. Absolutely.

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And did you find you articulated that story and those skills differently in the different contexts?

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I feel like it was similar. Yeah, I do feel like it was similar.

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I think because, you know, the job I have with Microsoft is a postdoc.

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So they are expecting somebody. who doesn't have you know

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Somebody who i new to industry is somebody who has completed a PhD and they're looking for that kind of first industry position.

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So they weren't you we'd expect me to come and say, you know, I've got years of, you know,

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working with product groups and, you know, delivering insights and having this massive impact on how organisations run.

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And it really was trying to articulate how the findings from kind of my my PhD, for example,

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of how some of the findings that I have could be relevant and impactful for them and kind of Microsoft as stakeholders.

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What would that look like? And I think that was kind of similar. to my postdoc interview in academia, they really want to kind of, you know,

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know some of those kind of transferable skills, so the postdoc that I did at Exeter.

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And it was a completely different topic.

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But they wanted to able you know what what skills would you bring and how how would she make sure that they that that could benefit all project?

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So I feel like that was there were lots of similarities. Yeah.

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It sounds like the threads between the different research roles in different contexts are actually really strong.

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Can you talk to me a little bit about your average, say? I know there's no such thing as an average day right now,

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but how different is you kind of working day and working life to when you were a research degree student and a postdoc?

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So I think my average day I'm now in industry is quite different to how it was as a PhD student.

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And for me, at least mostly in my PhD, I was really working on on my own.

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Say, a lot of the time I was in wasn't meeting with many other people to discuss my research.

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Other than my academic supervisors, I'm very rarely.

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I would give maybe a presentation to kind of the lab group that we had.

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So it really was a very individual work. I felt like I was kind of doing it for myself.

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And I also felt like, you know, this is for me when I'm ready to

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Share that. When once I got the paper or once I've done the presentation, I'll share that with other people.

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But I think the kind of flipside of that was always that question. My model, who's really interested in the in the results of this?

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Like, what's going to happen to it later? Whereas in Microsoft, it's much more collaborative.

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So I'm working as part of a multidisciplinary team, so there's designers on the team.

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And there's machine only researchers and theire's engineers. And we have sort of regular meetings throughout the week.

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So in any one day I might be meeting with the team members to tell them about the things I've been doing, so to update on

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The things I've been doing during the week, or also to hear about what they've been doing.

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I might be helping people conduct their own research, say some of the designers they do research on might be helping them like recruit participants.

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I might be helping them think about some of their findings and distil insights.

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I might be kind of contributing to a PowerPoint that we're making to show other people the work we've done.

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And there is I might be I might be participating in a brainstorm or workshop where we're

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trying to understand the next phase of the project and what some of our priorities are.

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But there is still space for individual work. So I would still conduct my research studies.

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I'd be doing literature reviews. I'd be doing going through an ethics process, say, to get ethical approval for my study.

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I'd be analysing the results and trying to trying to write these up and trying to write papers.

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And there is also an we have sort of a kind of lab culture say I'm part of the future of work theme.

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And every other week we would have a meeting where we would, for example, listen a presentation from one of the other researchers.

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So I think really my day could be split up with any of those tasks, depending on what stage I'm in the project.

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And I wouldn't. There is no one day that looks the same.

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And I think those types of tasks on that kind of individual level, they are very similar to what I was doing in my PhD

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And there is this other collaborative layer where you are really part of a bigger team and anybody trying to kind of help the team be successful,

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which I feel is different from from my PhD because it was kind of a very individual project and working style.

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So thinking about the emphasis on collaborative working, what experiences did you have as a research student that helped prepare you for this way

00:23:01,000 --> 00:23:06,000
of working or helped you develop the skill set that you would need in the workplace?

00:23:06,000 --> 00:23:15,000
I got involved in different types of extracurricular activities, I feel like that helped more than what was in my PhD per se

00:23:15,000 --> 00:23:16,000
So when I was Exeter,

00:23:16,000 --> 00:23:28,000
that was the opportunity to be a facilitator on Grand Challenges Week and so that was really a great point of collaboration for me in trying to

00:23:28,000 --> 00:23:37,000
kind of think about what what kind of team of undergraduates are doing and how I might also support them in their work and kind of facilitate them.

00:23:37,000 --> 00:23:44,000
So that didn't feel as kind of individual. And there were other things that I did.

00:23:44,000 --> 00:23:55,000
So I I'd be included on a grant application, it wasn't successful, but I kind of helped prepare some of the work for that.

00:23:55,000 --> 00:24:04,000
So there were kind of brainstorms and kind of workshops, sessions, and people were collaboratively authoring kind of documents.

00:24:04,000 --> 00:24:10,000
So that was really another aspect that really facilitated that.

00:24:10,000 --> 00:24:12,000
And another thing that I.

00:24:12,000 --> 00:24:25,000
got involved with was the widening participation programme at Exeter so that's with the with the residential team, say and also open days as well.

00:24:25,000 --> 00:24:30,000
So those I was working as part of a team where we collaborated said, think about what?

00:24:30,000 --> 00:24:35,000
What activities do you want today? Well, some of the things you want to present to people.

00:24:35,000 --> 00:24:40,000
So I felt like those extra curricular things were what really helped.

00:24:40,000 --> 00:24:46,000
And we have that kind of collaboration aspect in my PhD

00:24:46,000 --> 00:24:53,000
And I also mentioned the postdoc I did at Exeter. was looking at the kind of peer-to-peer energy markets.

00:24:53,000 --> 00:25:03,000
And that was more collaborative that because I was working in a multidisciplinary team with computer scientists and software engineers and say, yeah,

00:25:03,000 --> 00:25:07,000
that was a lot more collaborative in terms if we had more kind of regular meetings where we would

00:25:07,000 --> 00:25:12,000
give updates about the work that we've done and look at the different kind of pieces of work,

00:25:12,000 --> 00:25:16,000
we tried to understand how the different pieces kind of fit together.

00:25:16,000 --> 00:25:21,000
So I felt like it wasn't perhaps things that I did kind of directly through my PhD

00:25:21,000 --> 00:25:27,000
But I felt that there were other things that I got involved in during my PhD that helped.

00:25:27,000 --> 00:25:32,000
So what other extra curricular things you got involved with that really important

00:25:32,000 --> 00:25:39,000
or formative for moving onto the stock and your current job at Microsoft Research?

00:25:39,000 --> 00:25:42,000
Yeah. So I know that I got I took part in a summer school as well.

00:25:42,000 --> 00:25:53,000
So in the psychology department and social psychologists, we're part of a broader kind of the European association social psychologists.

00:25:53,000 --> 00:26:00,000
And there was a summer school. So I took part in that. And that was in a way of about how we have kind of grand challenges for the undergrads.

00:26:00,000 --> 00:26:05,000
It was sort of you kind of came in for I think it was a week or two weeks and

00:26:05,000 --> 00:26:09,000
we just tackled like a brand new problem or brand new area of research us

00:26:09,000 --> 00:26:16,000
And we kind of worked in small groups and we thought about what a study would look like and what kind of questions we'd want to ask,

00:26:16,000 --> 00:26:24,000
what kind of data we want to collect. So that kind of rapid and that trying to gain a rapid understanding of any topic and

00:26:24,000 --> 00:26:29,000
then tried to kind of spend that up into what kind of project proposal might look like.

00:26:29,000 --> 00:26:37,000
That was really good as well. So I think. Those types of opportunities where you know that you can be working with other people,

00:26:37,000 --> 00:26:43,000
doing a different type of task than you might do in your everyday work. That was good.

00:26:43,000 --> 00:26:51,000
And yeah, I had a few other things that I did so that I always kind of get the names of the schemes

00:26:51,000 --> 00:26:54,000
but I think it was I think this actually came under public outreach.

00:26:54,000 --> 00:27:04,000
So when I got involved in things like the Sidmouth Science Festival and put together, I just sort of like a little demo from psychology,

00:27:04,000 --> 00:27:08,000
but just got me talking to other audiences say those are kids, you know,

00:27:08,000 --> 00:27:16,000
young children and members of the public and say again, you know, I didn't even talk about my own research.

00:27:16,000 --> 00:27:21,000
I feel like sometimes that's a barrier or you might think, oh, I don't have anything to say about my research,

00:27:21,000 --> 00:27:27,000
but I just talked to them about kind of classic psychology experiments and bought them things that they could play with.

00:27:27,000 --> 00:27:34,000
So there's a little bit of an IQ test that they got to kind of shift ground blocks and try to put patterns together.

00:27:34,000 --> 00:27:35,000
But I think that as well,

00:27:35,000 --> 00:27:43,000
it just helped me just with communication skills and thinking about how to explain kind of research to people who aren't academics.

00:27:43,000 --> 00:27:50,000
So, yeah, I thought both in the communication and in just kind of planning that and setting them up and talking about the team,

00:27:50,000 --> 00:27:56,000
all we got to do and how are we going to do that? That was also another aspect of collaboration.

00:27:56,000 --> 00:28:00,000
So thinking about those those extra curricular things you did, you know, Sidmouth Science Festival,

00:28:00,000 --> 00:28:06,000
Granch challenges the summer school, going to a careers consultant for one to one appointment.

00:28:06,000 --> 00:28:13,000
What other advice would you give to current research degree students to.

00:28:13,000 --> 00:28:17,000
What opportunities do you think they should make the most of during their research

00:28:17,000 --> 00:28:22,000
degree to help them prepare for that transition to a career in research,

00:28:22,000 --> 00:28:31,000
but also a role outside of academia? Yes. So I think the one thing that I didn't do, which I've learnt about, is internships.

00:28:31,000 --> 00:28:36,000
So, you know, so organisations like Microsoft Research.

00:28:36,000 --> 00:28:43,000
But I think anybody anybody's interested, potentially interested in tech in the summer.

00:28:43,000 --> 00:28:46,000
Lots of these companies have internships where they're looking to these students.

00:28:46,000 --> 00:28:50,000
They're paid. They're like well paid.

00:28:50,000 --> 00:28:57,000
And you can go for three months over the summer, say, I think a lot of places they start to kind of advertise things in September,

00:28:57,000 --> 00:28:59,000
say, you know, it's a bit of forward planning involved.

00:28:59,000 --> 00:29:07,000
But I would definitely say to look and see if there's an internship in the type of area that you might be interested in,

00:29:07,000 --> 00:29:10,000
because it really does give you a head start on.

00:29:10,000 --> 00:29:14,000
You know, some people come back and do the internship every single year.

00:29:14,000 --> 00:29:17,000
So they, you know, they start in their first year.

00:29:17,000 --> 00:29:23,000
And then by the end of their third year, they've done an internship with the organisation three, three times.

00:29:23,000 --> 00:29:30,000
And you really think, you know, they've almost got kind of years work experience directly in the industry that they want to go into.

00:29:30,000 --> 00:29:33,000
But even if you do the internship and you might think, oh, actually,

00:29:33,000 --> 00:29:39,000
this isn't anything like I thought it's going to be and I've I've realised I don't want to do this.

00:29:39,000 --> 00:29:44,000
I think it will give you a whole new set of skills that you probably wouldn't get from your PhD

00:29:44,000 --> 00:29:50,000
And also, it gives you that learning. It might give you that closer understanding of what is it that I want today.

00:29:50,000 --> 00:29:56,000
And I think even if you kind of really feel strongly I want to go into academia

00:29:56,000 --> 00:30:00,000
and doing something like an internship might help you get industry connections.

00:30:00,000 --> 00:30:04,000
So when you're thinking about, like your own grants and how you might want to have an industry sponsor when

00:30:04,000 --> 00:30:09,000
they're doing internships with a relevant industry could help you get a build.

00:30:09,000 --> 00:30:16,000
That network can have these connections where later you can say, oh, actually, maybe I can find out these can be an industry partner on a grant.

00:30:16,000 --> 00:30:22,000
So I would definitely advise you to look for these things.

00:30:22,000 --> 00:30:31,000
I think one of the challenges that I always had thinking about my career was I had relatively limited geographic mobility.

00:30:31,000 --> 00:30:38,000
So I know that lots of people end up going abroad after their PhD

00:30:38,000 --> 00:30:44,000
And, you know, for me, because of my family circumstances, that wasn't an option.

00:30:44,000 --> 00:30:53,000
But I would encourage people here don't underestimate like what companies are kind of not too far off on your doorstep.

00:30:53,000 --> 00:31:03,000
I really I didn't even know that Microsoft had a lab in Cambridge and other companies in London isn't isn't too far from Exeter.

00:31:03,000 --> 00:31:10,000
So, you know, you might be surprised kind of what there os and what they're doing, the type of opportunities that they have.

00:31:10,000 --> 00:31:13,000
And so I'd really encourage you to think about that.

00:31:13,000 --> 00:31:22,000
And I'd just talk to people who I talk to people at conferences and yeah, just reach out to people on linkedin

00:31:22,000 --> 00:31:27,000
If you think they're really interesting and even if they're not somebody you could work directly,

00:31:27,000 --> 00:31:33,000
they might have advice and say, well, you know, maybe I should try this place or maybe should look at this programme.

00:31:33,000 --> 00:31:35,000
And I think that that's fabulous advice,

00:31:35,000 --> 00:31:44,000
whether you're looking at roles inside or outside of academia to really think about starting to build and maintain that network of contacts,

00:31:44,000 --> 00:31:52,000
because whether you're looking for roles in industry or collaborators or industry partners for funding applications,

00:31:52,000 --> 00:31:59,000
those networks will sustain you for your career. Thank you so much to Denise for taking the time to talk to me.

00:31:59,000 --> 00:32:08,000
I found our conversation really fascinating to get into some of the detail of what a research career in industry is like,

00:32:08,000 --> 00:32:13,000
what that transition from postdoc to research an industry is like,

00:32:13,000 --> 00:32:24,000
but also what experiences to make the most of to help facilitate that transition and get you the skills that you need.

00:32:24,000 --> 00:32:40,523
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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