Spotlight on: Being a Research Officer for a UK University

This is the second post in this series which I hope will take off a bit more in the coming weeks focusing on particular graduates and their jobs.

Last weeks’ post was about a Criminology grad who is now working in the Charity sector.

Next week’s post will be about an English Literature graduate who is a Marketing Associate in London.

This week we are looking at another classmate of mine who is a Research Officer at University of Surrey. What does working in “research”  MEAN?

I don’t want to keep posting these in two parts so keep scrolling for gems including: Is it worth doing a Master’s degree? When roles aren’t always obvious, advice for those wanting to get into research roles and where could a role like this take you?

Over to James:

“University wise, I was an Undergraduate in Criminology and Psychology at the University of Southampton and a Master’s student in Psychology at Kingston University.

My work experience is a bit diverse, but I started off in retail prior to my degrees (excellent for people skills!), and then moved into supervising youth offenders, which inspired me to do my first degree. When I went onto my Masters course, I became a lot more research oriented, completing a research internship on a commuter student engagement project. I’m now currently working on another engagement research project at Surrey University, focusing on how students can make better use of academic feedback.”

I find this area really interesting as it comes up a lot in the work I do in Education and Student Experience. Assessment and Feedback is something that institutions across the UK are trying to get right. It’s a work in progress and I’m currently spending time trawling through lots of data about the same thing. Oh how I love Excel sheets!

So how did you degree help James get into this area?

 “The 3 most important things my degrees gave me were primarily quantitative/qualitative research skills (essential for anyone looking to get into research!), academic writing/referencing skills (again, extremely important for research) and time management skills. Working to tight deadlines certainly helps you prioritise jobs!”

Why do a Masters degree?

“If you’re considering doing a Masters, you really need to make sure it’s in a topic that not only fascinates you, but that you’re ready to work in, potentially for the rest of your life. As the higher degree level you attain generally means you will have more research experience, employers will usually favour a Masters over an Undergraduate degree.

I did mine primarily for that reason, but also because it gave me an accreditation by the British Psychological Society (BPS). Membership of a professional body will also boost your employability, so that would definitely be another reason to consider a Masters.”

It’s not always obvious that these roles are available however…

“I heard about my role through targeted searching. I knew I wanted to get into research, so I consistently searched the job websites of my nearest Universities to see what turned up. I was fortunate to find my current role at Surrey!

 The recruitment process was fairly straightforward. I had to submit my CV (and previously published work, but this was not essential) to the University. I was then invited to a face to face interview a few weeks later, which consisted of being asked about my quantitative/qualitative research skills and questions concerning the research aims and ideology of the intended project. I was then offered the job a few days later.

My working day varies, depending on the needs of the project. However, I generally attend a meeting with my supervisors to get them up to speed on the previous day/week’s activities, take care of emails and then attend the days tasks. This can range from sorting through references in a systematic literature review, running focus groups, transcribing focus groups and writing up the results for publication. I’m mostly left to my own devices, so a good work ethic and sense of time is essential.”

I often have to recruit students for various roles and they always seems to ask what a “typical day/week” looks like however a lot of roles available for graduates can definitely make them feel strange as usually they could be used to a timetable. Without this a sense of time management is key. It’s about keeping plates spinning and making sure you’re not going to be sat with nothing to do.

“The most enjoyable part of my role so far is definitely student interaction. As we’re trying to make a real difference for them, it’s nice to find out through interviews that they actually like our project and are often just as enthusiastic as we are! As I’m sure most University students will know, the worst part about my role is staring at a computer screen for long amounts of time. That can be really punishing during summer!”

It’s important if you’re office based to make sure you take proper breaks though!!

I was intrigued to know how challenging they find it at Surrey to get students to participate in their research

“It can be quite tricky, in general getting participants for any type of research is extremely difficult. Fortunately on this project, we were offering student’s £10 each for participating, so we picked up people fairly easily. Feedback is also a pretty important topic for most student’s, so they were pretty enthusiastic about giving us their viewpoint.

The most valuable lesson I’ve learnt so far is that no detail, no matter how small, is irrelevant. Research is almost unanimously a team based job, so listening and reacting to others is the mos important thing you can do.”

So who inspires James? And what’s the best piece of advice he has had?

“It may be a bit cliched, but I’ve always loved Derren Brown. I found his early, darker stuff extremely fascinating (who doesn’t love making someone think they are zombie game?!?!), but his more recent shows have linked quite strongly into well known social psychological principles and even replicated some experiments. The clearest example would be ‘The Gameshow’, which is a pretty much an updated version of Moscovici’s famous peer pressure experiment, brought to a terrifying, logical extreme. Through his shows, I became interested in understanding human nature, and it’s a passion that I’ve taken with me into my professional life and hope to expand further with every project I work on. “
I hadn’t really thought about Derren Brown making Psychology more accessible to people. But it’s interesting to see someone taking inspiration from someone in popular culture and having a link between that and their academic or career goals is great! Often when people are shopping around for a degree the marketing pitches a uni gives them don’t always encapsulate the practical aspects or how they an be related to.
“The best piece of advice I’ve ever been given would almost certainly ‘Always say yes’. Obviously, practically speaking, you can’t literally say yes to everything, for a multitude of reasons. But I find that if you are ever faced with a difficult decision, it’s usually the best idea to throw yourself into a new experience. I wouldn’t have worked with Youth Offenders or even attained my current position without going out on a whim and hoping the best possible outcome would happen. Even if a given circumstance doesn’t look like it will pay off immediately, further down the line it could have huge ramifications. Specifically with research, just going out for lunch with a PhD student could result in a long-lasting experimental partnership: you never know!”
This is an interesting point for me as I have got to the stage in my work where I know that I need to know when to say no to people or need to learn to be less enthusiastic… but grabbing opportunities with both hands sounds great as long as you don’t over load yourself!

So what advice does he have for graduate job hunting?

“The best advice I could give new candidates for job hunting is to persevere. As with many other fields, research is an extremely competitive field, so you will likely end up applying for quite a few positions. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as with each project you encounter, you’ll get some experience of different areas of research. This should allow you to more readily identify the area you want to work in long-term.”
To make yourself stand out, keep an eye out for research based internships, either with your University or a charity. Having a piece of published research, whether it be large scale, or for an internal development project, will raise your profile to a potential employer by quite a substantial amount.

Interviews

“In terms of interview tips, the generic ‘do company research’ and ‘prepare some generic answers’ will always be relevant. However, I found the most important thing was to relax and be yourself. If you’ve got to the interview, you’ve clearly managed to impress the selection team. The interview, at least where research positions are concerned, is more aimed at finding out whether you’d fit into the team or project well. Through being relaxed and ( potentially pretending) to be confident, you’ll show your interviewer that you can communicate your thoughts fluently, hopefully allowing your personality to seep into the interaction. In the interview for the job I just got, we ended up talking about films we’d recently seen at the cinema, so sometimes, it really is OK to just be yourself!”
This is exactly what I found with my role. I had an interview before the one for this role and they said to me that it’s OK to be myself and it was the best advice anyone gave me. I went in to the interview for this role and relaxed completely and it went so much better.

Looking to the future

“For the future, I’ll be working on my current project until October. I’ll continue work on the project beyond my contract, mainly in a supervisory position, but also to help edit manuscripts for publication. It’s also possible I might be attending a conference or two to present our findings. Beyond that, I’m hoping to get a long-term position in either a social policy Government unit, or on a prolonged research project at another University. Failing that, Hollywood here I come!
Extra-curricular activities absolutely enhanced my employability profile. As I mentioned above, never say no to anything, as any project can be moulded to fit your current job application! I was fortunate enough to find a relevant research project during my Master’s as an extra-curricular activity, but even running an unrelated society can show that you have strong organisational skills, and that you are able to work well as part of a team. And even if you don’t run a Soc, belonging to one can show dedication to a subject beyond your academic life, and that you are willing to grow both personally and professionally. Nothing is a waste!
At the moment I don’t have any side projects, as my work does demand a little bit of extra attention outside of work hours. However, I am fortunate enough to get some down time, which I’m using to explore the UK. As I’ve mentioned before, free-time is never wasted if you’re using it to expand your horizons.
This job pretty much matches my expectations exactly as to what I thought I would be doing after University. I think everybody tends to think on the grander scale (having a Criminology background, visions of James Bond and Robocop come to mind), but I always knew I wanted a job that would end up helping people in one form or another, and that’s exactly what I’m doing! It’s good to have a dream to chase though!” 
Who knew Criminology could conjure images of 007?!
James’ snazzy University staff page can be found here if you would like to read more

Some of the key messages I got from James’ contribution are ones that I have heard from other recent graduates and some I have experienced myself. I love conducting focus groups and doing surveys with the students but haven’t had a chance to have any of it publicised as it is very hard to get the students to contribute to things so a lot of the research I end up with isn’t representative. I am glad to see someone else is having a positive impact on student experience at Universities.

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Author: eemaa27

Blogging and reflecting to keep my writing skills in tune

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