By Tania Clarke, Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge
Though you’ll now find me with a pencil perched behind my ear weaving together the literature that justifies my PhD, before this I worked as an education researcher in a not-for-profit business context, which has greatly informed how I experience the world of academia. But this is not my first time studying at Cambridge, between 2012-2016 I completed my British Psychological Society Graduate Basis for Chartered Membership, undergraduate, and master’s degrees here. Following this I was thrilled to be offered a job at Cambridge Assessment where I worked for three years.
Cambridge Assessment is a non-teaching department of the University of Cambridge and a world-leading provider of education services for eight million learners in over 170 countries. During my time there I worked across many different teams on a variety of projects. I assistant managed the design and delivery of GCSE, A-level and Pre-U qualifications, conducted research with young learners in Southern Asia to develop on-screen assessments, and, in my final year as a Senior Research Manager, worked for the Malaysian Ministry of Education to monitor and evaluate the implementation of their new CEFR-aligned English language curriculum.
If you’re interested in working as a researcher in an applied business or not-for-profit context in the future or are simply curious as to what the key distinctions are between conducting research in the two different contexts, I hope my reflections can be of use to you! I’ve whittled them down to five. These reflections are obviously based on my own personal experiences alone; I’m sure these would differ depending on the organisation you worked for and your reasons for pursuing a career in educational research.
1. The joy of supervising
The aspect of my PhD experience that I have found by far the most fulfilling to date has been working as a supervisor to undergraduate students. It is delightfully mind-boggling to think that years ago I was in their shoes pursing my first degree. The undergraduate course here at the Faculty has been reformed since my time, and now offers students the choice of three exciting tracks. Given my earlier background in the arts and humanities, my later decision to specialise at graduate level in psychology and my professional experience working across international contexts, I am lucky enough to be supervising across all three. I find teaching really rewarding and it’s a real honour to be able to give something back to the Faculty that made me the researcher I am today; this time sitting on the opposite side of the supervisory ‘table’.
N.B. I use the table analogy lightly! In my supervisions we all sit together and talk as a group of academics.
2. Researcher autonomy and fulfilling your intellectual curiosity
Being provided with the opportunity to undertake my PhD has given me the academic freedom to pursue a specific area of psychology (children’s wellbeing) in depth and take my research in any direction (as long as it is warranted by theory and evidence). In a business context on the other hand, the kind of research undertaken typically has pre-defined research questions and aims. I was thoroughly engaged and inspired by all the projects I had the pleasure of working on at Cambridge Assessment, yet I could not help but feel curious – having worked on the ‘cognitive’ aspects of education such as academic achievement – about the broader responsibilities of education. My doctoral research offers me the autonomy to combine the knowledge I gained working in an assessment context with my interest in children’s wider experiences of school.
3. Searching for collaborative opportunities versus ‘in-built’ teamwork
Something else I miss about working in a business context is the in-built collaboration involved in working on any project. At Cambridge Assessment, teamwork was essential to the success of any research being undertaken. For example, one project I undertook was a study in India and Indonesia which I co-led alongside a fellow colleague. Together, we shared the responsibilities of designing our research instruments, planning the logistics of our fieldwork, undertaking the data collection, and writing up the findings. We worked collaboratively and supported each other, drawing on our individual strengths. Even when I was working as a Senior Research Manager with sole responsibility for deliverables on the Cambridge-Malaysia 5-year Collaboration Project at Cambridge English, I was part of a wider team and worked in partnership with a number of experts from across education on a daily basis: teachers, curriculum developers, project managers, fellow researchers and civil servants. I certainly learnt a lot from being exposed to all these different ways of thinking and could rely on colleagues to openly critique ideas and provide alternative ways of looking at a problem. When doing a PhD, you alone are the whole sum of your research ‘team’. You are responsible for a mammoth three-year project; from design to implementation, right through to the 80,000 word thesis to document it. This forces you to find ways of engineering collaboration into your work. One way that I am currently doing this is through my participation in the Faculty’s Special Interest Group (SIG) for children’s wellbeing and inclusion, chaired by my PhD supervisor Dr. Ros McLellan. The SIG forms a team of experts and provides important opportunities for inter-disciplinary working.
4. Socialising, peers and coffee machine chit-chat
Office cultures offer a myriad of opportunities to socialise, whether this be in a work capacity or on your lunch break. It wasn’t until I left this world that I realised the sense of interpersonal connectedness I got from working with fellow colleagues towards shared goals, attending the monthly book club meet-up and the spontaneous interactions afforded by an open-plan office. My work life was brimming with social interaction and I only needed to walk to the coffee machine less than 10 meters away to feel part of a bigger picture. Luckily, the Faculty hosts a beautiful social area for staff and PhD students to relax and catch-up over coffee, which makes it easy to put down the books and remember that humans exist! This said, there is not the same abundance of immediate opportunities for socialising when you are a PhD student unless you cultivate them yourself. This is where coffee shop loyalty cards and co-working spaces come into their own!
5. Seeing the impact of your research
I wish I had started a tally of the amount of times I have been advised that “a PhD is a marathon, not a sprint”. Wise words. The three-year hike of a PhD is a world apart from the kind of research projects I conducted for business purposes which were sprints in comparison, lasting anywhere between six months to one year. Typically, it is not until the end of your second or third year of PhD that you begin to see the precise impact of your findings. Academia, albeit rigorous, is known for its lengthy peer-review process and moves at a different pace to the business world. I often emerge from the darkest depths of the University Library wondering what time of day it is, only to realise I’ve have been in there a day and only managed to begin nibbling at one psychological construct in my literature review. When I was working for the Malaysian government, I could see the immediate impact of the research I was conducting and how it was part of a wider vision of education; this affirmation was only a conference call away.
N.B. Dialling into a conference call with colleagues at the Malaysian Ministry of Education was often the highlight of my week. In my experience Malaysians are incredibly uplifting and friendly.
As I’ve hopefully illustrated, when asked to reflect on the differences between my experiences working as an education researcher in a not-for-profit context compared to an academic context, this was not simply a matter of drawing up the ‘pros’ and ‘cons’. Rather, I see these experiences as ostensibly inter-related and critical to helping me live my best PhD life; borrowing lessons and wisdom from one and transferring and adapting them into the other.
Tania Clarke is a doctoral student of Psychology and Education at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge. She is a 2019-2023 Cambridge Trust Scholar and a member of St Edmunds College. Tania received her BA(Hons) in Education with English and Drama, MPhil in Psychology and Education, and British Psychological Society Graduate Basis for Chartered Membership at the Faculty of Education and was previously a member of Homerton College (Cambridge). Tania’s doctoral research investigates the relationship between children’s wellbeing and their academic achievement at school. You can follow her on Twitter (@taniaclarke_).