Cultivating individuality as a post-doc research assistant

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This is the second post on researching on other people’s projects. Emily St.Denny is a research assistant at the Public Policy Institute for Wales, based at Cardiff University, where she studies the powers and policy levers Welsh Ministers can use to make and deliver their policy goals. She recently completed a PhD in French and Public Policy at Nottingham Trent University. Her thesis looked at how and why prostitution policy in France has changed the way it has since 1946.

There are as many versions of life after the PhD as there are newly-minted doctors. For some, like those who leave academia to pursue opportunities in other fields, work and research may be very different from what they experienced while writing their thesis. For others who seek to build a career in research and higher education, the contrast will likely be more nuanced.

In many cases, a post-doc’s first job will be as a research assistant. On the one hand, this means employing and honing many of the same skills developed throughout the PhD. On the other, it also often means putting these skills to the service of a project you have not been involved in planning or shaping, and which may not be directly related to your thesis topic.

One of the challenges this throws up therefore concerns how post-doc RAs, who have just spent years crafting their own research ‘voice’ and carving out a space for themselves in an often-crowded field, can continue to grow as individual researchers while working to support somebody else’s research agenda.

Having worked as an RA for four years, both during and after my PhD, I’ve been working (struggling?) to retain and craft my ‘voice’ as an early career researcher throughout the whole process.

My PhD was in French and public policy, it explored the evolution of contemporary prostitution/sex work policies in France from 1946 onwards. At the same time as writing my thesis, I also worked as a research assistant on medium to large research projects, studying policy-making and the policy process in the devolved UK. I now look at minimum unit pricing of alcohol policy in Wales.

I have enjoyed working on all these projects, and continue to do so. They’ve allowed me to continue improving my understanding and manipulation of public policy theory – which is where my heart lies. Gone, however, is the focus on gender and the study of French politics, both of which still greatly interest me.

The way I see it, with my disparate interests and expertise, there are three broad options available to me at this point in my career. Option one: I take a bow and draw the curtains on my plans to be a scholar of French gender politics, and focus exclusively on studying and commenting on public policy in the UK for the foreseeable future. Option two: I slowly try to redirect my career towards studying policymaking in France exclusively. Or, option three: I decide to have my cake and eat it too and, at the risk of finding it too rich to stomach, I try to carve out a space for myself in both areas.

Call me a dreamer, but I’m currently pursuing option three. I love studying public policy, gender, France, Scotland, Wales, and devolution, and I’ll be damned if I give any of them up without a fight. So, how am I going to do it? Why, with the help of my ‘3 T’ strategy (patent not pending):

1. Transferability: If there is one thing that PhD students are near-universally equipped to do, it’s finding ways to make the most out of limited resources (ramen for breakfast anyone?). We are excellent at using our skills and knowledge in a range of different ways. Heck, that’s often one of the primary reasons we get hired as RAs. So, while I might be working on a project that’s very different from my thesis, I know that there are plenty of opportunities for transferring what I’m learning. No matter what I’m working on, it’s crucial I keep improving my capacity to engage with scholarship, employ different data collection methods, analyse and report information in different ways, and engage with stakeholders about why this research matters.

2. Time: Jane Austen once said that “It is a truth universally acknowledged that an early career research in possession of an RA position must be in want of four extra hours in the day, if not an extra day in the week”. Well, she didn’t exactly say that, but the point still holds. There will be times when maintaining my relevance across multiple areas of interest, in addition to those associated with your post-doc, require extra efforts. Most of what I do at work is relevant to my professional development as a research, but it is still up to me to cultivate my position as an authority on French prostitution policy while working on alcohol policy-making in Wales. I’ve therefore always found it worth discussing and negotiating opportunities to help me develop my own research (eg. time to write your book proposal, attend conferences, or blog) very early on in a hiring process or post.

3. Training: Ultimately, I’ve always been given the opportunity to work on my own interests at the margins of the research projects I’ve assisted on. This is partly because I’ve had the great fortune of working with very supportive senior colleagues, and partly because RA posts increasingly require primary investigators to help you develop your professional and research skills. This year, for example, I’ve been focusing on becoming a more engaging researcher – this means improving my ability to plan and organise opportunities for different publics to discover what I do and why it matters. My boss grants me time off to attend training workshops and, as a result, I’m planning engagement activities that will benefit project I assist on, while also planning an exhibition on contemporary history of prostitution/sex work in France which I will seek funding for in the future.

Overall, there are many challenges involved in becoming a post-doc RA. Some are linked to a perceived change in status – you go from expert on your thesis topic to assistant on somebody else’s project – others involve a perceived loss of autonomy – you must temporarily shelve your grand research plans while you investigate something very different. That having been said, I’ve found it possible to be an RA with ‘purpose’: one which seeks to make the day-job work for me, as much as for the PI. The key, I find, is to keep learning. Consequently, I’d be very interested to learn about how others have navigated the experience of being a post-doctoral research assistant.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in Emily St Denny, postdoc, researcher and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Cultivating individuality as a post-doc research assistant

  1. Sarah De Nardi says:

    Emily- thank you for your insightful post!
    Thanks for driving home that it’s fine to try to pursue all your research foci at once- I thought I’d be insane to try to juggle it all. All the best in your post and your monograph (whichever your topic will be!)


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