Doctoral School

Dr Nikki Luke

Dr Nikki Luke, Research Fellow at the University of Oxford's REES Centre, tells us about how she got her job.

Photo of Dr Nikki LukeWhat’s your current job?

I’m a research fellow at the University of Oxford, based in the Department of Education. I work with the team at the REES Centre, a unit funded through grants from a mixture of private, research council, government and charity sources which specialises in research into fostering and education.

Much of the work is related to knowledge exchange. We speak to practitioners to find out what they need to know about, for example ‘How can we support carers to support each other?’ Then we write reviews of existing research before conducting our own original research. The problem is that there’s a lot of research out there, but it doesn’t always get through to practitioners. They don’t have time to read everything. Also, journal articles are often written in indigestible language. We write more accessible research reviews and make them freely available online as PDFs and also circulate printed copies.

How did you get the job?

I was due to submit my thesis in September 2012 and started applying for jobs in the January of that year. I was becoming disheartened by the lack of suitable jobs. My area is very niche, as I was researching social work but from the perspective of a psychologist. The psychology post-docs mostly centred around cognition and memory, whereas the roles relating directly to my thesis required social work experience. I really enjoyed teaching during my PhD and applied for lectureships, thinking this would allow me to pursue my own research alongside other responsibilities. I wasn’t even shortlisted, though; it was just too competitive. Although I had some publications, universities were thinking about the REF and selecting candidates who had published more papers. I could now write a really good impact statement based on my recent work, but it was much harder as a doctoral researcher.

I applied for my current job in April/May. The advert specified a senior researcher, but I decided to apply for it anyway, as it was suited to my research background. I think I was successful because I offered both quantitative and qualitative skills. Also, my experience of social media helped me. The organisation wanted to improve its online presence and needed somebody with practical experience of the technology. Initially, I ran all the social media for the Centre and also built the website. I set up a blog and a newsletter and invited contributions from others. We now have a part-time Publicity & Communications Officer, as it was too much for me, but I’m really proud of what I achieved. Twitter has been very useful to us, as it has helped us to discover small organisations and build relationships with them.

What do you enjoy about it?

I particularly enjoy working closely with practitioners, as it’s a reciprocal relationship. As a doctoral researcher, I was used to disseminating my work; now I have input from practitioners on what research they want me to do. It’s a much more interactive way of working. I see the impact of my work very quickly, too, which is very satisfying. My workload is always varied and no two days are the same. The only disadvantage is that I sometimes feel I don’t get the opportunity to focus on a project for a long period of time. This requires adjustment after doing a PhD where you have control over a project and are responsible for every aspect of it.

Was it a difficult transition from PhD to full-time post?

Well, I submitted my thesis on a Friday and started the job on the following Monday. It was a condition of the contract that I’d submitted before I started. That was a great motivator! I had to move to Oxford a fortnight before submission, and spent 14-hour days getting everything finished. It was very exciting when I could go outside and speak to someone. I felt as though I was thrown into a new life, but I didn’t have any choice - I needed a salary.

How did the skills you learned as a doctoral researcher help you?

I attended lots of training workshops and signed up for loads of events. The presentation skills workshop with Steve Creffield was particularly good. He encouraged us to think about the “so what?” question when giving a presentation, and to consider the specific needs of our audience.

There was also a psychology away-day where people from different sectors came and talked about their jobs. It was really useful to hear such varied experiences.

Do you have any top tips for doctoral researchers?

Take a step back from your research and do something different. Doing a PhD can be an isolating experience, so talk to other researchers, even those beyond your own field.

In terms of jobs, be open-minded about what you’re applying for - I could easily have been deterred from applying for my current role, as I didn’t match the requirements exactly.

Publish as much as you can, as early as you can. Everyone is interested in your publications list. In the meantime, present your work at every opportunity. Pursue knowledge exchange work and build a network of people.

You need an edge in such a competitive market. Funders want impact statements. That’s where you can give yourself an advantage, especially if you don’t have many publications.

Get some teaching experience, too, as that’s great for your CV. I taught statistics, which I really enjoyed. And establish links with different institutions, especially if you’ve done all your studying in one place.

Finally, remember that your PhD is just one small part of your career. It’s an apprenticeship - you’re not expected to be the finished article.

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