From Three Years in the Dark to the Dazzling World of International Affairs


Working in international affairs at the UK Government’s main agency for funding research in engineering and physical sciences is not a job I would have thought of when I was at school. I never knew what I wanted to do and didn’t really plan out my career–it has just sort of happened and so far, so good.

I completed my BSc in chemical physics at the University of East Anglia in Norwich in 1998. My decision to go for this particular degree was probably based more on spending the second year at the University of Texas, Austin, rather than the chemical physics part. In the final year, back in Norwich I got involved in a research project and I really enjoyed getting my teeth into something.

Desire to see occasional daylight

As a result of this, along with the fact that I wasn’t sure what else to do, I went on to do a PhD in physical chemistry still in Norwich, which was sponsored by the Engineering and Physical Science Research Council (EPSRC). My PhD involved using lasers to study the ultrafast dynamics of the chromophore of the green fluorescent protein (in layman’s words, seeing what was happening with the colourful part of a protein on a very fast timescale). This meant spending a lot of time in a pitch-black lab locked away from other people and required a lot more patience than I had. So when it was time to start thinking about the next step, I decided that I wanted a career involving research, but didn’t actually want to do the research. I wanted a career that would allow me to see daylight occasionally and interact with other people a bit more.

During the many hours I spent searching the Web for a job, I came across an advert posted by EPSRC. I’d only had good experiences with EPSRC–they’d sent me money regularly during my PhD, they’d sent me to GRADschool, which is a training week on transferable skills for PhD students and was a lot of fun, and then they’d always been nice whenever I phoned. The vacancy they were advertising was for a ‘research portfolio manager’, which they said would mean becoming an ‘associate programme manager’ or a ‘university interface manager’. I wasn’t entirely sure what all these jobs were or what the difference between them was, but they sounded very interesting in any case.

Following an exhausting assessment day at EPSRC, where we had to go through a group exercise, a written test, a presentation, and an interview, I was offered a job as a university interface manager, or UIM. In this role, I would act as a contact point for a group of universities, answering any questions they had about funding and giving workshops to new academics on various aspects of EPSRC business. This meant I had to learn a lot of new information very quickly. Another aspect of the UIM role was to manage peer review panel meetings (where they decide which proposals to fund). This was my favourite part as I got to see what research academics were planning to carry out and observe the debates about the proposals. I was also made to feel, at a very early stage, that I could make an effective contribution to the organisation.

After a year in the job, an advert came up on our intranet for somebody to work in our international team. As I’d only been in my job for a year, I thought I’d go along and have a chat about the role to let them know I was interested, in case any more jobs came up in the future. A couple of weeks later I was told I’d got the job.

“An exciting opportunity requiring creativity, dynamism, and self-starting qualities to learn about and influence international science and technology,” as the job was described, sounded far too glamorous and exciting to miss out on. In reality, it is true that my role in ‘international affairs’ is very exciting, interesting, and fulfilling, but it can also be very hard work and tends not to be quite as glamorous as you would expect most days.

Intelligence source

So my job is now to provide international intelligence for the rest of the organisation. Once again there was a lot to learn to start with, and even now there are always plenty of papers to read to keep up-to-date with everything that is going on. One aspect of my role is to act as the UK National Contact Point for the New and Emerging Science and Technology (NEST) programme within the EU’s Framework Programme 6, the world’s largest publicly funded R&D programme. This involves raising awareness of the programme through talks, workshops, and a Web site, providing a helpline service for people wanting to find out more about NEST, and keeping in touch with the European Commission to provide input to the development of the NEST programme.

The remainder of my time is taken up by providing input to the UK Government on international science issues and policy papers, such as the EPSRC position on the future of basic research in Europe, and strategic decisions such as ‘what should the EPSRC be doing with other countries?’ I am also dealing with queries from all over the world about all kinds of subjects, for instance from students in Asia wanting to study in the UK. The kind of activities I may get involved in is very varied as well–ranging from attending meetings in Germany to discussing postgraduate training to workshops in Taiwan on nanotechnology. All this means I get to interact with a wide range of people too: Government staff from around the world, research funding agencies in other countries, other UK research council staff, academics, and university administrators.

The bits that make my friends jealous such as trips to Paris are actually a lot of hard work. People always like to make the most of you and arrange breakfast, lunch, and dinner meetings as well as the normal meetings. However, my international visits so far have been very productive. I’ve developed a good understanding of how research is funded in other countries and have been able to feed this new information back to my colleagues at EPSRC. And even though international visits are very demanding, I don’t think I’ll be turning down an invite to India later this year!

Would I advise anyone to follow in my footsteps? Well, I’m certainly glad I did a PhD–I would not have got a job at EPSRC without it. And even though a career in research wasn’t for me, my PhD helped me develop a wide range of transferable skills and gave me an insider’s understanding of the research environment, which of course proved extremely useful in my various roles at EPSRC.

So where do I now see my career going? I’m still not entirely sure. There are more jobs within EPSRC I’d like to do, such as getting more involved in the research programmes. But with the exciting opportunities of international affairs–who knows. ?

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