Last year, after a particularly discouraging interaction regarding my department’s willingness to support me in applying for grants, I made the half-crazed move of googling ‘mental health research jobs near me’. I found a company that looked good, clicked on their contact page, uploaded my CV and told them I’m looking for a job. My CV was sorta kinda geared towards industry, but was verbose and had spelling errors and a certain lack of non-academic smoothness. Two weeks later, I had a formal job offer
(I have learned since that this is NOT the standard experience for people who apply for research jobs in industry. I was very lucky.)
I told myself this is only for a year. Just to stop stressing about financial and employment uncertainty, just to take a breath, get back on my feet. Surely I’d be applying for grants with other institutions? Surely I’d apply for assistant professorships in the vicinity? I had already spent six months carving out a research programme that is my burning passion. Work in industry will be a soul-destroying experience that, at the end of the year, I would simply be able to move away from with ever more certainty…
Eight months in, I have no intention of leaving.
The reason I don’t need to look back is because what I do now is – research. It’s research without the hassles of applying for funding, maneuvering ethics procedures, booking tickets, filling out reimbursement forms, or conquering programming skills far outside my expertise, because there are other people who do that. For the first time in ages, there is enough space in my working day for sitting back, reading and thinking, and exchanging ideas at a comfortable pace.
When I told my team lead he could easily put more work on my plate, he replied that his goal is to keep my plate as clear as possible. “You spend that extra time working on stuff, don’t you? Thinking, too? Attending talks? Well then. I could give you tasks, but why would I? You’ll come up with questions that are just as good, but you’ll be more invested in answering them”. Well then indeed.
In my work, I have access to electronic health records of over 4 million adult UK patients who have used secondary mental health services, either because of psychiatric conditions or due to cognitive decline. Everything that an experienced clinician deems relevant to a person’s condition is written down in their clinical notes, and I have access to those notes (anonymised of course), and every time a person moves through the system from service to service, I can see that. I choose interesting questions to answer, I make fairly involved decisions on how to answer them, I talk to practicing psychiatrists and to our AI team who mine the clinical notes for information, and then I… analyse data and write academic papers.
(I don’t read the notes. As a quantitative researcher I tend to care about general patterns and not individual data.)
My task is to produce knowledge and disseminate it to the academic community. In the future it will also be to offer mentorship to visiting researchers working on their own ideas with our data. The job started as a support function for academics, medical researchers or pharma partners who had their own questions. But as soon as I got to experience the various types of work we do and got a handle on the data, the role started shifting around my interests. Within half a year it became a specialised function that fits my skills and filled me with a new burst of passion. So here I am, doing academic research once again, but on the other side.
Did my PhD and postdoc experience count when I applied? Yes. It counted towards my starting salary, which in turn counts towards the speed of career progression.
Did my publications count? Yes. They played a role in deciding to orient me towards producing original research.
Did my psychology knowledge count? Yes. It counted towards trusting me to formulate my own questions about how the mental health system works, and about mental health itself.
Did my programming experience count? Yes. It was important that I could learn SQL without much of a hassle.
Did my presentation skills count? Minimally. I needed to showcase some empirical work, just like I would for an academic job. Not being terribly smooth was definitely considered forgivable. I did my best to appear smooth anyway.
Did my strangled passion count? My intensity, my half-crazed sense that there is too much harm in the world, my barely contained anger? Bloody hell, it did count, just as much as the quantitative skills. From the other side of the interview process, I now know that the idea is to recruit people who care deeply.
The point of this post, apart from saying neener-neener to academia (and make no mistake, I am saying neener-neener), is not that there is an abundance of similar jobs and everyone can be a winner only if they try hard enough. Far from it. I have been incredibly lucky to land where I have. The point is that proper research positions are starting to find their way outside the ivory tower. In my own radical leftist way, I strongly dislike that this is cropping up out of the free market. I wish that academia had enough structural support so that it could, in turn, be more supportive to its members, more geared towards building something out of them, more interested in the skills they already have and the change in the world they could bring. But let’s face it, for the most part it’s not. And what a shame that is.