How to Expand Your Career Horizons

This guide grew out of research by two students who undertook a Micro-Internship at the Careers Service. They investigated openings that emerge from multi-disciplinary teams at Oxford University working across the health and social science spectrum. In doing so, they discovered a wealth of projects and roles they had never even heard of and became increasingly surprised at how a creative and proactive approach can yield exciting career opportunities.

It is too easy to adopt a reactive mindset when looking for jobs in which we scour existing vacancies or only look at obvious progression pathways. But as our working lives become more fluid, adaptive and multi-faceted, each of us can play a greater part in shaping our future roles.

Our Generating Career Ideas briefing outlines a research-led approach to career planning, to enable you to generate insights into your personal career drivers and tie these into your thinking.

This resource will help you see the less-visible openings and how you can uncover opportunities. To quote Gem Barton: “Don’t Get a Job…Make a Job”.

Read the full report: Unveiling careers at the interface of academia and policy  

One big learning outcome was the importance of being aware of what is going on in your fields of interest. For example, to know about evolving collaborations between health and social or STEM science disciplines, and being ‘in conversation’ with people who are active at such interfaces.

The techniques outlined in the guide can be applied to many sectors and roles, including work across disciplines.

This guide will show you how to explore beyond the obvious, specifically how to

  • extend your understanding of roles and organisations (linked to your degree/research area)
  • develop your networks, and connect to people you can continue to learn from

We believe it could be particularly useful if you are

  • wondering what avenues are open if you love your subject yet may not want to do pure academic research
  • considering whether to do a Masters or PhD
  • keen to see where your current study and/or research might take you, either within academia or in linked policy or practice areas

Expand All

These steps were used by the interns to identify people whose research links into many areas of related work.

Initial Research

  • Once you have identified some interesting articles or events, these tend to signal projects currently underway at Oxford university, often in collaboration with partner organisations that intersect the worlds of policy, services and business.

Identifying Contacts

  • Locate senior researchers on these projects – as listed within the article – and find their departmental pages which will tell you about their backgrounds and experiences.
    • LinkedIn can be very useful here: the senior researchers may also be involved in projects beyond those listed on their departmental page, alongside their work for the university.
    • When looking at profiles, try not to become overwhelmed! Senior researchers are often involved in many large-scale impressive collaborations, meaning their profiles can feel quite daunting…
  • To find profiles of those at an earlier stage in their careers in the same area, look on the senior researcher profiles for lists of previous and current students or research colleagues (e.g. postdocs, research assistants)
  • This isn’t always easy because some researchers do not include this information on their departmental page, especially if they lead a large research group which takes on many doctoral students.
  • Many previous students will now be working as post-doc researchers in similar fields at other Universities or organisations operating in governance, business or the third sector (e.g. NGOs)
  • Identifying PhD students currently working with the lead researcher can shed light on what people in that field do to develop their career in its early stages.

Reaching Out to People

  • To find out more, you may wish to contact these early career researchers via email, LinkedIn or Twitter
    • To maximise your chance of a reply, look at the individual’s profiles on all social media platforms to see where they are most active
  • Whilst the 300-character limit of the ‘cold’ contact request message system on LinkedIn can be off-putting, it is an easy way to connect with people in the field. Try writing a message that includes a hook to explain why you’re interested in speaking to them and that you are aware of the work they are doing in the field. For an example of a LinkedIn contact message, see the template below.

“Hi [Name], I would love to connect to be able to ask you some questions about your career and present role. I’m currently interning/working/studying at [place], where I am [outline your interest].”

  • If possible, mention some mutual connections you may have, and be complimentary about their work!

Thinking Laterally

  • Another route in is to identify organisation with whom researchers have worked with as project partners. These tend to have stronger links to policy and governance than the individual themselves; and demonstrate range of roles available at the intersect between social science, health science, policy and practice
    • Some organisations may even have graduate schemes for those not wishing to pursue further study, see the resource list below for where to start.
  • Whether you have a social or health science background and wish to work in policy or service provision, it is worth exploring roles in these organisations related to communication, investment and public engagement.
    • Your studies will have given you a strong set of transferable key skills you can apply in roles outside research
  • Once you are working in an organisation, opportunities for progression into other roles arise, both within that organisation and in related ones.

For useful tips, read our briefing on Networking.

What could your future involve? 

The interns who led this research found the following projects that have grown from Oxford interdisciplinary collaborations and generated a range of previously un-anticipated working roles. Read the following case studies to learn about how they found them, and what they discovered. 

Prof. Lucie Cluver and Dr Jamie Lachman – Health and family input to improve young people’s lives

Lucie is a Professor of Child and Family Social Work at the University of Oxford’s Department of Social Policy and Intervention. As an undergraduate, Lucie studied Classics at the University of Cambridge. She then undertook an MSc Applied Social Studies and Diploma in Social Work at the University of Oxford, where she completed a thesis in child poverty and child well-being in South Africa, followed by an MSc Social Policy, in which she researched the psychological well-being of AIDS orphans in South Africa. In 2007 she completed her DPhil in Social Policy and Intervention.

She works with various governmental and non-governmental organisations to provide evidence that can improve the lives of children and adolescents in Sub-Saharan Africa. Her work provides a clear example of how academia can be bridged into practice, with her research informing international and national policy-making and the creation of intervention programmes to prevent child violence. 


professor lucie cluver and dr jamie lachman  graph

As co-lead of the Parenting for Lifelong Health (PLH) Initiative, Lucie provides evidence-based child violence prevention programmes for lower-middle income countries. The PLH team has developed and tested programmes in randomised controlled trials in Southern Africa, Eastern Europe, the Philippines and Thailand, which are now being scaled up in 25 countries.

PLH’s implementation partners are many and examples include Clowns Without Borders South Africa, UNICEF, The Keiskamma Trust, and the Children’s Early Intervention Trust (Wales).

Roles within the project include Co-Lead, Steering Committee Member, Research Director, Senior Research Project Manager, Technical Programme Specialist, Research Assistant, Digital Project Manager

Interview extracts

The interns interviewed Dr Jamie M. Lachman who works with Lucie Cluver. Here are some extracts:

Jamie is a Research Officer at the Centre for Evidence-Based Intervention at the Department of Social Policy and Intervention at the University of Oxford https://www.spi.ox.ac.uk/people/dr-jamie-lachman. He has over 16 years’ worth of experience developing, implementing and evaluating social interventions for vulnerable children and their caregivers in low- and middle-income countries. His professional experience includes being a Co-Founder of the Parenting for Lifelong Health Initiative (PLH), for which he now holds a position on the Steering Committee, and being the Founder of Clowns Without Borders South Africa, which aims to improve the psychosocial wellbeing of children and communities affected by crisis. He also holds a degree from the Dell’Arte International School for Physical Theatre.

What steps did you take between your undergraduate studies and MSc to develop an interest in public health and policy, and what were your first experiences in the field? 

My career path was not straightforward. I worked as an actor and drama teacher in NYC and California for a number of years before starting Clowns Without Borders South Africa. Most of our work focused on providing psychosocial support to children affected by HIV/AIDS, poverty, and violence in Southern Africa though we also did some work around humanitarian relief further afield.

What motivated you to found Clowns Without Borders South Africa and how do you think your background in theatre has informed your work on public health and policy? 

It was a desire to have an impact on the lives of children and families in my home country of South Africa that I left at an early age due to the Apartheid regime. I was trained as a physical theatre creator and clown so CWBSA was a great way of bringing together humanitarian community-based work and the arts. My background in theatre has taught me to consider the audience (i.e., beneficiaries) as the most important aspect of the work and to continually look for ways to improve what we do using innovative approaches.

Creating theatre is an iterative process very similar to evidence-based research and policymaking that is grounded in participatory and collaborative approaches whether it is working with government agencies or community-based organisations.

What does your role on the PLH programme entail and do you see the academic work you do for projects, such as RISE, having a real-world impact? 

I am a co-developer and co-founder of the PLH initiative which is focused on developing, testing, and taking to scale a suite of open-source parenting programmes and resources in low- and middle-income countries. My academic work is very much committed to supporting a global parenting strategy that aims at reducing violence against children and supporting child wellbeing with interventions that are adaptive, evidence-based, cost-effective, and scalable. This means using the most rigorous methods of establishing real-world evidence like factorial experiments and randomised controlled trials as well as making sure that the research is applicable to policymakers, implementing agencies, practitioners, and families.

What advice would you give to students and young professionals who are considering pursuing careers in public health and policy? 

It is very important to get real world experience in the field as well as the necessary academic skills to conduct rigorous research. I also think that collaboration is critical to success. Academia can sometimes seem hyper competitive but the more one learns to share and work together within one’s own field and across fields the better.

Are there any skills, roles or areas of expertise you think there needs to be more of in public health and policy? 

We need to do better at knowledge transfer and making research more accessible to policymakers in public health.

CASE STUDY: Prof. Mike English – Improvement, Implementation, Innovation and Health Systems in East Africa

Mike trained as a paediatric doctor in the UK, and is Professor of International Child Health now based at the Oxford Centre for Global Health Research. His work is centred primarily around child and newborn health, predominately improving care in African District Hospitals. Whilst Mike’s training was in clinical medicine, he regularly draws on methods from Implementation Science, Organisational Research, Anthropology, Human Centred Design & Epidemiology bringing these together to foster learning to improve health systems.

Mike worked as part of the KEMRI-Wellcome Trust Research Programme in Kenya for 25 years where he established the Health Services Unit in collaboration with the Ministry of Health and a wide set of national collaborators. In Oxford he now leads the Health Systems Collaborative, a network of researchers focused on strengthening Health Systems Research in low- and middle-income countries to help in the achievement of the new UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Mike’s international collaborators include the WHO but he works closely with health care providers to understand their challenges. The multi-disciplinary nature of his work is perhaps best reflected by the backgrounds of the senior team he now works with which includes 4 social scientists, 4 post-doctoral clinical researchers, a statistician and a senior specialist in health informatics.


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Harnessing Innovations in Global Health to Improve Quality of Care (HIGH-Q) is a highly multidisciplinary project with two broad objectives; firstly to learn how technologies can be better designed and introduced in weak health systems to yield benefits and reduce harms and waste, and secondly to build capacity of government and researchers for these difficult but important evaluations so they help poorer countries strengthen their health systems. 

The senior project team spans two departments and includes four Oxford professors in social science in health, two Oxford specialists in digital health and technology adoption, and from Kenya three post-doctoral researchers bringing expertise in health services research, social science and human resources for health.

 

Prof. Sarah Walker – National Covid-19 infection survey

Sarah is Professor of Medical Statistics and Epidemiology at both the Nuffield Department of Medicine, University of Oxford and University College London. Much of her work at Oxford focuses on ‘big data’ collected from electronic health records. One of the biggest projects Sarah is involved with is the ‘Modernising Medical Microbiology’ Consortium, where she co-leads the effort to translate new whole genome sequencing and informatic approaches into microbiology practice and services. At UCL Sarah primarily works on large individually randomised trials of treatment and management of infectious diseases, predominantly in low- and middle-income countries.

Throughout her work at Oxford, she collaborates with over 380 individuals globally, in organisations such as Public Health England and a range of academic institutions and universities.


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Sarah is currently Chief Investigator and Academic Lead for the National COVID-19 Infection Survey, a collaboration between the University of Oxford and the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The project is backed by the company IQVIA who cover the clinical operations, and the Lighthouse Laboratories at Milton Keynes and Glasgow, who both provide the facilities required for testing swabs from 150,000 people every 2 weeks, and the University of Oxford who provide testing for antibodies. To date, over 2.5 million tests have been carried out to help gain understanding of how many people of different ages across the UK are currently infected and have already been infected with the virus.

Roles within the project: Chief Investigator, Statistician, Data Analyst, Operations Manager, Project Manager, Fieldworker, Dissemination Lead

 

 

Dr Shobhana Nagraj (DPhil student) – Protecting women using a socio-medical approach

Shobhana leads a pilot study focusing on women’s health and reducing maternal deaths in rural India. She originally trained as a paediatric surgeon after studying for her MBBS at UCL, followed by a MPhil in Primary Care Research at the University of Cambridge, where she conducted research on health services. Interestingly, she undertook an intercalated degree in Medical Anthropology whilst studying medicine. After some years working as a doctor and medical educator, she enrolled in a DPhil in Women’s & Reproductive Health and is due to complete it in 2021. 

Shobhana’s work engages many colleagues across the fields of health tech, health education, clinical interventions and international development. It relies on expertise from a variety of subject areas in social and bio-medical sciences, meaning that there are related, entry-level job opportunities and progression prospects.


dr shobhana nagraj  graph

As part of the SMARThealth Pregnancy project, Shobhana is adapting a clinical decision support system to screen for high-risk pregnancies complicated by high blood pressure, diabetes and anaemia in rural India. Roles in the project include Project Lead, Research Fellow.

A large range of degrees can equip you for these roles, and only some require further study.

 

Dr Marco Springmann – Future of Food: health, environment and economics

Marco is a Senior Researcher at the Nuffield Department of Population Health, University of Oxford. He has an academic background in physics, and ecological and environmental economics. He leads the department’s Healthy and Sustainable Food Systems Group and is interested in the health, environmental, and economic dimensions of the global food systems.

His post-graduate studies include an MA Physics from Stony Brook University, USA, an MSc Sustainability with a specialisation in ecological economics from the University of Leeds, UK, and a PhD in Economics from the University of Oldenburg, Germany.


dr marco springmann  graph

Marco is a Researcher at LEAP – a research project that aims to understand the health, environmental, social and economic effects of meat and dairy production and consumption, so as to provide evidence and tools for decision makers to promote healthy and sustainable diets.

LEAP’s partners include the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), the University of Oxford, The Nature Conservancy, Sainsbury’s, and the Sustainable and Healthy Food Systems (SHEFS) led by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

Roles within the project: Directors, Project Manager, Public Engagement Coordinator Project Investigators, Researchers, including senior, postdoctoral and assistants.

 

Interview extracts

The interns interviewed Marco, and extracts are below.

How did your background in ecological economics facilitate opportunities to work in public health?

Ecological economics is a very heterodox field that tries to critically examine environmental issues from multiple perspectives. Its focus on consumption responsibilities led me to questions related to dietary choices and what impacts those have on the environment and health. 

What health-related projects have you worked on that have been rewarding in terms of influencing policy or translating into a real-world impact?

I was fortunate to be part of the EAT-Lancet Commission on Healthy Diets from Sustainable Food Systems, a science-based commission that highlighted the importance of sustainable diets in public discourse and influenced NGOs’ and policy-makers’ positions on the topic.

What advice would you give to students and young professionals who are considering pursuing careers in public health and policy?

Do it and have fun with it. Don’t become too disciplinary and keep an open mind for questions that affect public health and the environment around us. Be brave and don’t feel you have to accept the status quo, both internally in academia, and externally in how our society is structured. 

There are also some easy, practical things you can do to make the most of being in a world-leading University for your career development. Around you are tutors, supervisors and other senior researchers who will be eager to share their experiences and insights. Do speak to them, or to junior academic staff who are involved in research that connects to organisations beyond this university.

Be brave, reach out, and ask questions of people who know more than you do. I'm naturally quite shy (terrible characteristic for an anthropologist), but the single best thing I've done in terms of career move was just march up to the head of Medical Anthropology one day (I'd totally never spoken to him before) and say, 'Hey! Where do I start reading?' He remembered that interaction, and some months later when he had an opening for a Research Assistant he got in touch to say, 'I remember you wanted to learn more; here's an opportunity to learn while doing, why don't you apply?'

I got the job, and now here I am a year later unexpectedly having become a Covid researcher. If you don't ask questions and you don't put yourself out there, it's hard to cultivate your own opportunities. Very annoying for shy people, I admit! Just learn some breathing exercises so you can calm down after you've done the brave talking-to-people thing.

Sabine Parrish, DPhil student, interviewed for this project

Check the people section of your departmental website to find out what the DPhil students, postdocs, research assistants, junior research fellows are working on, and get in touch via email.

For useful tips, read our briefing on Networking.

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