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From researcher to policy officer – Alexandra Smyth

Date published: 09/08/17

Secondee Alex Smyth

From researcher to policy officer – Alexandra Smyth

  • Current Organisation: University of Leeds
  • Current Position: Post-Doctoral Researcher
  • Secondment organisation: Translate

Researcher in career crisis

My name is Alexandra Smyth and I am currently a Post-Doctoral Researcher. I was a student in the final year of my PhD when I started panicking about my future career and having spent three years researching total ankle replacement devices and developing pre-clinical test methodologies I was running out of enthusiasm for wear simulation. While I enjoyed my PhD I wasn’t sure the solitary life of a researcher best suited my skills. The obvious choice seemed to be to look to the orthopaedic device industry.

After an industrial placement opportunity I got an insight into the day to day working for a range of roles but I still remained uninspired. I had to come to terms with the fact industrial medical device research and development route probably wasn’t going to be right for me either, determined not to get swept down a path I wasn’t going to be happy with I started to consider alternatives.

With the desire to have broader societal impact I became interested in the idea of science policy. My previous experiences had highlighted the importance of testing the water so when the University of Leeds was named as the lead for the Science and Innovation Audit I jumped at the chance to help however I could. The project aimed to evaluate the medical technology sector in the Leeds City Region.

Whilst writing my thesis I spent two days a week seconded to the Translate team and got involved throughout the scope of the project. I hoped to get some experience of a short term project which involved a range of conflicting stakeholders and had the potential to influence future policy.

A researcher’s experience of innovation policy

The Science and Innovation Audit was a multifaceted process of assessing the scientific research and innovation strengths and economic profile for the Leeds City Region and the potential for this to feed into the changing medical technology market. Through a gap analysis it was possible to highlight the barriers which may stop local industry capitalising on the market opportunities and proposals were suggested based on industry input to reduce these barriers. Such recommendations have the potential to influence future policy. For me the Science and Innovation Audit provided a local opportunity to gain policy experience in a field I am already familiar whilst allowing me to think about the broader medical technology sector. I was able to draw on my own research and analytical skills when collecting evidence through public databases and focus groups. This data had to be analysed relative to the UK and trends identified in order to get a realistic picture of the region and to dictate the narrative. The findings were presented to the other universities involved and the Local Enterprise Partnership at executive board meetings and further reaching feedback events.

Unlike my day to day work in laboratories it was a great opportunity to work as part of the small audit team and within the larger medical technology team. I enjoyed engaging with academics outside of my university and niche research field and also with all of the non-academic stakeholders from industry, local government and innovation enabling platforms to gain broader perspectives and understand the bigger picture. In addition I was exposed to a very different style of writing which was a beneficial learning experience, I was also excited to be outside of my comfort zone and developing new skills and networks.

Overall I found it very rewarding to be involved in an initiative which has the potential to influence the future of the medical technology sector in the Leeds City Region. I am looking forward to seeing the future outcomes from this work.

From researcher to policy officer

I thoroughly enjoyed my secondment opportunity to the Science and Innovation Audit team. It was the perfect chance to diversify from my research experience and to get involved with a nationally recognised project.

I really enjoyed engaging with passionate, knowledgeable people which confirmed that I wished to be in a more social role in the future. However, gaining support for the proposals and seeing the report in its completed format were personal highlights from the process. I am now looking forward to the official publication in the public domain.

This opportunity confirmed my interest in pursuing a career relating to policy. My involvement in the Science and Innovation audit has provided me with the necessary experience to allow me make the jump from research to policy. Since completing my secondment I been offered and accepted a policy officer role at the Royal Academy of Engineering. Without the experience gained in this process I would not have met the competencies required to even interview for such roles.

I would highly recommend the Translate: Me secondment scheme to anyone interested in furthering existing collaboration, gaining new skills or simply trying something different. It has been transformative.