Case study

Acting policy manager — Stephanie Harris

Deciding against a career in academia, Stephanie is instead using her analytical skills to develop policy and drive positive change in the higher education sector

How did you get into working in policy?

In a very roundabout way to be honest. After I finished my PhD I wasn't sure what I wanted to do. I'd been very involved with sport during my time at university so decided to run for the role of Sport and Student Development Officer at my students' union and was successfully elected.

I was involved in the leadership of the student union and sat on the board of trustees of the university, which meant I was exposed to all the change happening in higher education policy at the time. I found this fascinating, and enjoyed being involved in strategic thinking, so decided to explore a career in policy. I applied for a policy officer role supporting a vice chancellor.

What do you enjoy most about working in policy?

I really enjoy that my job is intellectually stimulating. Keeping up with policy changes and analysing what these will mean for all of our members is really interesting.

I also find creating positive change for the higher education sector enjoyable and highly motivating.

What are the most challenging parts?

Being patient. Policy change takes time and this can be frustrating. It's also common for political change to shift priorities, which might mean something you've been working on for months is no longer relevant.

How relevant is your undergraduate degree to your job? Has having a PhD helped?

In terms of subject content my chemistry degree isn't relevant at all. It has, however, equipped me with a range of transferable skills that I rely on daily. The most important of these is the ability to think analytically - being able to quickly understand a problem and assess a range of options for its resolution.

Completing a PhD wasn't necessary for this career, but I do find having a background in research and in a numerate subject is generally helpful for the data analysis aspect of the role.

How has your role developed and what are your career ambitions?

My previous role as a policy analyst was focussed on developing the evidence base for policy development and leading individual research projects. I then progressed to become a policy manager. This means I now lead a whole programme of work focussed on a specific policy issue - which in my case is immigration.

A typical next step would be to go on to become deputy head or head of policy. In these roles you have responsibility for several programmes of work and might be part of the management team of the organisation.

Do you have any advice for others who want to work in policy?

When considering careers in policy most people only consider the Civil Service and routes like the Fast Stream. While this is a great graduate scheme, it's important to remember that this isn't the only option. There are many other representative bodies or think tanks out there which can offer you similarly stimulating internship or graduate roles. This option might even be better for you if you have your heart set on working in a certain policy area.

For anyone considering further study, especially a PhD, I would suggest you think about your motivation and the course best suited to fulfilling this. A PhD was the right option for me at the time as I was unsure about whether I wanted to pursue a career in academic research or not, and it allowed me to explore this and spend three years researching a topic I was highly interested in. Had my motivation been to further or enhance a career in policy, it may have been that a Masters in social policy or research methods may have been a better option.

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