Interview: Making an Impact

Published: May 10, 2017 By

Wray Irwin [square]Researchers can use their skills to do vastly more than to just add to academic knowledge; they can also have significant societal impact. To discuss how researchers can find career fulfilment through directly working in society and how the nature of employment for early career researchers is changing, we spoke to Wray Irwin, Director of Employability and Engagement for the University of Northampton. Wray was also the Social Entrepreneur in Residence for the University.

We began by asking:

You were the Social Entrepreneur in Residence for the University of Northampton. As this was the first role of its type in the UK, can you describe what it involved?

The role was developed as part of the university’s strategic aim to be Number 1 for social enterprise in the UK. It was envisaged that the role would help raise the profile of social innovation, support staff and students to understand how social enterprise ideas could be generated and supported, and to give momentum to the agenda.

Social innovation in now recognised as a core competency of the university, and I now work very closely with students to challenge them to think about what they are going to do with their degree, and potentially being a Changemaker. That is, going into a job not just to earn a crust, but to make things better.

There are many more PhDs graduating than there are research roles available: given this, what would your advice be to a new research graduate?

It’s interesting; I get involved with the induction programme for new PhD students and my message is very consistent: yes, you’re here to do a PhD but that’s because you’re passionate about an issue that you want to influence and change thinking about. Yes, ultimately you want to earn a PhD, but the process should be much more than to write a thesis that sits on a shelf. I believe PhD students need to think about how you can use their research to affect change. The example I always use is a doctoral student from four years ago, who undertook his research to help change the lives of kids with autism; he went on to set up a number of specialist schools offering alternative education for young people with autism and special needs, or have been otherwise excluded. His research was far more than words on the page, he is changing perceptions and the lives of many young people.

What do you advise PhD graduates to do to make themselves more employable?

The traditional approach is for PhD students to get some teaching experience under your belt. However this need not be within the university walls and we encourage our students to look at gaining experience in different ways. For example, we provide opportunities for students to mentor young people in schools to help with improving literacy, numeracy, research skills, and writing skills at GCSE, A Level and to support other levels of learning. We also advise them to get involved with volunteering particularly in activities related to their research interest to get a different perspective.

What would be the top 3 skills you would advise that researchers acquire and nurture early in their careers?

First, build up your ability to network. Why? It’s developing your network that will take you beyond your PhD, help you explore the commercial and voluntary sectors, and reach out internationally. Frankly, it’s where the next opportunities are going to come from.

Second, enhance your communication skills. This may sound odd, as undertaking a PhD requires lots of written and verbal communication. The issue here is about communicating ideas and your passion to a range of audiences in a way that engages them; be academic when you need to be but also be empathetic in your approach to communicating wider.


"...develop grit, that is, the determination to start something and get it delivered: overcoming barriers and seeing things through."


Third, develop grit, that is, the determination to start something and get it delivered: overcoming barriers and seeing things through. Many employers tell me that they’re after people who have grit, people who can apply themselves to a task and complete it so thoroughly that it has a significant impact on their business. A PhD student has to have grit to complete their thesis; demonstrating it to an employer is essential.

What are the opportunities available for those trained in research to work in social enterprises?

Researchers who can re-frame social problems and provide new insights into people’s lives experiences create real opportunities for social enterprise to develop new solutions and engage stakeholders in new ways of addressing such problems. Researchers can turn problems into new solutions. They can also reshape how services are delivered and find new methods of proving their value. In short, researchers can change the way we understand how to address social and environmental problems.


"Research can add credibility to social enterprises’ work. They can provide an evidence base and show the impact social enterprise is having."


Research can add credibility to social enterprises’ work. They can provide an evidence base and show the impact social enterprise is having. Research that leads to the application of technology in different ways or new technological developments can provide new ways for social enterprises to deliver their services. This has a direct impact on a social enterprise’s ability to lobby and affect change. A lot of the larger social enterprises and charities also have policy units, and they generate papers that effect government policy and effect the wider policy environment in which they are operating.

How has the job market for UK research graduates has been affected by Brexit?

To be honest, it’s too early to comment. From what I’m seeing, I’m not sure there is a definite pattern yet. So far, we’ve seen differing signals from within universities. It may not be all bad: depending upon what happens with overseas academics, there could be an increased demand for UK researchers; but its too early to say with any certainty.

What would be your overall message to this year’s batch of early career researchers?

It’s the same as I give out at my inductions and workshops: have a clear vision on what your future holds. A PhD is not a destination in and of itself: be clear on the change you want to be as a result of your research.


"...a PhD doesn’t guarantee you a job in academia or even a job at all..."


Remember also: a PhD doesn’t guarantee you a job in academia or even a job at all, you need to ensure that you build your network and continue to develop your employability.

How can I maximise my impact in pursuing a research career?

  • Enhance your communication skills; researchers should avoid the trap of using too much academic language which is not well understood outside.
  • Develop grit: the determination to see things through will have positive effects.
  • Remember to network: a PhD doesn't guarantee a job in academia or even a job at all.


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