In the fifth edition of Beyond the PhD, we welcome Dr Beth Brockett, a Social Science Senior Specialist in Natural England (NE). Beth is a human geographer and in her current role, she provides social science evidence and related advice to colleagues within NE and broader within a growing team of social science specialists who support the ‘people’ work of Natural England. Beth has completed interdisciplinary degrees and been involved in a range of roles, but geography provides a ‘home’ for her. In this blog, Beth suggests creating your own narrative regarding your career path, and following your interests when applying to positions. To me, that sounds like great advice.
I wonder how many of you are like me, in that I have dabbled around in various disciplines over the years, all linked to the natural environment, but I do return time and again to geography as ‘home’?
I am currently a Senior Specialist for Social Science in Natural England. I have written more about what it entails to be a social scientist in a government agency here, but the job continues to evolve and is always interesting and challenging. Most recently, my human geography roots have been watered more than usual, as the team has been asked to support the organisation’s thinking around ‘place’ and it has been helpful to delve into the human geography literature and think about what is relevant to our staff in strategizing and delivery.
Creating your own narrative
I started out with an undergraduate BSc Hons in environmental sciences, which was fairly interdisciplinary, followed by a MSc in soil ecology, which was not. After a stint as a community development practitioner, I decided I wanted to do an interdisciplinary PhD, which combined soil science, ecology and human geography. I really enjoyed it overall, but I won’t pretend that it wasn’t challenging. Back then I don’t think university departments were completely set up for interdisciplinary students – especially across the social/natural sciences and I don’t think academia is totally now, in truth. However, with some great support from my supervisors and other departmental staff I made it through to produce a thesis about working with different sorts of knowledge to increase the amount of carbon stored in our agricultural soils. You can read a plain language summary here. I have been asked to provide some tips as part of this post, which I think is hard to do, as everyone’s circumstances are so different and the job market does change – but one thing I would say is that I haven’t found that dabbling in different sectors and disciplines has been a problem. I have never had a career plan I’m afraid. I just know what I like doing and what kind of impact I want to make. Create the narrative that links your career journey in your head and practice communicating it to a potential employer.
Following your interests
I left academia as, to be blunt, I think it is a very tough sector. Especially for interdisciplinarians. But there was certainly a ‘pull’ factor too – and that was to be able to put my learning into practice in the field. And I literally did that as a conservation farm adviser – often to be found stomping around a field with or without a farmer. On the face of it, farm conservation advice could be said to be all about ecology and the natural science side of conservation, but I disagree. I found it is as much about social science and utilising all those great ways of thinking about humans and/in nature that human geography offers us. So, another tip – don’t be afraid to apply for a position you think looks interesting but where you don’t quite ‘fit’ in a disciplinary sense. Just be ready to explain why you think you will fit!
Expand your worldview
I think the PhD definitely helped me to become a better writer and presenter and at the heart of that a good translator. It really helped my critical thinking and challenged a lot of assumptions I had about what is ‘useful’ knowledge. However, it is only since leaving academia that I have realised how one-dimensional academia’s view of policy can be – so I really encourage you to push your comfort zone and the ‘standard lines’ on what makes for policy-relevant research. Maybe I should write a blog post about that next? But my key tips are to stay engaged with the wider world of your topic – pay attention to the news, follow up stories in more detail e.g. on government websites, sign up for alerts to sites such as the NE blog. Find out who your equivalent ‘specialists’ are in different sectors (govt depts and agencies will have specialists, as will the third and private sectors), follow them on social media and maybe even contact them to find out more about what they do – but make sure you have done your homework first! And if you stay in academia, consider getting your research group onto procurement frameworks for relevant departments and agencies or applying for open calls for quotations – working for those who operate in different sectors will help you understand our evidence needs and start to build important relationships.
I hope that has been useful and all the very best for your PhD journey.
Bio: Dr Beth Brockett is a Senior Specialist for Social Science in Natural England. She considers herself a human geographer, applied environmental scientist, interdisciplinary specialist, novice hedge layer and real ale enthusiast (rarely all at once). In her current role she provides social science evidence and related advice to colleagues within NE and broader within a growing team of social science specialists (from a wide range of disciplinary backgrounds) who support the ‘people’ work of Natural England. In previous roles she has, amongst other things, provided advice to Defra on the new Environmental Land Management Schemes, led the social science aspects of England’s People and Nature Survey and been a farm conservation adviser.