Pathfinder Career Narratives 1: HR Systems Project Advisor

Pathfinder Career Narratives is an ongoing series tracking the career choices and experiences of doctoral graduates. You can see all posts in the series here. You can find all of the Pathfinder resources and opportunities here. This post is by Dr Anna Auld, HR Systems Project Advisor; find her on LinkedIn here.

Name: Dr Anna Auld

Doctorate subject area, and year of completion: Biology (sexual selection and sex ratios in parasitoid wasps), 2012

Role: HR Projects Advisor – Dentons

Approximate salary bracket of this type of role: £40-50k (Scotland)

Reflecting today on my career since I started my PhD, I realise there are four key change points. When I made the decision to leave academia, I could never have imagined where I would be now.

I decided half-way through my PhD that I didn’t want to be an academic. I had a great supervisor, a good support network, and my research was going okay overall working on sexual selection and sex ratios in parasitoid wasps. But looking around me I could see that I didn’t want to prioritise my work to the extent that is necessary to succeed in academia. I didn’t want frequent international moves. I had a colleague who had lived in a different country as his wife for five years; that’s not a life I want.

I had a tough time going through the process of deciding to leave. I was feeling a lot of grief about my loss of identity and purpose. But I still describe myself as a Scientist all these years after leaving. I think your training becomes a huge part of you, how you view the world, and how you go about navigating it, whatever you to choose to do next.

I decided to remain in my PhD programme and finish up. I’m really glad I did finish it because it gave me closure and allows me to point back to this enormous achievement.

After my viva, I had a break while I was overseas with my spouse for his postdoc. Coming back to the UK I was ready for my first job out of academia. I had approached friends and family in the recruitment industry for advice on what to consider, and a few recommended that I look at agency recruitment. It felt like a good fit for what I wanted (lots of people, a weekly sense of achievement, and career progression).

We were right. I did really enjoy it, and I was good at it. I loved chatting to clients, colleagues and candidates all day. It was a big change from the solitude of the lab. Talking all day on the phone and meeting clients and candidates face to face was energising. Of course, any job has its disappointments, but I found it easier to deal with lots of short-term small setbacks, rather than pouring a full six-months of lab-work down the sink and starting again.

After seven years it was time for another transition. I had got everything I could out of agency recruitment, and I was ready for something new. I decided to go in-house to recruit for just one company. Long-term, I wanted to move to a big company that where I could move out of recruitment into something else.

I moved to a large global law firm to be an inhouse recruiter. The timing was strange as I hired only a dozen people before the pandemic put a hiring freeze in place. I had an opportunity for a secondment elsewhere in the HR team. This was just the opportunity I had hoped for. I had a great year working on all kinds of HR projects. Then I went on another secondment, this time working on the implementation of a new HR system. And that brings us up to date; I have now transferred to a HR Projects role where I lead on projects across the department and support colleagues on their own projects too.

So what does an HR Projects Advisor do?

A typical week is really varied for me. I’ll have lots of calls and meetings with colleagues across the firm that are involved in or affected by projects. At the moment most of my time is spent proactively working on the small tasks that get us towards our goals, but in other periods I can be very reactive, working on lots of troubleshooting.

While my role is not related at all to my research topic, I use my PhD skills daily. Whether it’s confidence in public speaking when I present to the board. Or showing advanced excel techniques to colleagues to help them manipulate data. Writing board papers or materials for new joiners that are succinct (A lawyer once sent me a job description with a 145-word sentence!). Most often it’s the analysis and problem solving. Getting to the root cause of the problem and using your creativity to find a solution.

Reflecting now, I appreciate that after making the huge leap out of academia, any other change feels like a baby step. It’s a superpower. I know I can make a huge change and thrive, so I’m always ready for more. That let me take both my secondments at the law firm in my stride and I’m sure I’ll be ready for whatever is next. It’s also made me relaxed about not having a career end-goal. I think of it more like steppingstones: I’m making my way somewhere, but I don’t know where destination is.

Culturally, I’ve found that I can thrive in lots of different cultures. The loud, outgoing sales-driven world of recruitment was comfortable. And so is the quiet, considered, evidence-based world of law. It’s a strength to be able to draw on both and show the right side for the right audience.

The resilience we learn in academia is hugely valuable. Handling the constant knockbacks, failures and criticism is something most people never experience. I have retained that openness to feedback and willingness to learn. That’s hugely valuable and accelerated my growth and development in my career.

One of the biggest shocks I had at leaving academia was how fast things change in the private sector. Decisions are made quickly and then acted on. There’s a mindset that change brings opportunity. And that would be my advice for you: change brings opportunity. Be brave! You can make this change, you will thrive. In the private sector, people have 3-4 careers in their working life. By the time you’re retiring, you might have a job that doesn’t even exist today, so make that change.

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