Transitioning from Academia to the World of Work

posted in: Blog, Opinion | 0

Here is a guest blog post from Nick Hughes, food sustainability advisor to WWF and alumni of the MSc in Food Policy at City University

Headshot of Nick Hughes from WWF

On 8 December 2014 I clicked the button to submit my dissertation on power in the food supply chain, signalling the end of my part time MSc in Food Policy at City University. A little over a year later I am sat in WWF’s Living Planet Centre in Woking, trying to put into words some coherent  reflections on making the transition from the world of academia to a job within the sphere of food policy and how I have come to incorporate the learnings from the course into my day-to-day work.

Firstly, a bit of background. I’m a journalist by trade having started out writing for niche food publications back in 2005 (the kind that feature regularly on Have I Got News for You: Pistachio Perspective being a personal favourite) before moving on to The Grocer and subsequently working as a freelance food and drink writer specialising in the food industry and food policy.

I signed up for the MSc first and foremost to add context to my journalism, but at the end of the first year the opportunity arose to work for Defra as part of the secretariat to the Elliott Review into the Integrity and Assurance of Food Supply Networks, hastily commissioned by the government  in the wake of the horsemeat scandal. This proved a fascinating insight not only into the complexities of food supply chains but also into the Westminster machine and the way in which policy is created (Clue: it’s not always as evidence based as some academics would like or politicians would have you believe).

It also fuelled my hunger to gain more experience working at the sharp end of food policy rather than simply reporting on it, something I now do in my role as a food sustainability advisor with WWF-UK, which I combine with my journalism.

Everyone will have a different experience of making the transition from academia to the world of work but here are a few personal insights that I hope will be broadly relevant to anyone making the leap:

1.       The MSc in Food Policy is hugely respected within the food policy community. It can open doors to new job opportunities and the network of subject matter experts that exists around the Centre for Food Policy can be an invaluable resource as you develop your career.

2.       There is a real skill in communicating complex ideas in a concise, accessible way. The MSc submerges you in a deluge of information, theories and concepts but, for the most part, these learnings remain in the background – there to inform your own perspective but not necessarily to put into a Powerpoint presentation to a room full of industry professionals or to include in a punchy briefing paper. Applying your knowledge to a real-world situation can be a challenge, albeit an enjoyable one.

3.       Don’t assume subject matter knowledge just because someone works in the field. People have different skillsets, often transferred from other sectors and what may seem obvious to you – for instance the environmental impact of livestock production or the difference between direct and indirect emissions – may not be obvious to someone else, even if they work within the food sphere.

4.       Policy is rarely perfect; something the MSc prepares you for with its focus on the tensions and trade-offs inherent within food. The evidence for taking a course of action may seem perfectly clear to you but organisations are subjective, with their own priorities and agendas, and there are many hurdles to surmount to get a piece of work from A to B. This can be as simple as a senior manager being disengaged from a particular issue or a case of more complex political and presentational issues coming into play. Often the skill is not in knowing what course of action needs to be taken but how to frame it in a way that achieves buy in from those around you or to decide between those issues you are prepared to compromise on and those that are non-negotiable.
5.       Patience is a virtue. Large organisations, in particular, can take a long time to make apparently straightforward decisions and projects can take what feels like forever to come to fruition. As someone who is used to the fast-paced environment of journalism where every week brings a fresh focus, this has been one of the toughest changes to adapt to. Finally – and as a footnote to this point – the characterisation of the flabby public sector and the agile private sector isn’t quite as accurate as some would have you believe.

Twitter: @nickhughesfood