Opportunities during my Higher Education journey, by Dr Sahana Shankar

Opportunities during my Higher Education journey, by Dr Sahana Shankar

In 2015, I entered University believing the next 3 years of my undergraduate degree would be spent only studying and getting a degree. As the first person to go to university in my family, I did not realise how many opportunities I could take advantage of during this time that could both help my career and allow me to just try new things. Having now spent 9 years in higher education getting a number of degrees, I would like to share some of the different opportunities I have taken up, in the hope that you will be able to take advantage of similar experiences as well.

SPSS Shenanigans: Adventures in Statistical Sorcery

In my first year at university, my department trialled a research assistantship scheme similar to the scheme here at RHUL where I could work with a researcher on analysing some data they had. It was an unpaid summer position for 4 weeks for which I had to submit a very short statement of interest. At this point, I had no relevant experience in research other than what I had learnt during the degree, and I was not very hopeful that I would get the position. However, my personal tutor encouraged me to apply, and it turned out I was 1 of 2 people who applied, so we both got the position! So, for 4 weeks I did some data analysis on SPSS, and learnt some more techniques and created some very colourful charts in excel. The data I worked on was later published as a journal article, for which I was also an author. Having a publication definitely helped me later when applying for PhD positions.

Data Déjà Vu: Navigating the Groundhog Day of Data Collection

As I really enjoyed the research assistantship, I tried to search around and see if there were any other similar opportunities available during the year and found an advert asking for volunteers to help with data collection in schools. I signed up and over the course of a year, every other week, I spent a morning in secondary schools around South London collecting data, which was quite repetitive. I worked as part of a much larger team and was eventually given a paid opportunity to do some data inputting. Whilst it wasn’t the most interesting work, it gave me some very valuable insight into what day-to-day research actually looks like!

Beyond the Numbers: Exploring the Depths of Qualitative Data

Towards the end of my second year of undergrad, I saw a paid research assistantship being advertised. This particularly caught my eye as the focus was on conducting qualitative research. Qualitative methods were not really covered in my degree, so I was quite interested in gaining some relevant experience in this area. Also, the fact that this was a paid 6 week opportunity definitely helped! I submitted an application and was invited to my first ever interview. It was quite nerve-wracking, but I did draw on a number of different skills I had built over the past year and managed to get the position. I quickly found out that I did not enjoy qualitative research and much rather preferred quantitative research. If I had never taken up this position, I would never really have had the opportunity to learn this, which also meant I could focus on the areas that I personally enjoyed. I also stayed very far away from qualitative research for my final year project!

The Power of Networking and Tax tales

During this time, I was also contacted by UpReach, a company that offered free mentorship and guidance on career discovery. Through them, I discovered a range of different jobs that I had never heard about but found very fascinating. I was offered an opportunity to work shadow the valuations team at KPMG for a week. Up until this point, I had never heard about KPMG let alone was I aware of what valuations were. I actually did some number crunching and had the opportunity to learn about the company in great detail. Whilst some aspects of the company such as auditing and tax wasn’t of interest to me, the type of work by the valuations team was really fascinating. UpReach was a way for me to discover so many potential careers that I could do with my skillset and in areas that I would feel fulfilled by.

The Academic Adventure Continues: Academia or Policy?

Whilst doing my PhD, I was still trying to figure out if I wanted to stay in academia or perhaps go into industry. I knew that I enjoyed research, but I still wasn’t sure if academia was for me, or if there were other careers that I could do similar work. In my penultimate year of higher education, I applied to a UKRI Policy Internships Scheme. Policies are various agreed ideas or principles that guide governments and other institutions on how to act regarding specific public issues such as social, economic or political issues (Howlett & Cashore, 2014). Roles in public policy can include working on developing evidence-based advice and strategies, writing briefings for ministers to use during Parliamentary Questions, and engaging with numerous stakeholders within communities and across industries. This was a 3-month paid placement that was open to any PhD student on UKRI funding, and the placement would take place in pretty much any of the policy/ governmental bodies of the UK of interest to the applicant. I applied the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) and the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities (OHID) which were essentially the health policy arms of the UK. I was interviewed and accepted into the placement and was placed within the Behavioural Science unit at OHID. I learnt so much about policy and the process through which policy work is first researched and implemented. I was able to take part in different projects all at different stages and see first-hand how governmental bodies work in the UK. This was overall a very valuable experience both in learning about a different career, but also in helping me understand how I could pivot my own research to be more complementary to policy.

My parting thoughts                        

Ultimately for the time being I have chosen to stay in academia as I enjoy the different aspects of this work and it continues to provide me with opportunities to develop and learn. However, having the different experiences during my higher education journey has given me so many ideas about different careers that I could go in, should I ever want to leave academia.

I hope this blog post has highlighted some of the alternative opportunities that you can take part in during your time here at university, and given you some ideas about the many avenues that psychology can help you go down for those who are unsure about pursuing academia further.

If you would like to have a chat about any of these do get in contact with me at sahana.shankar@rhul.ac.uk


Howlett, M., & Cashore, B. (2014). Conceptualizing Public Policy. In I. Engeli & C. R. Allison (Eds.), Comparative Policy Studies: Conceptual and Methodological Challenges (pp. 17–33). Palgrave Macmillan UK. https://doi.org/10.1057/9781137314154_2