E061: How To Learn And Practice Research Consultancy As a PhD

July 18th 2021

Hellen Parra-Flórez is Code-Switch’s Founder and Managing Director. She has experience in knowledge exchange activities and has managed the successful delivery of more than 20 consultancy projects. Hellen is a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and a PRINCE2 Agile Practitioner. She is also the University of Manchester Research Staff Developer for the Prosper Project.

The episode was recorded on July 9th, 2021. This material represents the speaker’s personal views and not the opinions of their current or former employer(s).

Hellen’s LinkedIn profile: https://www.linkedin.com/in/hellenparraflorez/🔥

Code Switch Consultants website: https://codeswitchconsultants.com/

Natalia 00:11 Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Career Talks by Welcome Solutions. I like to help you with your career. Give me a chance and post your questions below. Today, I have the great pleasure to introduce Hellen. Helen is the founder and managing director of Code Switch. She has experience in knowledge exchange activities and has managed the successful delivery of more than 20 consultancy projects. Helen is a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and the prince2 Agile practitioner.

She is also the University of Manchester research staff developer for the Prosper Project. Thank you so much, Helen, for accepting the invitation to the career talks. I’m curious to hear your story. Tell us from your own perspective. And I’m curious about what stands behind your LinkedIn profile and about the career decisions that you had to make so far?

Hellen 01:08 It’s pleasure to be here. I’m gonna start from my PhD, I was a PhD student. I was doing law. My BSC was looking at creating cultural differences in criminal law cases. And I was doing the PhD on a part-time basis, self on that. It was quite challenging. And when I started my PhD, I thought that my PhD was going to be like a passport to give me an academic job. But then after a couple of years, when I started hanging out with other PhDs and started going to conferences, and getting more involved in the academic world, I came to realize that getting an academic job is quite difficult now.

At that point, maybe because part of my personality, I saw a straightaway or maybe because I was a mature student, and I was self-funded, I have worked a lot and, and so on, I thought that I had to have a plan B in case I didn’t get an academic job. My thought process was what happens if after six years, or sometimes it takes eight years on a part-time basis, I finished the PhD and then I can’t get an academic job. From that point, I was very conscious of the fact that I had to diversify my skills. And I had to have something else for another place to go in case academia didn’t work out for me.

I went down the route of concerted development and career advice. I got a job in the Career Services at the University of Manchester as a part-time job. I was teaching and I was doing quite a few jobs, but all within that kind of path. And then after four years of my PhD, things go a bit complicated. And I like to say this in project management terms, there was no business case anymore for my PhD to carry on with the project.

I stopped. And I was lucky that at that time, there was a vacancy at the university as a researcher development officer and I apply for the job but I was thinking this morning that one of the reasons why I got that job is because I had applied for that job before like a year but you know, somebody else had more experience and they had a PhD or rarely and so on. But when I applied I remember when I didn’t get the interview, I called the manager and I said what can I do to get this job? And he said, Well, you know, it would be good if you had some more experience on that.

During workshops, at that point, I had experienced delivering seminars or workshops. I said to him, can I deliver some workshop for you? And he wasn’t really surprised. And he said, Okay, send me some ideas. And that’s what I did. I was very productive and send some ideas, a pitch actually. I delivered a couple of workshops for them. Because I have that experience that facilitated, you know, me getting that job when I decided to start my PhD. When I had that job, it was a year-long job. And at that point, we receive some funding to create activities to learn or to connect researchers, PhD researchers with industry.

We came out with a project where we brought some businesses, some consultants, and with the students from different backgrounds, PhD researchers, to deliver some projects, some consultancy projects, and that was kind of they were eating or which came up from that first project that we deliver in my role. Then after I apply, I apply for an award to the business school at the University of Manchester. And I got an award for flying starter award. I got some money from the business school to set up the code switch. And we are now University of Manchester staff or startup.

After that role, I got another part-time job, working as a research staff developer for the Prosper project creating a new career model that aims to unlock postdoctoral researchers’ potential to thrive in multiple careers. This’s what I do in my part-time. And then part-time, I do code which we launched last year in March 2020, just at the beginning of the pandemic, but so far, it’s gone really well. We’ve delivered four programs and we’re currently delivering our third program or summer program. That’s my story.

Natalia 07:48 Okay, great. Let me ask you this question, since a lot of PhDs who are watching this channel and also those that I’m in contact with, think about starting their own businesses at some point in their future careers. And I think this’s probably a common desire of many people today, monumental professionals in the job market, even regardless of how well you’re paid. As long as you’re an employee, you never like truly enjoy independence and you’re always dependent on your boss to some extent and never free in terms of projects that you want to do.

Regardless of how good your situation is, this natural desire to be free, is at some point, taking over. My question for you would be, when did you first feel that the entrepreneurial path is for you? Like, do you think that looking back at your grad school, there were already signs that you might be a company owner one day or maybe even in undergrad studies? Or did you just recently discover that this’s something you are suited to do?

Hellen 09:07 I think I was down to role models. I never thought of myself of being an entrepreneur. I mean, no, like a conscious thought. Maybe I have the trait. And when I think back about, you know, my childhood, what I used to do with playing, and if I think retrospectively, I can see how entrepreneurial I have always been, but in my mind, I never saw I’m gonna set up the business. But I’ve got a cousin. I’m from Colombia. And I went there like a few years ago, like three years ago. She set up a business five years ago.

She’s younger than me. After she finished her Master’s, she didn’t have any work experience. And she went straight away and set up a really successful marketing and communications company. And when I saw the way she was operating the things, at some point, I realized, I don’t know how to explain. But sometimes you see somebody and you see yourself, you say this is me, this is this type of thing that I can’t do. I am sure I am good at it. It was just a realization. I saw her and I said, why am I not doing this? And then obviously, it wasn’t straight away. They decided to set up a business.

But that was the first click that first moment of thinking or having that self-confidence that I could potentially do this. And then I started thinking more seriously about setting up a business a year before the code switch came up. I want to set up a business. I first started with an idea about sharing economy, like people cooking in different houses, selling it to each other, and setting up a platform and an app. That never happened. But then, that’s how it came about. I saw it in somebody and then obviously, I had the thought that I had the characteristics myself too.

Natalia 11:33 I also think that those signs are there from the start, but you just don’t see them. When I now look back, I see the signs from an early start, even in childhood, but I’ve never really thought to have that as an indication that I might have company one day. For instance, I remember when I was eight years old, I was discussing with a friend and I was telling her why she should not play a lottery. And I tried to explain to her what the expected value is and what the probability means. And that in the long run, she will always lose in a lottery if she plays for long enough. I was eight I didn’t have probability calculus at school.

I didn’t even know the word. But I try to explain how I see that, in the long term, it’s always about dealing with playing the lottery. I kind of now see that I had that idea. Like, what pays off and what doesn’t from the beginning? And also what value is and you know, why people pay for things and what the utility function is? I kind of had that concept from the beginning but I didn’t even think about it.

That might be a part of my professional life. I was really in love with science. I thought I would do science for a living and I never really thought of this as a possibility. Now, I like to ask to people who have their own companies how early on where you see the signs? Usually, they reveal already in childhood but we just don’t see them.

Hellen 13:24 I think from what you’re saying, you come from a more analytical side of looking at a business. I think in my case, I come more from like, if we talk about the childhood examples, I never thought about whether these were these workouts or not. I remember I had at some point a little business when I was like seven at home or eight like Nintendo at that time. I used to have a Super Nintendo so I took all the TVs in my house two or three TVs and I call the other kid please can I borrow your Super Nintendo. Then I started selling games to kids and I started sharing.

I think in my case, it’s more about if I look at my childhood but then also my career at university when I think about something, I usually make it happen. I can bring people together and find ways and find the networks and make it happen. I come from a business and I don’t sometimes think about is this gonna work out or not?

Natalia 14:42 That helps. I also like to think like that but it’s also actually an interesting problem because, on the one hand, doers do well in business. Of course, you have to be a doer, nothing will be done, and you are only paid for the output of your projects, not on the promises. It’s not like in academia, you can promise that you will do a project and then get the money to do it here like people pay when they get the value. They get the product or service and they will not pay you if you cannot deliver. It’s like they paid after the work not before. You have to be a doer.

But on the other hand, the older I am, the more I see the value of really spending time deliberating whether or not to do a certain project and cherry-picking which projects and which people I want to work with. Choosing the right project and the right people are already 90% of the success. In my PhD, I was trying hard but I had a project that was like mathematically impossible. It was just so regardless of how hard I was working on it, I was always failing. And so it didn’t matter how good my supervisor was or me, or how many hours I was putting in because, in the end, there was no output.

Some other side projects work because I was trying my hardest to really like mitigate the risk, etc. I graduated and it’s a plan B, in fact, not my plan A but if I spend more time, it’s also complicated because what do you know as a first-year student, right? You don’t know how hard the project is. But now I can see a value in before you start doing something, think about okay, what are the chances? What is the probability? Is it a viable project? What is the possible gain from it?

Who is the most appropriate person to do it with? Just choose the minimal set of people because, with more people, the cost of communication blows up. The minimum number of people you really need to do a project. And the more time I spend on that, the less time then I lose on actually doing the project.

Hellen 17:09 You need to have some planning time.

Natalia 17:15 It’s a really difficult problem. What does it mean to be a doer? Because if you are a doer, you just jump on projects without really giving you the thought, then there are so many startups that just start projects. It’s like a million-dollar idea. And then they get nowhere because they just didn’t think of it.

Hellen 17:41 I know my weaknesses and my strengths. As you say, my strength is like, Okay, we’ve got this project, let’s make it happen. But through that whole thinking and logistics and planning, I get a lot of advice from people who know about business already, so I am not scared at all. I mean, I think I’m that type of person who always goes to people asking questions or what do you think so before I make a decision, so I’ve got an idea, right? I think it’s good. But before I decide to do it, I have already asked six or seven people that there’s the approach I want to do, and what do you think and then people started telling me these are the pros and cons. And then based on that, I go and do it.

But I don’t think that there’s some kudos, all the analysis, I go to all the people, that’s the way I operate. I’ve got quite a few friends. And we have now a non-executive director of Code Switch. She’s got a lot of business experience helping me to do this from the high-level planning. Because I’m aware that, you know, I don’t have any business experience. I’m just learning as I go. But that’s the way I operate. I go to people to get their feedback. And then that’s how I decide.

Natalia 19:21 Good to hear. That’s it but it’s a complicated problem. You have to know what to delegate and what not to delegate. Like, I like to think that it’s good to always listen to your gut. Anyways, just get advice. Let’s talk more about the code switch. Can you tell us more about what you do and what code switch the main objective is and also, what type of projects you’re currently focusing on?

Hellen 19:55 Yes, Code Switch is a consultancy and research and development business. The business has two strands and our main product currently is a six-month training placement program. And I call it training placement because even though we are providing is a device, it is a development opportunity and we are supporting the researchers with training, coaching, and mentoring. It’s a placement at the same time because they are working with real businesses in real projects delivering real outputs.

And so it’s a six months long program where researchers specialize in consultancy and project management. Researchers after finishing the program deliver a range of skills such as, you know, business acumen because they spent a lot of time with the client, understanding the business, or also understanding the context where the business operates. They learn how business work, what are the priorities, and so on about collaboration. They work in teams all the time. There’s a strong sense of teamwork from the beginning throughout the program then also obviously project management consultancy customer relations.

There is a range of important skills that they develop but like this specialty or the older expertise that they could claim to have started mostly. We are not saying that you will come to the course and you will be a project manager. But it will give you a good experience on how to manage a project and how to do half or delivered a consultancy project. We work with PhDs and postdoctoral researchers from all backgrounds mainly now, social sciences, humanities, and arts. We are having the idea that we have a good mix of stem and shape.

That’s what it’s called now in the UK. And we work with businesses, startups, and SMEs. We have five projects right now. We have had a heads-up project, another business working with CRMs, and finance with a bank tech business. That’s the type of project that we do. And we follow the Prince2 approach. We have a project manager who currently works in the industry. And we have that research consultant who is currently a postdoc. We all have our jobs and we’d bring from our jobs fresh knowledge and trending practices to the product.

Natalia 23:15 From what I understand, this is a program for PhD and PhD graduates to get their first experience in management in the industry so that they can have a good start to starting their careers in the industry. Is that correct?

Hellen 23:32 Not just in the industry. The objective is that when something that I found, personally, when I was doing my PhD, I found it really difficult to get meaningful work experience. Like, you know, you get in that problem or if you don’t have work experience, we cannot give you a job. You know, but you cannot get work experience because we don’t give you a job. And so I find it difficult to get access to placements and internships, maybe because I was self-funded. You have less access to these things.

My idea behind creating a code switch was to have something that like a product that people could apply to and regardless of where they were funded or the company wanted to allow them to know they can apply to this program, get these meaningful six months of work experience on their CV and give them as the skills that will facilitate applying for jobs in the industry. But also inside academia, it’s really important that you can engage with external partners. The whole knowledge change, you know, the impact of the research. They are skills that you can also apply for an academic job and could help researchers to stand out in an application and publication.

Natalia 25:18 Can you tell us more about the workflow? When a new candidate is coming to you what happens next?

Hellen 25:30 They come and apply for the course. And then usually the majority of resources that we have been funded were their doctoral training partnerships or universities. There’s also the possibility to sell funds and researchers will come and pay in installments. It may not be that easy to pay for the whole course at once before the researcher applies. They already know the type of projects that they can work on because we have a summary of the projects on the website.

We cannot publish the full project brief because there’s confidential information then. But once they apply, the first thing that happens is, obviously we give them the program, the data program that’s now available online. We have a summary or we also asked researchers to sign a confidentiality agreement to make sure that everything that happens in the project remains confidential. And then we send the researchers the project briefs for them to choose the top three projects.

And then we get the choices from them. And we allocate the searches to the projects based on the choices but also based on the needs of the projects. When the program starts, they already know what project they’ll be working on and what teams, and then there is a process of all the workshops and working on the projects.

Natalia 27:12 How long does this project last?

Hellen 27:15 Six months.

Natalia 27:17 Okay.

Hellen 27:18 We have the initiation stage or the definition of the project lasts for eight weeks. That’s the time when researchers are analyzing and engaging with businesses trying to understand the problem and then trying to figure out what the better best approaches are to solve the problem with the team based on the different skills and backgrounds, then planning the project, including risk stakeholders. At the end of these eight weeks, the main output is the project initiation document which is a document of project management, a formal document that acts as the contract between the project team and the client.

And that’s to make sure that when the researchers deliver the actual project, the research that no like project creeps, like, you know, we don’t want a client coming back and saying, All right, now that you have found this out, can you look at this also because we have these documents saying this is what we agreed on. We only have eight weeks. We made sure that this happens. And then during the actual research takes eight weeks, then five weeks of reporting, and three weeks of evaluation

Natalia 28:38 Does it happen also that some of the participants get hired in the procedure that the author of the project is so happy with their work that they also get hired in the process?

Hellen 28:58 It hasn’t happened yet. We’ve been around for a year now. But we’ve been having some recorded interviews with businesses. And funnily enough, the last businessman, we had an interview with, said that he may have a project coming up. And I would like to go back to the researchers for some help. And we also had another business during the program that said that he had a project but it hasn’t materialized yet from the clients. We do have at the end of each program. We asked researchers if they want to join our talent pool.

We have a talent pool and we are engaging with businesses offering the talent and say, oh, you know, we’ve got a list here of researchers who are not only interested but they have these skills. That’s something we’re working on and trying to develop at the moment and define jobs for researchers.

Natalia 30:14 What is your impression? What is the easiest and the hardest skill for researchers to learn in the process in terms of business intelligence? What do you think is the most challenging? And what do you think is something that they grasp very quickly?

Hellen 30:31 I think the thing that they find most challenging in the initiation stage, which is defined in the project, they find it challenging to plan, to create a detailed plan. You know, like, when you’re working on a project, you have to have a detailed plan. You’ve got the main product and then tasks to achieve the product. They find that difficult to assign the task. I’m the one during the delivery stage who is checking tasks and I’m the one like, you know, chasing them. We think that this’s the most challenging period because I think if one product is a literature review, they already know how to do a literature review.

And in their mind, they know how to do it but they put it into tasks and break it down. They find that challenging. But then during the reporting stage, what they find most challenging is to code-switch between the academic language to the business language because I mean, I haven’t said this because the reason why we are called Cold switch is that code switch is a term used in linguistics that describes where speakers have to switch between languages. I speak Spanish. And sometimes when I’m speaking Spanish, I say an English word or a nice phrase because it’s an easier way of saying that. That’s called switching.

One of the aims of the program is that research is called a switch between academia and business language. And we can see this very clearly in the reporting stage because researchers need to produce a business report, which is based on the research report, and it’s a completely different way of talking and writing. And that’s very challenging in terms of what they pick up faster. None of the researchers that work on the project are familiar with the project. I’m with the industry and we have researchers like psychologists and policymakers working on cybersecurity.

No one is familiar with the topic. And that at the beginning is a bit of a shock because they don’t know about businesses and they don’t know about the topic and the industry. But I think they learned really quickly about the industry and what the business is about, and in terms of the topic, what cybersecurity is about and how it works. I think that they pick that up quickly. I understand why, because as a researcher, you know, when you finish a paper, and you want to write another paper and can go into a completely different topic sometimes, that’s why they find these types of the project a bit easier.

Natalia 34:00 I get the pain because the projects are timed in the industry. And in academia, we officially have some timeline as well, because our contracts are timed. But in fact, it’s not like that. It’s like you try something new every time. How can you estimate the time that you need? It’s your own project. Why would you even write down the roadmap, right? I think we all kind of rush and try to do as many things as fast as possible but without really thinking of okay, now where is the endpoint? I get the idea.

And also probably the fact that you have to produce in a group and changes the dynamics because now you have to rely on other people that I can imagine interesting but this’s the hardest part. Because honestly, if I would have to guess, my guess will be there’s probably this commercial thinking, you know, the part of the project related to business intelligence and thinking from the client’s perspective on how to show a project in an attractive way to the client, maybe that would be hard because that’s not what we have. I’m surprised to hear that the project planning part of this is the most challenging but that’s also interesting to hear.

Hellen 35:33 We provide a lot of support to them to do the presentation of the project. There’s something else that they find challenging but that depends on the client. You know, when you do consultancy, usually clients don’t tend to really know what they want even if they’ve written a project brief and even if they have an idea. Once they start articulating the challenge, they start having a discussion. I’m not sure if this’s what I want. And so that eliciting enough information depends on the client.

We have had some groups or some project teams where the clients, you know, we’re back and forth, or we want these and tomorrow, no, we don’t want this and we got that feedback, like the most powerful moments that they had was that breakthrough, like that point where the client and themselves had the same understanding of the project and reached that conclusion, okay, this’s what we want to do. If that’s something they also find challenging again, it depends on the client. Some clients make their lives a bit easier but also something that I need to say like all the clients who join our program, we make it clear to them that none of the PhDs or postdocs have any business background.

Even though we follow this program and MBA style consultancy project in terms of the structure, we don’t have MBA students, so they are aware of the fact that they should play a mentoring role with the students. When I’ve been in many of these meetings and I’ve seen the clients say, Well, you know, we need to do this because, in business, this and this happen. They are learning a lot of commercials and I think that’s why these steps are not too difficult because the clients helped them a lot along the way.

Natalia 37:45 Your whole program is interesting. It’s online. Is that correct?

Hellen 37:51 Yes, it’s online.

Natalia 37:56 If someone is interested based in the UK, then they can also apply, right?

Hellen 38:02 Yes, we’ve made sure that we deliver workshops at 1 pm UK time to give time to people who are before and after. They all have time to join. They don’t need to wake up at four in the morning.

Natalia 38:18 That’s a good strategy. I just relate to what you just said about communication. The industry is a Babel Tower. You will find people who are completely out of your comfort zone and speak other languages. I think it’s good training. As academics, we often talk just to our like subfields, like people who are very close in the background, so it’s really good. You’re saying that even the client doesn’t know what they want. This’s what you will encounter.

Hellen 38:56 In real life.

Natalia 39:00 The sooner the better. No, it’s not a reason. It’s just something you have to get used to. That’s probably good preparation because you have to be patient with the clients. That’s also something I am also learning so I think I have a natural kind of approach that I’m patient towards clients by nature. I think so but this’s something that you can also understand in this relationship if you have a client and the client is the boss, and regardless of how many times they change their mind, you have to adjust and communicate with them and help them.

I think it’s also good to have training that you learn this new relationship that you’d never had in academia, right? It’s a completely new setting and it’s a different way of speaking to someone knowing that they are the owner of the project.

Hellen 40:07 Before we engage, I mean, I find the client, I do the networking, I invite them to the project, and I have meetings with them before they join the program. But in one meeting, or you know, even if I spoke to them, they told me about the project. That’s different when the actual real thing starts. We don’t really know how they’re going to react and how much they know. It’s a surprise for all of us. And, in a way, it’s good because it’s real, right? We are not telling anyone or you know, you’re gonna come and do this course, and everything’s gonna be smooth, and the client is gonna be perfect, and you’re gonna know straight away what to do.

It’s like they are really out of their comfort zone in so many ways. I think it’s a shock at the end like they don’t know about it. They’ve never been involved in a real project, like proper planning and stages and risks, and they never work with a real client that’s demanding things and asking for things. And in a team, they don’t know. It’s a bit of a cultural shock. But the more the project progress, the more modules they get. And at the end, you know, we get good feedback from their confidence that their feelings of achievement are really high at the end of the program.

Natalia 41:48 Do you also do it in a bit of like Hackathon-style that at the end of the project, like the project presentations, or something like that?

Hellen 41:57 We have eight weeks of initiation definition of the project planning, creating the project initiation document, then there are weeks of the during the project, that’s where the researchers basically follow the plan. And do the research, always, there are a lot of checking points. I am at that point tracking the project. They need to produce weekly dashboards, informing about how the project is going. There are quite a few projects, report meetings, and coaching sessions, so we don’t leave them. We are on a project, you need to report back all the time, it’s not like you just go on your own. And so there is a lot of tracking.

And then during the reporting, they produced. In the end, they produce a research report and a business report. And they have to present these to the client at the end. They also get training in business presentation. And they also present at the beginning the project initiation document. This’s also a skill that they get about presenting, you know, what something that we say to them is that, yes, it is important to talk about the methodology when you write a research report because they are research consultants.

That’s what makes them stand out. Maybe if there’s another type of consultant, the rigorous methodology, but when it comes to presenting to the client, they are not that interested in the methodology. They are interested, though, in the products. This’s why we did it on this as a reference as to why we did it. This’s something that they need to learn in their presentations. They present to us before they present to the client. We had to tell researchers. They come with a presentation that spent like, I don’t know how many slides on methodology and we’re like, get rid of them.

Because the client that you’ve already given that to the client in a report when you present to go to the point products, this’s the evidence and this is why that happened. And at the end, they evaluate the project. We learned lessons with the client. Because we think that in project management in the industry when people do projects, they tend to rush into doing they don’t want to plan it but then they don’t want to evaluate it even in the industry because when you produce a product, then it’s like okay, let’s go to the next project.

People don’t want to usually spend time on the evaluation. We make sure that we have an evaluation stage for them to learn the scales of lessons and to be able to say that they manage an end-to-end product project from commission to evaluations.

Natalia 45:08 I recently recorded an episode with Mark Bayer who is an expert in communication. And he teaches researchers how to get better outreach, further projects, and how to communicate with a broad audience. It’s exactly what he said that researchers often start from the nitty-gritty details, instead of just starting with the outcome. What are the consequences? What did we achieve?

Hellen 45:46 What are the recommendations? Then these are the recommendations. This is the area and this is the approach.

Natalia 45:55 I think it’s quite a common problem. And I think pitching in general is difficult to learn for everyone. Just as Mark also mentioned, it’s a matter of training. You have to practice, practice and practice. And then at some point, you get skillful. It also requires empathy because you have to put yourself in another person’s shoes who doesn’t have the same background and has different objectives. They come there with a certain mindset and a certain goal and they just want this, you know, how did they want to reach a particular target?

The first question is, do you know that the project needs expectations? Did we get what we expected? And that’s it. To grab their attention, you have to tell them pretty much in the first sentence if they’re successful or not so. What else can we tell all the people who might be potentially interested in a project? Do you do the submissions twice a year? That’s what you mentioned.

Hellen 47:10 We’re planning the next program to start in January 2022. And the waiting list is already open. And we also do information sessions twice a week. Anyone can come inserters or, you know, processor developers. And what I do during this session is talk to people through the program in detail. Because in online, we have a summary and key dates and sessions for the full program. I explained it in detail during the formation sessions. They can ask all sorts of questions that no matter how much information you put online, you can never answer all the questions that people may have.

It’s an opportunity to meet me because sometimes, you know, there’s also that you want to work with me for six months. You really want to hear my voice to see my face, because we use Slack. We are engaged all the time and we’re messaging. It’s an opportunity, right? Before you embark on something you need the person you’re going to be working with. And also to say that, even though the program is six months long, their time commitment is five to seven hours a week. It’s not a full-time placement. In the 24 weeks, we only have 10 key dates, like workshops, or sessions that we have a set time, the rest of the engagement, the rest of the meetings, coaching, and everything else that happens is flexible.

We have like a window of time that researchers can choose with the team. And we do this because the idea behind this placement is that researchers don’t need to stop their PhD to do it. Because when you think of placements or internships, usually they required you to stop your PhD for two months or three months. And many supervisors don’t want you to do that. Because they fear that you may lose track of your PhD or motivation or whatever. And sometimes researchers don’t want to do it for the same reason. The way we’ve done this in a way is to make sure that if you’re a PhD, you can do your research. If you’re a postdoc, you can still work.

Natalia 49:58 It makes perfect sense. Do you have some admission criteria? Or is it you pay your place?

Hellen 50:00 I mean, as long as you’re a PhD researcher, that PhD researcher, and postdocs, you are good for us. We think that you’ve made it.

Natalia 50:18 Okay. I still have one question that I didn’t ask you before, but that just bugged me. What do you do? Like, in terms of like project management, when there is a disagreement in the project, let’s say something goes wrong, there’s a team of people who never worked together before. Some of them for instance, become too busy to deliver or there’s a discrepancy in opinions on the team in which direction to push the project. Is there any product leader? Or is there any workflow that you have for solving such situations to make sure that the product is finished in time?

Hellen 51:04 They’re different scenarios. I mean, to be honest, these products are very risky. Because we are working on different projects, each project is a risk for the client. I mean, we’ve never had that situation where the client, I don’t know, said, I can’t do this anymore. That hasn’t happened. But it could happen or the client got so busy but so far, so good with the client and with the teams. We’ve never had a situation where a team has all the levers so far, but we have had issues with this engagement at some point.

But we have quite a few measures in place to minimize this risk. For example, we use slack. It’s like our office virtual office and each group, each project team has its own channel. The code switch team is part of each of the channels. I know what’s happening on all channels. I follow all conversations on part of the teams. If I see that somebody’s not engaging, that somebody hasn’t spoken in a week, it’s down to me to go to the person saying Hi, are you okay? That burden doesn’t fall on the team. We also have a time tracker.

Every week, each person needs to write down how many hours they’ve done on the project. Because that’s what you’re doing consultancy. Because also that’s another way I have to say okay, so it seems that this person is doing too much work. And I have a child with a team, maybe we need to rebalance things. And then what else do we have? We have a third thing. I can’t remember what it is. But anyway, we have a few methods to try to work with this.

In terms of disagreements, we haven’t had a case where they massively disagree. I think that when they joined the program, we say you are now one, you are a team. And if you didn’t know that you’re going to be busy in the next two weeks because you have to send a chapter or whatever, you need to let us know. But most importantly, your team knows. From the very beginning, we make it really clear to them that you are a team and this is a team effort. We have coaching sessions with a research consultant where she talks to them and we have had situations like that. I remember now we had one, we send them to the reserve console and say, Okay, go on, talk, and resolve the issue with her.

We had a few ways of dealing with this situation but we also had situations where researchers go and continue the program. And the team at some point lost the person. We had to get together with the business team and the project manager and try to raise the scope of the program. That happens in all projects. I mean, it’s rarely the case that you plan the project and then you deliver. Sometimes life gets in the way, we had situations like that but we just manage everything inside.

Natalia 54:49 I asked because, in six months, many things can happen. As you mentioned, someone might find a new job.

Hellen 54:59 Somebody found a new job is one thing. We had five and two found new jobs. And they were very sorry. And but we, the whole team were very understanding the business. They wanted to produce five case studies. We shorted up to three. That was good learning for them to see, like, this happens in real life, and you need to be able to adapt. You cannot just freak out and say, Oh, my God, we can’t deliver this anymore.

In a way, it’s good practice for anything that happens that’s unexpected and difficult. Because in that way, they get really good examples for interviews, you know, when you go to interviews, that’s how you compete with people with really good examples of things that happen.

Natalia 55:55 On these corporate interviews, now, you will be definitely asked, how to give an example of a difficult situation, and then you have to use the STAR method to explain how you solved it. And so that’s a good case indeed. For everyone out there who is watching these episodes, if you guys are interested, then you can find Hellen on LinkedIn and also put the link to Scott’s switch which is here below the episode, so please check it out.

Since we already talked for some time, I have to start wrapping up this episode. But I still would like to ask you for some general career advice that you might share with PhD candidates and graduates who are watching us.

Hellen 56:49 The most important one, I would say, is always to have a plan B. And Plan B usually is to find work experience or activities that will boost your PhD. The PhD is the starting point on I mean, do you need more because in the job market you were devoted to academia, you know, that if you apply for a job in academia, they want publications, they want teaching, they want to have been experienced and the PhD.

The same is in the industry. The PhD is there but if you are competing with other people, you may have other communication skills based on teaching or conferences. But if you’re competing with people who come from the industry that they’ve done that and that, so try to always boost your CV and gain work experience, if you can’t do activities.

Natalia 57:54 If I could add to this, I was actually recently also shooting the episode with Caolan Kovach. And he made a very good point that what you should be collecting in your career is projects, not positions. That’s also why it’s so important for it to go for projects like this because, at the end of the day, your future employers want to know what you achieved. When successful managers talk about their careers like Marissa Meyer, when she was admitted to Yahoo to become the CEO, she was not admitted because she was the head of this or that department at Google.

She was admitted because she was involved in Google Doodle. She was involved in Google AdSense. She took part in a few pivotal projects that put Google in the position it is now and she was there at the time of the launch. She contributed to the success. It was projects and not positions that gave her the position of CEO of Yahoo and it’s the same with every job. The hiring manager wants to know what projects you’ve successfully delivered before. Even a part-time experience like this, when you can say, well, we work with this particular company, we deliver this and that, like this was the objective.

This’s what I did in this project. And this was the outcome. That’s already a big difference from just a PhD experience when you had a position as a PhD. This’s crucial to have some collection of projects in your CV or resume that you can talk about. And I agree with you. I think you have to have some plan B. I also didn’t have one and I regret that now.

Hellen 59:57 Now, you have an amazing business.

Natalia 1:00:01 I mean, it’s not that I have Plan B. It’s more that I chose the business model where I have a lot of room. I can go in different directions like books, aptitude tests, working with people, like one on one teaching and recording courses, and working maybe with companies on some programs for companies and maybe in the future. There are so many different ways. It’s more like balancing and dancing. Like it’s more like developing a company in a way that you can just dance against the crowd, you know, whatever they want, you give them.

Hellen 1:00:41 We are about to launch a new product. It’s called a short switch. It’s a four-week program. But that’s done in-house is not for researchers to sign up for universities to hire us to read universities or databases and it’s like short notice. It brings the objective of code switch. This’s our new propaganda and the market wanted that too. We’ve created something and we have delivered it in our first presentation, the summit and we may be delivering another one in October.

Let’s see what happens. That’s what you need to do. Like I think in business when you talk about plant-based is about having different products because you cannot put all your eggs in one basket in life in general and the same in business, you should have the main product but you cannot only have that product because anything can happen.

Natalia 1:01:51 It’s more of dancing like people want to take a step in some direction. It’s like about listening also, you know, just whatever remarks they have, you’re like okay, I should do more of this or less of that and just a gradual improvement I think. That’s great that you have interest from universities as well I think it’s a good direction to go and I think working with everyone you also become better because how can we like in my case for instance, how can I be skilled in advising researchers if I don’t work with businesses as well and listen what they want and of course the good at the other way around?

How can I be good at advising businesses on how to better match employees with positions or how to better create teams if I don’t talk to employees and what they want and their needs. And how they think of their employers like you stand on the more different groups of interests that you have contact with, the better you become to help each one of them.

Hellen 1:03:10 I think that’s completely right.

Natalia 1:03:13 I wish you great success with this new initiative. You have information on your website. Let’s just also link it below. Okay, so great. Thank you so much, Hellen, for all this information. I wish you all the best with the program and let’s hope that it will reach a broader audience this way. I think it’s a great initiative. Thank you so much, guys, for getting to the end of this episode.

If you would like to get more of this type of content, then please subscribe. And we are waiting for your comments and questions, please post them below. And you can also directly contact Hellen if you have other questions for her. Thank you so much for watching.

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Please cite as:

Bielczyk, N. (2021, July 18th). E061: How To Learn And Practice Research Consultancy As a PhD? Retrieved from https://ontologyofvalue.com/career-development-strategies-e060-how-to-learn-business-project-management-as-a-phd/

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