Dr Helen Pennington – Statistician and Data Analyst for UK Government

Briefly outline your career so far…

I studied plant sciences at Imperial College London for my bachelor’s, master’s and PhD.  I went on to work for two years as a postdoctoral researcher at The Sainsbury Laboratory in Norwich and then I joined the Civil Service, working with the Animal and Plant Health agency, helping to administer plant health and marketing regulations.  I have since worked at DEFRA, commissioning research into threats to UK plant health, and most recently as a Government Statistician.

What led you to a career as a statistician for the Government?

I wanted to pursue a career that had a more balanced work-life and that worked with a wider team in which I had the opportunity to lead.  I sought out roles that required my qualifications but were with organisations that could provide a more stable career path than that offered by academia and was offered a role within the Civil Service.

Do you feel as though your postgraduate degree has provided you with skills and expertise you now use in your current profession that you otherwise would not have developed?  If so, what are they?

My PhD helped me to acquire some key skills faster than I would have done in other environments.  The more obvious examples include my experience in applying statistical techniques to varied kinds of data; learning to handle large datasets and working in international collaborations with partners across academia and industry.  These are all skills that can be obtained through other routes, but my postgraduate researched helped me to develop them all at the same time.

What would you like current postgraduates to know about the career paths they could possibly take?

 I was really worried that I would not have transferrable skills to offer the outside world which turned out to be complete nonsense.  My Civil Service colleagues have helped me to understand how much experience I can bring to the table and how I can apply my skills and knowledge in new situations.

When leaving academia, I felt as though I was leaving an exclusive club, that I was somehow a failure and that I would no-longer truly be a scientist.  I was also worried that I was throwing away my scientific skillset, which had taken years to cultivate.  My current work involves processing, understanding and analysing data, drawing conclusions and using those to inform policy.  I am still involved in writing papers, although of a different kind.  In many ways, I feel more like a researcher ‘now’ than I did during parts of my academic work.

Do you think scientists have an ‘edge’ that means they are particularly employable and/or sought after in your profession?

Yes, scientists (along with mathematicians and engineers) have an edge in the government Science/Engineering and Analytical professions.  These professions primarily recruit from amongst STEM graduates, but there are also other ways into the analytical profession.

Additionally, anything else you care to mention about your work…

Do not be afraid to apply for jobs where you do not feel 100% qualified, you may well be what they are looking for.  Many job advertisements are a wish list, not a definitive list of skills that must be possessed.  Work out what is important to you. Is it a good work-life balance, financial stability, exciting challenges or the subject matter of your work?  If you can work out what you really want, it will help you to choose a career that fits.