Showcasing careers beyond academia
Lydia Harriss

Lydia Harriss

DPhil, Biophysics, University of Oxford
Physical Sciences Adviser
Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology

Job highlight: Helping MPs and Peers to make better-informed decisions on topics ranging from artificial intelligence to fire safety.

Postgraduate take-away: Being able to learn quickly about an unfamiliar area of science, and understanding the research process and scientific method.

What’s your background?

I studied physics as an undergraduate at the University of Bristol, and then went on to do a doctorate at Oxford. After graduating, I joined the Wellcome Trust (a biomedical research foundation) as a graduate trainee. I had a fantastic couple of years in which I took on four very different roles that gave me experience of science writing, project and events management, and insight into the management of a £16bn investment portfolio. I now work in Parliament as a science adviser – providing MPs and Peers with information and analysis on topics across the physical sciences and computing.

Can you describe a typical week in your job?

That’s a tough one, as work can vary quite a lot during the year. This week I am focusing on our written briefings. This has included looking at the review comments that external experts have made about one of our briefings and deciding what edits to make before publication, plus reviewing drafts of briefings that other members of my team have produced. I manage another physical sciences adviser and am currently supervising a PhD student who’s with us for a 3-month secondment (one of our POST Fellows), so I’ve had meetings with them to discuss their work. I also attended a meeting of the POST Board, a group of MPs, Peers, external academics and Parliamentary staff, which directs our work programme. I presented a selection of potential topics for future briefings and they decided on the one they want us to work on next – an overview of the security of the UK’s telecommunications networks.

At other times, my role includes: recruiting POST Fellows; organising or attending science policy events; supporting Parliamentary Select Committees with their inquiries; and giving presentations to policy makers, academics and others about POST and our work.

What’s the workplace culture like?

Parliament is a unique organisation, where people work in hugely diverse roles to support the debates, law-making and scrutiny work that happens there. There’s always something exciting going on and it does feel like you’re pretty close to the action.

I have a lot of autonomy, which makes good use of the independence that I developed as a doctoral researcher. I’ve also found that the organisation has been very supportive of staff who have wanted to work flexibly (e.g. working compressed hours or working from home), or needed to take parental leave or leave to care for sick relatives.

Which transferable skills are most important to your job?

Being able to write clearly and concisely for a non-specialist audience is a key requirement, as much of the role involves producing and supervising written briefings. Verbal communication skills are also important. I often represent POST at meetings and conferences, which can involve giving presentations, and I give verbal briefings to Parliamentarians and Parliamentary staff. Networking and relationship management skills are also important; I’ve developed a network of contacts with external experts that I can draw upon when I need to learn about a new subject area. Good organisation and project management skills are also key, for helping to keep track of multiple projects and ensuring that everything happens when it needs to.

What’s the best part of your job?

I’ve been able to meet some amazing people. While researching briefings, I’ve interviewed some very senior academics and business leaders. It’s a real privilege to be able to discuss areas of science with some of the leading thinkers in their fields. I’ve also been lucky enough to travel to a number of different countries for conferences and other projects. A real career highlight has been representing POST at a meeting with senior politicians and the UK Ambassador in Argentina.

Do you have any advice for current graduate students and postdocs considering a career outside of academia?

Take the opportunity to develop your transferable skills and to gain as much relevant experience as possible alongside your research, for example through volunteering, secondments or work shadowing. However, don’t overlook all of the great transferable skills that you have gained through your research. Be ready to articulate these skills to potential employers who may not be familiar with academic research and won’t necessarily appreciate all of the fantastic experience and qualities that researchers develop.

The Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) is Parliament’s in-house source of scientific advice. POST is an office of both Houses of Parliament, overseen by a Board of MPs, Peers, leading experts from the science and technology community, and Parliamentary staff.

POST’s work includes:

  • Providing balanced and accessible briefings on research from across the natural and social sciences, engineering and technology
  • Convening events and seminars to connect Parliamentarians with leading experts from academia, industry, Government and the third sector
  • Supporting the use of research evidence across Parliament
  • Connecting Parliament with the research community
  • Supporting the development of science advice services in legislatures in other countries.