Name: Dr. Caitlin E McDonald
Current Role: Data, Research and Insights Manager at TES Global
PhD Subject and Graduation Year: Arab and Islamic Studies – 2011
How did you become interested in the area that you work in?
When I graduated from my PhD I considered a number of possible career directions including publishing and qualitatively oriented market research agencies. Eventually a friend suggested that I apply for an open entry-level position at TES in their data and research team. I hesitated at first because the role was very quantitatively oriented and I wasn’t sure it was the best fit for my skill set. However, with some encouragement I decided to pursue the job. Eventually I found that, though challenging, working in a quantitative role was not as big of a leap as I first thought and it’s an extremely valuable preparation for developing to a strategic or managerial role.
How did you get to where you are today?
I’ve worked at TES ever since, though my role has changed quite considerably: at first my primary responsibility was compiling and distributing the regular executive reporting which our company uses to assess performance in key business areas. Doing this helped me to become familiar with teams all across the business, how they think about success, and any challenges or pitfalls in measuring that. I then moved into a role that was more about designing and building reporting software tools that other people used for compiling reports for tactical everyday work as well as executive reporting. Then my familiarity with different business areas as well as the technical minutiae how our data is processed put me in a very good position to help build a brand-new data pipeline for a suite of new products. This entailed a much more project-management style role, where my function was around liaising with different parts of the business to assess needs, capabilities and risks in order to ensure we delivered a tool that met our colleagues’ needs. I also took on managerial responsibilities and helped mentor junior members of staff in technical roles. Recently my role has shifted again into a position where I manage research projects for our business, with special responsibility for qualitative research. It’s been a winding path, but I finally feel that my specialist research skills are getting explicitly used in my career.
What does your current role involve, any skills and/or personal qualities needed?
I am responsible for setting the customer research agenda at TES. As a digital business, we have a number of product managers and people in the User Experience team who are used to carrying out their own research. They come from a diverse range of backgrounds and may have no formal research training, so my role is to familiarise them generally with research methods as well as taking an active part in shaping specific research projects to ensure our conclusions are really robust. As well as tactical quick-turnaround projects, we also do occasional longer-ranging strategic research pieces. TES has a really high engagement among the teacher population in the UK which gives us a unique opportunity to do research with teachers and schools, not just about our products but about their professions, attitudes, and career journeys. Part of my role is to help our management team get out of the tactical-thinking mode and to think strategically about how we could better use this powerful asset for research. This requires the ability to quickly assess motivations behind different research agendas and diplomacy working with different departments who may have very different views on what will be valuable. My specialist research skills are valuable for specific methods challenges, but in general a background in anthropology is really helpful for understanding power relationships in groups, particularly looking for coded language that might mean different things to different groups. I also line-manage several individuals, and anthropology is certainly a valuable tool for thinking about, for example, the stages of group development in a team and how to ensure that team members with different strengths can work together effectively.
What do you enjoy most about your role?
My favourite part about the job is talking to teachers and observing them in their ‘natural habitats’. While this is a relatively time-bound part of my job, everything we do at TES is focused on teachers and every opportunity to talk to them about their motivations and needs really brings richness to our ability to serve them well. I also like working with teams to help individuals work towards their best potential and I love seeing the team working together effectively.
Are there any things that are not so good?
One thing many people in corporate jobs complain about is ‘too many meetings!’ I actually don’t mind meetings as they’re a fascinating observational window for an anthropologist. However I find meetings challenging if no clear objective has been set or no clear actions emerge from them. This can happen if there is a need which hasn’t been clearly articulated, either because the need is unclear or because there is a clear disagreement on it. Overcoming these situations is a challenge at many organisations.
Has anything surprised you about your role?
Even at times when my background in anthropology wasn’t an explicit part of my role through research methods guidance, the skills I learned about understanding group dynamics were extremely powerful in helping me understand how to adjust to business culture and how to develop influence in the areas I wanted to impact.
What key tips would you give to any students who might be considering entering a similar field today?
Though it may seem impossible to fit it in alongside the mountain of research-related tasks, I would encourage students to consider taking time for an internship or work experience while they are still studying. When hiring it’s difficult for businesses to assess the skills of people who have never worked outside academia. Managers can’t know how a candidate with an academic background only will adjust to a very different working environment. Some work experience, even in an area that you’re not aiming to work in long-term, will give a hiring manager confidence that you can hit the ground running and apply your talents effectively.