Callum Campbell case study
Senior Science Officer, Ministry of Justice
PhD Chemistry, 2021
Please tell us a bit about your current role. How did you get into the role, what was the recruitment process, and whether you had any previous experience?
I currently work as a Civil Servant in the Ministry of Justice's Science Office. We provide scientific advice to decision-makers in our department and run prototype projects that apply scientific concepts and new technologies across the justice system. For example, our team has previously been involved in the monitoring of prison wastewater streams for Covid-19, and we are currently interested in how we can measure and improve indoor air quality in buildings run by the Ministry.
Many science graduates enter the Civil Service through the Fast Stream, but I took a different route. After finishing my PhD, I joined the National Graduate Development Programme (NGDP), a local government management training scheme run by the Local Government Association. Through this, I secured a traineeship at the City of Wolverhampton Council where I completed numerous placements. I worked in areas including business improvement, elections, comms, and strategy development. The experience I gained in managing projects, engaging stakeholders, and communicating complex topics to a wide range of audiences was key to securing my current role.
Applying for the NGDP was a multi-step process. After completing some online aptitude tests, I recorded a video interview. The questions sought to find out my motivations for pursuing a career in government, and asked for examples of when I'd worked in a team to tackle difficult problems. My voluntary work with St John Ambulance and my work as a student rep gave me plenty of examples to talk about! I was then invited to an assessment centre where I was assessed on my presentation skills, how persuasively I could write, and how I performed in a group task. Finally, I was interviewed by a handful of host councils. It took about 6 months to get from my initial application to securing my place at Wolverhampton - I'm very glad I started looking at options for what could come next during the final year of my PhD!
What motivated you to do a PhD?
I really enjoyed my undergraduate degree in Chemistry and I wanted to see what it would be like to work in academic research. I liked the idea of spreading my time across lab work, undergraduate teaching, and keeping up with cutting-edge science in my chosen field. It didn't take too long for me to decide that my future lay outside of the lab... quite a common feeling amongst many PhD students!
What do you enjoy most and what do you find challenging about your current role?
The best bit of my current role is the variety. I'm typically working on 3-4 projects at a time, some of which will require my chemistry knowledge and some of which will require me to quickly get up to speed with an entirely different scientific topic. I get to work with all sorts of different people with different backgrounds, including data analysts, social researchers, and people who are developing new ways of using technology in frontline services.
The biggest challenge can be setting expectations. With the Ministry having an interest in a wide-range of science applications, it's very easy to find yourself being asked for advice on something you don't know much about. You have to be honest in these situations, but it can sometimes feel like you're disappointing people!
Have you faced any barriers during your career journey, if so, how did you overcome them?
Imposter syndrome has continued to rear its ugly head throughout my career. If you find yourself in discussions with colleagues who know a lot more about a topic or policy area than you do, the prospect of sharing your ideas is daunting. The key thing to remember is that external perspectives counter groupthink and that you wouldn't have been asked to be part of the conversation unless someone wanted to hear what you think!
How did your time at Birmingham help you prepare for this role?
Team problem solving has been a key part of all the roles I've had since finishing my PhD. Often, this involves rapidly getting up to speed with a new topic and working with others to find solutions. While at Birmingham, I completed the Postgraduate Enterprise Summer School which offered helpful insight into the theory of team dynamics and helped me learn how to approach decisions from a business perspective. I served on the School of Chemistry's Research School Liaison Committee, which required me to take account of a range of perspectives in order to find solutions - often through compromise. I also volunteered as a first aider with St John Ambulance, which offered me leadership experience and helped me get better at quickly building rapport with people I'd just met. All of these skills were really helpful in helping me make the move to public sector roles.
What are your career plans for the future?
I plan to continue my career in the Civil Service. Government has never faced bigger technical challenges than now, and we will need scientifically curious minds to meet them. I see myself working to develop new ideas in areas such as energy security, net zero, and climate adaptation.
What advice do you have for people interested in undertaking further study?
Make sure you are clear on your reasons for wanting to complete further study and spend some time considering whether there are other ways of getting to where you want to be. I know lots of people who went on to do PhDs because it seemed like the most straight-forward option after their undergraduate degrees - many regretted it! Completing a PhD can open many doors, but bear in mind that four years is a very long time to be doing something that you aren't interested in. Make sure it's in a topic that you find fascinating!
What advice do you have for people interested in getting into your industry or role?
Pay attention to the world around you and consider the big challenges facing society. Passionate people working in all levels of government can make a huge impact in people's lives by working collaboratively to tackle these challenges. If there is a challenge you are particularly interested in, have a look at what your local council is doing in your area to tackle it - do you think this is the right approach? Do you think you could help come up with better ideas? Be curious about how government systems work (or don't work!) and have a closer look at any interesting government policy announcements reported in the media.