My Southampton Research Journey: From Undergrad to Postdoc

Date: 04/09/2019

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Dr Helen Kowalewska is a Post-doctoral Fellow funded by the ESRC South Coast Doctoral Training Partnership and based in the Social Statistics and Demography Department at the University of Southampton. Her research looks at the relationship between labour market and family policies and women’s employment position across advanced economies.



The undergraduate years


I arrived at the University of Southampton in September 2009 excited to begin a BSc in Politics. I had always been drawn to ongoing debates about rights versus responsibilities, which had been at the forefront of welfare reforms during my adolescence.


In my final year I took a social policy module which introduced me to debates on how social policies reproduce and are reinforced by traditional gender roles and inequalities. I also met Professor Traute Meyer, who turned out to be (and remains) a fantastic mentor throughout my journey from undergraduate to postdoc.


I developed my budding interest in gender and social policy during my undergraduate dissertation by analysing the UK Conservative government’s flagship welfare reform, Universal Credit, from a gender justice perspective. Through a model family analysis, I showed how Universal Credit risks undermining women’s autonomy.


Moving into postgraduate study


While I still was unsure about what I wanted to do in the long-term after my BSc, I knew I was hungry to keep learning and researching. I was fortunate to secure a 1+3 studentship funded by the ESRC to support my postgraduate studies at Southampton.


During my MSc in Social Policy, I learned more about the theories underpinning the discipline of social policy and gained experience in analysing empirical issues through different methods. Continuing the theme of gender and social policy, my dissertation examined the impacts of austerity measures on women, again making use of model family analysis. The analysis revealed that austerity was pushing women closer to the brink of and deeper into poverty.


Subsequently, my PhD, supervised by Professor Traute Meyer and Professor Ann Berrington, allowed me to delve much deeper into the study of gender and social policy. To begin with, I decided to turn my MSc dissertation into an academic paper. (That was the idea, anyway – in reality, the published paper in the journal Social Policy and Society looked very different from the original dissertation!). Having a foundation on which to build the PhD helped reduce some of the uncertainty and stress of those first few months of the PhD, when the prospect of generating 75,000 words out of nothing can be daunting.


I then set about developing two more articles, with a view to writing a three-paper thesis women’s employment position across different welfare states. The second article built on the first by including more countries and more variables. The paper, published in the Journal of European Social Policy, highlighted the gender ‘blind spots’ in the employment ‘activation’ agendas of different OECD countries through a fuzzy-set analysis. I was awarded an international prize in 2016 by the Journal of European Social Policy and European Social Policy Analysts network (ESPAnet) for ‘exciting, innovative and scholarly’ doctoral research.


Having focused on the employment and income disadvantages experienced by some of the most vulnerable women, I began to wonder about women’s access to the very highest jobs. I had been reading the sociological literature on the ‘trickle-down’ benefits of women in leadership positions for other women. The final piece of my PhD was a theoretical paper which argued that bringing more women into the top jobs could help to create more ‘female-friendly’ workplace cultures and policies. This could in turn help to address some of the issues highlighted by feminist scholars of the welfare state, such as women’s lower wages, higher poverty risks, and sexual harassment.


The postdoc period


By the time I defended my PhD in August 2017, my heart was set on an academic career. I relished the freedom that came with following my intellectual curiosity, wherever it took me.


Finishing the PhD is inevitably a difficult time, riddled with uncertainty not helped by an academic job market with few opportunities. But I was lucky to find a couple of short-term projects to tide me over.


The first involved a placement at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, looking at the relationship between ethnicity and social housing allocation through statistical analyses of census data. While very different from my own research, the post opened me up to new experiences, people and skills, including in communicating my ideas to policy experts. It also gave me a ‘taster’ of a non-academic career, which confirmed that academia was the path for me.


I then worked as a Research Fellow on Dr Agnese Vitali’s ESRC Future Research Leaders Grant on female-breadwinner families across Europe at Southampton. The post allowed me to broaden my research expertise and gain experience in developing a co-authored paper, currently under review.


Then, last year, I secured an ESRC Postdoctoral Fellowship at the South Coast Doctoral Training Partnership. The Fellowship allowed me to continue developing my own research agenda under the mentorship of Dr Agnese Vitali and Professor Ann Berrington at Southampton. I spent the year producing another original research paper and re-drafted the third paper from my PhD, which will be published shortly in the Journal of Social Policy. I also continued to disseminate my research to academic and non-academic audiences, wrote a larger research grant, gained more teaching experience, helped to organise the Cumberland Lodge ‘Policy Challenge’ and, of course, applied for jobs!


The job hunt turned out successful, as I am currently looking forward to taking up another postdoc at the University of Oxford. I will be part of the Department of Social Policy and Intervention and Institute for New Economic Thinking. As well as continuing my own research trajectory, the post offers an exciting opportunity to engage in new research themes and networks. I’ll be joining the Oxford Martin Programme on Inequality and Prosperity as part of a team looking at the drivers of inequality and how to address it.


In addition, I have just been awarded an ESRC New Investigator Grant. The project will use up-to-date data and novel methods and approaches to examine the relationship between family policies and the segregation of men and women into different jobs and sectors across various welfare states.


Although I am sad to be leaving Southampton after ten wonderful and formative years, I am looking forward to this next chapter at a new institution with new collaborations and experiences!




Here are a few things I have learnt on my research journey so far:

  1. It takes a village. My career has benefitted enormously from the support, advice, encouragement and feedback of my three excellent mentors – Prof Traute Meyer, Prof Ann Berrington and Dr Agnese Vitali. Good mentors help you negotiate the oftentimes confusing world of academia, become exposed to new ideas, develop collaboration skills, keep on track, and stay sane. Mentors are especially beneficial for women’s careers, even if you are not looking to stay in academia. I know that my positive experiences as a mentee will position me well to become an effective mentor myself in the future.
  2. Make the most of all opportunities. For example, in the first year of my PhD, a colleague suggested putting together a conference. Although time-consuming, it was a great addition to my CV, allowed me to hear about emerging research, and helped me connect with other people interested in similar topics. And while teaching was at first terrifying, it gets easier. The earlier you start, the better. Practice makes perfect!
  3. …But remember you can say no. You cannot do everything, so you will need to be picky. Time is finite, so do not feel bad if you have to say no when you need to.
  4. Make yourself visible. Ensure your hard work is recognised and leads to opportunities by sharing it as much as possible and letting others know what you are up to. Growing up, we are often told not to brag or be ‘showy’. But taking credit for your work is important – if you don’t put the spotlight on your work, no one else will!
  5. Rejection is par for the course. You could spend years taking a paper from conception to publication. There may be times when you have gaps in your employment and your stamina is tested, or when you have to settle for work that is short-term, insecure or far away from home. My third paper was rejected from another journal before it was accepted, and it took 16 unsuccessful job and funding applications before I landed the ESRC Fellowship in 2018. Rejection is disappointing and frustrating. But it is also normal and a reflection of the system, not you. Learn from the rejections to create that successful paper or application!
  6. Remember that academia is not the only option. While I knew I wanted to pursue an academic career, it is not for everyone. A PhD is an asset valued by many employers and there are plentiful non-academic career options out there. Stay open to all the options and keep your skills profile diverse, always thinking about the transferability of those skills.
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