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Melissa Smith
Melissa Smith

Melissa Smith

Why did you choose to do your MSc at Manchester?

A year after finishing my BSc in Physics at Manchester I still wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I had taken some modules at the Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine (CHSTM) during my degree and had really enjoyed them, and decided further study might open up more career options for me in the future. Going along to a CHSTM postgraduate open day and chatting to existing students and staff convinced me to apply for the MSc.

What was the highlight of the MSc for you?

For me, the best thing was meeting lots of interesting and knowledgeable people – both staff and students. I found the atmosphere very welcoming – there was a good sense of being part of an academic community, and I felt we were encouraged to debate and challenge established ideas. It helped that the MSc group was much smaller than I was used to – only around ten students, compared to more than a hundred in a year during my BSc.

I also really enjoyed writing my dissertation – I found it very refreshing, if a bit daunting at first, to be able to come up with my own research questions and to really get the opportunity to explore an issue in depth. It was this experience that finally convinced me to apply to do a PhD the following year.

What was the subject of your research project?

My dissertation focused on nuclear war in fiction and film during the 1980s, and considered how the fictional portrayal of nuclear war influenced the political and scientific debates around nuclear weapons during this period.

“Doing postgraduate study doesn’t guarantee you a job, but for me it definitely opened up more options, helped me identify what I was interested in, and helped me develop my skills...”

How has your career progressed since completing the MSc?

After completing the MSc in 2005, I took a year out to travel and then applied for a PhD at Manchester, which I started in September 2006. My PhD focused on civil defence policy in Britain from 1945 to 1968 – I considered how British policymakers planned to defend the country against the possibility of nuclear attack, focusing in particular on the role of government scientific advisers in shaping policy. During my PhD I also did a three-month ESRC-funded fellowship at the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, where I got the chance to apply some of my knowledge and skills in a policy context. After I finished my PhD in March 2010, I joined the civil service as a policy adviser in the Strategy Unit of the Cabinet Office.

Could you summarise your current role?

I am a policy adviser in the Cabinet Office – my job broadly involves providing policy support to Number 10 and to ministers. In practice this involves a wide range of different tasks – briefing ministers in person and in writing; contributing to government publications such as White Papers; generating policy options in response to specific problems; drafting speeches; and sometimes doing longer-term analytical projects. So far I’ve had to turn my research skills to a range of topics, including justice policy, the welfare of the Armed Forces, and the Big Society – it’s very varied, and very interesting.

What do you enjoy the most/what is the most interesting thing about your job?

The most exciting thing is the feeling of being at the centre of things – developing a policy idea or working on a speech and then reading about it in the newspapers the next day. And going to meetings at 10 Downing Street is still very exciting!

Do you have any advice for people who might want to follow in your footsteps?

Doing postgraduate study doesn’t guarantee you a job, but for me it definitely opened up more options, helped me identify what I was interested in, and helped me develop my skills – my current job isn’t directly relevant to my research topic, but the analytical, written and presentation skills I developed through the MSc and PhD have been invaluable. I also recommend making the most of any opportunities you get – present your work at conferences, take up internships if you get the chance, and above all make the most of all the intelligent and interesting people you will be surrounded by.

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