Kathryn Helliwell is a Senior Research Officer at the Welsh European Funding Office in the Welsh Government
As a child what did you want to be when you grew up?
Firstly I wanted to work in a shoe shop. Then I wanted to be a teacher. During my teens I felt I needed a more interesting career ambition so I quite fancied being a psychologist.
When did you first turn towards a social research career?
In 2001 I was completing a dissertation on a little-known author called May Sinclair for an English Masters at Swansea University and I was running out of money and motivation. I didn’t know what I wanted to do so I applied for a load of jobs, one of which was a temporary research assistant in the Welsh Government (or National Assembly for Wales as we were known then). I got the job.
What was your first professional job? And first project there?
The team I joined (the ‘R&D Co-ordination Unit’) was based in the Statistical Directorate but had little to do with stats – we were trying to map out what research activity was taking place across the Welsh Government, to support social researchers working in policy departments and to encourage the Welsh Government generally to invest in research capacity. Although I joined the R&D Co-ordination Unit only on a temporary basis I quickly realised that government social research was an interesting thing to be involved in and, at the time, was a growing profession in Wales. A permanent opportunity came up in the team and luckily I was successful in applying for that. Even more fortunately, this job came with a chance to study for a Masters in Social Research, again at Swansea University. Combining work (and a long commute!) with part-time study was a challenge but my line managers were very supportive.
Where did your career go next? What motivated that/those moves?
In 2004 I joined the research team in the Welsh European Funding Office (WEFO) within the Welsh Government. My previous role was helpful in having given me a broad overview of research across different policy areas in the Welsh Government. But I saw the WEFO job as a chance to specialise, even though the European Programmes WEFO manages are actually quite diverse, which has turned out to be a positive feature of the job.
What has been your best professional moment?
Working in an EU context, I’ve given presentations to a Europe-wide audience, which usually manages to impress people who know me outside of work! But one of the things that has given me most satisfaction was giving a presentation to Wales-based stakeholders on some survey research that I and others had put a lot of time and effort into. I felt confident that the findings were robust and policy relevant. When you have that confidence it is easy to present something in a compelling way and I think the presentation went down well.
A couple of cases where the opposite of the above has happened!
Do you have a social research hero/heroine?
My first line manager Sarah Lowe was an inspiration to me as a social researcher. I doubt I’d have the career I have if it wasn’t for her as she was incredibly supportive of me. In fact, all my line managers have been highly supportive – must be something about this line of work!
Do you have a favourite quote?
“The equivalent of external noise is the inner noise of thinking” and “Don’t take your thoughts too seriously” from Stillness Speaks, Eckhart Tolle
What would you say to encourage a young person today considering a social research career?
Pursuing a social research career helps you learn about the world. Because that’s what social research is about: understanding how people behave and why. And you get paid to find out about this stuff! Also, social research can make a difference. If we do our jobs well, we’re all contributing to the stock of knowledge about things and the more we know, the more we can make things better! Last but not least, social researchers are nice people to work with!