Dr Rachel Hughes is Director of Dotiau (pronounced: dot-ee-ay. It means ‘dots’ in Welsh) and Visiting Professor at Glyndwr University
As a child what did you want to be when you grew up?
I always wanted to be a Geography and PE Teacher. My parents were teachers and so was my grandfather. So, I guess I wanted to follow in the family business!
When did you first turn towards a social research career?
Whilst I was studying for my undergraduate degree in Aberystwyth University, I had an amazing tutor and dissertation supervisor, the late Dr Bill Edwards. He was a teacher, a mentor, and interconnected research and teaching brilliantly. He specialised in social and rural geography, and these were areas that I loved too.
I remember very clearly the moment when I first considered a social research career. Bill told me that my dissertation was the making of my degree (I had loved doing it) and that I should consider undertaking a PhD. I literally ran down Penglais Hill because I couldn’t wait to tell my now husband. That one conversation changed my path.
What was your first professional job? And first project there?
Before studying for my Masters and PhD in Bristol University, I worked as a Research Assistant in the Rural Surveys Research Unit in the Geography and Earth Sciences Department at Aberystwyth University. I worked on a project which was funded through the EU LEADER II programme, to support rural communities in Carmarthenshire undertake community appraisals and make recommendations of activities that the community could take forward.
Where did your career go next? What motivated that/those moves?
Having completed my Masters and PhD, I was asked to be part of a small team of researchers in Aberystwyth University to work on a Welsh Government-funded project reviewing the role, functions and future potential of Town and Community Councils in Wales. Recommendations from the research directly underpinned part of the Local Government Measure (2011).
I then worked as a Research Associate in the Wales Rural Observatory in Cardiff University leading on social research activity. The Observatory was funded by Welsh Government to undertake independent research and analysis on social, economic and environmental issues in rural Wales in order to inform the Welsh Government’s rural policy development.
I made the move out of academia and into a leadership role in the public sector, spending 14 years as Head of Insight at Sport Wales, leading and developing a programme of research, evaluation, insight and policy activity, as well as playing a key strategic role in the Leadership Team.
During this time, I was seconded for 18 months to the Office of the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales to lead on policy, insight and health for the Commissioner’s flagship programme, Art of the Possible.
I have recently founded a business, Dotiau, helping people and organisations to think differently, to not do the same things better, but to do better things.
What has been your best professional moment?
I am going to be cheeky and talk about two!
The first is co-founding the Wales Social Research Awards with Richard Thurston in 2017. We wanted to recognise, celebrate, and raise the profile of talented researchers who are undertaking innovative and timely research. We received a broad range of submissions from the academic, public and private sectors, and had exemplary winners in each of the four award categories. This year’s celebration has been postponed to 2021. We’re looking forward to showcasing more fantastic social research and researchers in Wales.
The second is creating and delivering a world-leading survey – Sport Wales’ School Sport Survey. In 2018, 120,000 children and young people had a voice, 1,000 teachers took part, and over 1,000 schools received a tailored report of their results. We provided resources that were designed by young people for young people, to help them disseminate the findings at a school level, challenge teachers, and develop actions that were pupil centred. The data and insight provided a platform for hundreds of bespoke interventions all across Wales.
I don’t have one. Sure, things don’t always go the way you want them to, but I see these as opportunities for learning. It’s about what you take from it and how you move forward. There is a positive in everything.
Do you have a social research hero/heroine?
It would have to be my PhD supervisor, Professor Paul Cloke. His research interests are in social and cultural geographies, but it’s his emphasis to ground social and cultural theory in particular places, practices and performances – interpretations which are relevant to everyday life – is what I really like. I was inspired by the fact that his research interests were driven by his beliefs and morals - rural homelessness, otherness, rural poverty, ethical citizenship – and this is something that drives me too.
Do you have a favourite quote?
“People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
What would you say to encourage a young person today considering a social research career?
If you care about people and places, and the issues that matter to them.
If you want to be involved in things that are inherently interdisciplinary, always interesting, always challenging.
If you like being involved in things that encourage different ways of seeing, thinking and doing.
If you want to be able explore topics in depth.
If you want to inform policy and practice.
If you want to make a positive difference to people’s lives.
Well then social research is for you!
Twitter: @rachelgwenllian, @dotiau