AHRC DTP Department of Geography Student, Sarah Rafferty, worked with the ONS on a research project entitled “COVID-19 Infection Survey – Local Level Analysis”.

Having spent over two years researching child health inequalities and infectious disease mortality in twentieth century London, COVID-19 provided the opportunity to transfer my skills into the twenty-first century. Therefore, when I saw that the Cambridge Grand Challenges scheme was offering a fellowship at the Office of National Statistics on the COVID-19 Infection Survey (CIS), I had to apply.

The broad aim of the fellowship was to provide support to the CIS team during a time when they were producing one of the highest profile statistics for government policy. CIS produces weekly estimates of prevalence and incidence of COVID-19 to feed into decision making by senior government officials, the Chief Medical Officer and SAGE, as well as new insights into the pandemic. I was placed in the Antibodies and Vaccines sub-team, which meant producing the fortnightly estimates of COVID-19 antibody and vaccination levels and working on ad-hoc analyses.

My fellowship was fully remote, and so I had a rather different experience to those that may have undertaken fellowship in previous years. ‘Settling in’ involved setting up my ONS laptop, talking to colleagues on Microsoft Teams, and getting to grips with the software we were using. Despite a big shift from flexible PhD research to a more rigid work structure, I was comfortable with the routine meetings and basic analysis within a couple of weeks. Working more independently came when I began leading the two ad-hoc projects about a month into the fellowship .

The antibodies and vaccines modelled estimates that we produced as a CIS sub-team were incredibly impactful, providing statistics that informed policies on COVID-19 vaccinations. Additionally, the two ad-hoc projects I led modelled estimates for antibodies by natural infection (as opposed to antibodies by vaccination) and introduced estimates of <16-year-old vaccination. The former project results were presented to academics and provided to the Cabinet Office, whilst the latter project was incorporated into the fortnightly antibodies and vaccines publication.

During my time at the ONS, I worked with a diverse group of people that had taken different career routes and had studied a wide range of subjects. I found that it was beneficial to work together on projects as we often had different perspectives and expertise that combined well. My postgraduate academic experience, for example, was utilised in two main ways. Firstly, my demographic knowledge was called upon often in team meetings and when discussing the ‘bigger picture’ of our work. Secondly, my coding abilities in R were utilised when updating and improving our main model code, as well as writing code for the ad-hoc projects. Moreover, a learnt a lot from my colleagues. Notably I gained a better understanding of the non-academic research process for policy, and an awareness of how the Civil Service is structured and how it functions.

Overall, this fellowship provided me with the opportunity to work with a team in a fast-paced environment – this tends to be the opposite of a PhD project which is individual and at a slower pace. As a consequence, I now have six-months of experience in a very different setting to my PhD, and experience of working in a government department. The fellowship also enabled me to develop my coding skills further, present in front of both academic and government audiences, and improved my organization and time-management skills.

The Grand Challenges Scheme provides both an insight into careers outside of academia, and experience of work outside of academia. It is thus incredibly worthwhile to undertake an fellowship if you are considering your career options. I would recommend that prospective applicants apply to an fellowship that compliments their PhD research, particularly ensuring that the fellowship is different enough from their PhD to give them a new experience.

After completing the fellowship , I successfully applied for a Senior Research Officer position at the ONS. I will therefore be working there full-time after I hand-in my doctoral thesis this September.

Sarah Rafferty’s placement with the ONS took place between July 2021 and January 2022

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