Oct 05. 2021

Lessons from the path to Professor, from Anna Whicher

I’ve always been the type of person to want to have my cake and eat it. Through leading a number of international research projects, I’ve had the opportunity to work with thought leaders in the field of design and policy such as directors of design centres, heads of policy labs in regional and national government as well as globally leading academics.

Since I first joined PDR in 2009, I have aspired to be part of their ranks and this life goal came true in the summer when I was appointed Professor of Design and Policy by Cardiff Metropolitan University. Design in the context of policy – whether it is design in an innovation policy or using design methods for inclusive policy-making – is a niche but fast emerging field.

Contrary to the title, I’m not overly academic. There are, fortunately, many routes to Professor at the university and I took the path most natural to me – via my track record of innovation funding, contribution to knowledge through research as well as international leadership in a specialist field. All of my work is very applied with an emphasis on real world impact. I feel particularly proud to have become an internationally recognised expert advising governments around the world on how to integrate design into innovation policies and programmes as well as how to use design methods to more effectively engage the public in policy and service development. My research and interventions in more than 30 countries, including many outside Europe, have led to real-world changes including new design support programmes for businesses and more meaningful consultation processes between government departments and citizens.

I am very happy to share the experience of my journey if it will help other emerging researchers on the road to leadership. Reflecting on it now, there were a number of key ingredients to my success:

1) research impact from early on in my career;

2) bringing in the cash;

3) collaboration with inspiring partners and stakeholders;

4) institutional support.

Research impact – I feel particularly proud that I’ve managed to translate academic research into practical impact in government. Among many other things, I’ve worked on developing design policies in Ireland, Latvia and the Philippines, influenced design support programmes in Wales, Scotland and Northern Greece, supported the development of innovation labs in Northern Ireland and HMRC and built capacity for design among a large number of public sector organisations including the European Central Bank.

Bringing in the dollar – You can’t get away from the fact that research requires financing. For over a decade, I have led a broad range of projects funded by the European Commission, Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and international and local governments at a value of over £10 million. I have led these initiatives through their entire lifespan from developing the initial concepts, assembling partnerships and submitting proposals through to implementing interventions, leading the consortia, conducting research, developing strategies, managing finances and evaluating impact. I have been fortunate to have won two AHRC Fellowships, which have been invaluable springboards.

Collaboration with partners – it’s true that teamwork makes the dream work. Knowledge exchange with UK and overseas partners has been a particularly gratifying experience. It enables a fresh injection of ideas and iterative development of new research and commercial opportunities. I feel very proud that this niche area of work is also a passion for my incredible colleague Piotr Swiatek who has been my companion on this intellectual (and sometimes challenging) journey. Some people describe academia as lonely but between the two of us, we’ve built an international network of friends.

Institutional support – I also feel very fortunate that Professors Jarred Evans, Andy Walters, and Gavin Cawood (in memoriam) have been so supportive of my career, always encouraging me to go for the next project and jump the next hurdle. For anyone looking to progress in an academic trajectory, support from senior leadership is a fundamental factor – my deepest thanks to the three of you.

On top of all of this, I’ve had amazing fun doing it. I’ve been able to travel the world while pursuing my professional passion – particular highlights beyond Europe being Bangkok, Bridgetown, Boston, Kiev, Mexico City, Montreal, New York, Singapore, Taipei and Tbilisi; something for which I’ll be forever grateful. How many people get to watch the sunset on the beach in Barbados after delivering a workshop?

My door is open for aspiring researchers looking to climb the ranks - so please get in touch.