Elifgül Doğan is a PhD Candidate at the Cambridge Heritage Research Centre. Her PhD research incorporates a variety of qualitative and quantitative methods to investigate how nationalist political ideologies use archaeological heritage (particularly human remains) to shape public perceptions of national heritage and identity. You can connect with her on LinkedIn ( www.linkedin.com/in/elifgül-doğan )
As I prepared to begin the third year of my PhD studies at Cambridge in September 2021, I was filled with apprehension and uncertainty. I loved Heritage Studies and was passionate about my research. However, as I neared the end of my PhD, I became increasingly nervous about the question of what a life and career after the PhD might look like. Like many doctoral students, I was well aware that academia presents an extremely difficult job market filled with fierce competition and uncertainties1. I wondered, if I were to leave academia behind, what would I do? How did my academic training translate into anything meaningful outside of my field? Were my research skills transferable and applicable enough to solving “real-world problems”? As I grappled with these existential questions that every PhD student faces at some point during their studies, I received my first email from ThinkLab.
ThinkLab invited Cambridge research students to apply for a brand-new neurodiversity project, co-organised with the BBC. Prospective applicants were to have a broad interest in neurodiversity and be motivated to work in an interdisciplinary team to develop solutions to a real-life problem: in this case, helping to reshape BBC’s organizational culture around inclusivity and neurodiversity. I could not believe how timely this email was! This was a unique opportunity for me to apply my experience outside of academic research and to work with a company which happens to be one of the world’s largest public broadcasters. The place neurodiversity occupied in my personal life provided me with an extra push to apply, and soon after that, I took my place as part of the ThinkLab team.
Our team consisted of 20 Ph.D. and Postdoctoral fellows who were invested in the concept of neurodivergence in various ways. Approximately half of the team identified as neurodivergent, including individuals who are on the autistic spectrum, and those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and dyslexia. Some participants had neurodivergent loved ones; so, they were quite familiar with neurodivergence as they lived alongside it on a daily basis. Finally, several participants came from the disciplines of neuroscience and psychology and actively researched neurodivergence in their research. One thing I should highlight here is that co-design was one of the key principles of this project. And here we had a fantastic group of people with the necessary knowledge and experience to devise together a tangible solution, which we hoped would have a broad impact on the BBC and beyond 2.
I was a member of the Practical Design Team, which included researchers from Earth Sciences, Archaeology, Neurobiology, and Zoology departments. Together, our interdisciplinary team researched and designed an 80-page report that incorporated sources from academic literature, online testimonies, news, interviews with neurodiverse BBC employees, and anecdotes from neurodiverse ThinkLab members. The report addressed the key issues surrounding neurodiverse experiences at work (including recruitment, onboarding, manager-employee relations, workplace interactions, and physical adaptations). Each of these issues was thoroughly examined and accompanied by recommendations and implementation advice. After a meticulous design process that I led, the report was presented to our BBC partners in July 2022, complete with appendices pointing to additional research and guidance. It gives me great pleasure to report that the feedback we received from our BBC partners validated all our efforts:
“The report we now have far exceeds any expectations we had at the beginning of this collaborative project, it’s a fantastic achievement and we just wanted to express our immense gratitude to everyone involved. We have now been able to share this report with the wider steering group who are all equally impressed by the level of detail and breadth of recommendations contained within the report…..we sincerely believe this report could be an important milestone in the recognition of Neurodiversity as the most recent addition to the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion agenda.”
“It can be challenging in academia to contribute research that leads to wide-ranging impact beyond an academic context. The ThinkLab, by giving us a chance through this collaboration with the BBC, made this dream a reality for us.”
In all honesty, I could never have imagined receiving such glowing praise for the work I helped create when I embarked on this completely new experience with the ThinkLab. My primary motivation for starting this project was to get out of my comfort zone and learn something new while also challenging myself in a non-academic work setting. I could never have imagined learning so much and so fast in such a short period of time. What is more, our work will soon reach a wider audience through BBC CAPE and hopefully make a greater global Impact by assisting more organisations with their own journeys toward creating neuro-inclusive workplaces.
It can be challenging in academia to contribute research that leads to wide-ranging impact beyond an academic context. The ThinkLab, by giving us a chance through this collaboration with the BBC, made this dream a reality for us. During this 6-month project (which was extended as I taught myself some design skills for the final report), I gained fantastic transferable skills, had the chance to conduct research on a topic I was personally passionate about, collaborated with peers whose ideas nourished my mind, and worked with incredibly supportive project partners from the BBC. Our partners not only provided us with all of the guidance and resources we needed to successfully complete this project, but also inspired us with their dedication to advocating for workplace inclusivity, and creating broader societal change and awareness about neurodiversity. As academic researchers who are used to working on theoretical aspects of problems, seeing the practical outcomes of our work with the BBC granted us a breath of fresh air and the absolute joy of making a real impact.
On a more personal note, this project rekindled my hope for genuine societal change, which I am eager to be a part of after finishing my PhD. I left the project feeling appreciative of the knowledge and skills I acquired throughout my PhD and brave enough to use them even in seemingly unfamiliar and challenging real-life scenarios. Thanks to the continuous support of the Thinklab team, I now feel impatient to take the next step in the journey that began with a small step outside my comfort zone.
1. For an in-depth discussion of these issues see the recent articles from Nick Woolston’s “I don’t want this kind of life”: graduate students question career options, Nature, 07 November 2022; and Nick Mitchell, “60% of UK academics set to quit within 5 years – Survey”, University World News, 29 March 2022.
The Old Schools, University of Cambridge
About The Author
Elif is a final year PhD student at the Cambridge Heritage Research Centre at the University of Cambridge and is currently a ThinkLab Research Associate