A Q&A with Hetan Shah

Birkbeck Alumnus Hetan Shah, the Chief Executive of the British Academy, talks about his experience of studying at Birkbeck.

Why did you decide to come to Birkbeck?

I was working in a law firm in the City, and was pretty bored! I wanted to keep my mind active and keep learning, so I would sneak out twice a week to my History and Politics Masters. I enjoyed it so much. I then left the law sector, and started working at a think tank. I felt the need to learn some economics, so I then spent a year doing the Postgraduate Certificate in Economics.

How did you balance your work and studies?

The Postgraduate Certificate in Economics was tough – three hours a night for three nights a week. It was a year that didn’t leave me a lot of time for a social life!

Why did studying in the evening appeal to you?

Studying in the evening quite simply meant that I could work and earn a living during the day!

Do you have any special memories from your time at Birkbeck?

The most inspiring part of my time at Birkbeck was studying Professor Mark Mazower’s course on the 20th century, empires and nation states. He had extraordinary breadth – we would study an empire (Habsburg, Ottoman, British etc) each week. Life has come full circle as he was recently elected a corresponding fellow of the British Academy, where I have just begun as chief executive!

Can you tell us a little more about your career journey since Birkbeck?

I worked in the think tank world for several years, helping to bridge academic research and policy. It was a stimulating time, working on agendas including behavioural economics, social enterprise, and well-being measures. After that I became chief executive of a charity focused on global citizenship education in UK schools: improving critical engagement with international development and environmental sustainability in the curriculum. Around eight years ago I became executive director of the Royal Statistical Society, a membership body concerned with improving evidence and the use of data in public life. And I have now just been appointed chief executive of the British Academy, the national academy for humanities and social science.

Based on your experience at the Royal Statistical Society, what skills or experiences are important to the future job market?

One of the things that I’ve learned from my time at the RSS is the increasing importance of data analysis. We are living in a world of ubiquitous data, and so making sense of what the data tells us is really important. This will be increasingly demanded across many job roles. Our education system needs to take the teaching of basic statistical literacy more seriously.

What are you excited to implement/ take on at the British Academy?

The BA is an extraordinary organisation. It is a fellowship of some of the brightest minds, it provides funding for humanities and social science research, and it also convenes thinking on the big issues of the day. As you can tell from the subjects I have studied (my first degree was mostly philosophy) I have a strong affinity with these subjects, as they help us make sense of the world we live in. My aim is to build on the great work the BA already does, and to help bring the voices of the humanities and social science communities into the big issues of the day. I have recently written a piece in Nature showing why these subjects are vital for meeting many of the challenges we face in the upcoming decade.

I look back at my three years at Birkbeck with fondness. It was very stimulating to continue with some formal study after I’d begun my working life. I’d recommend it to anyone!

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Alumni & Student Ambassador Officer

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