Sarah Cattan

Published on 7 October 2022

Associate Director

What first attracted you to the IFS?

What initially attracted me to the IFS is the fact that it is a place where one can – and is encouraged to – do both excellent academic research and policy work.  When I finished my PhD, I wanted a research job that would allow me to use and build on what I had learned at university, but I also wanted to be part of an organisation with a strong commitment to informing policy.  I researched and interviewed with several other policy research institutes, and I can confidently say that IFS is quite unique in this way.

Which projects are you working on at the moment?

All my projects are broadly about the role that human capital plays in driving inequalities and how policy should be designed to equalise opportunities across children.  My current work focuses on early childhood and adolescence, two incredibly important periods for the development of a person’s skills. One of my current projects looks at the impact that large increases in government support for very young children in the 2000s had on children and families’ outcomes.  Another one evaluates a pre-school intervention in Ghana where we ran a randomised controlled trial and collected data to measure the programme’s impact on children’s cognitive and socio-emotional development.  I am also increasingly interested in mental health and antisocial behaviour and how we can prevent young people to engage in crime and violence. At the moment, I am working on designing a randomized controlled trial to evaluate a new way for youth workers to support young people at risk of violence across all 32 boroughs of London.

What kind of things do you do during a typical day at work?

There are rarely two days the same! A lot of my time is spent talking with colleagues about our ongoing projects. When we meet, we discuss the analysis that one of us will have produced and agree on what to do next to answer the research question that has motivated the project in the first place. I don’t do as much data analysis as I did when I started at the IFS, but I still have one or two projects where I am in charge of that. I love programming and working with data, so I am happy to be able to keep doing that to some extent. Once a project is more advanced, I will often give presentations of the work to academics and policy-makers, and I will also spend time working on reports or papers to communicate the findings. One of my responsibilities is to ensure that my sector is well funded, which means that I spend time developing new research ideas, working on funding proposals, and/or pitching new ideas to funders. In my role, I also line manage a couple of junior researchers, so on a typical day I may also meet with one of them to chat about their work and professional development.

What do you particularly enjoy about the job?

I feel incredibly grateful to have such an interesting job. I spend most of my days thinking about societal issues that I deeply care about, while doing some pretty technical work that I find intellectually stimulating. I love the variety of topics and tasks that my job offers, and the fact that there are no boundaries to how much I can learn on the job.  I am very self-motivated, so the independence and trust granted to researchers quite early on have been a really good fit for me. The environment is also incredibly grounding. Being part of an organisation that plays such a central part in the country’s public life forces me to think about the policy relevance and impact of even my most technical research.

How has your career progressed so far?

My career is a bit atypical because I joined the IFS when I finished my PhD in Economics at the University of Chicago.  I joined as a research economist in the Education and Skills sector, which offered a good fit given my training and previous work in education and labour economics.  I started a couple of new projects led by IFS colleagues and external academics affiliated with the IFS.  A year later, I was promoted to senior research economist. In that role, I started developing and funding my own research agenda and taking on more responsibility in managing research projects. Four years later, I became Associate Director. I continue to be deeply involved in my research projects, but I have also taken more of a management and leadership role in the Education and Skills sector and across IFS.

What have you learned from working here?

I have learned so much, and most of it has been thanks to my incredibly talented and friendly peers. Over the years, I have become a better economist and a better researcher. My programming skills and ability to work with data have tremendously improved, and so has my ability to write about and present research findings. A lot of this learning has been acquired by doing, receiving their feedback, as well as observing and emulating my peers. I have also had the opportunity to learn about primary data collection in projects where we designed our own questionnaires and collected data both in the UK and in developing country contexts. I have also learned a lot about research funding and how to write funding proposals.

How would you describe the working environment?

The working environment is very collaborative. Although researchers will work quite independently, on any given project they are always part of a team. People are very friendly and very willing to help.  People work pretty hard, but at the same time the environment is very supportive and relaxed. I think IFS also provides quite an entrepreneurial environment that rewards taking initiatives, thinking on one’s feet, and driving things through.