Dr Ksenia Zheltoukhova case study

Dr Ksenia Zheltoukhova studied for a part-time PhD at Lancaster University Management School between 2011 and 2016.

She started her degree under the supervision of Professors Michael West and John Burgoyne while working as a researcher for the Work Foundation, and completed it while employed by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) – where she was promoted to Head of Research and Thought Leadership soon after the end of her studies.

Now a Principal Director in Management Consulting at the multinational IT and consultancy firm Accenture, Ksenia has used her research into leadership throughout her career – both in conducting research in workplace settings, as well as to inform her own development as a leader.

Ksenia explains how her PhD studies complemented her work, helped her career development, and continue to influence her today.

What were your work circumstances when you began your studies, and why did you decide to do a part-time PhD?

I was a researcher at the Work Foundation, which is associated with Lancaster University. I remember very well that I had finished my Master’s a year or so earlier, and I had said ‘never again!’, because it was such a big commitment and you put everything into it. But then a year later, I realised that I really wanted more time to pursue my own research interests, and a PhD offered freedom to dive deeper into topics I was passionate about.

I particularly wanted to do the PhD part-time because I only had limited work experience and I didn’t want to drop out of work completely to go back to studying. Also, I thought combining my work as a researcher with the PhD would allow me easier access to research participants, and to advice from my colleagues about the relevance and application of the research to practice. That did happen – when it came to conducting interviews or carrying out a survey for my PhD, I was able to recruit participating organisations through my work contacts.

How did your studies fit in with your work commitments?

The level of work wasn’t spread evenly through the time. There was an early period where I was mainly engaging with the literature and doing exploratory research, and I could do that either after work or in my free time at weekends.

From the third year, I had to spend much more time collecting and analysing research data, as well as writing the thesis. Then I agreed with work to have some study leave. I had one day a week where I focused on my PhD and I would also plan occasional block weeks where I would just focus on writing completely. The Work Foundation and CIPD were both so supportive in terms of giving me time to work on the PhD, and sticking to it, and I think that was due to planning this time in advance and taking ownership over how I would complete my work alongside the studies.

The studies did really complement my work in developing my thinking about organisational behaviour and leadership. The PhD offers the “luxury” of reading widely about management theories, research directions, and findings from empirical research – which you often don’t get time to do in your day job. A lot will also depend on how close your topic is to what you do in your day-to-day work.

How have you applied your PhD research to your career?

I was really lucky that my core job when I started my PhD was a research job. Alongside working on leadership as the topic for my PhD, I also did some research projects at work on that subject. There was a transfer of knowledge – you could be inspired by your PhD findings and take that into work.

Right now, I am leading research on psychological safety in teams – a kind of team climate where people feel unafraid to speak up with ideas or admit mistakes. The research I did for my PhD is a foundation to how I think about teams and the impact of leaders now.

How has the PhD benefitted your career?

It has helped in two ways. Firstly, the PhD sharpened up my research skills so much, that the quality of thinking and analytical skills I offered my employers improved. That resulted in me progressing in the workplace and being able to secure different kinds of roles – from pure research to product development to consulting. For a research career outside academia, having a PhD is attractive, as most organisations now want to base their strategies on evidence and data analytics, and they want to have someone who has that experience.

Secondly, because I pursued the topic of leadership for my PhD, it made me think about my own leadership style, and invest time into developing my leadership skills. I still have that interest, I read the literature on the latest thinking on the topic. It sets you up for life in terms of the passion for the subject.