How did a glacial geomorphologist become the University of Cambridge's academic staff development officer, specialising in educational development? I wish I had a pound for every time someone asked me that--I would be extremely well off!
After finishing my PhD, I had a 2-year Natural Environment Research Council-funded research post looking into dating the opening of the Red Sea, mainly through analysis of the sedimentary record and magnetic orientation of the sediments. I then applied for a lectureship. So, after 6 years of research I had my foot on the traditional academic career path, balancing teaching, research, and administration. And then I woke up and realised that this wasn't really what I wanted to do.
Is that 5 million years ago or 6?
To be honest I don't think I was a particularly good sedimentologist. I had a geography degree, and although I enjoyed the fieldwork (since it was in Egypt, that wasn't so difficult), I didn't enjoy the days, weeks, and months working in the lab producing results that, although interesting, didn't have significance to anyone other than a handful of academics. Who really cared if the opening up of the Red Sea was 5 million years ago or 6? I certainly didn't.
I certainly hadn't enjoyed being on a fixed-term, non-permanent contract either. Although my postdoc had been useful, I knew contract research was not a long-term career move. Researchers become too expensive and are always on the edge of mainstream academic life. So the turning point for me was realising that I did not want to do research for the rest of my life. And I saw that if I wanted to progress in an academic post, I would have to sacrifice my love of teaching for research.
I very much enjoyed working with people, teaching, discussing, and being part of a team. And I also wanted to do something that would make a difference, have a wider impact, and change things.
So I resigned, without another job to go to but with a feeling that there must be other places I could work and other careers out there. For 18 months I did a variety of jobs, such as working with drug addicts in Great Yarmouth and working part-time for the Eating Disorders Association. But I missed working in a university; I missed being in the intellectually challenging environment and applying the skills and knowledge I had gained from doing a PhD and postdoc. I wanted to get back to academia.
How was I going to make that shift? I first listed all my skills: organised, efficient, eye for detail ... Unfortunately this didn't really get me far, as most researchers would need to have these skills. So I decided to look at what I enjoyed doing and what I was good at (which are not necessarily the same thing).
I knew I enjoyed teaching, and in particular working with postgraduate students and teaching them how to teach. I had done some teaching when I was a postgraduate and had been thrown in at the deep end. No one had told me how to teach nor given me any handy tips and tricks. So although I had liked it, I had been aware that some training would have been extremely helpful.
During my 18 months working outside the university, I had retained contact with the staff development unit at the University of East Anglia, where I had done my research. I had delivered some postgraduate teaching skills training for them and it had gone down well, with both them and me. So when they advertised a fixed-term contract to develop training materials for postgraduate students teaching in the sciences, I applied and was successful.
Making a Difference to New University Instructors
This 28-month contract was the turning point of my career. I was working in a university, working with people, developing teaching materials, and making a difference to postgraduate students who were new to teaching. Because I had done my PhD and first postdoc there, I knew the university and was able to use my existing networks to gather authentic teaching materials (videos of lab classes, science essays) and talk to people about teaching in a subject area with which I was familiar.
But I also had the opportunity to do more external networking. The material we were developing needed to be tested at other universities because the final outcome of the project would be a training programme with written materials and video examples. A condition placed on the project by the funding body was that the materials had to be widely disseminated to other universities. The result was that I conducted trials at three universities and, towards the end of the project, travelled around the country selling the training programme. And it was this final part which I most enjoyed, working as an adviser and consultant, making connections, and becoming part of the staff and educational development network.
When this fixed-term contract ended, I was therefore in a position to apply for mainstream staff-development posts specialising in teaching and learning. I moved to a job at Heriot-Watt in Edinburgh and stayed there for 18 months. It gave me the opportunity to consolidate my educational development experience and to set up training courses for postgraduates who teach. I was then told that a similar post would be advertised at Cambridge. Cambridge was one of the universities where I had trialled the original teaching skills material, and I had done some consultancy for them, so I knew I was in a strong position for the job.
I have now been at Cambridge for 3 years, and my job has developed and changed quite dramatically since I started. I now manage a group of trainers who run courses for postgraduates; co-ordinate all the courses for contract research staff; and direct the course for new academic staff. Last year I ran an international weeklong conference on how to engage academic staff in staff development and am currently editing the book that was the outcome of that meeting.
And perhaps the most interesting development is that I hardly do any teaching now. Instead I spend a lot of time managing people, liaising with academics, and co-ordinating and driving initiatives across the university.
So, some final questions. Do I have any regrets about leaving research? Absolutely not. How useful has it been that I did a PhD and postdoc? Very.
I understand the stresses of being a postgraduate new to teaching and the anxieties and job insecurities of contract research staff. I understand how universities work and how to operate within them. I understand the language and vocabulary of higher education institutes. All of this is invaluable.
And where will I be in 10 years' time? I'm not too sure--maybe working for the newly launched Higher Education Academy, maybe still at Cambridge, or maybe doing something completely different.