Beyond Your Research Degree
Episode 22 - Amy Creese (Clerk to the International Relations and Defence Committee, UK House of Lords)

Episode 22 - Amy Creese (Clerk to the International Relations and Defence Committee, UK House of Lords)

July 15, 2022

Welcome to the Beyond Your Research Degree podcast from the University of Exeter Doctoral College! The podcast about careers and all the opportunities available to you... beyond your research degree!  In this episode we talk to Dr. Demelza Curnow, Quality Enhancement Manager for the QAA!

Music from https://filmmusic.io ’Cheery Monday’ by Kevin MacLeod (https://incompetech.com) License: CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses

 

Transcript

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Hello and welcome to the Beyond Your Research Degree podcast by the University of Exeter Doctoral College.

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Hello and welcome to the latest episode of Beyond your Research Degree.

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I'm your host, Kelly Preece, and today I'm going to be talking to Dr. Amy Creese,

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who has worked variously as a policy analyst and now a clerk in the House of Lords supporting various select

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committees and is going to give us a real insight into the role that researchers can play in Parliament.

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Hi, my name is Amy and I am currently a committee clerk in the House of Lords.

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So clerk is just a fancy parliament term for I guess, team leader.

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So I lead a small team in the House of Lords that support the work of a select committee.

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Currently as the International Relations and Defence Committee. And previously.

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Sort of. I've been doing that role for years, and prior to that, for a couple of years I was working for the Science and Technology Committee,

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also in the House of Lords as a policy analyst, which is another team member that supports a committee.

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And that was a bit more of a subject specialist role, whereas now I'm a little bit more of a generalist.

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So that's my, my current job. And prior to working in the House of Lords, I was doing a Ph.D. at the University of Oxford.

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I was in the geography department. And but my focus was on climate science and in particular the performance of global climate models.

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oIf the Central African region say, I was on a doctoral training programme funded by NERC

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but I was also heavily involved in a sort of a big project that was funded by the Department

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for International Development and NERC looking at central and southern African climates.

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So that was a really interesting experience to be part of that.

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Yeah. And then go even further back if you'd like to. I did a geography degree, so that's where my roots are before my PhD.

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So on the surface, geography degree to clerk in a House of Lords feels like quite a big jump or quite big, quite a big shift.

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um. Can you talk a little bit about.

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How that particular role came about.

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Was it something that you were always interested in or you know, and maybe about what the connections are with your research and what you do now?

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Yes, definitely. So no, definitely wasn't always my career path,

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and I think I probably only knew what a clerk in the House of Lords was when I joined the House of Lords.

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But I had always been interested in a career in policy and when I was doing my undergraduate

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degree I thought I'd be interested in working in policy and maybe the civil service.

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And then I happened to do a climate science project for my undergraduate dissertation,

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and my supervisor told me about this thing called a Ph.D. where it's basically an extended dissertation and several years,

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and if you can get funding to do it, that's even better. And I just thought that sounded very interesting.

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Again, I think I knew very little about PhDs before I was at university, and although I still was very interested in working in policy,

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I didn't really see any harm in spending four years doing something really interesting and,

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you know, carrying on with with this interesting work I'd done for my dissertation.

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So I was very fortunate to get funding through NERC to do that.

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But I still had it in my mind that ultimately where I wanted to end up was in policy somehow.

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And I was trying I wasn't really worrying about how I'd how I'd end up there,

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but I definitely wasn't sort of planning to be an academic, which I think I think is well in my experience was kind of unusual.

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But maybe there are more people like that and you just don't hear about it and hence why I'm very happy to talk about about my sort of career today.

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So, yes, I did my PhD and while I was doing it, I applied for twice and was successful the second time by getting a policy internship through.

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It's now the Ukri policy internship scheme.

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This is this is pre UKRI days but it's that same scheme now where you can do a three month placement in a policy organisation,

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including several hosted by Parliament.

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And so I did that. I worked in Parliament three months and realised I definitely wanted to do that kind of thing as a career.

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And that's probably what opened my eyes to the opportunities in Parliament in particular, which is obviously, you know,

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slightly different to the civil service because you're scrutinising the government rather than working for the government,

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but similar kind of types of jobs? I suppose so, yeah.

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So then after my PhD, I had a kind of a good network of people I'd met in Parliament.

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I was on Facebook group and that's where I saw an advert for working at the Science and Technology Committee in the House of Lords.

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That role didn't require a Ph.D., but it did require a science background.

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And, you know, you had to prove at interview and in the application that you had a sort of strong science

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background because you could be working on really any area of science in that role.

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And so, yes, that's how I ended up at House of Lords. And then about a year ago I was well, I applied for and I was given a promotion to a clerk,

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which slightly sadly took me away from the science policy side.

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But as I said, I was a geographer originally.

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So international relations is actually really interesting for me as well, and I enjoy some of the more generalist parts of the job as well.

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So it's worked out really well for me.

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Yes, it sounds like a really kind of interesting, slightly circuitous path to kind of wanting to go into policy,

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to doing the research degree to think then coming back out kind of the other

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end and things kind of coming together and coalescing in your current role.

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So I was really interested in what you said about the internship because it's something that is becoming more

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and more common as part of a research programme that people are engaging with these internships and also that,

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you know, there are things like the UK policy internship programme.

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So I wondered if you could say a little bit about applying for that internship, but also what like.

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What benefits it will be when you are actually applying for your first job.

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Yeah definitely so I really I really rate the the care I scheme and just doing an internship in general just from

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a very and from a big picture perspective I think taking three months out of your PhD is a brilliant thing to do.

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I'm sorry if I'm upsetting any supervisors by saying that, but and the great thing about the UKRI scheme is I think for most,

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for most funders, unless an internship is a requirement,

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of your doctoral training programme most funders extend your funding by three months so you're not sort of losing time or money on your PhD.

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But yeah, it was it was really good for me to take some time to do something completely different.

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It really helped to reset my brain for going back to my Ph.D. when I kind of got into that slightly miserable valley in the middle of my third year.

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So yeah, I, I' really rate them just from the kind of mental health resetting perspective and so the process.

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I try to remember much about the process of applying and the the scheme, the UKRI scheme,

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if it hasn't changed too much and has it has a range of places where you can

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do an internship and I think you put down your preferences when you apply,

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you know you're not guaranteed it, but you, you might you're more likely to get one of your preferences and that includes UK Parliament.

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It also includes some of it's devolved administrations and includes some policy organisations like the Royal Society and some government departments.

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I think so.

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The Government Office for Science, for example, was one of the options when I applied and they all offer, you know, well, they'll be quite different,

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but they're similar things in terms of the skills you'll have under the kind of people and institutional knowledge that you'll gain,

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so, and I think the Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology does a lot of even if you don't end up being

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placed there they do a lot of the work for sort of setting up the internships and sending people out.

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So that's that is where I ended up doing my internship at the Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology.

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And they take a lot of fellows every year but their main task is to produce what's called post notes,

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which are four page briefings for parliamentarians on, well, science and technology topics.

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So that's a very broad remit and include social sciences and yeah, lots of things fall under that, that remit.

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Um, so yeah, you spend your three months kind of researching that note and it has to be impartial,

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has to be very accessible and lacking in any kind of technical jargon.

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And the idea is that an MP or a peer can just pick it up and quickly get a flavour of the key issues on this upcoming.

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Um. Science or technology topic. So yeah, it's a it's a pretty busy process.

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There is a huge amount of you have to do you kind of interviews with stakeholders

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you then once you've written this note and four pages doesn't sound long,

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but it's very difficult to actually get it that short.

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Um, you, you then kind of, it goes back to external review with, with some of those stakeholders.

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There's also internal review processes. It's pretty full on.

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But it, but it was brilliant and really, really help me understand how just how policymaking works and how parliament works.

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The difference between parliament and government, which is something I wasn't particularly clear on in the first interview I had at the first.

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Yeah, yeah. And other placements within parliament include being on select committee.

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So I've since being sort of full time employed at the House of Lords.

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I have hosted a policy fellow on our committee for three months placement and they were absolutely brilliant and it really

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helps the resource for the committee and hopefully it was well I'm sure it was a really good experience for them as well,

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learning how the committee works and helping us with running a committee enquiry.

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And so that's the kind of the background to to the internships, at least the way that I did it.

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And then in terms of how that helps with my job, I mean, as I think I said before,

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I don't even if I had seen my my first role in the House of Lords advertised, if it wasn't for the kind of networks I had from that internship.

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And when I did my application and had my interview for the House of Lords,

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I had that understanding of the role of Parliament, the role of select committees,

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the importance of impartiality when you're working for Parliament and it's really

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important because you are working for people from across the political spectrum,

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you have to be able to give impartial advice that isn't skewed by any of your own views.

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And, and it has also given me experience of writing the kinds of things that I then went on to write in my job.

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So I really can't recommend it highly enough.

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But I also think, you know, I was I really did want to go into policy and therefore I was on the look out for these kinds of schemes,

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but I know lots of people who've done them. Who still want to stay in academia or did it and actually found that working in policy isn't for them.

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And I think that's just as valuable as an experience.

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And you're not you know, you're not losing anything by doing the internship just to just to find out if it's for you.

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You have a really interesting experience and get to come to Parliament and, you know, maybe get to PMQs if you're, if you're lucky in the ballot.

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And yeah. And that can really help open doors, but also close doors if you decide it's not for you after you've done it.

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Thank you. That's really helpful and really interesting kind of breakdown of what the internship involves and and yeah, its benefits.

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And I think we, we undersell sometimes the benefit of having those.

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Well, no, actually we don't undersell it. So we, we're constantly saying about the importance of networks and about making the most of them and,

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you know, your connections and, and, um, various different things.

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But it's really great to have really tangible examples like that of where having being involved in a network

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and having those connections in that sector leads to a job and have that as a really tangible example,

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not just as a kind of a person standing at the front of a room or on a zoom call saying It's really important for you to have networks.

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It's and it's helpful. It's I think it's helpful to give examples of how you how you get these networks, because I during my Ph.D., I felt the same.

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I was sort of told your network is important. And I, I don't know, I envisaged networking being stood in a conference room, you know,

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being a bit feeling a bit awkward and wondering whether to approach someone at the next table to talk about science and I've always felt really rubbish.

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at that. Whereas this is, you know, you,

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you don't have the choice about being in this network because by taking on the internship and doing the doing the work, you just develop it.

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And that really worked for for me. Right.

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But my personality doesn't doesn't suit the very kind of traditional idea of how you how you network and how you gain contacts

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Yeah, exactly. And I think that there's some demystifying of of that.

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But it's also really important and. You've talked about kind of what you did on the internship and Post Notes and all that sort of stuff.

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I wonder if you could talk a little bit more about what you did in your first role at the House of Lords and the promotion that you're.

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That you've got now and that you're working on as a clerk.

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Can you talk a little bit about what what that actually involves on kind of a day to day or just regular basis?

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What are you actually doing? Yeah, of course.

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So both roles are relatively similar actually working for a select committee and you're supporting a committee of normally

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about 12 members of either the Commons or the Lords or sometimes sometimes they have joint committees.

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So they're are groups of backbench parliamentarians who come together to scrutinise the government in various areas of policy,

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say in the House of Commons,

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most of the committees are they shadow a government department so this an education committee that shadow the Department for Education, for example.

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And in the Lords the approach is a bit more cross-cutting and that's in part to sort of avoid duplicating the work of the Commons,

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but to be have more thematic committee,

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say science and technology which might be scrutinising the Department of Health one day and then the Department for Business,

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Energy and Industrial Strategy the next day.

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And similarly in my committee now, the International Relations and Defence Committee scrutinises the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office,

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the Department for International Trade, sometimes the Ministry of Defence.

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I think I haven;t forgotten any there. But we can, we can be much more cross-cutting and so the MP or peers in the

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committee might have some expertise or background in these areas but they might not.

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And the job of the team, which in the House of Lords is usually three people,

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is to provide them with kind of technical and procedural support for conducting enquiries,

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which is the main thing that committee staff say a committee will decide that, you know,

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this year or this quarter we'd like to look at the Government's policy into well, on science technology.

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An example I worked on was ageing and sort of healthy ageing and the government's policy and strategy around that.

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So the committee will sort of decide with some advice from experts and from the staff as well, what topic they'd like to look and see.

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They'll put together a kind of call for evidence or terms of reference for that enquiry, a list of the questions they want to answer and then.

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We as a staff put together a programme of witnesses and expert witnesses that come and sort of give evidence on these topics, say others.

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And and then at the end of that process, the staff collate together all the all the evidence that we've had,

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and in a lot of consultation with the members of the committee,

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produce a sort of draft report usually that is a sort of full of recommendations for the government,

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the things that we think the government should do differently or change in some way.

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So my first role was as a policy analyst for committee.

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And every committee has sort of an equivalent role in the commons it's called something different,

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but basically a subject specialist whose main job is to kind of provide

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briefings to the committee on the topics they're going to be covering that week.

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I mean, they're very busy people. And as I say, they might not be experts in the topic or every subsection of the topic.

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So a policy analyst does a lot of writes a lot of briefing.

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They also alongside that in the middle of an enquiry will be writing suggested questions for members of the committee to ask.

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The witnesses so members of Parliament can can ask whatever they'd like,

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and they often do, which is absolutely their rights and is informed by the process.

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But we'll the staff and the policy analysts will sort of provide them suggestions for

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the kind of areas you might want to cover to get the most out of particular witnesses.

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So that's a pretty interesting skill to develop.

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I don't know if you have that in many other jobs, but something I really enjoyed doing.

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And then you sort of provide a briefing to the members as well around that. And then another core part of that job as well is identifying witnesses.

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So you have to sort of understand the field, know who the experts and know who to ask.

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So that's where it's really helpful to have a background in the in the policy area.

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And then you will normally be closely involved in writing the report, which is again, a lot of drafting, a lot of editing,

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ensuring that it's very objective and well objective in that it reflects the evidence,

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but it also reflects the views of the committee who might decide to take a.

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A political with a small p stance on something. So that's so that's that role.

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And I, I think well, I've really enjoyed it.

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But I also think that doing a PhD really set me up to say, well, for that role in terms of drafting skills, I think,

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you know, there's not many other experiences like writing a thesis to prepare you for writing reams and reams of stuff.

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But also yeah research skills knowing what what a trustworthy source is, knowing how to read scientific papers.

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I didn't have to do that all the time. But if you often if you're reading some kind of grey literature,

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some government or think tank report and you see a statistic and you're not quite sure where it came from,

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understanding the scientific process and how to go back to the original source and work out if it's

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been interpreted correctly is such a useful skill that I think you get from a research degree.

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Um. And yeah,

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also I think working it's quite it's quite a different style of working than a Ph.D. which in part can sometimes be quite an isolated experience.

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Whereas, you know, in the House of Lords I've always worked as closely with the team,

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but I did find particularly doing a science degree that teamwork was a huge part of that anyway.

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And my my supervisor was sort of famous for saying that scientists hunt in packs.

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You know, we don't we don't sit on our own for years trying to solve a problem.

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We have regular lab meetings and talk through all our issues.

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And we are very collaborative in our papers, say.

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And that kind of skill of working with other people and bringing together different people's needs was it's been absolutely vital.

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Um, and then just, yeah. So going on to my current role, which is as a clerk and day to day is actually quite similar.

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I work very closely with the policy analyst on my team.

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Um, who in my current team is an international relations specialist, so I still do a lot of drafting.

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So I still actually have to get to grips with whatever policy topic the committee has decided to do.

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But I have a specialist on hand to answer my stupid questions as they come up and I do a little bit more.

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I suppose it's kind of. Administrative administration and kind of management, you know, checking everything's running on schedule,

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liaising with the chair of the committee to make sure that they're happy with how everything's going.

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And something actually that I'm doing at the moment, which I didn't do my previous year, was planning visits for the committee and that.

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Well, we've not been doing that for a while for COVID anyway. But that's that's another aspect.

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Commitees can kind of go out of Westminster and see other things and as part of the enquiries as well,

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so that's slightly further away from the core policy drafting skills that I used in my previous role, but still very fascinating.

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It sounds like it's incredibly fascinating and I think incredibly varied.

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Yes, definitely. That's. And I think that's. That's probably what drew me to this kind of job rather than staying in academia.

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And that's not to say academe is not varied at all, but I, I knew that I thrive in an environment where there's relatively high kind of pace of,

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of activities and you're kind of doing different things relatively regularly.

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So I like the fact that we tend to work on enquiries for no more than about six months, say every six months or less.

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I get to, you know, to start a new topic completely and yeah.

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And week to week that's there's quite a lot of you know, we tend to have a big committee meeting every week where we take evidence on an enquiry.

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So there are lots of weekly deadlines and that works really well for me and my personality.

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The what didn't work so well for me in my Ph.D. was sort of having this four year deadline and a few points along the way to check in and so

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I think that's just something that.

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You work out for yourself as well as you're doing your Ph.D. or whatever in your early stages of your career, you sort of work out what?

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What type of work suits you. Yeah, and that's really important.

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And something that we really do undervalue is kind of what kind of work and what kind of environment suits you better.

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Mm hmm. And from what I hear, what you're saying is you're using the skills that you developed during a research degree on a regular basis,

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but you're doing it on much shorter projects. Yeah, definitely.

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That's a very good summary. And I think that's really, really vital and and really important as part of all of this process is.

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Yeah, that what environment works. It works for me.

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How do I like to work? So.

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Thinking about kind of the way that you use kind of your research skills in this role.

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What are the kind of aside from the internship, which is obviously very directly related,

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are there are particular things that you did during your research degree that have been

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really informative or really beneficial once you've moved on to your professional career?

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Yeah. So I think. Aside from the internship, which as you as I make making clear, I think it was one of the best things I did.

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And I think working in a within a larger project, which I appreciate is completely out of your hands sometimes,

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but working on a on a bigger project that sort of got big external funding as part of my PhD

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was really beneficial because there were opportunities there to do a few policy related things.

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So the projects that I was sort of.

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Connected to my PhD was called Future Climate for Africa and sort of across many universities across the UK and in Africa.

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And there were opportunities to write sort of short summaries for on the work that we were doing for the UK and regional in Africa.

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Policymakers so I sort of took these opportunities when they came up and they were they weren't especially time consuming because at this point,

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you know, at the end of your Ph.D., you're the expert in your area. So, when someone said, can you write a page on Central Africa climate models?

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I felt pretty qualified to do that.

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But it helped hone the skills of, you know, writing for a non-technical audience, which is key, a sort of the key skill really in in policy and yep,

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just practising practising that you know, by the medium of your own work, which is the best way to start.

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Similarly, I sort of in my doctoal training programme, we had to write blogs on various things with the same kind of for the same reason to practise

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communicating your work or communicating things that we learnt on the doctoral training programme,

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but in a non-technical way. So things were just, you know, not particularly time consuming but really helpful, helpful things to do for anything else.

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I, you know, I didn't I think it's a important to say. I didn't spend, you know, weeks and months of my PhD focussed on other things.

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I was basically working on my Ph.D.

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One thing that I think was probably beneficial, but again, it's maybe out of lots of people's hands, is that I did a sort of paper route for my PhD,

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so I did have a bound thesis at the end, but it was made up of four papers that I had to submit to.

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I had to submit to journals throughout my Ph.D. and then I kind of talked about it with an introduction and conclusion.

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And so that kind of regular writing and refining my writing skills through style throughout my Ph.D. was really helpful.

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And I think, you know, the style of writing papers and writing for a thesis is, is similar to what you might end up doing in policy work.

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It's a bit more technical, but I definitely I had a had a very good supervisor.

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He was very keen on making papers, very accessible.

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So he really helped me to ensure that when I was writing papers they were understandable and they weren't full of jargon and acronyms.

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And so really, yeah.

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Using any example, any opportunities that you have throughout your Ph.D. to hone in these kinds of skills, I think was the main thing I did.

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I can't think of anything else I did on top of that as we kind of.

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Think about wrapping up i wonder if your could I always like to be able to sort of say, what advice would you give to somebody that is thinking about?

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Going into policy or a similar area when they finish their research degree.

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What what do you wish that somebody had told you and.

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Well, I think kind of a broad message, which is not just not just the people who are thinking of already thinking of getting into policy,

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but just I hope that we are academia is starting to turn away from this idea that you somehow failed if you did stay in academia,

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because that's really how it felt when I was there and I didn't feel that other careers were really discussed.

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Things like this are obviously a really good step in the right direction. So I hope that that can be a bit of a mindset shift in individuals as well,

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that if you if you're thinking that academia is not for you or if you realised on

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the first day of your Ph.D. that you're not going to do this the rest of your life,

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that that's absolutely fine. And actually the world needs people with your sort of skills and knowledge in all other sectors,

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whether that's policy or or industry, field or wherever, say and.

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I think I kind of took on myself and told myself that message early on, and that kept me happy and healthy and well throughout my PhD, so

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I hope that that message is slowly trickling through.

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And then I think just being. And this is easier said than done to basically being open to.

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Different careers and not kind of closing things off before you've sort of tried them,

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whether that's through an internship or whether it's through going to the seminar or going on to some kind of visit or something.

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And if it unless you're sort of absolutely sure that academia is the only career for you, there's absolutely no harm in exploring these other options.

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And as I say, you can you can do an internship or whatever and you might realise it's definitely not for you.

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And that's. Also absolutely fine. That's part of the process.

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And yeah, I think, as I said, just that just now, I didn't I didn't spend loads time worrying about this during my PhD

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Obviously, I worried about job prospects and all the normal things, and I'm actually a bit of a worrier overall, but I.

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I still you know, I did it didn't take up all my time.

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I don't want people to go with the message that if you want to have a career in policy, you need to spend half a week working on that.

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And it is time on your Ph.D., you know, that's that's doing your Ph.D. is important.

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The research you're doing is is important. Even if you don't stay in academia, you'll still made a contribution that that matters.

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And that work will have moved your field forward, however many steps.

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So enjoy the time you're doing your research degree if you if you're able see and and then you know you can think about what's next.

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And this is a broader message that I feel.

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I tell people a lot that, you know, we can move away from the idea that you sort of have one career for your life.

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And I only saw my Ph.D. as a bit of a mini career.

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I was a researcher for four or five years, and now I have a different career, but I might not do this for the rest of my life either.

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If we're going to work and so we're in our seventies,

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we probably would want some change along the way and so, Yeah, these are my slightly jumbled bits of advice.

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No, I think it's fantastic. And that final point about.

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But you know, we're like we're likely to have many careers is really,

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really important because people think when they're coming out of any form of education

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that whatever they decide to do next is has got to be like the end goal somehow.

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It's got to be the final thing, the final decision. This is what I'm going to do with my life.

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Whereas actually that's just not what the working environment is like anymore.

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We shift and change and our interests change and our likes and dislikes and the working environment we want or need.

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And and so I think that's just such a really important and positive message to end on.

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And that's it for this episode. Join us next time when we'll be talking to another researcher about their career beyond their research degree.

 

Episode 21 - Demelza Curnow (Quality Enhanement Manager, Quality Assurance Agency)

Episode 21 - Demelza Curnow (Quality Enhanement Manager, Quality Assurance Agency)

March 8, 2022

Welcome to the Beyond Your Research Degree podcast from the University of Exeter Doctoral College! The podcast about careers and all the opportunities available to you... beyond your research degree!  In this episode we talk to Dr. Demelza Curnow, Quality Enhancement Manager for the QAA!

Music from https://filmmusic.io ’Cheery Monday’ by Kevin MacLeod (https://incompetech.com) License: CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses

 

Transcript

 

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Hello and welcome to the Beyond Your Research Degree podcast by the University of Exeter Doctoral College.

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Hello and welcome to the latest episode of Beyond Your Research Degree.

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I'm your host, Kelly Preece

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and today I am talking to Dr Demelza Curnow and Demelza works in one of those many sort of academic related jobs or academic related fields,

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but this time at an organisation outside of academia called the quality assurance agency.

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So Demelza, are you happy to introduce yourself? My name's Demelza Curnow

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My Ph.D. was in mediaeval English.

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The title of it was five case studies in the transmission of popular middle english birth romance

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Possibly not the most catchy and as where I am now.

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I'm based in the far tip of Cornwall, down near Penzance in.

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a little village called Ludford and I came back to Cornwall pretty close on on finishing my Ph.D. and my

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work over the last 15 years or so has been in academic quality and standards and governance.

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That wasn't what I went into immediately after my Ph.D.

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And I can say more about that, if you'd like me to. Yeah, absolutely.

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So we will get on to kind of how how you got to academic quality and standards, definitely.

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But. So what was the initial transition you made or the first role that you did after you finished your Ph.D.?

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Well, I'm from a farming family, and I finished my Ph.D. realising this,

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I knew nothing about anything apart from farming and middle English, which is an unusual combination.

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And I guess one of the big differences is I'm conscious of between

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When I did my Ph.D. 20 years ago, when they're done now, is that all I did was my Ph.D.

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There was nothing around the edges in terms of employability and other skills.

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And also, I wasn't doing lots of teaching or doing the conference rounds either.

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Just specialising in my manuscripts. And then I suppose the first.

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What if you could quote a proper job that I had outside of family really was working at the cider

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farm up near Truro where I worked for about nine months as a tour guide and tractor driver

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And in some respects, I can actually trace my career journey from that point.

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And I think one of the the really important things it did for me was forced me to stand in front of people and speak,

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which was something that was complete anathema to me.

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And one of the reasons that I didn't want to go into an academic career, I never planned to go into an academic career.

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I was simply doing my Ph.D. for the sheer enjoyment of playing with mediaeval manuscripts.

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This was quite fortunate in many respects because at the time this, I was doing my my Ph.D.

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Many of the mediaeval departments around the country and universities were closing.

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And I suppose I also felt that I wanted to have complete flexibility about where I live, so the jobs were actually reducing in my area of specialism

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And I felt that where I was mattered more to me, perhaps, than what I did, and that was coupled with this idea as well,

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that I didn't feel that I was confident about standing up to lots of people and speaking,

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and maybe I wasn't entirely convinced by my credibility as a researcher, either.

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And I don't know how unusual that is in academia.

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I suspect not that unusual, really, and particularly perhaps not in the arts and humanities as well.

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It's not that unusual at all. I think the norm rather than the rule rather than the exception.

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So I think there's just some really interesting things in there about what drives us to make career choices.

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I mean, firstly, you know what you're saying about actually, I just really loved playing with mediaeval manuscript.

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I loved doing. The thing that I researched was about the goal of getting the Ph.D. was not an academic career,

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and we do make the assumption that that's what people are kind of aiming for when they do a Ph.D.

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And that's by no means always the case. But also that our career decisions are also driven by.

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Geography. You know, where in the country may we may want or need to be for various different reasons.

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It was primarily for family reasons, really.

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Yes, this is the kind of geography and needing to be. Locally and yeah, and I think the other thing is also.

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You know, sometimes that is the priority. All our lives outside of our work are the priority rather than necessarily what you end up doing.

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And they're important factors to consider when making career decisions.

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You know, we don't think enough about our lives and what we want out of our lives and how our jobs or careers might fit into that.

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So kind of having finished the PhD and doing a kind of a range of different things, forcing yourself into decent public speaking.

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Going back to your roots a little bit and. How did you go from there to where you are now?

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Well, my work at the cide fram being in the sort of tourism industry took me to working at Tate,

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and that's where I began to get much more experience around governance and in turn, that led to a job working in the Cornish branch of Sport England.

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And I suppose again, there I was, specialising in governance a little bit more.

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And I was also working around local partnerships, and it was some of that work and some of the skills I was picking up there,

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which led to me getting a position as a graduate trainee in the quality and standards

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team at what was then University College Falmouth and later became Falmouth University.

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I think one of the interesting things to me was that really by sheer chance,

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I ended up doing a lot of the accounts whilst I was working at that sports partnership.

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And certainly, that sort of maths was not my background at all.

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I did maths up to A-level, but certainly wouldn't consider myself someone who could work with accounts

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But in preparing the organisation's accounts for audit with the county council accountants.

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One of the things I noticed was that looking for anomalies in numbers wasn't so different to looking for anomalies,

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in words, in manuscripts, so I could see how I was transferring what I had done in my Ph.D. to quite a different situation.

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And I remember picking out that example when I was being interviewed for my

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graduate traineeship and that that graduate traineeship was only a 12 month post

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And I think that something which did characterise all my early posts, I was applying for jobs which simply interested me.

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I was in a very, very fortunate position because I was living at home.

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So and I always knew that if the worst came to the worst, I could go to work on the farm.

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So I wasn't going to get bored, but I just I just looked for jobs where I thought I could give it a decent stab.

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I could argue my case and I thought I'd enjoy it, and it didn't bother me at all to be applying for short term posts

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So my very first job at the cider farm was a seasonal one, but they kept me on.

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My next one at Tate was a maternity cover and I think maternity cover I saw absolutely brilliant.

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But giving you experience in a role which might not look natural, fit that if you can argue a case, people will often take a chance on you.

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It gets you some interesting experience and very often it opens up more doors.

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After that, it's another fixed term post than it was at the 12 month post at Falmouth,

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and that then led to a permanent position, though, was that permanent position at Falmouth.

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Yes, it was it was in the same team, it was an assistant registrat post

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NSo I think it's really interesting how kind of.

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Taking a circuitous route kind of back into an academic related role and actually going through kind of tourism and that experience kind of.

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Working on a farm and kind of coming coming at it through that perspective,

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you develop the whole range of skills applied a whole range of skills in different contexts,

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like you were saying about kind of finding anomalies in language and finding anomalies in in in numbers isn't actually

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necessarily always that different and kind of that bringing you back round into into quality and standards within a university.

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When you got the job at Falmouth, were you motivated to to kind of go back to working in an education or university setting?

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Or was that just like you say, you were kind of just following following a role that looked interesting and an opportunity that looked interesting.

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I think always in the back of my mind have been at my viva for my Ph.D., my external examiner,

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who's asking me about my future ambition and whether or not I intended to be an academic.

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And I was very clear then that that, no, that wasn't my intention at all.

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And he suggested to me that I should look at going into university administration.

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And he was saying at that point that it's often very,

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very valuable to have somebody who has got a little bit more experience of being on the academic

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side than working on the administrative side because there is a different sort of understanding.

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I think up to a point, he's right. I would also say that within quality and standards,

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possibly the best person I've ever had working is somebody who had no higher education experience, so she hadn't done a degree.

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So I don't think it is necessary, but it has certainly really helped me, I think, to sometimes give me a credibility.

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I. But it is certainly altered how people have perceived me, and that has helped.

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I think that's really important. And like you say, the, you know, the value of actually having that experience and that contextual knowledge,

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whether or not whether or not that actually is always a necessity in practise,

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but certainly in applying for jobs, you know that being able to confer that kind of experience is really useful.

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And I wondered if you could tell us a bit more about the role that you're in now, please.

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You know what it is that you're doing. Yes, certainly, as as I say, I suppose my background has become academic quality and standards.

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So all of the policies and procedures and regulations that help a higher education provider demonstrate to a third

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party in the external world that the degrees and the education they're offering are at the level they should be.

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And then governance, which is very much around and how you're managing that internally.

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So I worked my way through a few different universities.

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And I was involved a little bit with the QAA, which is the quality assurance agency for higher education.

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And this is the body that sits between the regulatory and funding bodies for each of the four UK jurisdictions.

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And then the sector itself and the role that the QAA has taken over the years has varied a little.

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Say at the moment, if you look across the four UK nations, there's the Office for Students in England.

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There's the Scottish Funding Council in Scotland, the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales in Wales.

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There, there's legislation going through to change that at the moment.

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And then there's the I think it's the Department for Education, perhaps for Environment in Northern Ireland.

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And so each of those bodies has a relationship with the QAA

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and the QAA then manages the oversight of higher education for people who aren't familiar with it.

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I suppose the best way to describe it is think a little bit about Ofsted in schools,

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but actually the oversight of quality and standards in higher education works on a slightly different footing to schools.

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I think we would describe it as a bit more mature and it's here with you instead.

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So many years ago, just sort of towards the end of my time at Falmouth, I applied to be one of the reviewers.

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So one of the people drawn from higher education providers around the country who would go into a team to visit another higher

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education provider and look at how they were managing their academic quality and standards and write a report and make a judgement.

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So I did that for them for a few years as I sort of moved between between different universities myself,

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and then I thought that I would sort of take maybe a year or two where I step back and

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think about what I wanted to do because the sector was changing quite a lot as well.

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At that point, say, I got a part time job working in university research administration, which was a little bit of a gap that I had in my portfolio.

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Maybe I'd always worked much more with with the taught provision and less with I with research students as well,

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how we manage research, but less with the sort of the pure research itself.

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And if I did want to step back into a career and the sort of academic registrar or even registrar and

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secretary then getting some experience more experience around research was going to be valuable to.

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And again, I was simply taking the approach of. And even if it wasn't, I'd enjoy myself in the meantime.

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So I picked up a part time job doing that.

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And then I suppose about four months later that QAA was advertising for something called flexible part timers.

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And I went for that job and I got that as well.

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So I've then been managing a substantive role as a research administrator alongside a flexible role with the QAA,

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and the flexible role is technically zero hours. In reality, there is enough work that I could be full time.

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But I'm a sort of a bit like being a minister without portfolio.

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I can lead all sorts of different projects. It just depends where the gap is.

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So I've been designing and leading professional development courses for people in the sector, for the area I've been.

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I'm currently leading the work around microcredentials and writing the microcredentials characteristic statement.

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And I've done quite a bit of international work as well, which I've really enjoyed.

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The only thing I cannot do is anything to do with quality assessment England and the designated quality body responsibilities.

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And that's because the Office for Students would see it as a conflict with my

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broader role and also the fact that I got a substantive role within a provider.

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In fact, that substantive role is coming to an end in the next week, and I'm going to be concentrating all my time within the QAA

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But again, I'm going to be balancing a flexible part time on FBT role with a point five role,

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which is in the Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland Europe division.

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So again, doing sort of institutional liaison and looking to develop that the new review method methods the Scottish higher education providers.

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Wow, thanks. That sounds absolutely, absolutely fascinating, and I'm yeah, I'm just continually, really, really.

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Really struck by the kind of the mantra you have about following your following your interest and doing

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doing the thing that feels right and looks interesting and kind of seeing where that goes because.

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I think we always feel like we need to right, we need to have the answer.

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Like even off even the first job after the PhD needs to be the answer that needs to be my career,

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my job, you know, as if it's a kind of final or an end point.

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And actually, you know, these things are constantly evolving.

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I wondered if you could say something for anybody that we've got listening, who is interested in?

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A role in kind of the QAA or quality and standards and and any in or, you know, in or outside a university.

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What advice would you give them about the kind of key skills that they need to develop the key experiences

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or just how having a Ph.D. or any other form of research might be useful for them in that context?

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If you've done the Ph.D., one of the things that you've had to learn is you've got to be flexible.

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You might have an idea on how you're going to get from A to B, but actually something could could change that.

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And I mean, in doing a PhD

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we do that all the time don't we it's just your research takes you down a different route or something you thought would work doesn't work,

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so you try something else.

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And I think one of the things that a Ph.D. really does is enables a level of reflection that you don't normally get sort of some of the lower levels.

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And I think being a reflective practitioner is really, really important.

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I remember one of the things I said to members of my staff is if something has gone wrong,

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we need to know why it's gone wrong, but not in a way that then sort of paralyses us so that we can't move forward.

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It's just it should be much more a question of right. That didn't happen, as I expected.

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Why is that actually was it better? Did we learn something that we can actually use for something else or should we do it that way in the future?

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So I guess that's one thing always being open to different ideas and being prepared to change

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direction and to listen to other people and that way of like sparking ideas of different people.

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And I guess the other thing is that.

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Doing a Ph.D. you've got you've got to be somebody who can stick at something even through the boring bits and get to the end.

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So I mean, certainly in arts and humanities, I know it's a little bit different in the sciences,

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but often you are you're applying for a project that somebody else has designed.

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But in arts and humanities, we're actually you're designing your own project as well.

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You're seeing something through from that sort of real conception right through to the final completion.

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So it gives you that real sort of stick ability, which I think is quite important to.

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Thank you so much to Demelza for sharing her knowledge and experience with us.

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And I think has made some really excellent, excellent points about the path and the journey of a career and the, you know,

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the first job you have outside of your research degree, whether it's an admin job or a postdoc or a teaching job or working on a cider farm and.

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That's not your career forever. These things shift and change and evolve, and it's been really interesting to hear how that's worked for Demelza.

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And that's it for this episode. Join us next time when we'll be talking to another researcher about their career beyond their research degree.

 

Episode 20 - Holly Prescott (Careers Advisor of Postgraduate Researchers at the University of Birmingham)

Episode 20 - Holly Prescott (Careers Advisor of Postgraduate Researchers at the University of Birmingham)

January 31, 2022

Welcome to the Beyond Your Research Degree podcast from the University of Exeter Doctoral College! The podcast about careers and all the opportunities available to you... beyond your research degree!  In this episode we talk to Dr. Holly Prescott, Careers Advisor of Postgraduate Researchers at the University of Birmingham!

Music from https://filmmusic.io ’Cheery Monday’ by Kevin MacLeod (https://incompetech.com) License: CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses

 

Transcript

 

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Hello and welcome to the Beyond Your Research Degree podcast by the University of Exeter Doctoral College.

 

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Hello and welcome to the latest episode of Beyond Your Research Degree.

 

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I'm your host, Kelly Preece, and in this episode, I'm going to be talking to one of my colleagues from the University of Birmingham.

 

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Dr. Holly Prescott, about her career beyond her research degree.

 

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Holly, are you happy to introduce yourself? Yeah, sure. So I'm Holly Prescott, and I did my Ph.D. at the University of Birmingham.

 

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I did it between 2008 and 2011. It's tough to get my head around.

 

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The fact that it's nearly 10 years since I finished my Ph.D. was a crossover between literature and cultural geography.

 

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So I was looking at the effective, and narrative agency of abandoned spaces in contemporary British fiction.

 

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And once I'd completed that.

 

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I felt like I'd taken research as far as I wanted to take it.

 

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And so from then, I forged a career in what we might call higher education professional services,

 

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and I'm currently the careers advisor for postgraduate researchers at the University of Birmingham.

 

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Amazing. I just want to pick up on a phrase that you use, though, which I thought was really interesting,

 

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which is that you came to the end of the PhD and you'd taken research as far as you wanted to take it.

 

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Can I ask you more about what you mean by that? Absolutely, yes.

 

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And I think what I mean by that would be in comparison to how I felt after I finished my master's degree.

 

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So I did, a taught MA and in literature and culture at the University of Lancaster.

 

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And I just got really into it, got really into my dissertation.

 

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And one of the main reasons I progressed to the Ph.D. was because after I've done that MA dissertation, I thought I'm not done yet.

 

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I felt like there was more mileage in the ideas and the research I was doing.

 

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So just to give you some context.

 

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My master's dissertation was looking at uh urban exploration photography and say where people go into abandoned buildings, take photographs,

 

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display them online and especially of maternity hospitals,

 

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and crossover between the online display of these images of these abandoned maternity hospitals and birth narratives.

 

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And and yeah, I felt like and the more I was reading, the more I was seeing abandoned hospitals,

 

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especially cropping up in and in novels that I was looking at.

 

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And so I think there's more I can get out of this.

 

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And and that was one of the main reasons I went on to do something I think kind of served

 

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me relatively well throughout the process was that I was treated like a fixed term job,

 

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if you like. I was very lucky and privileged to have funding from Research Council.

 

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But I, yeah, I treated. It really is kind of a fixed term job.

 

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And and when I was coming towards the end of it, where after my master's, I saw.

 

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I still feel like there's some mileage in these ideas, I want to keep going with the research.

 

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That sort of came to a natural end for me.

 

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And as I was going to say, it was actually in my second year, I really started to think I will probably do something different after this.

 

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And I started to, on a small scale, explore what that something different might be.

 

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Yeah, I think that's really interesting and just that kind of concept of the research

 

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coming to sort of this or your your motivation coming to the natural conclusion.

 

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And so when you kind of when your second year when you were starting to investigate what that might be, how how did you go about that?

 

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How did you go about the process of going? What else is there and what might what might be suitable for me?

 

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Hmm. I think it's important to point out that I don't think I did this completely consciously, right?

 

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I don't think this was a conscious, purposeful career planning process.

 

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I don't think my line is so difficult, isn't it, to put yourself back in the past situation, actually think what your line of thought was?

 

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But I don't think it was. Oh, I have to start career planning now, so I'm going to try some things and see what's right for me.

 

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It was much more and it was much more.

 

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I don't think I'm going to be continuing with research after this.

 

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So feeling like that gave me the freedom to dip my toe into a couple of other things and try some things out.

 

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And I think another big part of it was what I was naturally drawn to.

 

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I think what I ended up doing from second year onwards was following my interests a lot more.

 

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And so just to put that into some context, my interests ended up being things like teaching anything where I was in an advisory work,

 

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in an advisory capacity and anything where I was doing things like training or mentoring other people.

 

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And those were things that I was naturally drawn to.

 

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So that meant I picked up quite a bit of undergraduate teaching, some master's level teaching as well.

 

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And it meant that I worked as postgraduate student ambassador in the Post Graduate Recruitment Office.

 

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So helping organise post-grad open days, doing campus tours, things like that.

 

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And it was actually that part time role that led to my first full time job after the PhD as well.

 

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And then some of the things I did was I did a stand up comedy course, random, I know.

 

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And but that has been so useful and in my work now because I felt like if I could stand up in front of the lamp tavern in Dudley and tell jokes,

 

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I could probably cope with any audience and whatever was thrown at me in any job.

 

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So. And yeah, that that was what I did.

 

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I think it was that I became very aware quite quickly about what and what I was drawn towards what I wanted to do more of.

 

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So when I spotted opportunities like those,

 

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I took them and as much as I could and and it was doing that and especially the post-grad ambassador work, It ended up really showing me.

 

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How broad the range of. University based careers is and it started to spark thought in me as well,

 

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if I do still want to be student facing, I want to be teaching or advising students in some way.

 

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I still want to be in a university environment and I want to keep that feeling of being an expert in something

 

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some someone people come to and for for expertise in a certain area.

 

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That was when I started to realise there were other avenues that could give me that that weren't traditional academic research or teaching.

 

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Yeah. I think the things I'm really picking up on there is follow it following your interests and continuing to do the things that interests you,

 

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because they will they will lead you to kind of something that's more perhaps more fitting to interests and values,

 

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but also kind of getting involved with stuff.

 

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It raises your awareness, it raises your awareness of what other opportunities and what other options are available to you career wise.

 

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Because I think, you know, I I was an academic for seven years, six years, six years and,

 

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you know, until I decided I didn't want to do that anymore and start signing up for job alerts.

 

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Even working as an academic, I didn't really have a concept of the breadth of professional services and all of that you

 

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could do within a university that weren't being an academic and so important to do that.

 

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And can I can I give you another example Kelly just wanted to while pick that you've picked up?

 

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What I think was important there about, say, about following your interests.

 

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I think two points here. Number one, I was a bit naughty really, my PhD,

 

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because I would find myself regularly shirking my research to prepare teaching and and to see how I might do more open days and things like that.

 

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And at the time, I felt bad for that.

 

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But really, it was a very important message I was giving myself.

 

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I was sort of telling myself whre I drew My energy, but also another example of what you say about following your interests.

 

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So and a couple of years ago, and I think it's going on for about three years ago now,

 

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I was working with a PGR and she had a physics physical sciences background and and had done a really interdisciplinary PhD.

 

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And um, she had done a similar thing.

 

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So she knew very early on she was very interested in communication just in general,

 

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whether it was communication, science, communication, research, communication of ideas, whatever it was.

 

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So she decided to wherever there was a communication theme and she had time and the ability to explore that.

 

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She ended up doing some media training. She ended up getting involved in a podcast.

 

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She ended up making some videos about her research, and she just purely did that because that was where that was, where interest lay.

 

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She just really enjoyed those things. When she came to graduate through talking to a friend,

 

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she learnt about a role that was being advertised and it was in a microscope company and the job pretty much involved

 

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interviewing scientists to find out how they used this equipment and how they use the applications that this company created.

 

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And that's not even a job she would have known was a job. But by taking those opportunities doing those training she made,

 

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she accidentally made herself an ideal candidate for a job that suited her really well.

 

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But she didn't know it was a job, and I just love that as a career planning model, if you like the fact that it's not a plan.

 

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She didn't identify a type of job in eighth grade.

 

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She just developed herself in the ways that she was most interested, and it accidentally made her a great candidate for the job that suited her.

 

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And so I thought, Yeah, I really rate that as a strategy.

 

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Yeah, I think I think Kate Foster at Exeter has said that's called planned happenstance or something like it.

 

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It's a theory,

 

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and I think it is so important because I've I had a very similar experience in that I was involved in my national kind of subject area network dance

 

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HE and through that set up and a network for early career researchers because I was one of two early career researchers heavily involved in it.

 

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And and we didn't really know anyone at other institutions on each other, and we wanted to have that support system.

 

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And actually,

 

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that was a huge thing when I applied for the role that I'm in now as a researcher development manager that worked in my favour because actually,

 

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that's the kind of stuff that my role now is doing. And it was a really cool experience and the fit directly into the work that I'm doing now.

 

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But it was kind of a a a side hustle kind of.

 

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I just want to do this and like you, something I was taking taking time out with my quote unquote day job to do.

 

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And I think lots of us do that. And I really like how you're talking about the importance of acknowledging and

 

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reflecting on those instincts and those pathways and those things that you're drawn to.

 

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I think it's like any aspect of life, whether it's, you know, whether it's academic,

 

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professional relationship, family links, if you keep doing something,

 

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if you keep being drawn to a pattern of behaviour,

 

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you're being drawn to that pattern of behaviour for a reason and uncovering those reasons can unlock a lot of nuggets for you.

 

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I think. Yeah, it can. You know, it really ties into all of that stuff that we talk about in our respective roles,

 

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about kind of self-awareness and reflecting on your values and all of that.

 

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I like you. I've always done that kind of unconsciously, I guess, and through my career.

 

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But actually, you put yourself ahead of the game if you actually engage with all of those processes and all of those

 

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resources because you learn about yourself and what you're drawn to and what interests and excites you.

 

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And that can kind of step ahead to thinking about, Okay, so where where does this fit, you know, career wise, sector wise?

 

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And I think that reflection can also perhaps save you some stress in the long run,

 

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because especially when we're talking about postgraduate researchers,

 

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you know, I really appreciate that not everybody has the time, exactly space to just say yes to these extra things.

 

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So I think it's a balance.

 

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And if you are someone who is juggling your postgraduate research with a hefty pile of other responsibilities and challenges,

 

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and the more you can do to to to be very strategic and in the few opportunities that you do take.

 

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The better, so you don't feel the pressure to have to say yes to all of these things,

 

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but you're just investing in the few things that are going to develop you in the line of how you think you want to develop.

 

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This is why I, you know, I I do think career planning is very outdated in terms of deciding you want to

 

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be something and then planning in a very linear way to actualise that plan.

 

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I think jobs, if jobs are being born and dying, a rate that is too fast for that to be an effective strategy anymore.

 

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And what I do think is that if you just have some idea about how you want your doctoral

 

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experience to develop and to use that to be strategic in the things you say yes and no to,

 

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that can save you. I think some conflict and some stress to to grant yourself the permission to say no to things that don't fall within that.

 

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Yeah. Absolutely, absolutely. And yeah,

 

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I'm really interested about what you said about this kind of career management career planning thing being being outdated because

 

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I my experience is that kind of I came to this knowledge area kind of after I'd made some quite dramatic decisions in my career.

 

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It's going to stop being an academic and actually looking at it helped me contextualise the decisions that I've made,

 

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but I'm not sure if I'd have someone to put the career management cycle in front of me.

 

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I'd necessarily have still made those decisions.

 

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But on reflection, help me understand that I was actually following my, my values and my interests and my mind.

 

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And so can you tell us a bit more about what you're doing now and how that kind of fits in

 

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with kind of you following those interests and those passions during your research degree?

 

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Yeah, definitely so.

 

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And so as well as my day job being the careers advisor post graduate research, going to University of Birmingham, I keep a Ph.D. careers blog.

 

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It's called Post Gradual and its phd-careers.co.uk to give a shameless plug.

 

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And and in our own blog.

 

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And I. Talk quite a bit about a thought experiment that I'm quite a fan of.

 

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And it really is a it is me putting into words something that I was doing unconsciously through this process of what led me to what I do now.

 

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So. Obviously, what I do now is I support postgraduate researchers with that and career development who will take their next steps.

 

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But it's taken me a while to come around to this and it's taken me a while to realise that this was.

 

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And this role was dealing with the problems in the world that I wanted to solve.

 

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But what I feel like I have done and this is something I encourage other people to do is say from coming out of the PhD into the first role I was in

 

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which was working in postgraduate student recruitment. There were things about that I really enjoyed.

 

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So the first thing to say was. And having done part time work with them during my PhD, gave me an easy in right.

 

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That was an easy step sideways into doing some work because it was academic.

 

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adjacent if you like. I knew the team I'd worked with before.

 

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And so that gave me a nice Segway into my first proper job after the Ph.D. as I was going through that job.

 

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I started to more consciously think about what were the bits of it that motivated me the most, and it was anything where I was advising people.

 

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It was anything where prospective students were coming to me as an expert,

 

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as somebody who could be a postgraduate and wanting to ask questions about the experience,

 

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the application process, being hungry for information, and I was the one that could give it to them.

 

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I really liked being in that situation,

 

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and I really enjoyed being the person who made people feel more confident and more reassured with taking the next steps.

 

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Those were things that really lit me up, but the bits of it I wasn't so enamoured with were only being able to promote one opportunity to them,

 

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which was postgraduate study and and and the kind of salesy aspect of the role.

 

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I quickly realised that the conversations I wanted to be having with these people were more

 

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impartial and conversations about what would really be right for them in the next steps.

 

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So what I was doing here semiconsciously, I was asking myself if I was going to turn my current job into my ideal job.

 

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What bits of it, what I want to keep? What aspects of it would I want to lose?

 

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And what kinds of activities or things might I want to add to it that I'm not doing at the moment

 

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And I think I was doing that throughout the PhD as well. I just didn't realise it.

 

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I think when I was going through the PhD, I was thinking,

 

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I want to keep working in a university environment to keep this advisory, teaching and authority kind of figure.

 

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But I wanted to lose working on my own a lot, and I wanted to add more contact with a broader range of people in my work,

 

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and I wanted to add a bit more kind of work life separation.

 

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And so I guess what led me from the Ph.D. to where I am now is this iterative process of each role I took.

 

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Keep asking myself, What do I want to keep, what I want to lose, what I want to add?

 

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And it says that that actually led me to undertake a professional qualification in career

 

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guidance and take a sideways move to do a secondment and into the careers service,

 

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which is how I got it originally. And that was originally a six month secondment, and I ended up establishing a permanent role.

 

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And then once I was in that again asking myself those questions, what do I want to add, specifically working with researchers?

 

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So so far, I feel like my career has been this iterative process of keep asking myself these three questions Why don't you keep what I want to lose?

 

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What do I want to add? And I think I will always be doing that. And throughout my career, and it's something I would really encourage people,

 

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especially post-grad researchers, to to think about and to bring into their consciousness,

 

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because I think too often we can fixate on the idea that we have to solve our entire lives with our first post job, right?

 

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Especially if we're going to be jumping out of academia into something else, we can think, Well,

 

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what if I don't like it or if the job is terrible, etc. You're not trying to solve your whole life with your next job.

 

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You're just trying to take the next step in this iterative process. You're just trying to think, What do I want to add next?

 

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What do I want to lose next? And I'm making very small incremental changes towards something that ticks more boxes

 

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I hope that answered the question, that's my best way of describing the process that I've gone.

 

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through from PhD to where I am now, it has and I think it's hit on a really, really and insightful bit of advice,

 

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which is the thing about not, you know, you're not solving your whole life, you're not kind of committing to something forever

 

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I think that's that's such an important point to make because actually, you know,

 

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careers evolve over time and you know, you discover you discover interests that you didn't necessarily know you had.

 

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I mean, through doing some of the kind of community based work with PGRs I have become really interested in equality and diversity,

 

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and I'm actually going on secondment shortly to do a role looking at inclusive research and research ultures, you know?

 

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That's when I was an academic. I would never have imagined that I would taken,

 

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but it's something that's evolved throughout the process of doing different roles and engaging with different PGR communities.

 

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And so I think what you're saying is really crucial because. We discover new things our interests change over time.

 

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Now, you know that none of these things are static, so thinking about that first,

 

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your post is a kind of deciding what you will be doing forever is deciding kind of what what the next step is.

 

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Yeah, yeah, absolutely. I know I didn't.

 

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I didn't think straight out of my PhD dying to be a careers advisor, and I'd only mean that kind of partially, irreverently.

 

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Yeah, but it's it's like it's as if I was going through in my first couple post jobs capturing these breadcrumbs that

 

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were giving me clues as to that was what was going to to help me make people feel the way I wanted them to feel,

 

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the way I wanted to support people and to working with the groups of people that I wanted to make a difference to.

 

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Thanks so much to Holly for taking the time to speak to me and for giving us some really fantastic insight about following your interests,

 

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your values, using your intuition,

 

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but also fundamentally not seeing that first job post research degree as it as the culmination or the the end point of your career.

 

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Actually, it's about finding something that's interesting and gathering those breadcrumbs, as Holly said, to find the right thing for you.

 

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And that's it for this episode. Join us next time when we'll be talking to another researcher about their career beyond their research degree.

 

Episode 19 - Kelly Preece (Researcher Development Manager and Research and EDI Manager, University of Exeter)

Episode 19 - Kelly Preece (Researcher Development Manager and Research and EDI Manager, University of Exeter)

October 25, 2021

Welcome to the Beyond Your Research Degree podcast from the University of Exeter Doctoral College! The podcast about careers and all the opportunities available to you... beyond your research degree!  In this episode Kelly Preece, Researcher Development Manager is interviewed by Dr. Charlotte Kelstead, University of Exeter Doctoral graduate about her career in research and Higher Education.

Music from https://filmmusic.io ’Cheery Monday’ by Kevin MacLeod (https://incompetech.com) License: CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses

 

Transcription

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Hello and welcome to the Beyond Your Research Degree podcast by the University of Exeter, Doctoral College.

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Hello and welcome to the latest episode of Beyond Your Research Degree, I'm your host, Kelly Preece for this episode.

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We're going to be doing things a little bit differently. I'm delighted to be joined by Dr Charlotte Kelstead.

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Charlotte graduated with her Ph.D. in history from the University of Exeter recently and is

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currently working as an event coordinator at the European Centre for Palestine Studies.

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But I'm not going to be talking to Charlotte about her career.

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In fact, we're switching around and instead Charlotte's going to be interviewing me about my career in research and higher education.

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So take it away, Charlotte. OK, fantastic so

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I have lots of questions for you because I feel like you've been part of my experience at Exeter for quite a long time.

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So I remember when I was when I was back doing an undergraduate doing the Exeter The X Factor introductory thing about seven years ago.

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I remember you being there and having a wonderful personality and brightening up,

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brightening up the end of the day when we were all starting to flag a bit. So I'm just really interested to hear all about your career,

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especially because I've just submitted my corrections and I'm now starting to think about careers beyond academia and within academia.

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And I'm just really interested to hear today about how your career has progressed, things that you've learnt along the way.

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Any advice you might have and how it's all come together to be where you are now.

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So perhaps you could start by just giving us a bit of background on your career.

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So how you got to where you are now? Yes, so am I.

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I always say, like my, my career has been incredibly eclectic in every possible way, so I actually started working professionally when I was 14, I.

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So I was a theatre kid in all of its stereotypes.

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And I was a dancer and an actor and a singer.

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And so I was in the the youth company actually at the Northcott Theatre on the University of Exeter campus when I was a teenager.

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And so I was working all through secondary school and then.

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Decided kind of had a decision to make between going to stage school and going to university, I was always quite academic,

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so I thought I'd go down the university route, but I did a degree in dance and theatre, perhaps unsurprisingly.

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And I always say, look, that within about a week of starting my undergraduate degree, I met a Ph.D. student who I just actually,

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I think just passed his viva called Martin Hargreaves, who was one of our what at Exeter would be a PTA,

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I guess, but he was our seminal teacher and one of our modules and.

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He was great, you know, made a really great impression on me, but also he talked to us about his Ph.D. and about his research.

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And I had this kind of moment of of clarity, you know, like clouds parting kind of aha.

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Where I went. Oh, so this this you know, this discipline, this art that I love,

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I can actually combine that with kind of my love of learning and my love of knowledge.

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And I could become a researcher and I could become an academic. And even though I was going to university to do a degree in in that subject,

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it hadn't occurred to me that that was even a job that somebody could have say.

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Right, right.

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From that beginning point in my undergraduate degree, I was like, right, I want to be an academic, wanted do a PhD, want to teach at university.

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That was kind of so I made that decision really early on. And I'm kind of I'm quite a quite stubborn and relentless.

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So, you know, once I make a decision to stick to it. So, you know, I I did my undergraduate degree.

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I did a research master's, and then I got a post at the University of Leeds,

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which was to do my PhD part time and to be a member of academic staff in the department part time.

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They called it a research associate and and.

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And yeah, and that's how I that's how I became an academic, really.

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And so I did that for six years. And during those six years, I.

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Did a myriad of things, I ended up leading undergraduate degree programmes and developing master's programmes and moving institutions,

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but the one thing I didn't do in that period is complete my Ph.D.

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So I. Really struggled. And with.

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Work life balance and mental health and wellbeing, and worked far more than a 1.0 on kind of 0.5 research, 0.5 teaching,

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and made myself very poorly and as a result, decided to withdraw from the PhD and concentrate on on on my teaching and.

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And. That's sort of over time, I kind of I think I naively thought if I kind of let the structure and the time pressures of the PhD go

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it might alleviate a bit. But it didn't because there's a cultural issue in He but  there's also a me issue in this.

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I am a perfectionist. I am an overworker and I'm not very good at work life balance.

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And so I. Ended up in that position again once I moved to the University of Northampton, I did the same thing.

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I was on a four day week lectureship and I was working. Six, if we're being conservative days a week, you know, eight in the morning till eight,

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nine at night, and I did the same thing, I worked myself until I was ill and completely burnt out.

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And it was that second time that I had to take a step back and go, something's not working here.

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I love teaching. I love research. I love working with students.

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Love, love working in HE. But something about this just does not work for me.

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And it brings out qualities in me that make me unwell, you know, those kind of perfectionism and that sort of stuff.

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So I. Oh. Sorry, cats just appeared and she wants to get involved I yeah,

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so I kind of I reached this kind of crisis point and I always say, like, these things aren't just professional.

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These are personal as well as a part of that crisis point was that my my grandmother, who pretty much raised me, passed away unexpectedly.

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And I was, you know, on the other side of the country marking undergraduate essays when I could have been with her.

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And I think the whole thing kind of came to a head and I realised that I was doing the wrong thing.

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And so I started to kind of have an existential crisis of, you know, I said when we started like I wanted to do this since I was 18.

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I've never tried to get any experience and anything else, I'd had a part time job in a bookshop which was wonderful and gave me all sorts of skills,

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but nonetheless, you know, what the hell was I going to go on to?

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And people said, well, why don't you retrain as a secondary school teacher? I didn't want to retrain.

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I'm not a fan of teenagers, certainly not en masse individually.

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They're fine. And so there was all sorts of things and I just sort of signed up for lots of job alerts jobs.ac.uk

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all of that sort of stuff. And up comes this job at the University of Exeter.

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And I knew I wanted to move back to Devon cause it's where I'm from for researcher development.

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Programme manager for PGRs was what it was called at the time to run training and development for PhD students.

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And I thought, well, given my experience as an academic, given my experience as a Ph.D. student, you know, I feel like I've got.

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I've got some credibility here and I've got some some interest in kind of making sure that other people haven't gone,

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don't go through what I went through and that can learn from my mistakes.

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And also, I got lots of teaching experience and all of that sort stuff.

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So I applied. And six years later and.

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Here I am, I'm I'm still here and, you know.

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A wonderful thing of serendipity where it was it was really a kind of shot in the dark, this job for me,

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I wasn't sure if I would like it, and I wasn't really sure if I was cut to be in professional services,

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if I would be sorry, if I would encounter the same problems that I'd had as an academic with work life balance and kind of boundaries and also stuff.

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But actually, it was the step removed that I needed. I still get to do all the things I love.

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I still do teaching. I still do research.

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But it's it's really been a way for me to channel what in some ways was quite a negative experience of being an academic

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into something really positive and to feel like I'm I'm kind of making a contribution to the sector or the system,

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because whilst I recognise that a lot of my issues were were to do with my personality and who I am, also, you know,

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there are cultural issues in the sector to do with overwork and all those sorts of stuff and all those sorts of things.

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And hopefully in the role that I'm in, I can do a little bit to help take that pressure off.

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New students coming in. And how did you find the shift when you moved away from the PhD into the professional services community?

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Was that what you expected or were there aspects of that that you hadn't anticipated?

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And how did you feel how did you feel that that community received you as someone who hadn't finished your PhD for various reasons?

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How did you find that sort of introduction to that new area in terms of the transition?

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I think I was worried about that kind of concept of failure, and I would be perceived as some form of failure.

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And I think inevitably for some people, perhaps some academics, that that is how they will see it.

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Because, you know, academia is is is the goal. And certainly, you know, I guess I felt like that.

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But for the majority of people, that's just not the case.

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And I was worried about my credibility in terms of not having the PhD.

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But again, actually, you know, I remember a conversation with one academic where.

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They found out I didn't have a Ph.D. and they seemed a bit kind of like a little bit taken aback,

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and then they realised that I had spent five years teaching as a lecturer at Russell Group university.

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And all of a sudden that, you know, that was completely, you know,

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it was it became completely irrelevant that I didn't have the PhD because actually I have the experience of being an academic.

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I've been a researcher.

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I may not have the letters before my name, but I have all of the kind of the credentials and the credibility through experience.

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And that's what people value. And I find working with academic colleagues that it's really,

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really valuable to be able to kind of empathise and really understand because I've been there, you know, I know what it's like.

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And also, you know, in terms of professional services.

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I think what I didn't know before I went into professional services is how many people with PhDs are in professional services,

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particularly in research services, in the doctoral college and my.

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I mean, my to my my sort of equivalent at the when I started and my boss, both PhDs, that's still the case.

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You know, I work with colleagues in kind of research funding and grants and also stuff.

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So many with PhDs. I'm currently working on a project with the Climate Emergency Sustainability Team.

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The head of that team also has a PhD, and these are all professional services.

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So actually kind of you know, they're not everybody,

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but so many people in that kind of supporting function of the university have made that transition from academia and or some form of research.

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And so I felt that to be a really welcoming environment because it felt like.

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It felt like the right decision, if you see what I mean, I kind of stepped in and went, oh, this is this is the right thing.

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This feels like my space and my people in a way.

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And that must have been really important after.

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Going through a difficult period during the PhD to then changed career, which must have been incredibly intimidating,

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to then move into that environment and feel welcome and know it's the right place for you.

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That must have been really reassuring. And I think that that experience that you had, although of course, was awful at the time,

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it does mean that you've been able to contribute more than someone who had a happy, easy experience.

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I agree that, you know what support a PhD student needs at different times.

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And I think there's a lot of value in that. I think I think there's a lot of merit in the fact that, you know,

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what students need and I'm interested in the researcher development programme that you've spearheaded at Exeter.

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And was that something that you very quickly, once you switched, made the shift in your career?

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Did you know that that's what you wanted to put together or did that come together slowly after years of seeing the gaps,

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once you were actually on the on the inside of some of the training side of things?

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A combination, really. So I, I mean, I inherited I inherited a programme and it's it's changed quite significantly since I took it over.

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But so there was the kind of there was the basis. So coming in as somebody knew, I had you know, I had a really good starting point.

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And then, you know, I had I had ideas, you know, right at the beginning of things I wanted to do.

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And, you know, we introduced this quickly in terms of wellbeing workshops and various different things,

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all of which have evolved hugely since their introduction.

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But so there were some kind of immediate things and also moving more content online, which, you know, has turned out to work in our favour.

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But so there was some little kind of immediate things. But the rest has really been evolving.

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And it wasn't until about three years ago that we kind of started the academic year and I went,

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yeah, this is a this felt like a completely new programme. This felt like a completely new entity because it had been through sort of so many

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iterations of change and because the experience of being a researcher and like you said,

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I think having a negative experience, like I do believe that makes me uniquely placed to understand what people really need,

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but also kind of being part of the landscape. And, you know, it's an area of practise and of scholarship in and of itself.

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You know, there's a journal of researcher development and, you know.

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It's its own kind of sector and its own research area and educational and career practise,

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and so, you know, you need to be kind of inducted into that to really understand.

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And also, you know. Getting to know the university and getting to know the students, and that's something that I,

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I, I place a lot of importance of on is actually engaging with our academics,

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meaningfully having difficult conversations and also, you know, engaging with our students and talking to them and being part of their community and.

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Again, being open to having.

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Difficult and challenging conversations, because I think sometimes.

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There's. I think sometimes people have a lot of things that they might want to say that's feedback or critique about things that they experience,

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but they don't want to because they don't want to be perceived as annoying or argumentative or that, you know,

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or they think actually the person doing this is really nice and didn't want to upset them or don't want to cause problems.

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And I'm always like, actually, if you don't tell me what the problems are, I can't offer I can't find the solutions.

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And I'm always kind of like, tell me what's not working on the programme.

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I don't take it personally. I need I need to know.

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Because if I don't if you don't tell me what's wrong, then I'll assume everything's perfect.

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I mean, I won't because that's not who I am. But I'll assume everything's fine and I'll continue as I am.

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And actually that that doesn't achieve anything for any of us.

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So so I think there's a kind of. An openness that's been really important to kind of hearing what hasn't worked for

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people in the past and what still doesn't work for people and and how we might.

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Bring about more change. So I see it is a constantly evolving entity and also I can't I'm you know, we've interacted in various ways.

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You will know I'm not very good at sitting still or letting things sit as they are.

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Just because something works doesn't mean it can't be made better. And so, yeah, I'm never the kind of person that's going to go, oh, that's done.

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Now I'm going to I'm going to sit back and relax. I'm always going to find.

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Find things that need addressing and improving, you are a true perfectionist, I think.

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Yeah, I'm just screaming perfectionist to me. But actually I remember coming along to one of the sessions,

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I think it was in that year that you're talking about where the programme started to feel quite different.

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I think it was twenty twenty eighteen or. Yeah, yeah.

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And you ran a session on perfection, perfectionism.

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And for me it was really useful because I was briefly I was at that point writing my literature review and I was finding that there was,

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as you know, from your PhD, there's so much literature out there and you think, gosh,

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I've got to have everything in my literature review and those perfectionist tendencies come out and you think you've got to write everything,

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but you just need to use the most relevant things to situate your work.

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And I remember finding that such a useful session and I think so many people did.

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But it's also for you. You were so friendly at that session.

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But then it's difficult for you, I assume, to separate what you're doing and getting feedback on your sessions and from you

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as a person because you have put so much effort into creating the programme.

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So do you find that difficult taking on, although you're super encouraging about receiving feedback, do you find that difficult?

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Have you had to become more resilient as more students do the programme and might provide feedback which might be constructive,

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but nevertheless still might be suggesting you change the way you do things?

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Yeah, it's hard. It's really hard. And I have had to.

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Develop a thicker skin, I mean, in some cases, we you know, in some ways we are used to that as an academic, you have to do that.

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You know, I remember getting my first peer review back and which was not the most fun I've ever had and and various different things,

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you know, where we're used to being challenged and critiqued in that way.

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I think very similarly to with, you know, your research, you know, it's something that you're passionate about and you put your heart and soul into.

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So when. When there is criticism or when something's not working, it's it's hard to hear, but I.

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I do try and I try as much as I can separate things out.

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I always try to distance myself from any feedback I get first and go, okay, just take a step back and actually just always see it as right.

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How how can I use this? What can I do with that? So that it doesn't just sit as an email that somebody has sent me a comment that

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somebody makes to me at the end of the actual day actually becomes something,

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something changes as a result of it. And then that that feels like an in an empowering way to kind of deal with it.

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And also, you know,

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apart from the odd case where people are in circumstances where they're particularly stressed or frustrated or overwhelmed or any of the above,

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where they might not articulate feedback in the kindest of ways, you know, that that's the exception rather than the rule most of the time,

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particularly because I approach it on a kind of like I want to know what's wrong.

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People are honest, but they're fair. And and they don't kind of it doesn't come from a place of attack.

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It really comes from a place of wanting to enter into a dialogue and to and to make things better as well.

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And so that feels like a completely different conversation to have with somebody, because, you know,

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I always get when people send feedback I get emails going, this is not about you or I know it's not your fault or something like that.

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And actually, I don't need that because that's not necessary, because the tone and the way that they communicate, it's it's very supportive.

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And I think, you know, that's the PGR community is incredibly vocal in so many ways, which is brilliant.

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But actually, like in terms of, you know, being kind of embedded within it is so supportive.

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So if there was someone listening to this conversation and they were feeling inspired by the way,

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you're talking about how we can change the support that is available for academics and PhD students,

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do you have advice on that shift from academia, as in being a PhD student into professional services?

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Do you feel that you learnt, although it sounds like you had a relatively smooth transition into that aspect of your career,

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do you have advice on what you might have done differently or how or perhaps even as well how someone can go about looking into these opportunities?

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Because I think that speaking as a PhD student at the moment, it can be difficult to know what's out there in the world of professional services.

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We tend to take it for granted. We get emails and we think that's a fact that looks like a really useful event.

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I'll sign onto to that. But we don't know who's working behind the scenes and who does what.

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So do you have advice on how you navigated that shift, what you might have done differently,

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but also how we can as PhD students, how we can access those jobs or start to learn about what's out there?

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Yeah, I think one of the reasons why the shift was quite easy for me is that so in Exeter my role is professional services in other institutions,

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they sometimes call my role academic related, so much like the academic development team who run LTHE and all that sort of stuff.

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You know, we are roles are not purely professional services that they're very hybrid.

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And that's why what attracted me to it, because it allowed me to continue teaching and engaging with research and scholarship,

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but in a slightly different kind of environment and context. So I think that's one of the reasons why.

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It was a slightly easier. Transition for me, because it felt more familiar, I guess, to what I was already doing in terms of.

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What I might have done differently. I think probably ties into the next thing, actually, which is about kind of how you find out about opportunities.

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So, I mean, I just signed up for every I knew I wanted to move back to Devon.

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I wasn't really sure what I was kind of qualified to do anything but work in higher education.

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So I just signed up to. All the job alerts I could for, anything relating to higher education,

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and I was getting literally everything I was getting like like rugby coach adverts to

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the university and also I wasn't filtering because I was aware that I knew so little.

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And. So part of it is a huge part of it is awareness raising, and I wish I'd done this earlier.

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I wish I'd engaged with. Professional services earlier, and part of that is just kind of opening your eyes to the work that's going on around you.

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So, you know, if you're on a funded research grant or a DTP, there will be people supporting you.

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There'll be some you know, if you're on a doctoral training partnership, there will be someone running the doctoral training partnership.

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Quite possibly. That person has a Ph.D. And you know, if you're applying for grants as a postdoc,

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there will be someone supporting you in research services that will be called.

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They will be called a research development manager, not researcher development manager.

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It's cause of much confusion. But.

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You know, quite a lot of my colleagues, who do that role have PhDs,

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it's a very different role because it's much more advisory and it's much more project management and focussed, but actually.

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You'd be surprised how applicable everything you learn as a Ph.D. student is, and even though it may feel like chalk and cheese,

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actually more often than not it's the same thing, but in a different language.

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And I talk about this. So my partner is an academic and we talk about this a lot and he gets frustrated

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when I talk about things like and when I talk about in management speak and,

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you know, stakeholder analysis and like and market driven.

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And I'm just trying to think of all the other kind of buzzwords and.

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And I always say, but, you know, I talk about stakeholder mapping and stakeholder management,

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all I mean is talking to and engaging with students and academics and all the

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people that are relevant to the delivery of the researcher development programme.

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It's not anything different. It's just. The different language, I have another question for you, which is a difficult question,

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but you run your various sessions on perfectionism or resilience, et cetera,

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and I was wondering to what extent you feel that you take the advice, the advice that you give,

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do you take on board yourself or do you just things like that only really resonate with you when you hear them from someone else?

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Oh, that's a really good question, because one of the also one of the things that's been really important to me as a

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teacher has been what what is referred to in the literature as authentic teaching.

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So it's about bringing yourself into the classroom. And it's not about kind of, you know, exposing your deepest, darkest secrets.

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It's about being open and honest, sharing your experience of what you're talking about, sharing your failures or those sorts of things.

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And so, you know, particularly where I haven't been very good at things like perfectionism, work, life balance.

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I try and bring that in sessions because I feel it humanises, you know what I'm saying?

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It grounds it in real world experience. But also, you know.

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Being honest about the fact that I know so I know all of the kind of things that I taught people about literature review,

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so I talk about literature reviews,

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I talk about working habits, I talk about not checking email about, you know, dedicating time, kind of environment and all those sorts of things.

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I know that they're true nine times out of ten. I don't necessarily do them, even though I know that they're true.

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I do sometimes do them. But it's you know, I don't always take my own advice.

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And but that's a learning process. And I think being honest about that and saying, you know, I know the way that I'm supposed to do things.

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I know that I'm supposed to take regular breaks and I'm supposed to get away from my desk at lunch.

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But, you know, I don't always do it. That's part of that process.

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As part of that being open and humanising, it is saying, look, nobody's perfect.

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Just because I've told you you need like research shows you need to take a break every five every 25 minutes for five minutes.

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Doesn't mean when you leave this room or leave this team's call or whatever.

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that I expect that you're going to do that from now on or that you should expect that of yourself.

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Yeah, absolutely. I know that when I have been to training sessions and the person delivering the training,

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you might get the impression that they do all these things perfectly and it sort of creates a bit of a divide between you and them.

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And you just think, well, I'm not like you, so I can't achieve any of this.

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Whereas when they say, actually, I'm not so good at this either, you think, OK, OK, that's that's that's normal.

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That's human. Maybe I can try and make a few of these changes that you're suggesting.

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I think it's really important. I really am really passionate about it.

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And it's it's also one of the reasons that one of the developments in the past couple of years,

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we've got postgraduate teaching assistants delivering on the researcher development programme.

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So some of those sessions like literature reviews and various different things they can deliver.

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And I think that that's really important as well, because it has it has a currency and they can share their experiences in a way that

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really makes it it makes it really real and really tangible for the people attending.

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And that's really important to me.

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We learn so much more when it's someone who can who we can relate to, and there's something quite fundamental about that.

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And with all these types of training, which again comes back to your position,

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in your experience of your Ph.D. and why you are creating such wonderful things because of your

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experiences and how things that might during your PhD might have felt that it was the end of the world.

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And now looking back, you're able to take that long view and see that actually you've contributed a lot to

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so many different individuals experiences of their Ph.D. because of your experiences.

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Thank you for that. I really appreciate that. And I think that's where that kind of having conversations with people is really important.

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You know, if you're if you're not certain about an academic career and whether it's for you actually, you know,

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talking to your supervisors or if that doesn't feel like it's the right thing reaching out to other people in your department and people like me,

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other people in professional services to just have those conversations with.

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That's something that I really wish that I'd done because I think I probably would have got to where to where I am kind of in my career,

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but also kind of in my life.

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much more quickly and I, I think because I just would have been aware of this kind of whole of the world and way of doing.

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Yeah, absolutely.

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I think it's also worth remembering that of the people, people who reach out to you to say thank you for that session, that was really helpful.

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They'll be twice as many people who found it just as helpful but haven't emailed

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And that's something like forgive me, for example, I've never reached out to you to say that I've appreciated everything you've done.

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But you've been sort of part of my experience as a PhD student, as a PGR from master's onwards all the way through my Exeter experience.

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But I haven't ever reached out to and admittedly I now know it is.

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I should have done and I haven't reached out to you to say thank you.

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So I think things like Twitter, something like Twitter is is a good way, because I saw you spoke about this and I thought, oh, interesting.

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I'd love to know a bit more about your career. So Twitter does have its lot of criticism.

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It does have a benefit. It does have its benefits.

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You know, you can't you can't expect people to kind of constantly tell you how good and how wonderful you are and because it's just not realistic and.

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Not always true, but also it's just it's the wrong thing to kind of be motivated by, I think.

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But then but then sometimes when so when it does come, it like makes it all the more meaningful.

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So I'm I'm actually tonight is the Guild teaching awards and one of our PGRs nominated me for outstanding research support.

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And I've had a good little cry about that already and I will have a good little cry about it again later, I'm sure,

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just because it just completely moved and that someone would take the time and the and the energy to do that.

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And it's really meaningful. So I think it's about not expecting it and knowing, like you say,

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that quite a lot of the time you're having an impact and people are just going on with that because you're having an impact.

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People are able to just go on with their lives and you don't necessarily hear it.

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And that's good. That's fine. I'm you know, I'm I'm quite happy with that.

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But there is little there's little nuggets and there's little moments they can be really, really meaningful.

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And like you like you were saying about motivation, that's kind of that really pushes me forward,

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particularly when things are tough like they've been for the past year and where, you know, university systems feel like they're against us.

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And I'm kind of. You know, almost shouting in meetings, PGRs exist, you know,

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which everyone's at the university is going to be completely fed up with after six years of me doing it.

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But you know, it. It makes it. It's perhaps not it makes it worthwhile, it's a reminder of why.

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Yeah, yeah, and where do you where do you see yourself going or or, you know, someone who thinks too far ahead, if you if you had to,

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you'd like to be in a few years time or where you'd like the programmes that you're delivering to be, if not you personally.

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Have you had thoughts about that. Yeah. Yeah, I, I'm quite a kind of.

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I am unashamedly ambitious, I think that's probably the way that I would put it and other people as well.

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I've never been fond of and I've always have been since I was little.

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And, you know, I I come from a really working class background, but with parents and with the extended family who were really kind of like.

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If you want to do it, do it. And so I've never kind of, you know, I've been really lucky to have been brought up with that kind of attitude where I,

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I, I have that kind of that sense of self belief.

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It's not always self esteem or kind of, but it's there's that that kind of fuel.

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And so, you know, I, I would like to in the future, move on to kind of a senior leadership role in the university in higher education,

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where I can be kind of operating at a higher level and a more strategic level to kind of create more top down change.

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So I guess it's about having a wider impact. You know, when I taught undergraduates, we had.

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You know, maybe 50 students in a year group, we were smaller groups and sometimes quite smaller than that.

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And so, you know, at any one time, I could be teaching sort of 200 students and it was great and you having quite a wide range of impact,

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you know, now with two to two and a half thousand PGRs

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Again, the level of impact on the student experience is kind of upped its game from moving to be an academic into this.

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Right. Be nice to kind of in the future, make another jump that allows me to to create change and have impact on an even wider range of students.

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Yeah, I am. I've enjoyed hearing a lot about your career.

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It's inspiring to hear about the way that you've you've sort of always known potentially where you're going.

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If you haven't maybe if you haven't even realised it yourself. It sounds like you, even when you were young and you were going off to university,

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had these different ideas and your experiences have really shaped where you've gone and you've gone you've sort of gone with the flow.

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And that's meant that you've had what sounds like quite a satisfying career because you've done what you know, you can contribute well to.

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And I think quite often we don't tend to listen to that and we get worried about moving beyond such and boundaries.

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And I think your career is a testament to the fact that if you if you take that, if you make the leap, it does usually pay off.

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And I think as well, like trusting your gut is really important to me.

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And actually, you know, I work very closely with my colleague Kate Foster's career coach.

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And we talk about this quite often. And we've talked about my career as kind of an example of things.

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And we talk about it is something it's called planned happenstance. So it's those kind of accidents that happen like me, like me getting this job.

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It was all kind of by chance. And the timing was right and and and various different things.

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It wasn't like this was where I was planning for my career to go.

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But actually it ended up being the right move in the right decision, because I kind of trusted my I trusted my intuition and I trusted my gut.

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And and I knew.

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You know, I reflected and thought about at this point about what worked for me and what I wanted out of a job and, you know, it took me.

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Six years of being an academic to realise it was the wrong thing. Hmm.

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So anyone listening to this and thinking that maybe they'd be interested in a

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career in professional services is to contact you as a matter of priority,

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to have a discussion. They welcome to. They are welcome to come.

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And, you know, I've had those conversations with lots of people over the years,

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and it's a nice thing to be able to do because, again, it's that sense of it's something that I didn't know.

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Yeah, yeah, absolutely. And, well, thank you very much.

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Thank you for letting me had the pleasure, the privilege of interviewing you.

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And I know that you don't want to you don't want it to be all about you.

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But I would also like to say, on behalf of the PGR community, a big thank you for all the work that you have done.

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And best of luck for the enjoy the awards tonight.

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I will. Thank you so much. Thank you. Thank you.

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Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me. Since the podcast was recorded, we obviously had the teaching awards.

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I did not win an award, but I'm still incredibly,

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incredibly touched and moved to have been nominated and to have been shortlisted amongst my academic peers is fantastic.

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And another update career wise for me since then is that I am about to go part time in researcher

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development so that I can go on secondment for a year as a research and EDI manager.

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So I'm going to be working at the University of Exeter to set up a working group and develop an action plan for making,

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ah, research processes and structures more inclusive.

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So, you know, it's the next stage I've gone from two and a half thousand PGRs to 6000 plus researchers that I'm looking after.

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So it's a really exciting move for me. And that's it for this episode.

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Join us next time when we'll be talking to another researcher about their career beyond their research degree.

 

Epsiode 18 - Ruth Gilligan (Senior Lecturer at Birmingham University)

Epsiode 18 - Ruth Gilligan (Senior Lecturer at Birmingham University)

September 23, 2021

Welcome to the Beyond Your Research Degree podcast from the University of Exeter Doctoral College! The podcast about careers and all the opportunities available to you... beyond your research degree!  In this episode Kelly Preece, Researcher Development Manager talks to Dr. Ruth Gilligan, Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at Birmingham University and author of The Butchers.

Music from https://filmmusic.io ’Cheery Monday’ by Kevin MacLeod (https://incompetech.com) License: CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses

Academic_career_advice6ozwx.jpg

Podcast transcript

 

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Hello and welcome to the Beyond Your Research Degree podcast by the University of Exeter.

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Hello and welcome back to Beyond Your Research Degree.

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I'm really delighted to be back with you after our summer hiatus and to be bringing to you a conversation with Dr. Ruth Gilligan.

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Ruth is a senior lecturer and academic, but also because she's in creative writing.

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She is a published author. And so I thought it would be interesting for us to have a conversation with someone who is an

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academic but maintains a professional profile and creative practise alongside their academic work.

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So Ruth, happy to introduce herself, certainly. Well, firstly, thanks so much for having me.

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It's lovely to be chatting to you and reminiscing a little bit about my time at Exeter.

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I came to Exeter in two thousand and eleven to start my PhD in creative writing,

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and then I actually went straight for my PhD into my first academic job.

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I the first interview I went for my creative writing role had come up at the University of Birmingham.

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So despite the fact that I was still finishing my PhD, I was like, ah sure, I'll apply and see what happens.

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And anyway, I got offered a job. So I started as a lecturer in creative writing at the University of Birmingham in kind of August twenty fourteen,

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at which point I was still in the final two or three months of my PhD.

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So I was kind of trying to pretend that I was a lecturer and seem very grown up and important to my students,

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despite the fact that I was secretly still a student myself and trying furiously to dot all the T's and cross all the I's on my thesis.

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So yeah, it was a bit of a mad time, but yeah, then I started out at Birmingham and seven, maybe eight years later I'm still there.

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So I'm now a senior lecturer. Since that time, I've also published two more novels and I had published three novels before my PhD at Exeter,

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but I went on to publish two more, one of which was the novel that I wrote as part of my creative writing PhD.

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And then my most recent book The Butchers came out last year.

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So yes, I am now kind of fully fledged novelist, academic, creative writing lecturer and still very much in touch with Sam

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And Sinead my two wonderful supervisors and have very, very fond memories of working with them.

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There's a number of things I think I want to pick up on in that.

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And the first is something that comes up a surprising amount, actually, in talking to people for this podcast,

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which is about kind of seeing an opportunity when you've not actually finished the PhD and going for it and getting it,

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and then how you go about juggling, working and finishing up.

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Could you talk a little bit about what that experience was like, kind of managing the workload of working whilst also finishing the PhD?

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Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think, you know, part of me looks back at that and thinks, what did I eat for breakfast that morning?

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That I had the kind of gumption to apply for a job, despite the fact that I hadn't even finished the PhD.

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In the spirit of full disclosure, the job was actually a senior lecturer role, which I definitely wasn't qualified for,

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but I applied and they ended up basically giving the senior lectureship to someone else who was duly qualified,

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but then creating a new lecturer in creative writing role, which they offered to me.

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So I'm a big believer in. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. If I hadn't applied and taking my punch, yeah, that wouldn't have played out that way.

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So, yeah, I'm a big believer. Just throwing your hat in the ring and see what happens in terms of managing the workload.

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I mean, you know, realistically, I was at the tail end of the PhD.

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Like, I'm not someone who had kind of left all the work at the last minute, like both Sam and Sinead, my supervisors,

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like they've been very good about making sure that I was making steady progress

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and I'd already written multiple drafts of both the creative and the critical.

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So although those last few months are always going to be quite panicked and quite frantic,

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just because you are about to submit this thing that you've been working on for three years,

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it wasn't like I still had kind of half the thing to write. Like I had.

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I had written multiple drafts. I was just kind of finessing and going through my bibliography and all that kind of boring stuff.

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So, yeah, it was a lot.

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But it also coincided with me like I moved to Birmingham and when I first started the job, so I kind of was in a new city, my my partner.

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Who's that at the time He was my boyfriend. Now he's my husband. he at that same time

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Ictually moved to Singapore for six months. So I just kind of find myself living in this little flat in Birmingham on my own.

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I didn't really know anyone in the city. I was starting a new job. I was also finishing my Ph.D.

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So, yeah, I probably wasn't the most social time of my life.

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Fundamentally, I managed to get it all done, and I'm delighted that it played out the way it did.

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You know, my my big fear, the reason I kind of pursued doing it that way,

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even though it was a bit nuts, was I think like so many people in academia, the fear of, like,

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not knowing what the next step is going to be or the idea of kind of having a gap before you figure out the next thing you know,

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have plenty of friends and colleagues who've had that situation where there is a gap when they go from one thing to the other.

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But I know from my own personality type that I would have just been absolutely freaking out if I didn't have something lined up.

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So I would rather kind of take on too much in there, be perhaps a bit of overlap rather than being in the desert, not knowing.

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So, yeah, it was worth it in that regards. I wanted to kind of take a step back,

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step back to that point of applying now and I'm really interested when you said that it was kind of a it was a senior lecturer role,

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but you kind of nothing ventured, nothing gained, kind of went for it.

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And actually, you may not have got that role, but something else came out of it.

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Were there any particular challenges that you felt that you were coming up against because you were still a Ph.D. student?

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Yeah, and it's a it's a great question, I think I should say, again, in the interest of full disclosure, like I mentioned briefly,

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but like despite the fact that I was still finishing my PhD, I had published three novels before I did the book.

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So I, um, I do appreciate that that might not be the case with all PhD students.

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So I kind of had the publishing track records.

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I think the big gap and this is where kind of Sam and Sinead were particularly helpful was because it was my first academic application

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interview and ultimately post just kind of plugging in a little bit to university speak like I didn't really know at that point,

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having only been a student albeit a Ph.D. students, I learnt phrases like REF and outputs and impact and all these kind of buzzwords that

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we're going to come up in my interview and I and they were going to quiz me on. So kind of swotting up a little bit on that vernacular.

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But yeah, I think, you know, in those situations, I'm kind of like, what's the worst thing that could happen?

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I just think that, as you said, just getting your name in front of people and maybe they don't even shortlist you for that particular role,

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but they'll still lodge at the back of their minds the next time they are looking for something or someone with your set of expertise,

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your or kind of a prior prior knowledge of you were already going to be at the back of their minds.

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I do think, like I read various things as well, that I do think there's something slightly gendered as well in terms of,

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you know, they've done various studies whereby women only apply for jobs,

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where they have all of the required skills, whereas men are much more likely if they've got half or even less, they'll be they'll still go for it.

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So I think that I am always keen in life to kind of be challenging those kind of gender stereotypes or whatever.

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So, yeah, I just I just thought, what what's the worst that can happen?

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And I think, you know, like, I remember going for my undergraduate interview and I remember, like,

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the last thing someone said to me going in to class was like, they don't expect you to be perfect and to know everything.

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But just having that willingness to learn and that potential, if they can see that, that's really all they want.

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So I don't think it's totally dissimilar within a job capacity.

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Like with the academic world, they could see that I'd never, you know I'd done teaching and stuff at Exeter,

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but I've never worked full time in an academic role before.

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But they could see that I was able to, as I said, swot up on that front I and familiarise myself with the kind of university landscape.

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And I was going to give it literally everything. So as long as they saw thatthey knew that I was going to be able to to do the job.

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And as I said, seven years later, I'm still there. So they were right.

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Very much so, and I think that's really important and that that point about it's not about perfection, it's about potential.

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It's about willingness to learn and openness to that.

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And it got me thinking about what experiences you had when you were doing your Ph.D. that you found were

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really beneficial in helping you kind of apply for and secure that first job with that particular things,

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or was it just the kind of guidance and mentorship of your supervisors? I mean, as I mentioned, I did so I did do quite a lot of teaching.

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I and then also while I was there, I did my I think it was called the LTHE

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So the learning and teaching and higher education. I did the kind of first bit

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So I remember doing that. And it was one of those things where you go along and you don't really know what to expect.

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And some of it was quite theoretical and some of it was quite abstract and some of it was quite practical and Hands-On.

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And inevitably, though, when you're doing the breakout groups of the workshop sessions,

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you get lunch with the the scientists who are like, what creative writing that isn't a real subject.

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Why are you going to try and teach that? They have to spend half of the time defending it.

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But all that being said, I did actually find it really, really useful.

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And that was kind of my first induction into kind of really thinking about teaching

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and lecturing and what what it involves and what kind of teacher I might become.

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So I did actually find that really useful and then being able to put it into practise.

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As I said with those sessions, I also taught at the Edinburgh University run this the Scottish Universities International Summer School thing,

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and it's just a four week course, but they get students from all over the world.

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And basically I was tasked with designing and then delivering a four week creative writing course

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for these these overseas students who kind of ranged from anything eighteen to twenty five.

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So that was like another great opportunity for me. And this time I had complete autonomy to decide what what they were going to read,

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what they were going to do, how the whole thing was going to be structured.

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So again, I was slightly throwing me in at the deep end because I had had so much freedom.

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But again, it was a brilliant opportunity for me to kind of flex my teaching chops.

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I think that's mixing multiple metaphors, but yeah, just to give it a go.

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So then when I did finally start Birmingham, I did actually have quite a lot of not a lot,

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but like a good amount of teaching experience under my belt.

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And I could also say that I have been in a position whereby I'd have to kind of curate and design a course, myself.

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So that was a really, really useful stuff. Yeah, I was thinking that and that summer school opportunity, actually,

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that's that's where you kind of have that additional experience where you go beyond teaching

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seminars or doing lectures and to actually thinking about designing and setting curriculum,

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which, of course, is not something you necessarily get to get involved in when you were a Ph.D. student,

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but is a huge part of being being an academic.

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Yeah, and I think I'm always kind of encouraging people to look look out for opportunities like that.

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I think, you know, within the creative writing world, anyway,

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there are various summer schools or workshop scenarios or one off taster's or a six week courses or whatever.

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So I think like anything, getting anything like that under your belt, I think is is hugely useful.

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You know, it's not necessarily the case that you just have to have loads and loads and loads of very specific undergraduate or postgraduate teaching.

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It's just any sort of any sort of experience, especially, as you said,

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if there is some kind of design or management element attached to that, the more so the better.

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Was there anything particular in research terms that you did,

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or was it just kind of the process of doing the Ph.D. that really kind of stood you in good stead to then move on to an academic role?

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And it's a good question.

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I think the whole point of me doing the PhD, this is already alluded to like I had published three novels before, before starting at Exeter.

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But those novels were very much they were very commercial. They were very much based on personal experience,

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like they were kind of all of kind of young people in Dublin growing up and doing stupid things and finding their way.

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Well, it's very much based on my own life and my own encounters. And I sort of after the third one was published,

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I sort of realised that although I definitely did want to keep writing and publishing and going forwards,

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these weren't necessarily the kinds of books that I was interested in and in pursuing.

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So I kind of took a break to figure out what kind of books do I want to do.

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And I realised that the books I love to read were actually books that had nothing to do with my own personal experience.

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You know, there were novels set in different portions of history or engaging with different cultures or

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parts of the world or whatever where and where I kind of learn something when I was reading that.

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So I was really interested in, well, could I write a book like that? Like,

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could I write a book that would require me to go away and do a lot of research and interview a lot of people and really kind of expand my horizons.

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And I'm kind of right outside of my own first hand experience. So that was a real journey for me.

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And that was what was kind of about. I was doing a lot of research in the very traditional sense, like I did a lot of archival work.

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I went that the novel was based around the history of the Jewish community in Ireland.

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So I travelled all over Ireland interviewing people. I was down in Cork and some archives there.

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I actually went to Israel to interview the Irish community that's now living out there.

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So I really was doing that kind of library based or to field research kind of

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stuff that you might not necessarily associate with with with creative writing.

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And then, of course, I had folders and folders and folders, notes. And I was like, OK, how on earth do I translate this into a novel?

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So a lot of my PhD was then trying to marry this kind of factual research that I'd

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acquired with a story and characters and craft and all of those kinds of things.

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So so figuring out all of that was was a real took a long time and that's why I needed the three years of a PhD.

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Also, as I mentioned, the novel was about the Jewish community in Ireland.

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I'm not Jewish myself.

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So I was very aware when I was working on this project of my own kind of position and and whether it was it OK that I was writing this novel,

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how ethically what were the challenges formerly Practically all this kind of stuff.

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And then, as I mentioned right at the start,

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the critical part of my PhD was then looking at other Irish authors who have similarly written about minority communities or groups that

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they're not necessarily a member of themselves and kind of the way that they have navigated that potentially kind of tricky territory.

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So that academic thinking and looking at other authors that very much informed my own practise.

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So, again, that kind of circular process of research and reflection and then writing, just figuring out how that all works.

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And then, you know, it was lovely that after the PhD, I went on to publish the novel,

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but I also went on to publish the critical portion as an academic article in the Journal.

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So even at that point, I was I was still thinking of my research as both creative and critical.

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And I know that when I went to the interview of Birmingham, that was something they were really keen on,

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that I was someone who was doing both these kinds of research side by side and saw them very much in

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conversation and informing each other and was going to kind of generate different types of output.

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So that really helped me kind of figure out what kind of academic I wanted to be.

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I didn't necessarily want to be just an English academic or just a creative writing academic.

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I kind of wanted to be both. I think that's really important and acknowledging the kind of the identity side of things, even if you're not kind of.

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A creative practitioner or doing kind of practise both works of art about thinking about your identity.

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Increasingly, PhDs are interdisciplinary.

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And so then there's a question about, well, where do you sit in terms of discipline and department and and those aspects of identity as well?

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It's something that a lot of people are grappling with in lots of different ways when they're looking at moving into an academic post.

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And I wondered if you could say a little bit more about the job application and the

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interview and what what it practically involves the did you have to submit a CV,

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a cover letter, a supporting statement? Like what? Do you remember what actually you had to.

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Had to do as part of the process. Yeah, so I definitely remember all the things you've mentioned in terms of CV, a personal statement, a kind of.

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You know, various samples of my work, et cetera. The main thing I remember is the day itself.

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There were kind of two parts to it. The first was a presentation.

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So I had to give a presentation. And there about 20 people that I remember being slightly overwhelmed by how many people were in the room.

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And I get I basically gave a presentation on sort of what I've just spoken about in terms of the kind of creative and critical aspects

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of my research and how those two things are in conversation and how I might be able to envisage them developing going forward.

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So that was in the morning. And then they made us have lunch with all the other candidates,

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which seems like one of the cruellest things anyone's ever done is to make you have lunch with people that you're competing with for the same role.

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So I think they've actually discontinued that because that is horrid.

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It was awful. And then in the afternoon, then I had an interview with about eight people, like it was, again, quite overwhelming.

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Yeah, some from creative writing, some from English, some from the wider college.

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And then I think they have to have a couple of people from completely different parts of the university just almost as kind of a neutral party.

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So it was like a guy there from geography and there was someone else there.

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So, yeah, it was a real mix. And they asked me like a really wide range of questions.

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I mean, I think I remember one woman. Her main job was to make me list out, like what we're going to be my four output's over the next few years.

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Again, just universities thinking in REF terms and always wanting to know what items of research you're going to actually produce.

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So I sort of had to come up with the list of some things that I did actually end up delivering.

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But I was kind of put on the spot a little bit with that one. They want to talk a little bit about impact and

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So that's another. When I was interviewing back in twenty fourteen, I was kind of a buzz words.

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I was just starting to emerge and it's now consumed my life for the last few years.

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I'm actually now in to lead for our schools. So while talking and thinking about impact.

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But back then I was just a PhD student who had learned a new word recently.

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So I had to kind of real off ideas. I had to pertaining to that. So, yeah, it was a bit it was it was all, you know, friendly but marginally intense.

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And then I went away thinking, well, I've given it a shot.

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That's fine. And then they actually the head of college actually emailed me that night actually to say, yeah, we're not you know,

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obviously you're far too junior to get the senior lecturer role that we had originally advertised,

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but we're actually going to create this new role for you. Would you like it?

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So that happened within a matter of hours, which was on Monday.

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So that was a good day trip to Birmingham,

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although a lot of people's anxiety about job applications in the application process is about the unknown and what it involves.

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And actually it involves some pretty standard things. But at the same time, you know, there's some things that you might get in terms of,

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you know, we are driven by outputs and impact and all of those buzzwords.

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And so, you know, being able to talk about how, you know, what your what your plan is for your research outputs,

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what if you've got some publications that you'd like to adapt parts of your PhD to become or any kind of ideas about,

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you know, spinoff project  from your work

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actually that sort of thinking about what might be possible in the future is quite helpful because it's likely to be asked about in that context,

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because they want to know what you'll do when you're there. Yeah, absolutely. I mean,

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I think I hadn't quite anticipated how much how far forward they would be looking

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because I thought I was coming in really well prepared with this idea that,

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like, wow, I'm writing a creative and critical thing for my my PhD.

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So hopefully going forward, I'd like to publish both of those aspects.

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So there's two outputs already lined up and almost ready to go.

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And they were like, yeah, OK, cool and what about After that. I was like, oh, right, OK.

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And I remember it's so funny. I remember them just like racking racking my brain because obviously I was put on the spot and I did at the very,

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very back of my mind, have a tiny, tiny germ of an idea for the next novel and all.

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I really had very little except that I knew I wanted to be called the butchers.

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So I remember saying that as I was like oh my next books going to be called The Butchers, and it's going to be set in rural Ireland.

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I made it up. I honestly didn't know I hadn't even applied my brain to thinking about it because I was still finishing the previous one.

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And I remember during that really quite awkward lunch with the other candidates, two of my.

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Colleagues came up to me separately in the lunch, and their main comment was wow The Butchers is such a good title for a novel.

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I can't wait to read it. And I was laughing to myself. I was like, this is literally something I've kind of come up with on the spot.

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Like they both said it to me.

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And then when Ninefolds, which was my novel, did end up getting published and I was moving on to thinking about the next thing,

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I was like, maybe I should actually write that book called The Butchers.

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And sure enough, I spent the next four years researching and writing a novel called The Butchers, which came out last year.

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So what sort of was a bit of a blg on the day of my interview ultimately became reality.

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So there you go. And not only that, but one, the Royal Society of Literature.

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Ondjante, I'm not even know if I'm saying that, right, Ondjante

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Yeah, yeah, yeah. Which is fabulous.

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Congratulations and it's fascinating to me to hear that, you know,

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this prize winning book came from a kind of something that sat in the back of your head in a job interview and came out.

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Yeah, well, once I'd said it out loud I felt like I probably had to go away and do it. And just so I'm probably glad I did.

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noe as you said, it went onto to do quite well. Say Happy Days.

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I always like to end on kind of a twofold note, which is.

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In terms of the reality of being an academic and making that transition from being a Ph.D. student to to a lecturer.

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What do you wish that you knew or what advice do you wish you'd been given before you made that transition?

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That is a good question. I mean, I think one thing I'm really at this point, like I haven't

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Explicitly said it, but I am aware that it is quite unusual to go straight from your PhD to an academic job and not do a postdoc.

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So I know that like the majority of my colleagues, that is the route they took.

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So I sort of skipped that stage, mostly because I think postdocs in creative writing just weren't really a thing at that point

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So it's just like a slightly different way. The discipline works. I think just harking back to our earlier conversation, to be honest,

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I think the main thing I wish people had told me is a just just take a punch, just like if something comes off,

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like even if sometimes even now when we're advertising jobs or other institutions,

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advertising jobs, it might say creative writing, lecturer brackets, poetry, focus.

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And you're thinking to yourself, oh, rats. I write short stories. So I'm not going to be I'm not going to be suitable for that.

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Just apply. Just apply. You never know again. They might not get any good poetry people.

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They might see your application and think,

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actually this person can slot in here and we can just move some stuff around and cover the poetry stuff some other way.

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I just think literally, as I said, nothing ventured, nothing gained.

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And then finally, just to reiterate that, like when it comes to the application and the interview process,

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if it is a question of just kind of brushing up on you're kind of university speak

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and trying to get your head around exactly what they're going to ask you,

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just talk to your supervisors or other lecturers who've been through this, because that was honestly that was a game changer.

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I can still remember the cafe in East London where I had lunch with one of my supervisors,

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and she walked me through all these key terms and was able to predict all the questions they would ask me.

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And if it weren't for that brunch, like I would have been nowhere.

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But because she had so kindly prepped me and was able to anticipate exactly the kind of notes that I would need to hit, like I got the job.

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So I just think don't be afraid to kind of ask for advice from people who have been

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through it and who know exactly what what buttons are going to need to press.

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Thank you so much to Ruth for taking the time to talk to me. I thought there was so much in there in terms of advice about applying for academic jobs.

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That's really, really pertinent.

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And I've actually created an infographic to go alongside the podcast that capture some of that really, really fabulous insight.

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And that's it for this episode. Join us next time when we'll be talking to another researcher about their career beyond their research degree.

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Hello and welcome to the Beyond Your Research Degree podcast by the University of Exeter.

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Hello and welcome back to Beyond Your Research Degree.

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I'm really delighted to be back with you after our summer hiatus and to be bringing to you a conversation with Dr. Ruth Gilligan.

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Ruth is a senior lecturer and academic, but also because she's in creative writing.

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She is a published author. And so I thought it would be interesting for us to have a conversation with someone who is an

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academic but maintains a professional profile and creative practise alongside their academic work.

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So Ruth, happy to introduce herself, certainly. Well, firstly, thanks so much for having me.

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It's lovely to be chatting to you and reminiscing a little bit about my time at Exeter.

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I came to Exeter in two thousand and eleven to start my PhD in creative writing,

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and then I actually went straight for my PhD into my first academic job.

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I the first interview I went for my creative writing role had come up at the University of Birmingham.

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So despite the fact that I was still finishing my PhD, I was like, ah sure, I'll apply and see what happens.

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And anyway, I got offered a job. So I started as a lecturer in creative writing at the University of Birmingham in kind of August twenty fourteen,

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at which point I was still in the final two or three months of my PhD.

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So I was kind of trying to pretend that I was a lecturer and seem very grown up and important to my students,

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despite the fact that I was secretly still a student myself and trying furiously to dot all the T's and cross all the I's on my thesis.

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So yeah, it was a bit of a mad time, but yeah, then I started out at Birmingham and seven, maybe eight years later I'm still there.

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So I'm now a senior lecturer. Since that time, I've also published two more novels and I had published three novels before my PhD at Exeter,

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but I went on to publish two more, one of which was the novel that I wrote as part of my creative writing PhD.

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And then my most recent book The Butchers came out last year.

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So yes, I am now kind of fully fledged novelist, academic, creative writing lecturer and still very much in touch with Sam

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And Sinead my two wonderful supervisors and have very, very fond memories of working with them.

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There's a number of things I think I want to pick up on in that.

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And the first is something that comes up a surprising amount, actually, in talking to people for this podcast,

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which is about kind of seeing an opportunity when you've not actually finished the PhD and going for it and getting it,

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and then how you go about juggling, working and finishing up.

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Could you talk a little bit about what that experience was like, kind of managing the workload of working whilst also finishing the PhD?

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Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think, you know, part of me looks back at that and thinks, what did I eat for breakfast that morning?

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That I had the kind of gumption to apply for a job, despite the fact that I hadn't even finished the PhD.

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In the spirit of full disclosure, the job was actually a senior lecturer role, which I definitely wasn't qualified for,

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but I applied and they ended up basically giving the senior lectureship to someone else who was duly qualified,

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but then creating a new lecturer in creative writing role, which they offered to me.

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So I'm a big believer in. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. If I hadn't applied and taking my punch, yeah, that wouldn't have played out that way.

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So, yeah, I'm a big believer. Just throwing your hat in the ring and see what happens in terms of managing the workload.

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I mean, you know, realistically, I was at the tail end of the PhD.

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Like, I'm not someone who had kind of left all the work at the last minute, like both Sam and Sinead, my supervisors,

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like they've been very good about making sure that I was making steady progress

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and I'd already written multiple drafts of both the creative and the critical.

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So although those last few months are always going to be quite panicked and quite frantic,

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just because you are about to submit this thing that you've been working on for three years,

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it wasn't like I still had kind of half the thing to write. Like I had.

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I had written multiple drafts. I was just kind of finessing and going through my bibliography and all that kind of boring stuff.

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So, yeah, it was a lot.

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But it also coincided with me like I moved to Birmingham and when I first started the job, so I kind of was in a new city, my my partner.

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Who's that at the time He was my boyfriend. Now he's my husband. he at that same time

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Ictually moved to Singapore for six months. So I just kind of find myself living in this little flat in Birmingham on my own.

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I didn't really know anyone in the city. I was starting a new job. I was also finishing my Ph.D.

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So, yeah, I probably wasn't the most social time of my life.

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Fundamentally, I managed to get it all done, and I'm delighted that it played out the way it did.

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You know, my my big fear, the reason I kind of pursued doing it that way,

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even though it was a bit nuts, was I think like so many people in academia, the fear of, like,

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not knowing what the next step is going to be or the idea of kind of having a gap before you figure out the next thing you know,

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have plenty of friends and colleagues who've had that situation where there is a gap when they go from one thing to the other.

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But I know from my own personality type that I would have just been absolutely freaking out if I didn't have something lined up.

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So I would rather kind of take on too much in there, be perhaps a bit of overlap rather than being in the desert, not knowing.

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So, yeah, it was worth it in that regards. I wanted to kind of take a step back,

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step back to that point of applying now and I'm really interested when you said that it was kind of a it was a senior lecturer role,

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but you kind of nothing ventured, nothing gained, kind of went for it.

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And actually, you may not have got that role, but something else came out of it.

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Were there any particular challenges that you felt that you were coming up against because you were still a Ph.D. student?

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Yeah, and it's a it's a great question, I think I should say, again, in the interest of full disclosure, like I mentioned briefly,

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but like despite the fact that I was still finishing my PhD, I had published three novels before I did the book.

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So I, um, I do appreciate that that might not be the case with all PhD students.

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So I kind of had the publishing track records.

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I think the big gap and this is where kind of Sam and Sinead were particularly helpful was because it was my first academic application

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interview and ultimately post just kind of plugging in a little bit to university speak like I didn't really know at that point,

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having only been a student albeit a Ph.D. students, I learnt phrases like REF and outputs and impact and all these kind of buzzwords that

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we're going to come up in my interview and I and they were going to quiz me on. So kind of swotting up a little bit on that vernacular.

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But yeah, I think, you know, in those situations, I'm kind of like, what's the worst thing that could happen?

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I just think that, as you said, just getting your name in front of people and maybe they don't even shortlist you for that particular role,

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but they'll still lodge at the back of their minds the next time they are looking for something or someone with your set of expertise,

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your or kind of a prior prior knowledge of you were already going to be at the back of their minds.

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I do think, like I read various things as well, that I do think there's something slightly gendered as well in terms of,

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you know, they've done various studies whereby women only apply for jobs,

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where they have all of the required skills, whereas men are much more likely if they've got half or even less, they'll be they'll still go for it.

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So I think that I am always keen in life to kind of be challenging those kind of gender stereotypes or whatever.

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So, yeah, I just I just thought, what what's the worst that can happen?

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And I think, you know, like, I remember going for my undergraduate interview and I remember, like,

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the last thing someone said to me going in to class was like, they don't expect you to be perfect and to know everything.

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But just having that willingness to learn and that potential, if they can see that, that's really all they want.

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So I don't think it's totally dissimilar within a job capacity.

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Like with the academic world, they could see that I'd never, you know I'd done teaching and stuff at Exeter,

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but I've never worked full time in an academic role before.

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But they could see that I was able to, as I said, swot up on that front I and familiarise myself with the kind of university landscape.

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And I was going to give it literally everything. So as long as they saw thatthey knew that I was going to be able to to do the job.

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And as I said, seven years later, I'm still there. So they were right.

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Very much so, and I think that's really important and that that point about it's not about perfection, it's about potential.

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It's about willingness to learn and openness to that.

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And it got me thinking about what experiences you had when you were doing your Ph.D. that you found were

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really beneficial in helping you kind of apply for and secure that first job with that particular things,

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or was it just the kind of guidance and mentorship of your supervisors? I mean, as I mentioned, I did so I did do quite a lot of teaching.

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I and then also while I was there, I did my I think it was called the LTHE

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So the learning and teaching and higher education. I did the kind of first bit

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So I remember doing that. And it was one of those things where you go along and you don't really know what to expect.

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And some of it was quite theoretical and some of it was quite abstract and some of it was quite practical and Hands-On.

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And inevitably, though, when you're doing the breakout groups of the workshop sessions,

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you get lunch with the the scientists who are like, what creative writing that isn't a real subject.

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Why are you going to try and teach that? They have to spend half of the time defending it.

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But all that being said, I did actually find it really, really useful.

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And that was kind of my first induction into kind of really thinking about teaching

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and lecturing and what what it involves and what kind of teacher I might become.

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So I did actually find that really useful and then being able to put it into practise.

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As I said with those sessions, I also taught at the Edinburgh University run this the Scottish Universities International Summer School thing,

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and it's just a four week course, but they get students from all over the world.

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And basically I was tasked with designing and then delivering a four week creative writing course

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for these these overseas students who kind of ranged from anything eighteen to twenty five.

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So that was like another great opportunity for me. And this time I had complete autonomy to decide what what they were going to read,

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what they were going to do, how the whole thing was going to be structured.

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So again, I was slightly throwing me in at the deep end because I had had so much freedom.

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But again, it was a brilliant opportunity for me to kind of flex my teaching chops.

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I think that's mixing multiple metaphors, but yeah, just to give it a go.

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So then when I did finally start Birmingham, I did actually have quite a lot of not a lot,

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but like a good amount of teaching experience under my belt.

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And I could also say that I have been in a position whereby I'd have to kind of curate and design a course, myself.

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So that was a really, really useful stuff. Yeah, I was thinking that and that summer school opportunity, actually,

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that's that's where you kind of have that additional experience where you go beyond teaching

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seminars or doing lectures and to actually thinking about designing and setting curriculum,

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which, of course, is not something you necessarily get to get involved in when you were a Ph.D. student,

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but is a huge part of being being an academic.

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Yeah, and I think I'm always kind of encouraging people to look look out for opportunities like that.

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I think, you know, within the creative writing world, anyway,

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there are various summer schools or workshop scenarios or one off taster's or a six week courses or whatever.

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So I think like anything, getting anything like that under your belt, I think is is hugely useful.

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You know, it's not necessarily the case that you just have to have loads and loads and loads of very specific undergraduate or postgraduate teaching.

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It's just any sort of any sort of experience, especially, as you said,

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if there is some kind of design or management element attached to that, the more so the better.

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Was there anything particular in research terms that you did,

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or was it just kind of the process of doing the Ph.D. that really kind of stood you in good stead to then move on to an academic role?

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And it's a good question.

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I think the whole point of me doing the PhD, this is already alluded to like I had published three novels before, before starting at Exeter.

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But those novels were very much they were very commercial. They were very much based on personal experience,

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like they were kind of all of kind of young people in Dublin growing up and doing stupid things and finding their way.

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Well, it's very much based on my own life and my own encounters. And I sort of after the third one was published,

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I sort of realised that although I definitely did want to keep writing and publishing and going forwards,

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these weren't necessarily the kinds of books that I was interested in and in pursuing.

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So I kind of took a break to figure out what kind of books do I want to do.

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And I realised that the books I love to read were actually books that had nothing to do with my own personal experience.

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You know, there were novels set in different portions of history or engaging with different cultures or

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parts of the world or whatever where and where I kind of learn something when I was reading that.

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So I was really interested in, well, could I write a book like that? Like,

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could I write a book that would require me to go away and do a lot of research and interview a lot of people and really kind of expand my horizons.

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And I'm kind of right outside of my own first hand experience. So that was a real journey for me.

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And that was what was kind of about. I was doing a lot of research in the very traditional sense, like I did a lot of archival work.

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I went that the novel was based around the history of the Jewish community in Ireland.

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So I travelled all over Ireland interviewing people. I was down in Cork and some archives there.

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I actually went to Israel to interview the Irish community that's now living out there.

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So I really was doing that kind of library based or to field research kind of

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stuff that you might not necessarily associate with with with creative writing.

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And then, of course, I had folders and folders and folders, notes. And I was like, OK, how on earth do I translate this into a novel?

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So a lot of my PhD was then trying to marry this kind of factual research that I'd

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acquired with a story and characters and craft and all of those kinds of things.

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So so figuring out all of that was was a real took a long time and that's why I needed the three years of a PhD.

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Also, as I mentioned, the novel was about the Jewish community in Ireland.

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I'm not Jewish myself.

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So I was very aware when I was working on this project of my own kind of position and and whether it was it OK that I was writing this novel,

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how ethically what were the challenges formerly Practically all this kind of stuff.

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And then, as I mentioned right at the start,

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the critical part of my PhD was then looking at other Irish authors who have similarly written about minority communities or groups that

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they're not necessarily a member of themselves and kind of the way that they have navigated that potentially kind of tricky territory.

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So that academic thinking and looking at other authors that very much informed my own practise.

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So, again, that kind of circular process of research and reflection and then writing, just figuring out how that all works.

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And then, you know, it was lovely that after the PhD, I went on to publish the novel,

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but I also went on to publish the critical portion as an academic article in the Journal.

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So even at that point, I was I was still thinking of my research as both creative and critical.

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And I know that when I went to the interview of Birmingham, that was something they were really keen on,

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that I was someone who was doing both these kinds of research side by side and saw them very much in

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conversation and informing each other and was going to kind of generate different types of output.

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So that really helped me kind of figure out what kind of academic I wanted to be.

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I didn't necessarily want to be just an English academic or just a creative writing academic.

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I kind of wanted to be both. I think that's really important and acknowledging the kind of the identity side of things, even if you're not kind of.

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A creative practitioner or doing kind of practise both works of art about thinking about your identity.

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Increasingly, PhDs are interdisciplinary.

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And so then there's a question about, well, where do you sit in terms of discipline and department and and those aspects of identity as well?

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It's something that a lot of people are grappling with in lots of different ways when they're looking at moving into an academic post.

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And I wondered if you could say a little bit more about the job application and the

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interview and what what it practically involves the did you have to submit a CV,

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a cover letter, a supporting statement? Like what? Do you remember what actually you had to.

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Had to do as part of the process. Yeah, so I definitely remember all the things you've mentioned in terms of CV, a personal statement, a kind of.

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You know, various samples of my work, et cetera. The main thing I remember is the day itself.

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There were kind of two parts to it. The first was a presentation.

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So I had to give a presentation. And there about 20 people that I remember being slightly overwhelmed by how many people were in the room.

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And I get I basically gave a presentation on sort of what I've just spoken about in terms of the kind of creative and critical aspects

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of my research and how those two things are in conversation and how I might be able to envisage them developing going forward.

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So that was in the morning. And then they made us have lunch with all the other candidates,

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which seems like one of the cruellest things anyone's ever done is to make you have lunch with people that you're competing with for the same role.

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So I think they've actually discontinued that because that is horrid.

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It was awful. And then in the afternoon, then I had an interview with about eight people, like it was, again, quite overwhelming.

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Yeah, some from creative writing, some from English, some from the wider college.

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And then I think they have to have a couple of people from completely different parts of the university just almost as kind of a neutral party.

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So it was like a guy there from geography and there was someone else there.

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So, yeah, it was a real mix. And they asked me like a really wide range of questions.

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I mean, I think I remember one woman. Her main job was to make me list out, like what we're going to be my four output's over the next few years.

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Again, just universities thinking in REF terms and always wanting to know what items of research you're going to actually produce.

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So I sort of had to come up with the list of some things that I did actually end up delivering.

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But I was kind of put on the spot a little bit with that one. They want to talk a little bit about impact and

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So that's another. When I was interviewing back in twenty fourteen, I was kind of a buzz words.

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I was just starting to emerge and it's now consumed my life for the last few years.

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I'm actually now in to lead for our schools. So while talking and thinking about impact.

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But back then I was just a PhD student who had learned a new word recently.

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So I had to kind of real off ideas. I had to pertaining to that. So, yeah, it was a bit it was it was all, you know, friendly but marginally intense.

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And then I went away thinking, well, I've given it a shot.

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That's fine. And then they actually the head of college actually emailed me that night actually to say, yeah, we're not you know,

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obviously you're far too junior to get the senior lecturer role that we had originally advertised,

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but we're actually going to create this new role for you. Would you like it?

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So that happened within a matter of hours, which was on Monday.

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So that was a good day trip to Birmingham,

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although a lot of people's anxiety about job applications in the application process is about the unknown and what it involves.

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And actually it involves some pretty standard things. But at the same time, you know, there's some things that you might get in terms of,

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you know, we are driven by outputs and impact and all of those buzzwords.

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And so, you know, being able to talk about how, you know, what your what your plan is for your research outputs,

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what if you've got some publications that you'd like to adapt parts of your PhD to become or any kind of ideas about,

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you know, spinoff project  from your work

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actually that sort of thinking about what might be possible in the future is quite helpful because it's likely to be asked about in that context,

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because they want to know what you'll do when you're there. Yeah, absolutely. I mean,

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I think I hadn't quite anticipated how much how far forward they would be looking

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because I thought I was coming in really well prepared with this idea that,

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like, wow, I'm writing a creative and critical thing for my my PhD.

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So hopefully going forward, I'd like to publish both of those aspects.

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So there's two outputs already lined up and almost ready to go.

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And they were like, yeah, OK, cool and what about After that. I was like, oh, right, OK.

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And I remember it's so funny. I remember them just like racking racking my brain because obviously I was put on the spot and I did at the very,

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very back of my mind, have a tiny, tiny germ of an idea for the next novel and all.

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I really had very little except that I knew I wanted to be called the butchers.

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So I remember saying that as I was like oh my next books going to be called The Butchers, and it's going to be set in rural Ireland.

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I made it up. I honestly didn't know I hadn't even applied my brain to thinking about it because I was still finishing the previous one.

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And I remember during that really quite awkward lunch with the other candidates, two of my.

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Colleagues came up to me separately in the lunch, and their main comment was wow The Butchers is such a good title for a novel.

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I can't wait to read it. And I was laughing to myself. I was like, this is literally something I've kind of come up with on the spot.

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Like they both said it to me.

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And then when Ninefolds, which was my novel, did end up getting published and I was moving on to thinking about the next thing,

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I was like, maybe I should actually write that book called The Butchers.

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And sure enough, I spent the next four years researching and writing a novel called The Butchers, which came out last year.

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So what sort of was a bit of a blg on the day of my interview ultimately became reality.

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So there you go. And not only that, but one, the Royal Society of Literature.

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Ondjante, I'm not even know if I'm saying that, right, Ondjante

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Yeah, yeah, yeah. Which is fabulous.

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Congratulations and it's fascinating to me to hear that, you know,

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this prize winning book came from a kind of something that sat in the back of your head in a job interview and came out.

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Yeah, well, once I'd said it out loud I felt like I probably had to go away and do it. And just so I'm probably glad I did.

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noe as you said, it went onto to do quite well. Say Happy Days.

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I always like to end on kind of a twofold note, which is.

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In terms of the reality of being an academic and making that transition from being a Ph.D. student to to a lecturer.

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What do you wish that you knew or what advice do you wish you'd been given before you made that transition?

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That is a good question. I mean, I think one thing I'm really at this point, like I haven't

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Explicitly said it, but I am aware that it is quite unusual to go straight from your PhD to an academic job and not do a postdoc.

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So I know that like the majority of my colleagues, that is the route they took.

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So I sort of skipped that stage, mostly because I think postdocs in creative writing just weren't really a thing at that point

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So it's just like a slightly different way. The discipline works. I think just harking back to our earlier conversation, to be honest,

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I think the main thing I wish people had told me is a just just take a punch, just like if something comes off,

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like even if sometimes even now when we're advertising jobs or other institutions,

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advertising jobs, it might say creative writing, lecturer brackets, poetry, focus.

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And you're thinking to yourself, oh, rats. I write short stories. So I'm not going to be I'm not going to be suitable for that.

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Just apply. Just apply. You never know again. They might not get any good poetry people.

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They might see your application and think,

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actually this person can slot in here and we can just move some stuff around and cover the poetry stuff some other way.

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I just think literally, as I said, nothing ventured, nothing gained.

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And then finally, just to reiterate that, like when it comes to the application and the interview process,

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if it is a question of just kind of brushing up on you're kind of university speak

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and trying to get your head around exactly what they're going to ask you,

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just talk to your supervisors or other lecturers who've been through this, because that was honestly that was a game changer.

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I can still remember the cafe in East London where I had lunch with one of my supervisors,

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and she walked me through all these key terms and was able to predict all the questions they would ask me.

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And if it weren't for that brunch, like I would have been nowhere.

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But because she had so kindly prepped me and was able to anticipate exactly the kind of notes that I would need to hit, like I got the job.

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So I just think don't be afraid to kind of ask for advice from people who have been

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through it and who know exactly what what buttons are going to need to press.

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Thank you so much to Ruth for taking the time to talk to me. I thought there was so much in there in terms of advice about applying for academic jobs.

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That's really, really pertinent.

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And I've actually created an infographic to go alongside the podcast that capture some of that really, really fabulous insight.

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And that's it for this episode. Join us next time when we'll be talking to another researcher about their career beyond their research degree.

 

Episode 17 - Katie Finning (Senior Research Officer, Health Analysis and Pandemic Insights, Office for National Statistics)

Episode 17 - Katie Finning (Senior Research Officer, Health Analysis and Pandemic Insights, Office for National Statistics)

July 26, 2021

Welcome to the Beyond Your Research Degree podcast from the University of Exeter Doctoral College! The podcast about careers and all the opportunities available to you... beyond your research degree!  In this episode Kelly Preece, Researcher Development Manager talks Dr. Katie Finning, who recently made the transition from a postdoc to a research role outside of academia. 

In the podcast Kaite mentions the Civil Service Job site and the Glassdoor repository of interview questions.

Music from https://filmmusic.io ’Cheery Monday’ by Kevin MacLeod (https://incompetech.com) License: CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses

 

Podcast transcript

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Hello and welcome to the Beyond Your Research Degree podcast by the University of Exeter College.

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Hi, it's Kelly Preece and welcome to the latest episode of Beyond Your Research Degree, continuing our series on getting jobs during covid.

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I'm really excited to be talking to Dr Katie Finning.

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So Katie was up until recently a postdoc at the University of Exeter and has during the pandemic made the transition into a non-academic role.

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So are you happy to introduce yourself? Sure. So I'm Katie Finning.

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I am. I'm currently working as a senior researcher at the Office for National Statistics, so I was in academia for about nine years before I left.

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I'm originally joined not long after I finished my undergraduate degree, I took a job as a research assistant to university.

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So I was working on a clinical trial of a behavioural therapy for adults with depression.

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And I kind of worked on that project from start to finish when I joined.

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And we were still kind of gaining all of our ethical approvals.

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And I stayed working in that job right up until the end where we published the results of the study.

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So that was a really great experience because I kind of saw the whole research lifecycle from start to finish.

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And in that job, my main job for most of that time was data collection and recruitment.

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So that was great. I spent most of my job kind of going out and meeting people and interviewing them and talking to them about their experiences,

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which was was a really interesting and fun job. And then I did my PhD.

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I moved over to child mental health, so I was still at Exeter university.

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So I'd always been kind of interested in mental health from a research perspective, but particularly child mental health.

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And a PhD opportunity came up just as my contract on that clinical trial was coming to an end.

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So it was kind of perfect timing. It was in a team I was really keen to kind of make my way into and the topic was really interesting.

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So it was advertised as a job rather than me kind of submitting my own PhD proposal.

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And my PhD was kind of epidemiological.

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So it looked at kind of patterns and trends in data, looking at the association between anxiety and depression in young people and school absenteeism.

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And so I used a variety of different research methods during my PhD, did a bit of systematic review, some quantitative work, some qualitative work.

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So it was a really kind of nice,

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well-rounded project that gave me experience and methods that I hadn't experienced when I was working as a research assistant.

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And I think it kind of the whole time that I was in academia, there were things I loved.

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I loved working on research. I loved working with data.

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And but I always kind of questioned whether academia was the right place for me.

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And the only reason really that I think I stayed for so long was just because the opportunities were there.

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And so I had no real reason to leave. I had it funded post for about five years, and then I had a great PhD opportunity for three years.

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And then I did a couple of years of postdoc work as well. And it was, to be honest, by complete luck that I was contacted about my job now.

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So towards the end of my PhD, I was starting to get a little bit anxious about kind of what was going to come next,

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whether I'd be able to get any funding for postdoc work. And I started quite seriously looking at jobs outside of academia.

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But there was never really anything that I saw that I felt was a good enough match for my skills and for what I was interested in.

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And and so I signed up for kind of hundreds of job alerts every week.

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I get all these alerts about various different jobs and I'd scroll through them and think,

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oh, I just don't I just don't think there are any jobs outside of academia for me.

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And kind of felt a little bit hopeless at that point because I was worried about my job security in academia,

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but also didn't feel like there was anything outside of academia for me.

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And so then I applied for some postdoc funding and was awarded postdoc funding.

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It was about a year and a half of funding. So I really stopped looking for alternative jobs.

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And then by complete coincidence,

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I was contacted by someone at the Office for National Statistics on LinkedIn about a job that they had and kind of encouraging me to apply.

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And I looked at this job description and I remember saying to my husband,

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I feel like this job's got my name on it and it just kind of ticked every box.

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It was a research role. It was a permanent job, which was really important.

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For me, it was a homeworking contract, which this was all happening during the pandemic,

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and I really benefited from homeworking, so I was quite eager to apply for jobs and that would be permanently home based.

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And yes, that's kind of how I got to where I am now. One thing led to another.

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I thought I'll just put in an application and see what happens. But I've got this postdoc funding, so it's no big deal if I don't get it.

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Let's just see what happens. And I had an interview, was offered the job.

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And so here I am. I've been in this job for about three and a half months now.

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Thank you so much for that. I think just a story that will really resonate with so many of our listeners about the

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the getting towards the end of the research degree in that kind of anxiety where,

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you know, where the hell am I going next? Is academia right for me?

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I can't see anything outside of it that really feels like it speaks to my interest or my knowledge or my skills.

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And I think it's really important just to. Acknowledge how normal that feeling is.

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Yeah, and and I think as well, we're not very good in academia about talking about that.

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So I always kind of felt like I wasn't I wasn't sure if academia was right for me,

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but no one ever really talked about, well, if not academia than what

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And I always kind of felt like everybody else in academia was so committed and so sure that this was where they wanted their careers to be.

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And actually now, on reflection, I don't know that that's true.

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I think that we just a lot of people have those doubts, but it's for whatever reason, it's not really talked about.

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And the trouble with that is that it means that it is difficult to know what else there is.

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And so I think it's really great that you do this podcast. And I think that needs to be more resources like this for, you know, pre docs,

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PhD students, postdocs, just to kind of get an understanding of what else is out there.

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Because I the thought of leaving academia was really quite scary for me because I felt like nobody was talking about what happens when you leave.

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You know if I hate it. Can I come back? Will I be seen as kind of an outsider or a traitor for leaving?

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And I found that really unsettling because I felt like I was the only the only one who.

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Wasn't completely sure that I wanted to stay on this career path and kind of aspire to become a professor,

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so I think it's really great that we're having this conversation and that you're kind of

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pushing forward these sorts of topics and conversations because I think they need to be had.

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They do. And I think, you know, you said it yourself.

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There's a real taboo around talking about even thinking is academia right for academia right for me, let alone leaving.

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Yeah. And and there's all sorts of really, really problematic narratives around it as well.

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You know, a lot of people have this misconception, but, you know, it's perpetuated that,

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you know, if you if you decide not to be an academic, you've in some sense failed.

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Failed. Yeah. And and it's really difficult to to push past that.

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Yeah. Especially when the narrative is so pervasive. It is.

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And I felt as well because I wasn't sure, you know, I really enjoyed academia in lots of ways.

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So it wasn't like I absolutely hated it and I knew I wanted out. It was like, OK, I quite like this, but there's also some stuff I'm not sure about.

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And and what I worried about was if I tell anyone that I'm thinking about jobs outside of academia.

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People might not consider me for jobs inside academia, and so I never told anybody,

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I never wanted to speak to my supervisors or those that I worked with because I thought,

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well, if a job comes up, they might think, well, she's not very committed, so let's not offer it to her.

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And so there was kind of this difficult dynamic where I felt like I needed to be speaking about what other options there were,

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but also didn't want to look like I wasn't committed enough to be able to do a good job if I did decide to stay.

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Yeah, exactly, and it's something I've heard so much over the past few years, at Exeter

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is that is a real fear of if I express that I might not be interested in staying in academia, what might the consequences be?

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How might that limit my opportunities?

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And like you say, if I go out and I decide actually I don't like it and I want to come back, you know, is that going to damage my chances?

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So I wanted to pick up on a couple of things.

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So, you know, you said not knowing what was out there, you signed up to loads of  job alerts, but nothing was coming up that really spoke to you.

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Can you talk a little bit about that and about the kind of things were coming up?

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And what what what about the most resonating with you?

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I found it very difficult, a lot of the jobs that were coming up.

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So I think I signed up for job alerts that were kind of, you know, based on keywords.

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So it was like research, research, data analysis, those kinds of things.

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But there was very little in the way of kind of well-rounded research.

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So there were tons and tons of kind of data scientist, data, analyst type roles.

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And as much as I really enjoy working with data and it was one of the things during my Ph.D. that I particularly enjoyed,

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I I'm still I'm not a data scientist. Right. And that's quite a specific set of skills.

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And so a lot of these jobs were coming up where I was thinking, well, that sounds really interesting,

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but I don't I don't think I've quite got the skill set in order to do that.

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And there was very little that seemed to be out there that was kind of like a well rounded researcher role that might involve,

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you know, a bit of research design, a bit of data collection, a bit of analysis, a bit of dissemination.

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There was just nothing really coming up. But I tell you what I saw, I think I searched on, you know, all the usual places,

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Glassdoor indeed, and LinkedIn, and set up loads of job alerts through those kinds of places.

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But the one thing I didn't do was look at civil service and I honestly never even crossed my mind.

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I just never, ever. And that's why I think these kinds of conversations are so important,

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because I didn't really even think about there being research posts in the civil service.

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There are tons of research jobs in the civil service, not just ONS there.

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But I mean, there are loads of jobs being advertised at ONS

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But, you know, departments, Education Department of Health and Social Care, Department for Transport,

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depending what your topic area or area of interest is, there are loads of research jobs in the civil service.

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And I had absolutely no idea. Yeah, and I, I think it's it's so common.

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It's you know, if you're interested in an academic career, I mean,

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I'm not saying it's easy because it's highly competitive, but you're surrounded by the people with the information.

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You're surrounded by the gatekeepers. Well, and, you know, you can you see very clearly in front of you what the options are.

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Yeah. Outside it. You know, it's it's such a big sort of open ended market of possibilities.

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And knowing where you might fit within that is really difficult.

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So. In thinking about what kind of didn't resonate with you.

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About those roles, what was it about this role that you're now in?

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that did speak to you. What is it that made you go at that?

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That sounds like it might be for me. It was the fact that the job description was so the job title was senior research officer,

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but the job description mentioned the whole life cycle of research.

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So it said something along the lines of, you know, roles might include.

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And it was everything from designing research, working with stakeholders, you know, managing a team of researchers, data analysis, dissemination.

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It was basically a postdoc researcher, but working for government.

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And I thought, well, that's exactly what I want.

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I don't want to be stuck into, you know, being a specialist data scientist that's a bit outside the realms of what I'm capable of.

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It's it's a bit of everything and everything that I've learnt along the last nine years of being academia.

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I've done all of that. So I literally looked at the job description and I thought, well, I can do that.

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I can do that. I can do that. There was nothing in it that made me go that's a bit outside of what I can really do.

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And it just felt like it fit

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My skills and probably the skill set of a lot of kind of early postdoc researchers, early career researchers, perfectly.

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But it had the benefit of being a permanent job, which I hadn't had, you know, at the age of thirty two, I'd never had a permanent job.

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And that was I felt like it was the time of my life where I was just a bit tired

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of being on fixed term contracts and always having to worry about what came next.

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And so to have a kind of well-rounded research job that was working from home and that was permanent was just I mean, it was a no brainer.

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Yeah. And I think, you know, we don't talk again.

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We don't talk enough about or we talk a lot about precarity in academia, but we don't talk enough about actually why that might be a reason to leave.

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Yeah. Yep, that's right. It's it's almost something that you just kind of expected to put up with.

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And it's like, well, that's just how it is, you know, and and all of the kind of more senior academics have been through that process as well.

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So all you see is, you know, even kind of the role models and the people that you aspire to,

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to be like eventually still have to go through that process.

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So it's kind of just like, well, that's if you want to be in academia, that is just what you have to put up with.

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And I think in you know, in the time of covid as well, I felt kind of.

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Like, it was extra precarious and I thought,

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I don't know what the landscape is going to be like over the next couple of years, and that was really scary.

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It is, and lots of people, for various reasons, it can be, you know,

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the fact that you just don't have the kind of life circumstances where you can work precariously.

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It can be, you know, that you are incredibly tied geographically for various reasons

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You know, there's lots of different reasons why.

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That kind of that kind of system doesn't really work for people, and therefore it can be a reason to leave academia,

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but that doesn't mean leaving behind research and the things that you're passionate about in terms of your subject area,

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but also in terms of your skills.

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Yeah, exactly.

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And I think one of the things I really was quite nervous about leaving and from the point where I accepted the job to the point where I left, I.

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Was anticipating that I was going to regret leaving from day one and I was going to wonder what I'd done and I don't know,

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I sort of feel like I'd maybe put academia up on a bit of a pedestal where I thought,

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you know, this is the best thing in the world and I'm not going to have that anymore.

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And one of the things that I particularly worried about so one of the things I love about academia is working with,

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like some of the brightest minds in the world. Right. Like, no exaggeration.

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And you get to sit in on conversations and be involved in conversations or it's like, you know, groundbreaking research, really smart people.

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And I just love that I found it really exciting.

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And I thought if I leave academia, I'm going to lose that, that actually there were tons of really bright people at ONS and there were tons of ex academics.

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I went as I didn't lose that at all.

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You know that there are things and we can talk about that, you know, there are things that I miss and things that I lost.

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But working with bright people definitely wasn't one of them.

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And I can honestly say that I haven't looked back for a second and I haven't had once I left,

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it was kind of the couple of months up to leaving that were horrible because I was so worried about whether I was going to regret it.

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As soon as I started my new job, I. I just knew I'd made the right decision and even in those first couple of months and starting a new job,

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which is always a bit unsettling and especially, you know, it was a big change going to civil service from academia.

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It's in some respects, it's totally different. And and there were moments where I felt quite unsettled.

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Even now, you know, three and a half months down the line, I still have moments of feeling a bit unsettled, but never for a second.

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I thought I wish I hadn't left. There's something really for me, this is something really to do with identity,

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and I experienced it myself when I stopped being an academic and I moved into professional services.

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I really felt like I was going to be leaving a huge part of myself behind and that I you know, I felt like it was going to be gut wrenching.

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Yes. To leave my leave my research topic. And I,

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I to the extent that I thought I would probably carry on with some of my research

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and it was only I've been in this job six years so about two years ago,

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that I finally had an exodus of books and research materials.

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When I realised it's been four years, it's probably not going to happen.

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Yeah. And because actually, you know, that it was so tied to my sense of identity that I thought it was going to be this massive,

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massive thing to stop doing it and to leave and to forge a different path.

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And, you know, like you, when I started it, I thought, oh, actually, this this feels right.

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It feels like the right environment for me. It feels like doing the right thing. And I'm not looked at once and I've never missed it.

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Yeah, that's really interesting. And I think I can really relate to that kind of sense of your identity being wrapped up in academia,

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because in academic research it's all about you, like it's about you, your research interests, your proposals.

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You know, it's so centred on you that that it does become part of your identity.

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And and I think it feels like it probably felt like one of the biggest life decisions I've ever made and probably still does to leave.

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It felt like this huge, huge decision, and especially because I'd just been awarded some postdoc funding.

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So I was like, I'm I'm literally like I'm walking away from a really good opportunity.

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And I guess as well, you know, it's always talked about how competitive research funding is.

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And, you know, if you've been awarded something, it's like, wow, that's amazing. Well done.

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You should be so pleased that like to walk away felt really difficult and almost like I was letting people down or letting myself down somehow.

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But yeah, it's funny how pretty much as soon as I did that,

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I kind of I saw things from a slightly different perspective and I realised how the culture

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of academia kind of perpetuates that way of thinking where it's all focussed on you.

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You're not letting anybody down if you decide to leave, like you're not letting anybody down, you're just not.

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And you know what? Your self identity will change and evolve, OK?

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It won't be wrapped up in, you know, this really kind of specific area of speciality that you've developed.

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But you'll have a new identity and you'll still have many of the aspects of your old identity, but it will just evolve and change.

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But that's just part of life, right? We change anyway. So nothing to fear.

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Yeah, I think that I think that's so, so important to acknowledge,

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and it was going to be one of my key questions for you was kind of what happens when you when you leave and what does that feel like?

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Because it is it's a huge source of anxiety for people because it feels like a complete unknown.

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And like you say, we don't talk about it, you know, so we fear it.

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That's right. And and, yeah, you know, academia, it's not just a job when you're in academic research, it is more than that it is wrapped up in your identity.

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So it's a big deal. But, you know, and I'm sure there are people who leave and find that transition really difficult.

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But for me, it wasn't difficult at all.

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And actually, you know, I've still got some old projects from my academic career kind of rolling on.

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And honestly, if anything, I've had moments of thinking, God, I just want to get those things done so that I can put it behind me and move on.

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And it's it's funny how quickly my loyalty has changed.

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And I felt like actually that was something from the past.

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And I'm ready to just move on and, you know, learn it, learn a new job and develop a new life.

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And and for my job to not be such a strong part of my identity anymore, I actually find that really refreshing.

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I did too. there's quite a burden. I think at the time I didn't realise because I thought it was cool.

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But, you know, my research was so important and then it was all wrapped up in me and my self identity.

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And and so I didn't realise it until I left. But actually, I think for me that felt like like a bit of a burden.

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And it's it's nice to feel like, although what I'm doing now is still really important and it's impactful, it's I can see it more as just a job.

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And I think I really appreciate that. Yeah.

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And I, I thought exactly the same about, you know, actually I don't think I necessarily felt it was a burden at the time.

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But when I realised the weight had been lifted. Yeah. I realised realise what a burden it was.

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But at the same time I always say, you know, it's not like that for everybody.

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It's it doesn't feel like it's not a burden for everybody. And, you know, that's an important thing to recognise, too.

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But if it is for you, then maybe this is it's not the environment.

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Yeah. And if your passion is research, there's plenty of things that you can go and do.

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So the thing that I wanted to talk about next was the application process for your job.

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at ONS cause again, it's something that feels in academia we sort of know a bit about if we're in the system,

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about how job adverts and applications and interviews and how all of those processes go.

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But it feels like a really huge unknown when we're talking about public service or industry, particularly the civil service.

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So I wondered if you could talk a little bit about what the application involved and what the interview process involved.

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Yeah, so it was a very different experience to jobs that I had applied for in academia, and the application form was fine.

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I actually um because like I said, I hadn't been looking out for civil service jobs.

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So I hadn't spotted this job until someone messaged me on LinkedIn.

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And I didn't get the message until the day before the closing day.

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So I literally had like one evening and a bit of the next day to put my application together.

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So it was very rushed and I think it involved a CV and a description of my previous work experience.

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And then I had to do a statement. So I think it was seven hundred and fifty words.

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And I had to discuss a piece of work,

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that I had led or a piece of research that I had led and there were specific criteria about what I needed to include.

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So it was how I had led a team, what the outcome was,

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and there were some other things that were specified in there that was pretty easy, to be completely honest.

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If you've got kind of post PhD level, you'll be able to talk about a piece of work that you've led.

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So that was more just kind of, you know, like a lot of job applications.

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It's a bit tedious having to put that together and because I didn't have much time to do it, but that was fine.

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And then I was contacted fairly soon afterwards inviting me to interview.

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And then I had to log on to Civil Service Jobs website.

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So it's worth mentioning for anyone listening to this,

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if you think you might be interested in a research job in civil service, they're all advertised by a civil service.

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Jobs, I think it's .co.uk

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So all civil service kind of government organisations will all be posted on there and the whole application process is managed on there as well.

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And so then I had to book myself an interview date

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So basically it's all done on an automated system and you got a choice of different dates and then you select one.

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The interview itself was hard. It was about an hour and a half long and it was broken down into three parts.

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The first part was a presentation. I think it was only a five minute presentation.

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And they sent me information about what I had to present on about a week before.

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And basically by the content of it was that they gave me a general topic area with a list of specific research questions.

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And I had to kind of a bit of a brief that some government department wanted this research and what they wanted it for.

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I had to pick a couple of the research questions to focus on, and then I had to design a study to address those questions.

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So the first part of my interview was presenting that. And then the panel asked me a bunch of questions about it.

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You know, why did you select those questions? Why did you pick this design?

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How could you do it differently? What the strengths and weaknesses.

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And then that was followed up with quite specific I think they call them research skills questions.

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If you had just come out of your undergraduate degree, particularly in something like psychology,

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which was what my degree was, it would probably be relatively easy.

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But if you're a few years or more, as in my case, kind of post undergrad, it was things like, you know, what is a normal distribution?

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How would you explain a P value to a lay audience and things like that, which, you know, if you work with day to kind of day to day, you know,

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those things, but actually being able to provide like a really neat definition for it in a high stress interview situation was really,

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really difficult. That's really tough. Yeah, it was hard.

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And there was about 20 minutes of those kinds of questions.

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But I was lucky that I had before my interview, I'd gone on to the Glassdoor website and I looked up.

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So on there this is a very big tip to anyone listening to this who's thinking of applying for other jobs.

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And there's a there's a tab on Glassdoor for interviews.

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So if you go to whatever the organisation is they search for, say,

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I want to go to the interviews tab and there will be people who have posted about their experiences of having an interview at the organisation,

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and it includes interview questions. And so I had seen on that, I think it was only, I don't know, a few days before my interview,

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my husband actually said, well, have you had a look on Glassdoor? And I didn't know this was a thing.

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So we stood and we stood there together. I was kind of over his shoulder. He was on his computer pull up these interviews.

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And I saw a few for the specific kind of job role that I had advertised for.

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And it said on there, you know, people were saying I was asked these kind of very specific research questions,

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statistics type questions with some examples of the kinds of questions that I remember standing there and saying to a husband,

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oh, my God, there is no way I'm going to be able to do that.

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And so I spent the next three days, like revising all my undergraduate stats and research methods.

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If I hadn't have done that, I think that interview process would have been a lot more stressful than it was and would have been really difficult.

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But thankfully, I was quite prepared for that. And then the third part of the interview was what they call civil service behaviours.

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So there are a bunch of kind of civil service behaviours, things like what was I assessed on?

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I can't remember. I think that's about 10 of them. And I was assessed on two.

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And so I think it was maybe leadership and effective decision making.

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I think those were the two that I was assessed on and that was those kinds of smart questions.

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So it's like, you know, tell us about a time when you did such and such,

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or they'll present you with a scenario and say, what would you do in this situation?

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And those are the kinds of questions where you have to say, OK, this is what the situation was.

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This is the action that I took. This was the outcome, et cetera. And that section of the interview specifically was really new to me,

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although I know that that's kind of quite typical in many organisations in academia.

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Certainly when the jobs that I applied for that that kind of interview process wasn't used at all.

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So I found that quite difficult. And if I'm honest, a little bit artificial.

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There were no questions like, you know, why do you want the job?

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What do you think you bring to the organisation? What relevant skills have you got?

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It was all very structured and it did feel a little bit artificial and a little bit like a tick box exercise.

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So I found that quite difficult. And it was a stark contrast to academic job interview processes.

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But, you know, I got through it and apparently I was I did a good enough job to be offered to be offered the post

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And I will say as well, actually, I've since been to the talks and not long after I joined,

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there was a civil service wide kind of talk about disability adjustments in job application processes.

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And I have long term health problems, but I hadn't mentioned that on my job application.

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I think like many people with disabilities or long term health issues,

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I worried about whether that would minimise my chances of being offered something.

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And so I didn't mention it. But actually, I now know that that absolutely wouldn't have been the case.

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And I would really encourage anybody listening who's got any kind of disability or needs any kind of adjustment

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in order to assist them with the interview process and make it fairer to absolutely put that down when you apply.

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And I know that ONS And I'm no doubt other government organisations as well.

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Take that. Very seriously.

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That's really helpful, just to reassure people that there is that support there on that accessing it isn't going to disadvantage you.

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Yeah, definitely. And all say that's one thing I've been really impressed with since I've joined is the support for people with disabilities.

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So actually, after I joined, there's a whole kind of official process. I would ask if you've got any kind of disability.

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It's called a disability, sorry. Now it's called a workplace adjustment passport.

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And it's basically a form that you that you fill out in collaboration with your line manager that says, you know, these are my difficulties.

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These are the kinds of adjustments I need. And they're agreed.

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And it's kind of formally attached to your records so that if you move around within

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the organisation that goes with you and it could be reviewed and changed as needed,

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but they are really brilliant at making any adjustments that are required the helpful for you as an individual in order to perform at your best.

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And I've been really impressed with that from ONS. That's that's really amazing.

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I was just going to say the other thing that I'm really valuing is work life balance and flexitime.

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So ONS has a flexitime system, and it was one of the things I was quite worried about.

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But having chronic health issues, one of the things I really valued in academia was that I could kind of manage my time myself.

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So, you know, if I was having a bad day, I could take the afternoon off and I didn't really even need to tell anybody.

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I didn't need to record it is sick leave necessarily I could You know, I was you're almost your own boss in in many respects.

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And you have a lot of flexibility over how you manage your time. And I really valued that.

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And I was very anxious about losing that. But, oh, there's a there's a flexitime system and it really is very flexible.

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So if you want to take an afternoon off, you know, as long as you don't have any really important meetings going on,

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you can just do it and you don't really even have to ask for permission. So that's a real bonus and something I've been really impressed with.

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And things like part time working is really common, even in very senior staff members.

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So several of the kind of the highest level directors are part time workers,

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there were lots of women in senior roles, you know, people with young children,

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people with caring responsibilities, people with disabilities are represented across the whole organisation at all different levels.

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And on reflection, I don't think that's done very well in academia.

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And I always found it difficult because I dropped to part time working.

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during my PhD because for health reasons and then in my postdoc work, I was always part time.

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And it really worried me that nobody senior seemed to work part time.

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And I always thought, I don't think I'll be physically capable of doing that job full time.

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So therefore that career path just isn't an option for me. But I guess it just doesn't matter.

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Your job, you can be part time. It doesn't matter how senior you are.

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You know, it's recognised that people have lives outside of their jobs and ONS are very good at accommodating that.

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Fabulous. Yeah. Isn't that nice to hear.

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Is it. Is. So I think to wrap up well what advice would you give to someone who is, you know,

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in the position that you were you're not really sure if working in academia is the right thing for you,

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but you you don't really know what's out there.

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What advice would you give them in hindsight? I would say.

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Join LinkedIn, I wasn't on LinkedIn for years, and I kind of always thought, oh, what's the point of it?

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I couldn't really see how it would benefit me if I wasn't on LinkedIn.

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I wouldn't have known about this job and I'd probably still be in academia, still having all those same concerns and,

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you know, keep your options open where I think where you feel comfortable doing so.

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Have those conversations with your managers and your colleagues. And I appreciate that.

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That's really difficult. And I guess if there are any managers listening to this, I would say,

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please have those conversations with your staff, with your junior researchers, you know,

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acknowledge that not everybody in academia wants to be a professor one day,

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you know, make it known that it's OK to be thinking about alternative careers.

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And I've actually been been invited by a professor at Oxford University who I worked with kind of came across during my PhD.

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She since approached me and has asked me to do a bit of a mini presentation to her research team.

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So she's a very senior professor at Oxford who wants me to come in and talk to

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her research group about my job and about civil service and leaving academia.

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And I just feel like that's like just such leadership there to to proactively get someone who's no longer in academia in to talk to her team.

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I really feel like more managers need to be doing that. But, you know, if you're in the position that I was in,

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try and seek out people who you do feel safe having those conversations with and that there was one particular person,

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quite senior person, who I who I worked with, who I did have these conversations with.

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And I really valued that. And I still chat to him now.

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So, yeah, I think, you know, find out, find out people who you feel safe having those kinds of conversations with and have those

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conversations and just keep your options open and know that there is research happening everywhere.

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And just because you don't know about it, it doesn't mean it's not happening. So just keep looking.

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Keep searching that there are lots of jobs out there.

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It's just about kind of finding them and knowing where to look. But look on civil service jobs because there are tons and I had no idea.

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Thank you so much to Katie for that really insightful and really in-depth discussion about that transition from Ph.D. to postdoc to leaving academia.

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I think it's really beneficial to have these really in-depth conversations about the process, what it involves,

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how it feels so that we can reassure our listeners that actually it's it's OK, it's going to be OK.

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And it was great to also hear about the support of access for the disabled employees

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and knowing that that that support is out there in industry as well as in academia.

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And that's it for this episode. Join us next time when we'll be talking to another researcher about their career beyond their research degree.

 

Episode 16 - Alexandra Smith (Public Health Research Support Officer at Devon County Council)

Episode 16 - Alexandra Smith (Public Health Research Support Officer at Devon County Council)

June 28, 2021

Welcome to the Beyond Your Research Degree podcast from the University of Exeter Doctoral College! The podcast about careers and all the opportunities available to you... beyond your research degree!  In this episode Kelly Preece, Researcher Development Manager talks Alexandra Smith, who is finishing up her PhD and has just started a job as Public Health Research Support Officer at Devon County Council.

 

Music from https://filmmusic.io ’Cheery Monday’ by Kevin MacLeod (https://incompetech.com) License: CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses

 

 

Podcast transcript

 

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Hello and welcome to the Beyond Your Research Degree podcast by the University of Exeter, Doctoral College

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Hello and welcome to the latest episode of Beyond Your Research Degree.

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I'm your host, Kelly Preece, and in this episode, we are continuing our series on securing jobs during covid-19.

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I'm speaking to another of our current PGRs who's not quite finished writing up, but has started a job in a local authority.

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So, Alexandra, you happy to introduce yourself? So my name is Alexandra Smith and I'm a student at the University of Exeter.

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I based in business school, but my PhD is on what I call the holistic health benefits of working groups.

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So essentially I'm looking at five different variables organisational landscape, physical health,

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mental health and social capital and their influence on working group participant motivation for joining, remaining and leaving.

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So at the moment, I am working with Devon County Council.

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I'm a public health research support officer and it's a role funded by the NIHR.

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That's the National Institute of Health Research, and it sits within the the CRN the Clinical Research Network.

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So essentially, NIHR is really interested in expanding its public health portfolio.

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So my role is to sort of link up researchers to populations to to get data from so I can

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do that through Connections that I have through the team within Devon County Council,

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but also to to create spaces for collaboration for public health.

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So I work across lots of different teams, so I will work with different individuals in D.C.C public health, but also broader DCC.

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So I'm also linking up with people in sort of who work more in the environment who are

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interested in working in transport and also working with sort of more partners as well.

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So community and voluntary sector NHS CCG Trust those different kind of partnerships, academics as well.

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And at the moment I'm working towards creating a webinar which DCC will be hosting on the 8th of July,

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and that's really a great collaborative forum to get academics and other partners together,

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to really talk through some of the pressing public health issues that we have in public health is such a huge area,

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really covers all aspects of life, really.

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It's very interconnected. So it's really important to have those collaborative spaces.

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And currently what I'm designing is a kind of like a platform.

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I'm looking to do this through sort of SharePoint and also through Microsoft teams to enable

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researchers and other collaborators to get together to put together grant applications.

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The role that I have public health research support of is a new role. And there are about 20 of me across the UK with this title.

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And next week I have my first meeting to meet the rest of the team on that.

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So I am new to a local authority.

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I'm new to public health, I'm new to NIHR, are very much started off like I did.

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I did a bachelor's in human psychology. I did a Masters in psychological well-being and mental health.

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And I worked as a research assistant to the University of Nottingham in the nursing, midwifery and physiotherapy department.

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And from there, I kind of thought clinical perhaps isn't quite for me, but I've got more.

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I really wanted more of a holistic perspective to individuals.

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So that's when I moved to Exeter to do my PhD. And then it just started shaping more into a kind of public health policy,

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kind of feel to it  then my supervisor suggested actually public health and maybe a local authority might work for you.

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And this really this is a fantastic opportunity because it kind of brings those two things together.

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It brings up public health interests and it brings that research element as well.

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So what I've been doing is engaging with different people. So I've been having one to ones with different members of the D.C.C public health

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team to understand their research about their area that they're working on.

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And these could be really broad themes, you know,

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that there could be children and young persons or it could be mental health or it could be planetary health.

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And they've been working on this for years.

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And I have to understand what it is that they're doing and what specific research element could be within that.

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So it's been a big learning curve if you don't if you don't know anything about that particular field to begin with.

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So it's very much you've gotta swap your

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head from learning about one topic and then something, you have to give somebody else an entirely different project and an entirely different topic,

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and it's just understanding those kind of connections that you can make to have like a broad you know,

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we need something researched into this or we need this really specific kind of population.

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So it's it's been a steep learning curve. I wouldn't have it any other way.

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Yeah. And I think that's a really important thing.

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to acknowledge that quite often when you're moving from research into any other sector, but particularly kind of,

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you know, the public policy kind of area that you're working in, it's going to be a steep learning curve.

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But that doesn't mean that you don't have valuable knowledge and skills and expertise to apply in those areas.

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Exactly.

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And it is really just about, you know, that that frame of mind when you start applying for jobs that are outside of academia because I don't know,

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certainly certainly I found that I perhaps didn't want to work in academia, although I did really still like research.

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But I wanted to get more into public health and understand that.

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But I don't have a public health master's, and that's just not something that I could go straight into, you know, to get a job.

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And I need to get some money. I can't just go study again.

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And it is really just about I found LinkedIn incredibly helpful for that process, actually,

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because you can follow different organisations and you can follow different people who are interesting to you.

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Interesting to you. And you can learn about opportunities that you never would have thought about.

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And that there is a learning to and where you have to understand and unpick some of that language.

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But some of it is just about immersing yourself in it.

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And for me, It's just constant exposure. The more exposure you get to it, over time, you pick it up.

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And I found that incredibly invaluable because then I broke out of my understanding the language

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of academia and the language of other organisations and therefore what they were looking for.

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And that actually I had those skills. I just needed to understand it in different words and they needed to sell it in different words.

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So I would say LinkedIn was actually invaluable for that it really was

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And then, you know, it's just about going through those applications.

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Give yourself enough time for it. So I suppose I take like I took two different strategies to it, like applying for loads of jobs,

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but also like I really want this one, or I think I could really get that one.

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And I would probably say if you have the time, try and do it more focussed.

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But also it can be really interesting to just apply more generally.

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So I, I got an interview that was more about, you know, turning academic projects into, like the business ventures.

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I don't know if that's the direction that I want to go into.

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And it was really helpful to have that interview to understand maybe this wasn't something I wanted to pursue now,

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but I never would have got that experience had I not applied for something totally different.

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So it can be a really useful learning strategy to to apply for a variety of different things that perhaps in the

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first instance and I suppose something that I would say is you can be a bit overwhelmed with interviews suddenly,

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like I would have, like, I don't know, like for interviews.

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Four days in a row, that's exactly how it could happen, and you've got to do a presentation for it and you might have to do like a group work for it.

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So there is there is a big time commitment to it.

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Don't underestimate that because there's a lot of work you need to put in, particularly for my current job.

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Fortunately for my other interviews,

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I'd also I'd already been looking into public health things and obviously public health stuff has been going on for years.

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Public Health England has been around for a while now. So there's lots and lots of information and there's lots of changes.

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The language is very involved. So it does take time if you're moving into a new area.

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But it's just the fact that exposure, that commitment, trying different things.

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And yeah, it just got to the point where I know I knew enough and I knew how to kind of frame myself.

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I knew what my I knew the things that I was particularly strong in.

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And I would say I don't want to say like it's unique selling point, but.

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What is it that you have to offer and what is it that they have to offer?

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Like yeah ok, you need a job, but it's probably going to be way worse if you just have a job that you hate.

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It's much better to have a job where you're much more aligned with the values.

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So I would say I think it probably depends on you as an individual,

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but personally being involved in how it's like my values are really important to me.

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So my organisation, the organisation that I want to work with,

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I need to make sure that my values are aligned with those, because if it doesn't, then it's just not sustainable.

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I'm not going to do a good job. I'm going to get fired. Then I'm not going to get like a very good, you know, like a reference, that kind of thing.

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Is it really worth it? I think it's worth just thinking about what do you want?

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What do they have to offer? You know, it's very true that people say, you know, it's not just that you are being interviewed.

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You're also interviewing them. You know, do you just feel like maybe this is a bit of a toxic environment going on?

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Or do you feel like this this team really works as a team,

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that they really have this this combined overall sense of leadership in this respect for one another.

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And that's really what I found at DCC I couldn't be more happy.

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I really couldn't. I feel so much part of the team.

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And I love this this mutual respect that everybody has for everybody, you know, from the top down, everybody.

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feels you know, everybody has that combined sense of of feeling valued and heard, and I think that I really appreciate that personally.

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And something really important I want to pick up on there is that a lot of people are using things like LinkedIn as a kind of an awareness

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raising to see what's out there and what's possible and where your skills and experience could be highly valued or sought after.

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Don't don't underestimate your value as a researcher.

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You're trained to be creative in your thought.

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You're trained to look out for those little nuances and question everything.

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And I think that that's something that I found really interesting working at DCC

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because people are obviously trying to understand what is best practise,

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what is the literature so that we can understand how we can support our populations the best.

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But there's also this kind of practicality of like we need to do something now.

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And research works at a completely different time to local authorities who need to be helping the populations

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now that they don't need to know the findings of a randomised control trial 10 years in the future.

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So it's really trying to sort of bring those two things together. And that's that's something where I sort of really come in to help them with.

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And I suppose the thing about, you know,

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a local authorities that they're trying to they've got to sort of split their population

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up to understand how we can how can we support this population or that population,

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this geographical area or children and young persons or whatever.

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And research takes quite a can take quite a different approach. We will go.

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Don't make any assumptions and you know, where where are things that we can connect,

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where are the similarities, where are the differences I have a background in psychology

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So I'm sort of trying to understand more about how we can incorporate individual differences more into research.

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You know, it's this kind of within and between group differences.

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So this is kind of like this two is two different needs going on,

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and it's about understanding how we can pick those apart and come up with a strategy going forward.

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Can you talk a little bit about the process of finding this, the job that you're in at DCC and this opportunity?

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The job that I actually got now, I got off the back of an interview, so I'd applied for like like an intelligence analyst job DCC.

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So I'm I'm based in intelligence as well. That's just where I sit in the team.

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But I actually straddle so many different, like pretty much everything in public health.

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because research is so broad and public health is so interconnected.

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So that's what I applied for. And the because obviously I got that analysis background.

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I've got mixed methods, background so quant and qual and I didn't get it.

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And the feedback that I got was great is just that you didn't quite tick some of the public health boxes.

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So get more familiar with with public health language and, you know, the JSNA the joint strategic needs assessment, those kind of things.

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And then, yeah, then I got sent through the like the the job advert.

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I applied for it, I.

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Then had the interview and managed to secure the job and, you know, and you're always going to get feedback and feedback is incredibly valuable.

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This isn't something to shy away from embracing. It is really important and valuable things in there about values.

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And, you know, like you said earlier, about buzz words.

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And there are certain things that when we talk about careers, are buzzwords and and feel like like platitudes and like kind of management speak.

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And one of those is kind of the importance of knowing your values to finding the right career path for you.

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But actually in practise, it is it's cliche and it's it yeah.

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It feels like kind of business speak, but it is actually true. Yeah, exactly.

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And I suppose, you know, I fought it in the past and just gone like, oh, no business speak buzz words

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Same, oh, it just turns me off completely.

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It makes me feel like it totally goes against my values.

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But I look at I suppose I look at it more as a language tool that I use to communicate a concept to other people.

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And that message and that communication is more important than perhaps preconceptions I have about it.

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Yeah, absolutely. And then the other one, I think really comes up in what you're saying is also the hidden job market,

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which is another one of those kind of management speak things, Business speak things that you hear and you shudder.

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But it is so true in practise. Yeah, I know.

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I suppose what I would say about this is that it's it's totally different to what I thought that it was like.

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It's you know, it's not sort of like I mean, I don't know how it works.

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And other things like DCC has a structure and lots of other places do where, you know,

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you have like tick boxes and you score a value based on like, you know, they're looking for a topic or a theme or something.

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And they will judge your answer, you know, I mean, this is how I understand it to be, you know, give you a score on your answer for that topic.

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You know, that particular thing that they're asking you about during the interview. And whoever gets the most points gets the job.

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So, you know, it was totally different from what I understood to be that kind of hidden job market,

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because I suppose the hidden job market, I assumed it was sort of like, oh, here's this job and you should just go for it.

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And I would, you know, you. But it doesn't it doesn't work like that.

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Every job's going to be advertised. You know, legally, this has got to happen.

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And in terms of fairness.

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But if if somebody sees something in you and goes, actually, I think that this could be really useful to you, then you will know about it.

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You'll know about it in advance. And you might not you know you know, you might know about it a couple of days.

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You might know about it a week or something. And that can give you a bit of lead time to think about, is this what I want to give that person?

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Thanks. Do some research into it. So, yeah, it's completely different to what I thought I was that it was some sneaky thing.

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It's not. It's not. It's more about somebody seeing something in you and going, actually, this might interest you.

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I suppose, to begin with, I found this idea of networking quite scary and I felt quite awkward with it.

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But actually, if I just bring it back to what my values were,

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my values are helping people and helping the broader theme of of helping people generally with, you know, with physical activity or whatever.

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And so in that respect, that's why it immediately struck me.

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Oh I'll send this person, you know, that paper or that link to that grant funding because I'm helping somebody.

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Exactly. And I think, again, you know, you hear networking and again, you think management people and speak.

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But actually, you know, it doesn't let you say about the hidden job market.

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It's not necessarily your perception of it as a term. It's not necessarily how it works in practise.

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I think we've we've uncovered so much in this about kind of like actually the importance of your values to driving you and thinking

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about how you investigate and look at different jobs and be a bit more targeted than just using those kind of a big job site,

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then the kind of hidden job market actually in applying for jobs.

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It creates new opportunities for you because you might not be right for the particular position that you've applied for,

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but there might be something else coming up that they go, oh, actually,

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we spoke to Alexandra and although she wasn't right for that job, she'd be perfect for this job.

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And also the kind of, you know, networking doesn't have to be clinical. It's about, you know,

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being collegiate and having conversations with people and kind of helping basically some advice that I got about networking was about.

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Sort of keeping a contact and that sort of stuff.

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I mean, there was just too much to do in a day, you know, and I don't know that all of that would be completely genuine if you had to.

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I mean, nobody can do that. That's just too much. If something just happens to crop up and it seems relevant to that person, then I'd send it.

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If it's kind of general like chit chat, I just don't know that's that valuable to anybody.

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But it depends on who you are, depends on who the other person is,

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depends on and sort of what stage they're at before we kind of bring and bring this to a close.

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I wondered if we could talk a little bit about what you think. So one of the anxieties people, a research degree students have tends to be about.

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But what skills do I have that are relevant to, you know, relevant to industry or relevant to public policy or the public sector and.

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The answer is so, so many. I wondered if you could talk about your specific role and what are the what's the knowledge,

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what the skills that you use from your day most in your in your work life?

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I think perhaps the reason why PhD students struggle with understanding the values that they have and the how do you say those broader skill sets

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It's because you're doing a PhD

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these things are very the environment is is completely different to other environments and it's kind of like very much your project.

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And it can get quite intense and quite lonely sometimes.

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Even if you are attending a seminar or you're collaborating with somebody else, it's still your project at the end of the day.

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And I think when you're that close to something over time.

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It can start to just feel like everything it can just feel like it's the entire world and you don't know where you finish and the PhD begins.

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And I kind of feel like I mean, I don't know it might happen to other people it certainly happened to me.

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And it's it's there that those kind of that value or those, you know, those flexible skills,

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I think get lost because you don't understand how to advertise it because it's just one.

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You know what I mean, you are the PhD are just one. And I think probably the the biggest thing.

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for me that I use every day is collaboration, I mean, my PhD was very much just,

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you know, me sat at my desk, you know, and occasionally I would attend seminars.

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But they were I mean, there's really not very many people studying the area that I do this,

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like one main person that I know in the world who's studying it.

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So, you know, it can feel very lonely. But I've had different opportunities for collaboration and I've worked on different projects,

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different things that have come up within the university.

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I kind of grasp those opportunities and made the full use out of them as much as you can so that you can demonstrate that you have those skills.

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And don't forget, it's not just about putting it on the paper.

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You know, in your cover letter or in your CV is then demonstrating that you have that at the interview.

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You know, if you want to if you're trying to say, I have great listening skills,

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then listen, I really make sure that you're having those active listening skills.

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You're really listening to what those questions are. You're picking them apart and then you're answering those questions specifically.

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So I would say my interpersonal skills are the biggest thing that I use.

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And so I definitely would say.

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It can be it's the same with like talking to other people and using people as sounding boards, they can help you pick apart what your skills are.

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I mean, yes, there were those kind of hard skills that you have. I've learnt this bit of software.

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I taught myself that if you've taught yourself something, say it.

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That's really important because it shows that you're able to to learn and to adapt and to

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identify a need and fulfil it to be that reflective like to have that self reflection and to go,

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OK, this is like a gap or like, OK, I'm going to call it a gap rather than a weakness.

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And to be able to sort of fill that. I mean, you're trained so highly in teaching yourself.

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That's really what a PhD is it's teaching yourself to teach yourself and teaching yourself to learn.

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So that's kind of the biggest thing. And that can really take you places.

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Thank you so much to Alexandra for a really fascinating and deep,

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and involved discussion about how she came to her role working in public health

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and the kind of career journey that she's been on the application process.

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And you know what she's doing now and she's how she's applying her experience from her PhD.

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And that's it for this episode. Join us next time when we'll be talking to another researcher about their career beyond their research degree.

 

Episode 15 - Dr. Joanna Alfaro (Director of Pro Delphinus)

Episode 15 - Dr. Joanna Alfaro (Director of Pro Delphinus)

April 26, 2021

Welcome to the Beyond Your Research Degree podcast from the University of Exeter Doctoral College! The podcast about careers and all the opportunities available to you... beyond your research degree!  In this episode Kelly Preece, Researcher Development Manager talks Dr. Joanna Alfaro, a University of Exeter doctoral graduate who is now the Director of the Peruvian conservation organisation Pro Delphinus.

 

Music from https://filmmusic.io ’Cheery Monday’ by Kevin MacLeod (https://incompetech.com) License: CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses

 

Podcast transcript

 

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Hello and welcome to the Beyond Your Research Degree podcast by the University of Exeter, Doctoral College

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Hello and welcome to the latest episode of Beyond Your Research Degree. I'm your host, Kelly Preece

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And for this episode, I'm delighted to be talking to Dr Joanna Alfaro,

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who is the president and director of the Peruvian conservation organisation Pro Delphinus

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So, Joanna. Are you happy to introduce yourself? Yeah.

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Well, my name is Joanna Alfaro and I am Peruvian.

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I work in Pro Delphinus and Universidad Científica del Sur. So in 2008 I joined in the programme for PhD

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My advisor was Brendan Godley and Annette Broderick at Exeter

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And I was. That's probably my favourite years as being back a student in the U.K., a dream that I was able to fulfil.

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And for my the theme of my PhD was ecology and conservation of marine turtles.

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And that was also great because it allowed me to to apply the knowledge and the

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experience that I got to working with sea turtles in Peru towards my PhD.

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It's brilliant. Thank you. And what are you doing now?

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So when did you graduate? So the though after the PhD, the I was able to to be back at home and and keep working.

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And what I love, which is marine conservation. So the projects we we have right now are focus.

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It was a very interesting transition because we started our careers being a species oriented.

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And by that I mean that I was I love dolphins and whales and sea turtles.

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So that was my interest. But we learnt over time.

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And and my PhD was a big lesson learnt that is not only about the animals that we were,

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that we're when we're working with animals, we should also look at the people that is related to the animals.

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So in my case, these people were fishermen. And mostly small-scale fishermen.

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And so the the the current work we do now is trying to support fishermen, to keep fishing.

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But in a more clean way, in a sustainable way, in a way that they can keep fishing for the for many,

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many years to come, but also in a way that we are helping animals.

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And in this case, it'll be the ones that we have this passion for the dolphins, the whales, the sea turtles.

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So it's it's a very good combination to be able to to be in the middle between biodiversity

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and economic activities as fisheries and also communities and engaging the main users,

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which are fishermen. That's great and really interesting how, like you say, that you've moved from thinking about particular species to.

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To fishermen. And that sort of shift in focus. So can you tell me a little bit about when you were doing your PhD?

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Did you know that you want to move on to this kind of role? Oh, yes.

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Well, that's a great question. And that's a question that I mention when when I have the chance.

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When we started the PhD, we had no idea that we will end up working with fisheries and with people.

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And I think that's an idea that a lot of young people start with.

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I mean, you go with with with this love for the ocean and the creatures, but then it's it's important to realise that it's.

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It will give you have to become useful. It's a bad way to say it, but you have to become useful for society.

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And and it's great if you can, because, well, that's a role we all have.

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But but it and in a way, our careers as  researchers and biologists are key to to to make this transition

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between nature and wildlife and maintain the livelihoods of of people like fishermen,

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in my case, for example. So can you tell me a bit more about.

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The conservation organisation you work for. And what kind of what sort of work that you're doing and how you're drawing on

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your experience as a as a researcher and and particularly during your PhD

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Yes, sure. So my PhD was on sea turtles and most of my chapters had to be on sea turtles.

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And I did my PhD with my husband, which is which it was a great challenge.

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At some point, we were we were sharing the same.

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Stress, and it's but we made it through somehow.

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And the we are we can we evolve from being a species oriented.

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So my my focus was marine turtles

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workingwith Brendan and and my husband  was working on seabirds and marine mammals.

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So we shifted a little bit once being back at home in Pery to work to to apply what we learnt and

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apply it to improve fisheries and support fishermen to continue to be able to continue fishing.

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So that has changed just slightly or like I don't know.

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And the thing is, that is it continues changing, especially now with COVID

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Some of our work at Pro Delphinus has changed dramatically.

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We can no longer go to the field. We do most of the stuff by phone call or Zoom or Whatsapp

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So we are where we see changes in our work during the the latest circumstances of of health worldwide.

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And that's the fun part of it. I think the to be constant changing.

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I think it it brings challenges is not always the same.

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Every day there is something new that we are learning, but it's is where we are enjoying this.

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Right. Really. And Pro Delphinus there is we have perhaps over 20 people on the staff and we keep growing, which is very good.

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And each of them have an interest and that's the that's what it reaches the the environment

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we work in because somebody else may be interested in the social side of the work we do.

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Somebody else could be interested in the economics of it. So it's it's I'm enjoying it.

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It sounds amazing.

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And not only kind of really rewarding work, but also incredibly diverse in the different things that you're gonna be doing, especially.

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And, you know, as a result of the COVID 19 pandemic and the impact that that's had on all, you know, the ways, everybody's way of working.

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So you won an award. Last October.

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Did you not Peru's highest award for conservation? Can you tell us a little bit about that.

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Oh, man, that was fun. That was that was unexpected. So they they sent me an email saying, the name of the award is Carlos Ponce

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Premio para la Conservacion which is a very renown prize

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And for Peru, for people working in conservation in Peru. The organisers is a group a consortium is Conservation International.

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WCS, Pronaturaleza  these organisations have worked for a long time in Peru.

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And when with with the e-mail when I answered, I said yes, but I haven't applied to this award and I had no idea.

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And then the lady. Well, when I was notified, it was a big surprise.

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I enjoyed it a lot. The ceremony was by Zoom and that was that was very different.

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But it was very moving. And for me personally was very moving.

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And for Pro Delphinus, I think the staff really enjoy it because it's not an award for a person.

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But to, in my opinion, is an award for an organisation that has over two decades working.

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So it was it was a very nice recognition for our work.

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Absolutely. Could you tell me a bit more about how Pro Delphinus started?

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Yes. Well, Pro Delphinus started to  so.

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The father, the mother of Pro Delphinus, called Sipek whi is a

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a private organisation,

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a group of biologists and veterinarians living in Pucusana and working in marine mammals back in 1990s and towards the end of the 90s.

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They decided to to be more inclusive for for students and volunteers.

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And that was the start of Pro Delphinus and for for their early years.

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We didn't do much. But in 2003, we started strong.

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It was the year that we applied for a few grants and we got them all, which was a very nice surprise and a great challenge.

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We we started growing slowly. We have been growing organically.

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I want to say over the years, right now, I think we probably have.

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Ten projects and two are big.

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One is to focus on sustainable fisheries.

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The small scale and the although the other one is for leatherback turtles.

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Conservation. And and I want to take the chance to to mention that the population of Eastern leatherback pacific turtles are doing very bad.

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So there's a bunch of countries from Mexico to Chile working on improve the conservation of this species to avoid extinction.

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This is one of the species that is highly impacted and nesting sites and at sea.

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So this project is all about Leatherbacks and working with to reduce bycatch and the water.

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And is this work with turtles that led you to become involved in Pro Delphinus or

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Was it the fisheries work? It was my my work at Pro Delphinus started with marine mammals, and it started with dolphins because.

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Because then when I was a student in the 90's, dolphins were brought to shore and my.

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But if you ask me what I thought. My thoughts about a young student I wanted so badly to work with dolphins.

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It was my dream. So this group that accepted me as a volunteer, Sipek, they worked with dolphins.

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So I went there and started volunteer and.

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But I had no idea that all the dolphins were going to be dead because they brought them from the fisheries interactions to shore and.

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So it started with dolphins and then they evolved and move on to turtles.

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Because as I was observing dolphins, it was the same issue with turtles.

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One day we went to a port and there was leatherback turtle laying on this Scarapas

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And that was a pretty shocking image. Luckily, we don't see that anymore these days.

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But that was the start of my interest on sea turtles.

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And I was had had been very rewarding. In fact, the project we have that I just mentioned on leatherback turtles is trying to.

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distribute LED light which have proved to help reduce the bycatch of sea turtles.

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And with this project, we can hand them, the fishermen, to have them in their nets to avoid

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The entanglement of the turtles. And reduce mortality, hopefully.

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You're currently the director at Pro Delphinus. Did you.

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Did you go straight into that position after your you completed your PhD

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No. No. I started volunteering and my volunteer was cleaning floors, dusting bones, picking up buckets of guts of Dolphin.

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My volutneer was pretty rough, and I think it was good.

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I'm very grateful that it was a rough start because there was a test in my mind was a test and probably in the mind of my my bosses on that time.

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So I started as a volunteer cleaning, mostly helping in everything.

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And then I became a junior researcher.

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And then from there, an assistant researcher. And then now I'm the director of Pro Delphinus, which is very different.

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But I still clean. So really a case of sort of getting involved with the organisation from the ground up.

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Yes. Yes. And that has been good. I am I'm happy that it was started that way, because now I can I can place myself in the shoes of the volunteers.

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And and and I, I work my way up, which which was has been a rewarding feel is.

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So could you tell me kind of like what your typical day is like?

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I know the answer is going to be there isn't one Yeah, sure.

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My typical day has changed now.

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And there were a lot of sitting. A lot of computer time.

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But before that. And that's because of COVID then because the office is partially closed, we are starting to go but not many hours and et cetera.

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But my normal day before COVID was a little bit more fun.

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Most of my days will be meetings with government officers or in some occasions I also

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go to fishing ports because I don't want to lose the connection of with the field.

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If somebody asked me in my job, I want to be able to tell them from experience what I have been observing and respond with the experience.

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So the contact with the field and fishermen, it's important to me.

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So I will go I will combine meetings, office time with some travelling and.

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And some and phone calls, a lot of phone calls, too. We write a lot of papers.

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We we work on that. That's our most precious.

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Give give back to society and to academia and to the country that has this has been the focus.

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Last year we did over 20 papers, the year before I think 18.

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So we're we're good. The staff is great about that.

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They're really into research and publishing.

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And that sounds such a varied day and a varied kind of type of work in terms of advocacy and being in the field, writing papers and, you know,

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still having that really important kind of academic research contribution,

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as well as the wider kind of contribution that you're making to conservation.

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Sounds like a fantastic kind of combination. I wonder if we can sort of.

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To finish up what advice you have for anyone who is currently doing PhD

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Who wants to. Pursue a career in the kind of conservation organisation that you're working in.

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Mm hmm. Yeah, well, the advice in general will be if you have a topic that is of your interest.

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That's great. But if you don't, it will come up.

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It will come up at some point and you will identify something that is really interesting for you.

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So don't worry if you don't have that passion that that some people do at early age and take

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opportunities as they come to experiment and try different things within your career and out of your career,

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because sometimes you can combine things that are not specifically related to biology or research.

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And if you're thinking about working in an NGO is this is great.

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I mean, for us has been great. I know it's challenging because you have to look for your own funds.

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But the early years are difficult. And then it becomes smoother as your expertise, as you develop your expertise.

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And combining that with PhD had been for us a great step in our careers, in our lives.

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We still collaborate with Brendan So we build a little network in Exeter and that I hope it continues over time.

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And and and and I'm looking forward for what's coming in the future.

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Thank you so much to Joanna for taking the time out to talk about the really exciting and important work that she's doing.

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And that's it for this episode. Join us next time when we'll be talking to another researcher about their career beyond their research degree.

 

Episode 14 - Dr, Heather Hind and Dr. Philippa Earle (Digital Learning Developers at the University of Exeter)

Episode 14 - Dr, Heather Hind and Dr. Philippa Earle (Digital Learning Developers at the University of Exeter)

March 29, 2021

Welcome to the Beyond Your Research Degree podcast from the University of Exeter Doctoral College! The podcast about careers and all the opportunities available to you... beyond your research degree!  In this episode Kelly Preece, Researcher Development Manager talks Dr. Heather Hind and Dr. Philippa Earle, who are doctoral graduates from English currently work as Digital Learning Developers in the College of Medicine and Health at the University of Exeter. 

 

Music from https://filmmusic.io ’Cheery Monday’ by Kevin MacLeod (https://incompetech.com) License: CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses

 

Podcast transcript

 

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Hello and welcome to the Beyond Your Research Degree podcast by the University of Exeter Doctoral College

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00:00:23,400 --> 00:00:28,320
Hello, and a warm welcome to another episode of Beyond Your Research Degree.

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I'm Kelly Preece, the research development manager in the Doctoral College,

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and I'm continuing episodes on the theme of getting jobs and moving forward with your career.

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During COVID 19, by talking to actually in this episode, two of our doctoral graduates.

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So Dr Philippa Earle and Dr Heather Huind both of whom did their PhDs in English but are now working in professional

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services roles at the University of Exeter in roles that were created in response to the COVID 19 pandemic.

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So Heather and Philippa, are you happy to introduce yourselves? I'm Dr Heather Hind

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I did my PhD in English literature, specifically Victorian literature and things that the Victorians made out of human hair.

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And I finished in while I handed in in March 2020, just before the first lockdown's started and had my viva last year.

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And since then, I've been working for the university as a digital learning developer for the College of Medicine and Health.

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So I'm Dr Philippa Earle I finished my PhD at Exeter in.

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Summer of 2018. It seems a long time ago now. And my thesis was on John Milton.

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And I'm really interested in his material philosophy, which is commonly called monism.

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And so I've kind of been floating around since then, doing various things.

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I'd really like to get into academia. I really enjoy teaching.

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I have done some casual teaching since then to different roles at different universities,

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and I then came into doing this digital learning development role kind of last September.

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So I was kind of last minute recruits and it kind of slotted in working with Heather.

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That's fabulous. Like you say, probably it's useful just to start with, kind of back it up, back a little bit.

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What a digital learning developer is. And I think particularly as well how these roles have.

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It evolved because of the situation with the current pandemic.

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And so when they were first advertised, I think I applied last June,

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I think I started my application the week before my viva, and then I had the interview the week after my viva.

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Wow. Yes, it was the time. It was honestly really fortuitous for me as it worked out.

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But they were advertised as roles to support the shift to online teaching during the pandemic.

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And to think what the job description said.

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It said, you know, supporting teaching staff, troubleshooting online issues, helping to develop the virtual learning environment.

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ELE at Exeter. But it was it was relatively vague.

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I don't know if Philippa would agree, but it was, you know, relatively, you know, job speak sort of.

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These are all of the possible things that you might be asked to do. Vague.

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But as the role has gone on and we've been able to shape it to a certain extent to what sort of support our college needs.

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It's been a lot more about kind of project management, checking over modules and quality,

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assuring them for the online side of things to make sure that the students are properly supported.

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Have all the information they need,

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online seminars and lectures and things are running smoothly and that we're continually trying to make things better, innovate, use new digital tools.

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Yeah, I think I hadn't kind of anticipated quite how much I would learn, I suppose, because I was sort of thinking, well,

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we were both kind of chucked into the online teaching through the kind of teaching roles we were doing at the time last March.

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And I kind of needed something more stable. And these were full time roles, even though they're fixed term.

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And yeah, I think Heather and I kind of came at this from a very similar angle, really.

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We're both English PhD graduates. Both interested in it and going into academia and.

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Yeah. I suppose we kind of thought of this as a way of being sort of resourceful with the kind of options that are out there,

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but also having a bit more kind of job security. So, you know, I came to this role thinking, well,

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I can bring a little bit of my experience that I've had just from having to sort of fumble your way through and shove everything online last minute,

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but actually have just learnt so much. And yeah, as has Heather was saying, about kind of quality assurance, different digital tools and the options.

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And so actually, I'm I'm really pleased that I've managed to kind of get loads out of this and

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not just for kind of improving the quality of the teaching and the college,

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but also kind of my own understanding of pedagogy and the way that you can kind of support your own teaching with digital tools and what works.

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It's just been brilliant, really. Yeah, I think it's really interesting to hear you talk about it that way and also the you know,

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the the fact that it's fitting into a kind of an aim for an academic career path.

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And because it's it's giving you obviously it's giving you some job stability in the interim, but also,

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you know, a real a range of really specialist skills that as a result of the pandemic are going to be.

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You know, the way that education is going to change in that inevitably is going to be so highly valued.

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Moving forward. And I think also, yeah.

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Because there is just so much uncertainty. These were advertised as fixed term roles.

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And, you know, the university hasn't quite decided what direction they're going in yet, whether they're going to be renewed.

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So I think we're both trying to keep an open mind and think, well, this is kind of plan A.

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But equally, you know, we're quite happy doing these roles and then they're very valuable.

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So it's a good stepping stone, really. And, you know, it's always good to have a backup plan is knowing the market as it is.

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So it's giving us a really good insight into professional services and just the other side of things at the university.

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The university structure working within kind of lots of different teams, different, introduced to different kinds of management there.

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So, yeah, really good insight. And, you know, opening up kind of alternative possibilities, you know, if Plan A doesn't work out as well.

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Yeah, I think that's that's a really, really fantastic way of looking at it and kind of,

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you know, all of the various skills that you're going to be developing.

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I wondered if you could talk a little bit about. So you both did your PhDs in English and now you're working in medicine.

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And I wondered if you could talk a little bit about what that experience is like

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and what it's like working in a different college and supporting teaching,

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learning in a discipline, you know,

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relatively far removed from your own and and what that's like and kind of what you're taking across almost from one subject to another.

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And so I think we both applied for this role, but put down our preference for working in humanities.

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I guess I had I's envisioned it, as, you know, being able to have a hand in the sorts of courses that I would be able to teach or,

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you know, captioning the sorts of lectures that I would one day give.

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And so I really had it in my mind while I was applying that I really wanted this job in the College of Humanities.

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And so when they offered it for the College of Medicine and Health, I was a little bit unsure of what that would involve.

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And to what extent I would need some sort of knowledge base for supporting medicine courses,

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but actually because we we support the postgraduate taught programmes and the continuing professional development programmes.

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What we've really been able to carry across is our experience of being in postgraduates.

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Well, postgraduates, I mean researchers now. But, you know, people that have been through master's courses and know what it's like to go through

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that very intense year where you move into an even more independent source of learning.

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So there's definitely been that that we've been able to carry across.

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We haven't needed too much subject specialist knowledge.

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Occasionally when we're captioning, we will have to Google some, you know, drug names or some bones or something.

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But it's really been about our knowledge of teaching and supporting

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Learners, that has really helped us to, for example, look at an ELE module page and say, oh,

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actually this assessment brief is not very clear or it's missing some really key information about this or the prereading for this course is,

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you know, not in the most, you know, obvious, clear place for people coming to it.

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So so it's those sorts of universal things that I think we've been able to carry across.

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Yeah, I think I would just add to that the sum of the parts I've particularly enjoyed

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have been the opportunity to actually collaborate with academics as well.

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So we have the opportunity to have one to one meetings with them to really

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discuss kind of what they ideally would like to do or the kinds of activities.

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They've usually done in the past and and kind of help them come up with something that's really going to work in an online format.

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So there's been a lot of trial and error, a few kind of failings along the way with, you know, synchronous sessions and what works best and.

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Well, you know, all sorts of things trying to put people into breakout rooms,

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reassigning on Zoom and just kind of, you know, coming across different pitfalls.

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But we've actually managed to kind of develop our own kind of ways of working and solutions and kind of recommended methods,

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which is really quite exciting. And, yeah,

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I just I particularly enjoy kind of talking through what the academic wants to achieve and then being able to kind of

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draw on my knowledge that I've gained in this role of the digital tools how ELE works the best kind of format for,

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you know,

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contact days or synchronous sessions and just really be sort of part of that and feel very much the our experience and knowledge is kind of valued.

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And I think, as Heather was saying, the fact that we do actually have some teaching experience ourselves, we can kind of, you know,

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get our minds into that that gear to really think about how it's going to work

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and what's what's really gonna be best for the students learning as well.

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And just to add to that that we've actually been given a lot of responsibility in that sense, more than I was kind of expecting really in this role.

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And, yeah. Of our kind of we've been sort of trusted to input our thoughts and in terms of kind

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of evaluating the strategy in the college and really kind of working at high levels,

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talking with the programme directors. The Dean for Education, Project enhance leadership team meetings.

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So it's it's really great, actually, that we've been trusted and given the responsibility that we've had and that we've

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actually had the opportunity to kind of shape how we do things at a higher level as well,

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as well as kind of working with individuals. That's something I really appreciated. Yeah.

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And I think there's a couple of things, really brilliant things to pick out of that.

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The first of which is, you know, there were a lot of these roles across the institution and some of them have,

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you know, gone to so they;re what, the University of Exeter call graduate business partner roles.

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Is that right? Yes. Yeah. GBPs. So some some people in these roles will be having just come out of undergraduate or postgraduate taught degrees.

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And so their experience will be will be useful and certainly kind of, you know, people with the same level, you know,

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really good digital skills, but also, you know, what you're talking about in terms of that student perspective.

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But like you're saying, what you bring that to that as a doctoral

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Graduate is that extra dimension of understanding, research, but understanding, teaching and pedagogy in a different way.

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And I think, you know, quite often when we see things like GBPs or graduate schemes,

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we assume that they're aimed at undergraduates and perhaps some of the language.

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And then the way in which they're written does kind of reinforce that.

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But actually, it doesn't mean they're not applicable to PGRs and that actually PGRs, you know.

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Or doctoral graduates will potentially have the opportunity and the roles to to do more and to go further.

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Because because of how that much further along they are in their academic career.

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The other thing that I wanted to pick up on is why I was be interested in what you're

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saying about kind of the management side and the strategy side of being involved in that.

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And I wondered if you could say something about kind of what a bit more about what you valued, about learning, I guess,

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about the more administrative or managerial side of the university,

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which you don't get as much of an exposure to what you're doing, a research degree.

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Yeah, I. So for me, as I say, it's it's great to have the insight into kind of the structure of the institution,

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obviously, to meet these different people as well and to learn from them and their expertise.

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And it's yeah, it's really kind of opened up so many opportunities that we we just hadn't anticipated.

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Lots of professional development opportunities.

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And I think it's worth noting that that is something that, first of all, you just don't really have time for when you're doing a casual teaching post,

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because as anybody who has done that will know, even if you're only doing about four.

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hours teaching a week as an early career academic or researcher.

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You're coming into that institution from outside. You're basically going to have a lot of work dumped on you.

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And because you're kind of coming in and you probably don't have much notice when you start the role.

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For me, it was essentially a full time job, even though I was only teaching about four hours a week each time.

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Because if you're producing lectures, etc., it's just an enormous amount of work.

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And so you don't really have time to kind of engage in any professional opportunities,

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personal development opportunities that might be offered by the institution. But with this role, it's something that has been very much integrated.

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So we've been able to kind of continually undertake different kinds of training for different digital tools.

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We've also been able to attend the things like the eduexe sessions,

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where we're kind of sharing best practise across the university, finding out how people do things in different departments,

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different colleges, and seeing what we can kind of take from not to to implement in the College of Medicine and Health and in PGT where we're based.

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So I think all of that does feed into our kind of connection and on what we can pass on to people in kind of more senior roles.

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And I work with managers in the college.

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We work very closely with our programme director for PGT, but also with the team director of Quality and Teaching.

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And so we got that's another nice kind of aspect of the role, is that people are interested in actually listening to our ideas.

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And again, coming back to all kind of experience as teachers ourselves, having that side of things,

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and also kind of new understanding of kind of what digital tools are out there and the the processes and functions of ELE

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It's sort of given us of a good ability to see what might potentially work and what we can take, what we can take forward and kind of.

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Yeah, pass on to people like the director of teaching quality and really feel like you're actually

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making a difference in kind of shaping our path forward in terms of online learning.

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So, yeah, I again,

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it's it's lovely to be trusted to the extent that we are and kind of valued that much really by senior people in the university, I would say.

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And just to be kind of taken seriously and be, you know, have the opportunity to actually input ideas as well.

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And I think that applies not just to us as graduate as postgraduates.

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I think it really does apply to the undergraduates, too. And, you know, we're working within multiple teams.

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We're working with technology enhanced learning where we're often asked for our views on certain things and how we work.

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And so, yeah, it's great really to be I suppose the role is so new.

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We've we've actually had to establish the way that we work.

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And Heather and I have had to kind of really specifically define what we do, how we do things in PGT

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even down to kind of, you know, the spreadsheet that we use and and the day to day running of things.

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But also, I think DLDs as a whole seem to be, you know, very much included in actually.

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Trying to define and determine what happens next, which is quite nice.

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Yeah. Now, I was thinking in terms of strategy, as you were saying, it's been really interesting to be part of larger strategy talks,

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but also on just the scale of us working with PGT programmes for the College of Medicine and Health.

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Being able to strategize what we want to do with the year that we have,

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or at least the year that we know we definitely have in this role and being able to think,

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okay, you know, what are we going to prioritise for term one? What do we want our modules to look like?

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What sorts of digital tools do we want to emphasise or demonstrate for the module leads?

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Then what do we want to improve on for term two? How are we going to go about that?

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So we've been able to do things like run college, PGT, specific student surveys,

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staff surveys and run some demonstration meetings to kind of go through the sorts of things that we think will improve courses.

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So just on that smaller scale strategy as well, it's been really interesting to kind of have a handle on that.

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And as Philippa said

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it's kind of shape the trajectory of what we're doing with the year to make things better during pandemic times with online teaching,

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but also think about what will improve things in the long term going forward to potential blended learning.

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Because I think improving these courses in their online offering is still going to help when eventually some of it is move back into the classroom.

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Yeah. I think all of that's really important. And one of the couple of things I want to pick up out of that is really interesting

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to hear you talk about the unique opportunity that you've had within these roles

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for professional development and academic professional development that you wouldn't

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necessarily have the time or scope for if you were just doing a few hours teaching.

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So I wondered if we could talk a little bit more about about what those opportunities might be, but also kind of in tandem with that.

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What? We've talked a lot about all the different experiences you're having, and I can absolutely see how all of these would be really,

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really beneficial in thinking about moving forward with an academic career.

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But I wondered if you could say a little bit about.

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From your perspective about what you feel like you're going to really strongly take forward from the role.

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The roles that you're doing now and the experiences you're having now into applying for academic jobs.

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So I know there are two things that we can really do with professional development first.

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Sure. And so with both. Well, we both came into this job with the associate fellow of the Higher Education Academy as our,

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you know, professional framework teaching qualification.

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And one of the really tangible things to come out of this year is we're using our experience now in our supporting,

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teaching and quality enhancing role to go for the fellow of the Higher Education Academy.

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We've got our applications together. Fingers crossed.

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But, you know, if we can gain that, that's a really good, solid thing that we can use in our applications for other jobs going forward.

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But just as employees of Exeter, we've had the opportunity to go to the full suite of professional development workshops,

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especially with everything being online. It's been really good to be able to say, okay,

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I'd like to go to a CVs workshop to an interviews workshop to all these different things, wellbeing workshops.

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It's it's it's part of our role, part of our job.

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You know, we have to go through personal development reviews and that sort of thing.

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So so it's been really interesting having the opportunity to go to these sorts of workshops and professional development opportunities,

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but also to have them as part of the structure of what's the university wants us to do with our with our time and with our progression as well.

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And I guess I would just add to that that I think, well, first of all,

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the role itself and the kind of modules that we are assisting with because they are postgraduate courses,

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but also because they are kind of some of them are focussed very specifically on education and clinical education.

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How you effectively teach clinical practises to, you know,

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maybe GPs who are taking an extra professional development course or something like that.

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So we have actually assisted in the development of and being present for the delivery of clinical education modules,

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modules on digital teaching, which was really helpful.

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And so all of that is just so useful. We can actually learn not just from the courses, but from the module leads delivering most courses.

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We were invited to be actually we were invited to kind of be part of the teaching,

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the digital teaching module and to sort of share our own experiences with digital tools and that kind of thing.

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And it was just great to learn from the students as well with that, to be honest. I mean,

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I wish that we'd actually recorded some of the fantastic presentations because they had the opportunity

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to have a play around with some of the digital tools and experiment what you could use them for.

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And they were just simply fantastic things on improving the deliver the training for the COVID vaccine and all sorts of wonderful things

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that are going to make such a difference in the world and really make me proud to be supporting these these healthcare students.

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But with the FHEA more specifically, it's really helped me reflect on what I'm actually getting out of this role.

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So all of the stuff that we do with the quality assurance of module's, the continual evaluation of our practise,

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how successful things have been, the regular meetings with the project enhance leadership team and the college.

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And that's where we get to actually kind of talk to academics that are sort of delivering the teaching.

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And we talk through any arising problems and we kind of troubleshoot and continually evaluate.

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And all of that has been just great to write about on my application, really,

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because it's it's really helping me reflect on my own practise as somebody who's supporting teaching and who's interested in kind of teaching myself.

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So we kind of figured we'd kind of unintentionally ended up sort of hitting, you know,

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most of the criteria just just through kind of what we're doing on a daily basis.

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And so it's been great to actually have that, to really take the time to reflect on exactly what we're getting out of the role.

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So in terms of professional development, I'd say it's it's actually exceeded my expectations, really.

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And and as Heather says, if we can get this qualification at the end of it, then, you know, it's been a really fantastic stepping stone.

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And I think that a lot of roles that I've seen advertised have actually wanted somebody who

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knows about digital technology or is interested in using digital technology in their teaching,

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because, I mean, I think this is going to be kind of part of the future. It's going to be had to stay really and in whatever form it eventually takes.

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So, yeah, it's it's been a really great opportunity,

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even though we've been working in a very different field in medicine and health and we're both from English.

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There has been a lot of kind of transferable skills that we can bring to this role.

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That's really brilliant.

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And I think pulling out some of those things like the FHEA, which is really going to set you apart in applying for those academic roles,

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because it's it's rare that PGRs when they're doing their research.

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are going to have the opportunity to engage in that in that level of teaching practise and the opportunity for that level of reflection as well.

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That's needed to achieve that status. So I wondered if you could say a little bit more about how that how this kind of fits in and in.

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The longer kind of career go to work in academia and what specifically things like the FHEA that you think that

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you want to take forward and that you feel are really going to help you with those academic job applications?

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I think for me, it's it's at least understanding the real significance of evaluation and evaluating processes.

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And this is something that the university has had to do on a huge scale, shifting, you know, to so much online.

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And and basically, you know, transforming digitally.

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So I think the fact that we've kind of been forced into this situation where we're constantly having the discussions, is this working?

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Is this effective? What can we do better for me? I think that is something I would actually like to take forward.

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You know, whatever happens,

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I think even if we are doing a lot more face to face teaching eventually or supporting much more kind of blended approaches,

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I just think it's it's something that perhaps wasn't emphasised enough before was this sort of continual evaluation of processes,

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even if you've been doing it for years. You know, it's the opportunity to actually share best practise and innovate, really.

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And and just I think the value of that sort of collaborative approach to teaching is maybe something that we've not fully appreciated before.

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And the point of the pandemic has kind of pushed us into confronting really.

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And I personally feel that that's something we could really take forward.

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And I would like to adopt in my in my practise or wherever I end up, even if I'm if I'm here, if I end up here.

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I just think that's something that's so valuable. And, yeah, it's it's a focus on the process itself.

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The process of teaching. And and I think that includes our students, too.

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So, you know that they are kind of active collaborators in this process.

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I think that there's just so much to learn from the approach we've actually taken with Project Enhance and the benefits of that for,

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you know, the quality of learning as well and what the students can get out of it.

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And that's something I'm quite excited about. I'd like to do more with.

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Definitely. I completely agree.

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In terms of first applying for teaching posts in the future, we've now gained experience of the side of teaching that we didn't.

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Not that we didn't engage with before, but that weren't necessarily our top priority.

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When, you know, we need to prep for our seminars, go and teach them to have a set number of hours to do everything.

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Having this kind of reflective role and thinking about all the kind of other things that go into

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preparing a really good module and really good contact session has been really useful for that.

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But I guess the other thing for me is that I always knew there would be, you know,

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a bit of a gap between finishing my PhD and hopefully getting some sort of academic role.

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And I did think, you know, I'll apply for a job in professional services or maybe I'll get some casual teaching

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contracts and hopefully I'll be doing something linked to the university while I'm kind of,

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you know, working on a book proposal, working on more articles,

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gaining all those other sorts of research experience that I would need to get a postdoc or an academic post.

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And I guess this role has just given us a little bit of security and bought us

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a little bit of time to be doing those things and thinking about our research.

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I mean, not not to say that it hasn't been difficult.

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I think, you know, both me and Philippa feel that it's really tiring to be sat at your laptop all day doing this sort of work and then to think,

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okay, I need to turn to that to the article proposal that I'm working on.

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But that's the other side of this is a lot of post PhD will be in that position of I want to carry on with my research, develop my research profile.

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But, you know, I need some paid employment. And at least this role has felt that we've been developing the teaching side of things

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while we've been trying to continue to work on our research side of things as well.

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Yes. I just want to ask you a little bit about the application process.

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So kind of what you have to do in terms of filling in any kind of application form and then what the interview process was like.

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So, yeah, can you say a little bit about what you had to do in terms of an application?

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And sure. So the application form wasn't overly elaborate.

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I filled in much longer involved application forms before.

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But it asked for I can't remember how long it was, but a relatively lengthy supporting statement.

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So the equivalent of writing a cover letter for a job that wanted you to engage with STAR

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And I cannot remember what the acronym stands for, but it's the idea that its situation.

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task action, reflection or resolution. Yes.

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Yes,. So it it kind of wanted you to go through your experience, what sort of skills and things you're bringing to this job.

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But, you know, you talk about, you know, in this situation, I was faced with this challenge.

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Here's what I did. And, you know, here was the result.

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And I think I don't think I've consciously used that in other job applications before this role.

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But that was actually quite useful for me to talk about previous jobs I'd done and

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then have to think of some some conflict or some issue that I dealt with within that.

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So. So, yeah. So we had this supporting statement to write

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And then we were invited for interview, which was a panel interview.

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I think there were four or five people on the call. It was virtual, obviously over Microsoft teams.

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And I just remember it being very quick, I think, because there were a number of these roles advertised and they had quite a few posts to fill.

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It did need to be quite speedy.

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But the sorts of questions they asked were, I think they were to do with digital teaching, like, you know, where do you see this going?

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Or what's an example of best practise in digital online teaching?

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But I did get the impression that they wanted the answers to be quite succinct.

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So I felt a little bit a little bit rushed versus some of the job interviews I've been in.

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But I got the impression that really they they'd already appreciated what you were going to offer from your written application,

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and they were really trying to work out where you would fit in.

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And so I think the reason they put me in Philipa on PGT programmes was no doubt because of our experience being postgraduates.

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But I think they were just trying to work that out at that stage and obviously check that we were, you know, fit for the role.

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And I'd just add that I really appreciated being picked by the College of Medicine and Health.

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Even though this is not our specialism. They saw something in us.

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And it's really proven transferable how flexible English and humanities graduates can be.

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I think, you know, we've been able to bring a creative approach to the problem solving,

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to, you know, the kinds of education that we're facing in our programmes.

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So, yeah, I think we've definitely had some real strengths to bring to the role.

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I initially didn't hear anything when I applied. So Heather was in the first round of sort of employees.

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I didn't hear anything for a couple of months. And I chased it up and I was told that I hadn't been shortlisted.

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So I just thought, okay, you know, onto the next thing that's that.

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But then I had an email out of the blue a couple of months later when I think they were just they realised they needed to recruit some more DLDs

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So then I had a very last minute interview for the College of Medicine Health as well.

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And, yeah, just just it's been great working there.

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And I think we've had an insight also into the extent to which medical professionals actually do value the humanities also.

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And what they can learn from them. You know, I hadn't realised that medical students are even taught art history because it helps them with being

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able to kind of analyse the symptoms that a patient is presenting and kind of think of it holistically.

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So I think it's really been beneficial for us to bring all sort of creative approach to things.

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Also with things like the strategy Problem-Solving thinking about ways forward more broadly.

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It's been great that that has actually been valued. And yeah, that we were both taken on by the College of Medicine and Health.

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That's really, really brilliant and really helpful. Thank you.

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And I want to finish, you can just give sort of like we got any advice or kind of top tips to other PGRs who are who are coming to.

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The end of their research degree. Maybe they're not sure they want to do.

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Or maybe they're, you know, are thinking about pursuing an academic career or something in higher education.

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What advice would you give them based on? Based on your experience as a sort of almost the past year?

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I think in terms of job searches,

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I definitely had already thoughts about going into professional services just because I wanted to keep that link to a university and,

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you know, ideally Exeter. I just thought it would kind of keep me in the loop with academic things, at least being in that environment.

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So that's definitely something that I was already considering kind of post PhD.

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But I think I've realised in this role with how linked it is with teaching and supporting learning,

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is that it doesn't just have to be a monetary stopgap to kind of pay the bills while you're looking for, you know, stuff that first academic position.

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But there is an awful lot that you can gain towards your academic career from working in other university roles.

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I know the sorts of other things I was thinking of. I worked in admissions before I did my PhD.

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So that was something I was thinking of going back to. I've seen lots of posts advertised supporting big research projects,

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which I think would be a really useful thing to get involved with if you had this,

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you know, think about the admin side of of budgets and organising events and all that sort of thing.

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So I think there are lots of other roles outside of the university as well that can give you further skills and

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experience that still completely translate into the sorts of things that are valued for an academic career.

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So it's just trying to adjust your mindset.

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Think of it not just as you know, oh, I have to spend this period of time doing something that's not my academic career,

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but thinking about what sort of roles you could take on the do still kind of keep you on that path.

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Yeah, I mean, I think there's a lot of pressure on early career researchers because postdocs are essentially time dependent.

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So as you know, you're only eligible for a postdoc within like three years of finishing your PhD.

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And so given how competitive they are, you know,

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it's there's a huge amount of pressure to try and publish to try and get the book to try and make yourself stand out.

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And if you're not fortunate enough to kind of have somebody who can financially support you while you're writing your book or whatever or,

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you know, given the current situation with the pandemic, I'm sure a lot of people have got, you know, completely unexpected circumstances.

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I'm currently supporting my mum. So, you know, you want to have some more kind of security.

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And so I think my advice would be you have to be open minded, not just flexible.

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So I did, as I said, a couple of casual teaching roles.

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But given the current situation, I was I knew I needed something more so stable and secure.

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And I think it is just about having a look at what's out there and and thinking about, you know, again, those transferable skills.

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What can I get from this? Is this going to be a stepping stone?

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And I think you're lucky if you can find something that is relevant to what you want to do.

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It's not easy. I mean, I've also worked in retail and throughout my my teaching, I also worked weekends in a shop.

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So it's really not easy to juggle those things.

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But I think the professional services side of things that university does offer, if you want to go into academia.

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You know, lots of really useful skills and opportunities as we've talked about things like the professional development.

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So I think you just have to be open minded and maybe it isn't going to be the ideal path forward.

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But, you know, you just have to try and be kind of resourceful, I suppose.

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And it does open up other things and it gives you an insight into other areas.

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And, you know, for me, as time goes on, because I've been in this situation for a couple of years now,

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you kind of think, okay, well, maybe previously I can imagine really doing anything else because that means.

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It isn't going to happen quite like that. And, you know, maybe I'll find another way.

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So I just really would say. Be open minded and be resourceful in in the roles that you take on.

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So even if it isn't gonna be a teaching role, there are other roles out there that are still going to benefit you and make you more employable.

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Thank you so much to Heather and Philippa for taking time out of what I know is an incredibly busy schedule in the roles that they're in.

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Talk to me about their roles as digital learning developers at the University of Exeter.

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And I think there are a number of things to pull out of this conversation.

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You know, that's the important thing that we've been trying to focus on about starting your career and getting jobs during COVID

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but also thinking about that kind of route into an academic career, which might not be traditional,

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perhaps particularly at the moment, but going into this kind of professional services role where you might be able to develop really,

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really relevant skills and experience and expertise that will put you in a really, really strong place in the academic job market.

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And I know that the kinds of things that Heather and Philippa were talking about, their teaching and digital skills,

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their fellowship with the Higher Education Academy or the professional development they've been undertaking,

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is going to put them in a really fantastic place when the kind of academic roles, when they come up.

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And that's it for this episode. Join us next time when we'll be talking to another researcher about their career beyond their research degree.

 

Episode 13 - Charlotte Chivers, Research Assistant, University of Gloucestershire

Episode 13 - Charlotte Chivers, Research Assistant, University of Gloucestershire

February 22, 2021

Welcome to the Beyond Your Research Degree podcast from the University of Exeter Doctoral College! The podcast about careers and all the opportunities available to you... beyond your research degree!  In this episode Kelly Preece, Researcher Development Manager talks to Charlotte Chivers, who secured a Research Assistant post at the University of Gloucestershire during COVID-19. Charlotte has started her role at the University of Gloucestershire whilst finishing writing up her PhD.

 

Music from https://filmmusic.io ’Cheery Monday’ by Kevin MacLeod (https://incompetech.com) License: CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses

 

Podcast transcript

 

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Hello and welcome to the Beyond Your Research Degree podcast by the University of Exeter, Doctoral College

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Hello and welcome to beyond your research degree. It's Kelly Preece here, and I'm really excited to be bringing you the second in a special series that

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we're doing for Beyond Your Research Degree about securing jobs during Covid 19.

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So last time I talked to Tomir about securing a job with an NGO.

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And today I'm gonna be talking to Charlotte Chivers in a very similar position to Timur,

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writing up herPhD and starting a new job, but this time as a postdoctoral research associate.

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So we normally on Beyond your Research degree, we focus on non-academic careers.

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But given the real challenges our PGRs are facing at the moment,

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it seemed really pertinent to talk about securing academic and research jobs as well.

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Yeah, hi. So I'm Charlotte Chivers and I have been doing my PhD at the University of Exeter since twenty seventeen.

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My research is within the Centre for Rural Policy Research.

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So it's a social science. PhD and I have been exploring the efficacy of agriculture advice surrounding diffused water pollution.

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So I have now finished a draft of my entire thesis and congratulations.

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And I'm making revisions based on my supervisor's comments at this stage.

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However, back in September, I started a research position at the University of Gloucestershire.

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So I now work in the Countryside and Community Research Institute.

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So I've been juggling, working full time and finishing off my PhD.

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And again, I'm working in social science, but mostly looking at environmental stuff.

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So I now work on two big EU projects. One is called Soil Care, which it's soil health in agriculture.

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And the other is called Spint and we are looking at pesticides in agriculture.

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That's brilliant. Thank you. So there's a number of lots of different things to pick up on within that.

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But I think so firstly. So if we can go back to September last year. So was it September you started the job?

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Yes. I started in September. So when when did you when did you apply?

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What were the sort of timescales? So I applied in June last year.

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OK, yeah. So. So I wasn't. Sorry. No i was just going to say so this is so all of the application process, everything, it's all happened during COVID.

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Yes. Yes. OK. So I.

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Let's start at the beginning of that process that I'm thinking about, how it might have been affected by it.

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So how? First of all, how did you how did you find this role?

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So I had sort of had my eye on the centre

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I now work for for the last couple of years and I recognised that it would potentially be a good fit for me.

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So I kept my eye on their website and I attended one of our events.

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So they have a annual winter school, which meant that I had the opportunity to meet some of the academics working there.

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And from then on, then I kind of just kept my eye out for jobs.

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And although it was quite early for me to apply for a job because I still had, you know,

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my PhDi ongoing, I wanted to make sure I didn't miss out on an opportunity.

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As obviously, you know, academia is competitive. So I had to kind of go for it.

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When when a job came along. So, yeah, absolutely.

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And I think, you know, it is that when your when you're targeting particular departments or organisations,

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if you're thinking outside academia that are a really good fit for your passion, but also your kind of knowledge and skills.

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It is sometimes having to kind of make that compromise going okay.

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It's not the ideal time. But is this opportunity likely to come up in six months when it is the ideal time?

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Can you talk a little bit about the. Application process, particularly thinking about what might have been different about it because of the,

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you know, the all of the restrictions that we've had in the UK for the past year or so.

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Yeah. So in terms of actually applying for the job, it was it was the same essentially because,

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you know, I had to submit an application form and a CV online. And so that was quite normal, actually.

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And that the first stage where it was quite different is that my interview had to be held online with a panel of three professors,

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which was quite interesting. You know, I had to get myself into the mindset of an interview even though I was starting my apartment.

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So that day that I just made sure that I got dressed up as if I was going to an interview.

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And I just tried to get myself in that mindset. But it was quite strange having a sort of online interview.

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But luckily for panellists were lovely, really supportive. So, you know, I felt relatively at ease despite it being an online interview.

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Yeah. And I think you've picked up on a couple of really important things.

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They're about actually kind of that sense of mindset of how do you put yourself in the frame of mind of performing,

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because that's essentially what an interview it is, isn't it? You know, it comes down to it.

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You're you're kind of performing for the interview panel. And how do you do that when you're kind of in your in your everyday?

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Environments, so I think that thing you said about, you know,

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getting dressed up and doing all of those things like you would do for an interview normally are really important.

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Were there any kind of any markedly different things for having the interview online from when you've had interviews face to face?

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Was there anything kind of. I don't know. Different or challenging?

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About doing that way. Yeah, definitely so.

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And the thing is, it's because there were four of us on the call.

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And you have a lag often when you're online It was incredibly difficult to not interrupt each other.

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And and being in an interview, you obviously don't want to interrupt people.

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You want to make sure that you, you know, wait your turn and speak when you can ask the question.

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But there were a couple of times. So it's quite difficult to know when to talk and when to get a word in.

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So that's something that was a bit challenging. But again, I think everyone is aware of this.

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So I didn't I didn't see it as a major issue because I assume everyone is facing the same sort of challenge.

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So it was kind of it was kind of okay. Yeah.

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And were there any kind of any positives, any things that you felt were kind of easier or or or nicer or more relaxed because of the online format?

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Yeah, I mean, I personally do prefer in-person meetings because you can build rapport a bit easier.

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You can make proper eye contact, but not having to travel was quite nice.

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I didn't have to worry about being late, unless the Internet had died.

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But, you know, in general, our Internet is really strong.

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So I could just kind of get up in the morning and not think, oh, my gosh, I need to make sure the train isn't late or.

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Yeah. So it was quite nice, actually, not having to worry about about that.

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So, yeah, I'd say that was a benefit. But other than that I'd say I didn't find it dramatically different.

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You know, it was interviews are Always scary. You know, I think I think either way, it's not it's not the easiest of things to go through.

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But, you know, I think having a nice panel really helped.

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And, you know, I think just making sure your Internet is working and stuff is really important to you.

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But, yeah, I wouldn't say there were any massive positives or necessarily any massive negatives either.

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It was kind of. Yeah, it was it was different. But it was but it was fine.

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So can we talk a little bit more about what was involved as part of the application process?

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So you said that you did an online application form and a CV were that particular things like.

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Required as part of the application form. Did you have to do like a personal statement against the job specification or questions?

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Upload documents, anything like that? Yeah.

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So I believe I had to fill in in the application form, I had to refer to how I met the sort of essential and desirable criteria.

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And as a rule of thumb, what I always do is I actually copy across all of the headings from the job description.

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And I specifically answer each one.

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So, you know, and that's always worked quite well for me because it means that the person reading the application can literally see straightaway.

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Okay. They've actually tried to answer every single one of these essential and desirable criteria.

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So I remember specifically doing that, but I don't think it had off the top of my head.

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I can't remember having any really sort of specific things that were out of the ordinary.

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It was kind of just an application form. And yeah, your CV, which I obviously tailored for four jobs,

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I made sure that I prioritise certain things and put things at the top that were really important.

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So, you know, my publication record and my previous work experience were important for this particular position.

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So, you know, I just made sure that it was really I make it as easy as possible for us to do application to see,

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you know, the key things that they need to know about you rather than having it hidden or or further down the page.

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Yeah. Yeah, I think that's a couple of things that you said and that just really useful kind

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of simple tools like copy and cross the headings of the person specification.

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I do that and I don't necessarily use them as headings, but I make sure that,

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like with the example I'm giving the examples I have the exact language from the person.

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specification. Just say it like you're having all the signals or making it really, really clear.

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And so with the interview, was there any preparation you have to do for the interview?

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Did you have to do task or anything like that? No, I didn't.

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I don't think. But I did send across some material in advance. Just off my own bat.

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OK. So I, I basically just really wanted this job.

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So I probably came across as extremely keen. I think that's fine.

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So I essentially sent across some examples of my work just to help bolster my application.

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So part of the role was and so I work on dissemination work package for one of for projects.

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So, you know, I don't just do research. I have to help with dissemination and communication.

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So I sent across a couple of examples of infographics, ive made,

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and I think I sent them a podcast and things like that just to show that even though I'm mostly trained in research,

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I am capable of doing with dissemination side as well, because, you know, it was quite hard to articulate that without providing evidence.

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So I made sure to send that. But it wasn't a prerequisite.

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They didn't ask for it, but I just felt that it would help them to see that, you know, I'm not just saying I can do it.

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I have shown them. Yeah, absolutely. And I think, you know, as part of the whole job application process, that's to be being proactive.

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It is so crucial to the whole process. And do your remember what kind of questions they asked you an interview.

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Oh, my gosh. One of one of the questions I asked was actually where I'd like my career to go.

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Which one? Yeah. So and I was quite sort of.

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And I was like, well, I could just say, oh, I just desperately want.

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this job forever to try and persuade them to give it to me. But I decided to be honest and actually that really paid off.

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So I said, you know, within a few years I'd like to be a research fellow.

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And when I got offered the job, they said that actually really helped me get the job because they want people to progress and they like ambition, so.

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Yeah. So I remember they asked me that was. Oh, they asked.

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They asked questions about my research interests. So, again, you know, I don't want to end up doing research I'm not passionate about.

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So I was completely honest. You know, I explained that I'm very interested in farm advice and soil health and the environment.

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And again, you know, it was just lucky that the job I was applying for, you know, happened to be really aligned in my research interests.

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They also asked me to talk about. So this is a really common in question.

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I think I've had it in every interview I've ever done. They ask what your sort of weakness is.

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And I always. Yeah, and I always tackle that by giving an example of a weakness.

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I may be used to have.

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And then I explain how I resolved it or how I managed to kind of overcome it or how I'm working to do so so that I don't just say,

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oh, I'm really bad at this. And then that's it. I make sure to say, you know, I used to really struggle with time management, for example.

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But since then, I've decided to have to make more lists and to use my calendar more just as an example.

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So that's something that I think I've been asked in every interview I've ever had

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Yeah. I wondered, so you said that you're working on you've completed a full thesis draft and you're working on feedback from your supervisors.

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Is that right? Yes, that's correct. So you started this job in September and to those listening we are currently in February.

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So with a period of five months you've been working full time and finishing writing up your thesis.

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So are you technically still registered full time for you for your PhD

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No. No. So, I mean, continuation status. Yeah.

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Yeah. So my my funding finished in September.

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And then I started my job in September, which was quite nice because, you know,

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I couldn't afford to have a gap in and, you know, financially, it's very difficult to to have a gap.

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So I kind of did need to start. But equally, you know, due to various reasons, due to the pandemic and things, I hadn't quite finished my PhD.

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So, yeah, I just I just had to go for it really and sort of just make sure I work on the thesis as much as I can.

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So what I did once I'd settled into this ECRI, which is where I work now,

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I took a week of annual leave and just sort of really worked on a thesis because

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I find it hard to I can do some work in the evenings on the on the thesis,

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but I think it's hard to get into that headspace when you've been working on other research all day.

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So I decided to use my annual leave up to sort of get the bits of my thesis just finished.

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I needed to. And then it's been quite nice because I actually handed in my draft to my supervisors

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in November and then it took three months to get my supervisor comments back in full.

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So I essentially just had three months to just work on my job and and other bits,

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too, because I seemed to just always have several other bits going on with work.

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But yeah, so I've only just got it back a couple of weeks ago.

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So I now now hatched a plan.

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I have now had my full draft back with supervisors comments throughout and I've hatched a very strict plan to make sure that I do submit and that I,

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you know, have time to sort of make sure I answer all of that comments and proofread and do any final bits.

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So, you know, my goal now is to submit at the end of March.

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And again, I've had to take another week of annual leave.

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So next week, I I've completely taken myself away from ECRI work so that I can just focus on the thesis because,

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you know, I do need to be able to get into that headspace again. And, you know, I am working a lot of evenings and I worked yesterday on it,

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but I think it's much easier to do it when you have a proper chunk of time to just focus on your PhD

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Yeah, that's what I was going to ask is how what's your plan and kind of managing your time.

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And I know I'm speaking to quite a few people who not necessarily you've kind of started a job early, you know, before they finish their PhD

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but people who've been working full time throughout and they've said that, you know, particularly in the write up stage,

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that's been the way that they've managed it the best is to kind of take a big chunk of time.

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And work exclusively on it rather than try and just do it all in evenings and weekends.

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Yeah, absolutely. And, you know, working full time, I simply don't have the time or energy and I really don't want to burn out.

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So overall, I work a lot of evenings. I can't work every evening.

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It's just not sustainable. And and, you know, my new job, I love it.

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But it does require me to work quite long hours.

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So I often actually work in the evenings on my CCRI work. So by the time I can get there, you stay.

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So, look, well, you know, it's quite late at night. So I do think for blocking out time is the best way forward.

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Really? Yeah. What was it like starting a job in a new academic department during COVID

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So it was bizarre, to say the least, because I couldn't meet anyone in person for ages.

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I have now met a few people in person.

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So we had a couple of months where I don't know if they had all these weird tiers and people were starting to go in again.

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And so I went into the office a couple of times and met people.

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But aside from that, I've I've essentially done the job for almost six months just working from home, which has been odd.

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But luckily the centre I work with a really, really lovely.

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So they have made a real effort with me. So they have like a morning coffee break.

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Twice a week just. And you can just join as you'd like.

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And it means you get to just have a chat with people. And I've had them send lots of emails.

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We even had to what sub-group where we all sort of sat running goals and things.

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So, you know, it's really helped me build some rapport. And I'm also incredibly lucky.

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I had already met a few of them, you know, in the past. So I sort of had a little bit of a rapport with them already.

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But, you know, I have other friends who started in jobs. So my friend Beth.

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She's in the same situation as me. And she hasn't been able to meet anyone.

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And I think I think it is difficult.

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But you have to just almost make that effort to just have a bit of, you know, like talk that you'd have over coffee when you're in the office.

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You always have to try and do that in meetings a little bit. People obviously really fatigued from Zoom and that

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We often have a little bit small talk before we get into the nitty gritty of it research just to help us to feel connected.

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So, yeah. But I'd say my experience has been amazing. Like, I'm incredibly lucky with that, with a sense of I've I've ended up in.

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It's really nice. Yeah. And I think the things that you're saying, I mean, because we've been I mean,

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apart from all of the different things that the difficulty is we've generally

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been in this situation for so long that actually organisations and ah and,

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you know, employees within it getting much better at kind of creating those opportunities for that more informal.

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But community building, I think.

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So, I mean, those kind of opportunities for people to talk and chat in a way that's not about work to sort of finish up.

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What advice would you give to someone who's looking at applying for kind of postdocs sort of research jobs at the moment during the pandemic?

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Is there anything that you kind of wish somebody had told you or anything you've learnt from the process that you think,

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yeah, people need to know this? Yeah, so I'd say just when you're applying.

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Just try to stay optimistic. I know it can be really difficult, especially if you have, you know, some unsuccessful applications go through it.

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It can't be quite demeaning. But just keep your chin up.

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Just keep going. And always just have confidence in yourself and your skills that you've developed in your PhD

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And I'd say also make sure that you show other people your applications and CVs

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So even if it's, you know, peers or anyone who could maybe take a look at it, you know, through a different lens and say,

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oh, actually this skill here is really useful for this criteria for looking for why haven't you suggested that?

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So, you know, I think it's really important to keep talking.

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And equally, if you're starting to feel, you know, down that you haven't got a position yet.

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Just just keep talking to people. And in the meantime, just keep developing developing yourself.

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So if there's things you could do that would both to application, for example, you know,

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completing your HEZ application or, you know, making a podcast or whatever it is that might help you to get that job.

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I would I would just, you know, keep keep trying to do that.

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And okay, so if you if you get to interview stage and I would say just be prepared, you know, have notes by the side of you, maybe have a mock interview.

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So I always ask my partner to go through some potential questions.

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And he he's not in academia. He's got you know, he wouldn't really have a clue what I'm going to be asked,

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but he knows that I'll be asked about my weaknesses and other things like that.

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So whoever it is you're living with, if you're living with anyone or have a Zoom call

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Just get people to help you, you know, practise for an interview,

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because it may be that if you've done a PhD, you may not have been interviewed in free for years.

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So it's almost like a completely new thing to go through again.

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So I think just making sure that you're really prepared for that.

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I always find reading blogs useful on how to respond to certain questions and just, you know, make sure, you know,

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the job description as well as you possibly can have your CV and stuff open during your interview so that you can have a look.

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I'd recommend printouts, though, because you don't want to be seen to be clicking about when you're in your Zoom call because it looks unprofessional.

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I'd say like taking about I wouldn't do it personally.

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I just have notes by the side of me so I can refer to those if needed.

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And aside from that, I mean, yeah, my main task is just to stay as optimistic as you can and to look after yourself while you're applying for jobs.

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Thanks so much to Charlotte for sharing her experience with me. I think it's really helpful to know.

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Actually, all of these processes are still the same and these opportunities are still out there.

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Even during COVID 19. And that's it for this episode.

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Join us next time when we'll be talking to another researcher about their career beyond their research degree.

 

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