Beyond Your Research Degree

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 ’Cheery Monday’ by Kevin MacLeod ( License: CC BY (




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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.


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