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

 

Transcript

 

1
00:00:10,890 --> 00:00:23,850
Hello and welcome to the Beyond Your Research Degree podcast by the University of Exeter Doctoral College.

2
00:00:23,850 --> 00:00:27,450
Hello and welcome to the latest episode of Beyond Your Research Degree.

3
00:00:27,450 --> 00:00:28,890
I'm your host, Kelly Preece

4
00:00:28,890 --> 00:00:39,330
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,

5
00:00:39,330 --> 00:00:46,020
but this time at an organisation outside of academia called the quality assurance agency.

6
00:00:46,020 --> 00:00:51,720
So Demelza, are you happy to introduce yourself? My name's Demelza Curnow

7
00:00:51,720 --> 00:00:56,610
My Ph.D. was in mediaeval English.

8
00:00:56,610 --> 00:01:03,330
The title of it was five case studies in the transmission of popular middle english birth romance

9
00:01:03,330 --> 00:01:07,830
Possibly not the most catchy and as where I am now.

10
00:01:07,830 --> 00:01:12,630
I'm based in the far tip of Cornwall, down near Penzance in.

11
00:01:12,630 --> 00:01:23,220
a little village called Ludford and I came back to Cornwall pretty close on on finishing my Ph.D. and my

12
00:01:23,220 --> 00:01:32,160
work over the last 15 years or so has been in academic quality and standards and governance.

13
00:01:32,160 --> 00:01:37,860
That wasn't what I went into immediately after my Ph.D.

14
00:01:37,860 --> 00:01:41,850
And I can say more about that, if you'd like me to. Yeah, absolutely.

15
00:01:41,850 --> 00:01:48,110
So we will get on to kind of how how you got to academic quality and standards, definitely.

16
00:01:48,110 --> 00:01:57,310
But. So what was the initial transition you made or the first role that you did after you finished your Ph.D.?

17
00:01:57,310 --> 00:02:01,420
Well, I'm from a farming family, and I finished my Ph.D. realising this,

18
00:02:01,420 --> 00:02:09,100
I knew nothing about anything apart from farming and middle English, which is an unusual combination.

19
00:02:09,100 --> 00:02:13,390
And I guess one of the big differences is I'm conscious of between

20
00:02:13,390 --> 00:02:22,570
When I did my Ph.D. 20 years ago, when they're done now, is that all I did was my Ph.D.

21
00:02:22,570 --> 00:02:29,650
There was nothing around the edges in terms of employability and other skills.

22
00:02:29,650 --> 00:02:34,900
And also, I wasn't doing lots of teaching or doing the conference rounds either.

23
00:02:34,900 --> 00:02:41,630
Just specialising in my manuscripts. And then I suppose the first.

24
00:02:41,630 --> 00:02:48,350
What if you could quote a proper job that I had outside of family really was working at the cider

25
00:02:48,350 --> 00:02:56,350
farm up near Truro where I worked for about nine months as a tour guide and tractor driver

26
00:02:56,350 --> 00:03:02,650
And in some respects, I can actually trace my career journey from that point.

27
00:03:02,650 --> 00:03:10,090
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,

28
00:03:10,090 --> 00:03:13,720
which was something that was complete anathema to me.

29
00:03:13,720 --> 00:03:20,620
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.

30
00:03:20,620 --> 00:03:27,490
I was simply doing my Ph.D. for the sheer enjoyment of playing with mediaeval manuscripts.

31
00:03:27,490 --> 00:03:33,820
This was quite fortunate in many respects because at the time this, I was doing my my Ph.D.

32
00:03:33,820 --> 00:03:40,240
Many of the mediaeval departments around the country and universities were closing.

33
00:03:40,240 --> 00:03:55,790
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

34
00:03:55,790 --> 00:04:03,500
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,

35
00:04:03,500 --> 00:04:08,660
that I didn't feel that I was confident about standing up to lots of people and speaking,

36
00:04:08,660 --> 00:04:14,330
and maybe I wasn't entirely convinced by my credibility as a researcher, either.

37
00:04:14,330 --> 00:04:18,350
And I don't know how unusual that is in academia.

38
00:04:18,350 --> 00:04:24,210
I suspect not that unusual, really, and particularly perhaps not in the arts and humanities as well.

39
00:04:24,210 --> 00:04:33,170
It's not that unusual at all. I think the norm rather than the rule rather than the exception.

40
00:04:33,170 --> 00:04:40,370
So I think there's just some really interesting things in there about what drives us to make career choices.

41
00:04:40,370 --> 00:04:47,120
I mean, firstly, you know what you're saying about actually, I just really loved playing with mediaeval manuscript.

42
00:04:47,120 --> 00:04:53,060
I loved doing. The thing that I researched was about the goal of getting the Ph.D. was not an academic career,

43
00:04:53,060 --> 00:04:57,290
and we do make the assumption that that's what people are kind of aiming for when they do a Ph.D.

44
00:04:57,290 --> 00:05:05,150
And that's by no means always the case. But also that our career decisions are also driven by.

45
00:05:05,150 --> 00:05:14,340
Geography. You know, where in the country may we may want or need to be for various different reasons.

46
00:05:14,340 --> 00:05:18,050
It was primarily for family reasons, really.

47
00:05:18,050 --> 00:05:27,770
Yes, this is the kind of geography and needing to be. Locally and yeah, and I think the other thing is also.

48
00:05:27,770 --> 00:05:38,950
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.

49
00:05:38,950 --> 00:05:42,990
And they're important factors to consider when making career decisions.

50
00:05:42,990 --> 00:05:51,770
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.

51
00:05:51,770 --> 00:06:01,490
So kind of having finished the PhD and doing a kind of a range of different things, forcing yourself into decent public speaking.

52
00:06:01,490 --> 00:06:11,540
Going back to your roots a little bit and. How did you go from there to where you are now?

53
00:06:11,540 --> 00:06:20,480
Well, my work at the cide fram being in the sort of tourism industry took me to working at Tate,

54
00:06:20,480 --> 00:06:33,050
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.

55
00:06:33,050 --> 00:06:37,400
And I suppose again, there I was, specialising in governance a little bit more.

56
00:06:37,400 --> 00:06:47,750
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,

57
00:06:47,750 --> 00:06:53,840
which led to me getting a position as a graduate trainee in the quality and standards

58
00:06:53,840 --> 00:06:59,950
team at what was then University College Falmouth and later became Falmouth University.

59
00:06:59,950 --> 00:07:05,480
I think one of the interesting things to me was that really by sheer chance,

60
00:07:05,480 --> 00:07:10,760
I ended up doing a lot of the accounts whilst I was working at that sports partnership.

61
00:07:10,760 --> 00:07:15,110
And certainly, that sort of maths was not my background at all.

62
00:07:15,110 --> 00:07:23,390
I did maths up to A-level, but certainly wouldn't consider myself someone who could work with accounts

63
00:07:23,390 --> 00:07:32,350
But in preparing the organisation's accounts for audit with the county council accountants.

64
00:07:32,350 --> 00:07:40,750
One of the things I noticed was that looking for anomalies in numbers wasn't so different to looking for anomalies,

65
00:07:40,750 --> 00:07:49,750
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.

66
00:07:49,750 --> 00:07:54,760
And I remember picking out that example when I was being interviewed for my

67
00:07:54,760 --> 00:08:00,040
graduate traineeship and that that graduate traineeship was only a 12 month post

68
00:08:00,040 --> 00:08:09,460
And I think that something which did characterise all my early posts, I was applying for jobs which simply interested me.

69
00:08:09,460 --> 00:08:14,110
I was in a very, very fortunate position because I was living at home.

70
00:08:14,110 --> 00:08:18,970
So and I always knew that if the worst came to the worst, I could go to work on the farm.

71
00:08:18,970 --> 00:08:25,960
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.

72
00:08:25,960 --> 00:08:35,530
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

73
00:08:35,530 --> 00:08:41,530
So my very first job at the cider farm was a seasonal one, but they kept me on.

74
00:08:41,530 --> 00:08:47,560
My next one at Tate was a maternity cover and I think maternity cover I saw absolutely brilliant.

75
00:08:47,560 --> 00:08:57,970
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.

76
00:08:57,970 --> 00:09:03,110
It gets you some interesting experience and very often it opens up more doors.

77
00:09:03,110 --> 00:09:08,420
After that, it's another fixed term post than it was at the 12 month post at Falmouth,

78
00:09:08,420 --> 00:09:15,950
and that then led to a permanent position, though, was that permanent position at Falmouth.

79
00:09:15,950 --> 00:09:20,280
Yes, it was it was in the same team, it was an assistant registrat post

80
00:09:20,280 --> 00:09:25,130
NSo I think it's really interesting how kind of.

81
00:09:25,130 --> 00:09:36,610
Taking a circuitous route kind of back into an academic related role and actually going through kind of tourism and that experience kind of.

82
00:09:36,610 --> 00:09:39,850
Working on a farm and kind of coming coming at it through that perspective,

83
00:09:39,850 --> 00:09:44,170
you develop the whole range of skills applied a whole range of skills in different contexts,

84
00:09:44,170 --> 00:09:51,760
like you were saying about kind of finding anomalies in language and finding anomalies in in in numbers isn't actually

85
00:09:51,760 --> 00:10:04,150
necessarily always that different and kind of that bringing you back round into into quality and standards within a university.

86
00:10:04,150 --> 00:10:13,560
When you got the job at Falmouth, were you motivated to to kind of go back to working in an education or university setting?

87
00:10:13,560 --> 00:10:24,490
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.

88
00:10:24,490 --> 00:10:32,530
I think always in the back of my mind have been at my viva for my Ph.D., my external examiner,

89
00:10:32,530 --> 00:10:37,840
who's asking me about my future ambition and whether or not I intended to be an academic.

90
00:10:37,840 --> 00:10:43,410
And I was very clear then that that, no, that wasn't my intention at all.

91
00:10:43,410 --> 00:10:49,890
And he suggested to me that I should look at going into university administration.

92
00:10:49,890 --> 00:10:54,810
And he was saying at that point that it's often very,

93
00:10:54,810 --> 00:11:00,780
very valuable to have somebody who has got a little bit more experience of being on the academic

94
00:11:00,780 --> 00:11:10,200
side than working on the administrative side because there is a different sort of understanding.

95
00:11:10,200 --> 00:11:16,290
I think up to a point, he's right. I would also say that within quality and standards,

96
00:11:16,290 --> 00:11:24,450
possibly the best person I've ever had working is somebody who had no higher education experience, so she hadn't done a degree.

97
00:11:24,450 --> 00:11:33,470
So I don't think it is necessary, but it has certainly really helped me, I think, to sometimes give me a credibility.

98
00:11:33,470 --> 00:11:42,150
I. But it is certainly altered how people have perceived me, and that has helped.

99
00:11:42,150 --> 00:11:49,260
I think that's really important. And like you say, the, you know, the value of actually having that experience and that contextual knowledge,

100
00:11:49,260 --> 00:11:54,210
whether or not whether or not that actually is always a necessity in practise,

101
00:11:54,210 --> 00:12:01,500
but certainly in applying for jobs, you know that being able to confer that kind of experience is really useful.

102
00:12:01,500 --> 00:12:07,470
And I wondered if you could tell us a bit more about the role that you're in now, please.

103
00:12:07,470 --> 00:12:18,340
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.

104
00:12:18,340 --> 00:12:26,530
So all of the policies and procedures and regulations that help a higher education provider demonstrate to a third

105
00:12:26,530 --> 00:12:34,600
party in the external world that the degrees and the education they're offering are at the level they should be.

106
00:12:34,600 --> 00:12:40,810
And then governance, which is very much around and how you're managing that internally.

107
00:12:40,810 --> 00:12:47,030
So I worked my way through a few different universities.

108
00:12:47,030 --> 00:12:54,860
And I was involved a little bit with the QAA, which is the quality assurance agency for higher education.

109
00:12:54,860 --> 00:13:05,120
And this is the body that sits between the regulatory and funding bodies for each of the four UK jurisdictions.

110
00:13:05,120 --> 00:13:13,050
And then the sector itself and the role that the QAA has taken over the years has varied a little.

111
00:13:13,050 --> 00:13:20,520
Say at the moment, if you look across the four UK nations, there's the Office for Students in England.

112
00:13:20,520 --> 00:13:26,350
There's the Scottish Funding Council in Scotland, the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales in Wales.

113
00:13:26,350 --> 00:13:29,520
There, there's legislation going through to change that at the moment.

114
00:13:29,520 --> 00:13:37,560
And then there's the I think it's the Department for Education, perhaps for Environment in Northern Ireland.

115
00:13:37,560 --> 00:13:42,630
And so each of those bodies has a relationship with the QAA

116
00:13:42,630 --> 00:13:50,400
and the QAA then manages the oversight of higher education for people who aren't familiar with it.

117
00:13:50,400 --> 00:13:55,950
I suppose the best way to describe it is think a little bit about Ofsted in schools,

118
00:13:55,950 --> 00:14:04,650
but actually the oversight of quality and standards in higher education works on a slightly different footing to schools.

119
00:14:04,650 --> 00:14:10,440
I think we would describe it as a bit more mature and it's here with you instead.

120
00:14:10,440 --> 00:14:21,030
So many years ago, just sort of towards the end of my time at Falmouth, I applied to be one of the reviewers.

121
00:14:21,030 --> 00:14:28,320
So one of the people drawn from higher education providers around the country who would go into a team to visit another higher

122
00:14:28,320 --> 00:14:38,640
education provider and look at how they were managing their academic quality and standards and write a report and make a judgement.

123
00:14:38,640 --> 00:14:46,140
So I did that for them for a few years as I sort of moved between between different universities myself,

124
00:14:46,140 --> 00:14:53,880
and then I thought that I would sort of take maybe a year or two where I step back and

125
00:14:53,880 --> 00:14:57,570
think about what I wanted to do because the sector was changing quite a lot as well.

126
00:14:57,570 --> 00:15:10,960
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.

127
00:15:10,960 --> 00:15:17,250
Maybe I'd always worked much more with with the taught provision and less with I with research students as well,

128
00:15:17,250 --> 00:15:23,010
how we manage research, but less with the sort of the pure research itself.

129
00:15:23,010 --> 00:15:29,850
And if I did want to step back into a career and the sort of academic registrar or even registrar and

130
00:15:29,850 --> 00:15:37,310
secretary then getting some experience more experience around research was going to be valuable to.

131
00:15:37,310 --> 00:15:45,020
And again, I was simply taking the approach of. And even if it wasn't, I'd enjoy myself in the meantime.

132
00:15:45,020 --> 00:15:47,600
So I picked up a part time job doing that.

133
00:15:47,600 --> 00:15:56,720
And then I suppose about four months later that QAA was advertising for something called flexible part timers.

134
00:15:56,720 --> 00:16:00,320
And I went for that job and I got that as well.

135
00:16:00,320 --> 00:16:10,190
So I've then been managing a substantive role as a research administrator alongside a flexible role with the QAA,

136
00:16:10,190 --> 00:16:18,590
and the flexible role is technically zero hours. In reality, there is enough work that I could be full time.

137
00:16:18,590 --> 00:16:25,220
But I'm a sort of a bit like being a minister without portfolio.

138
00:16:25,220 --> 00:16:30,270
I can lead all sorts of different projects. It just depends where the gap is.

139
00:16:30,270 --> 00:16:41,030
So I've been designing and leading professional development courses for people in the sector, for the area I've been.

140
00:16:41,030 --> 00:16:48,030
I'm currently leading the work around microcredentials and writing the microcredentials characteristic statement.

141
00:16:48,030 --> 00:16:51,630
And I've done quite a bit of international work as well, which I've really enjoyed.

142
00:16:51,630 --> 00:16:59,820
The only thing I cannot do is anything to do with quality assessment England and the designated quality body responsibilities.

143
00:16:59,820 --> 00:17:02,760
And that's because the Office for Students would see it as a conflict with my

144
00:17:02,760 --> 00:17:07,350
broader role and also the fact that I got a substantive role within a provider.

145
00:17:07,350 --> 00:17:15,450
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

146
00:17:15,450 --> 00:17:24,180
But again, I'm going to be balancing a flexible part time on FBT role with a point five role,

147
00:17:24,180 --> 00:17:28,830
which is in the Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland Europe division.

148
00:17:28,830 --> 00:17:40,320
So again, doing sort of institutional liaison and looking to develop that the new review method methods the Scottish higher education providers.

149
00:17:40,320 --> 00:17:50,140
Wow, thanks. That sounds absolutely, absolutely fascinating, and I'm yeah, I'm just continually, really, really.

150
00:17:50,140 --> 00:17:57,070
Really struck by the kind of the mantra you have about following your following your interest and doing

151
00:17:57,070 --> 00:18:03,230
doing the thing that feels right and looks interesting and kind of seeing where that goes because.

152
00:18:03,230 --> 00:18:06,440
I think we always feel like we need to right, we need to have the answer.

153
00:18:06,440 --> 00:18:11,420
Like even off even the first job after the PhD needs to be the answer that needs to be my career,

154
00:18:11,420 --> 00:18:15,170
my job, you know, as if it's a kind of final or an end point.

155
00:18:15,170 --> 00:18:20,250
And actually, you know, these things are constantly evolving.

156
00:18:20,250 --> 00:18:26,870
I wondered if you could say something for anybody that we've got listening, who is interested in?

157
00:18:26,870 --> 00:18:36,530
A role in kind of the QAA or quality and standards and and any in or, you know, in or outside a university.

158
00:18:36,530 --> 00:18:42,710
What advice would you give them about the kind of key skills that they need to develop the key experiences

159
00:18:42,710 --> 00:18:50,660
or just how having a Ph.D. or any other form of research might be useful for them in that context?

160
00:18:50,660 --> 00:18:56,720
If you've done the Ph.D., one of the things that you've had to learn is you've got to be flexible.

161
00:18:56,720 --> 00:19:02,570
You might have an idea on how you're going to get from A to B, but actually something could could change that.

162
00:19:02,570 --> 00:19:03,750
And I mean, in doing a PhD

163
00:19:03,750 --> 00:19:11,090
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,

164
00:19:11,090 --> 00:19:12,740
so you try something else.

165
00:19:12,740 --> 00:19:22,880
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.

166
00:19:22,880 --> 00:19:28,910
And I think being a reflective practitioner is really, really important.

167
00:19:28,910 --> 00:19:33,620
I remember one of the things I said to members of my staff is if something has gone wrong,

168
00:19:33,620 --> 00:19:40,430
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.

169
00:19:40,430 --> 00:19:45,260
It's just it should be much more a question of right. That didn't happen, as I expected.

170
00:19:45,260 --> 00:19:56,610
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?

171
00:19:56,610 --> 00:20:01,050
So I guess that's one thing always being open to different ideas and being prepared to change

172
00:20:01,050 --> 00:20:08,130
direction and to listen to other people and that way of like sparking ideas of different people.

173
00:20:08,130 --> 00:20:10,900
And I guess the other thing is that.

174
00:20:10,900 --> 00:20:19,740
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.

175
00:20:19,740 --> 00:20:23,290
So I mean, certainly in arts and humanities, I know it's a little bit different in the sciences,

176
00:20:23,290 --> 00:20:27,520
but often you are you're applying for a project that somebody else has designed.

177
00:20:27,520 --> 00:20:32,020
But in arts and humanities, we're actually you're designing your own project as well.

178
00:20:32,020 --> 00:20:38,710
You're seeing something through from that sort of real conception right through to the final completion.

179
00:20:38,710 --> 00:20:46,360
So it gives you that real sort of stick ability, which I think is quite important to.

180
00:20:46,360 --> 00:20:52,330
Thank you so much to Demelza for sharing her knowledge and experience with us.

181
00:20:52,330 --> 00:21:02,440
And I think has made some really excellent, excellent points about the path and the journey of a career and the, you know,

182
00:21:02,440 --> 00:21:16,340
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.

183
00:21:16,340 --> 00:21:28,340
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.

184
00:21:28,340 --> 00:21:44,189
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.

 

Podbean App

Play this podcast on Podbean App