Tuesday, September 6, 2016


This post is slightly belated because I have been so busy, but I finally have time to sit down and write about the exciting thing that happened last week.

I started a new, full-time, permanent position in Student Welfare and Support Services at the University of Oxford.

This is a really important step for me post-PhD as it represents the solidification in my mind that pursuing a career in Higher Education professional services is 100% what I want to do, and more specifically working in roles which work with and for students at its core.

It is also important in the sense that I have a real work identity now. I worked throughout my PhD, from working evenings as a library assistant to spending every summer as a summer school teacher. However, in all those roles, the work was supplement to my identify as a doctoral student. As readers will know, towards the end of my PhD I became less sure that academia as a career was for me, and joined the Ambitious Futures higher education management scheme as a graduate trainee (basically 15 month contract with 3 placements in different university sections). Luckily for me, there were others finishing PhDs, doing them part-time, or coming from a career change (i.e. not straight out of undergraduate). However, there was still an identity issue, especially as the scheme is relatively new. So I was the trainee, the intern, on "work experience" - you name it, I was called it. And it didn't matter much to me because I learned so much in such as short period of time. I learned core skills, I learned how universities work (governance, funding, REF, etc..), and most importantly I learned what I liked and disliked. Without the space to try, give it a go, make mistakes, learn from others, and ask questions I doubt I would have the role I have at the moment.

But now, having an established identity and being able to introduce myself as "Hi, I'm Fiona, I'm X at Student Welfare" means there are no awkward questions. People understand who I am and what I am capable of, and I have a clear understanding of the expectations of me in my new role.

For me (and this is just my feeling...I am not denigrating trainees at all!), the title trainee was misunderstood in the university context, and as such people could be unsure about your capabilities and competencies. The concept is much more well-understood and delineated in the private sector and it would be great to see more of that in Higher Education. What eternally surprises me is the number of people with doctorates working in university professional services! If you are finishing you PhD and are thinking about a career in professional services but don't know where to begin, check out Ambitious Futures. (@AmbitiousF)

And if you think that leaving academia is the end of your academic identity, think again! A career in professional services retains access to academic resources, allowing you to continue to publish and research. As for me, I am currently in the final proofing stages of my monograph, I'm preparing an article for submission, and I will be teaching a tutorial series once a week in the evening after work. I won't pretend that it is easy, but it is doable. Yes, you sacrifice some of your evenings, but to be honest that has meant that I use my time more efficiently because I know how precious my evenings are. And the great thing about maintaining my academic identity outside of the 9-5 is that I do it on my own terms. I don't feel a duty to say yes to every opportunity. I can cherry-pick things that are right for me, and people understand when I have to decline other things. And no REF hanging over me...

But for tonight I am going to continue to revel in finally feeling like I am an adult, not a student anymore.

If you want to follow my professional alter ego, connect with me on LinkedIn.

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