#sheffvista 5 – Volunteering & Participation Director, Dr Helen Timbrell

Each Friday we post a new v i s t a profile, a career beyond the academy story (use the tags at the bottom of the post to find the entire list). These posts accompany our curated events to support post-PhD career transitions, v i s t a mentoring, and also #sheffvista on Twitter.

Job title and company: Volunteering & Participation Director, National Trust

@HelenTimbrell @nationaltrust

Company web page: https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk


I decided to do a PhD some way into my career which until then had broadly covered learning, development and community volunteering. I did the PhD as a career development opportunity, but mostly because I had a genuine curiosity about the research area. I also wanted to do it as a personal achievement and to cross it off my bucket list.

I started my career as a Students’ Union elected Sabbatical Officer (a one year position) straight out of my degree in English and Sociology. I then joined a PR consultancy thinking I was taking a proper grown up graduate job. I really hated the job. I found it soulless and realised it jarred badly with my values, and what I wanted from my career. I often used to spend my lunch hour crying in my car!

So, I moved roles, I got a job at the University of Warwick Student’s Union and spent 6 years there, supporting students to engage with extra-curricular activities, providing training and support. That’s where I started building my career in community involvement and volunteering. During this role I also did a part time Masters in Sociology of Education and some professional HR qualifications. I then moved to work for Citizens Advice in a general management/project set up role.  The project involved opening seven new Citizens Advice Bureaus on the west coast of Scotland and all of our services were delivered by volunteers.

I was in my early 30s and progressing in a professional career when I spotted an opportunity at Dundee to do an ESRC funded PhD:  Space, Place and Volunteers:  the Nature, Meaning and Impact of Volunteering in Scotland. The PhD experience (but not particularly the qualification itself) definitely helped me get the job at the National Trust, which I started whilst I was still writing up. Working and studying was far from ideal but I coped.

In this role I immediately got to use my PhD experience, and so it has helped my career progression, and informed my day to day work. I went into the PhD never intending to pursue a purely academic career, and so having the opportunity to use my research experience directly is satisfying. The National Trust is a conservation and heritage charity with 70,000 volunteers. I am responsible for the overall strategy that allows us to engage, train, support and retain these volunteers, and integrate them into the wider work we do as an organisation. I lead and manage teams who create the short and long term plans that make sure our work can continue because we have the people and resources in place to sustain our objectives.

My work is very varied and takes place over multiple teams and locations.  It includes working with universities too: we have several research partnerships with universities who are helping us understand volunteering and volunteers. I work at our central office where I hotdesk 2-3 days per week, and also work from home at least a day every couple of weeks. I’m also often at our National Trust properties or in our regional offices.  Weeks vary a lot but see an upcoming diary below.

HT2.pngThe National Trust is very well gender balanced, even in senior leadership roles, it’s something we are proud of. We are driving towards becoming more balanced in terms of age and ethnicity too.

From my PhD I draw heavily on my ability to review and understand a broad range of data and information. My work involves analysing and drawing conclusions from lots of data sources and interpreting it to make good decisions for the Trust. If you found that in your PhD this was a strength, you might enjoy a role in strategic development.

What’s very different from my PhD experience (which feels like a very atypical time in my life) is that I no longer focus on one big project that answers one big question. My working life involves me in a lot of projects, all important, all interesting, and all moving at fast pace. I see a breadth of projects, and don’t have time to get involved in each one in the same depth as my PhD – this is good and bad and can be exhausting. As an introvert who likes some time to sit, read, think and plan, I have had to learn to embrace the feeling of being much less in control of my own time and how much time I spend with others. But this way I do get to have a lot of interests and things are very exciting because something real happens with the work you do. It’s high pressure, but different to PhD pressure, which for me was very solitary.

More recently I have been back in university to do an MBA as part of my further development, and with this could see how complementary academic expertise was to my own professional experience. I have never worked directly in academia, but I didn’t ever really leave it entirely either. Part of my role now is in creating partnerships with academics, writing joint bids and co-supervising PhD students.

My tip is that your PhD skill set is needed in so many jobs, you should make sure you hold on to it and apply it in your work.  Reviewing data, analysing, conceptualising, presenting are all transferable skills. However, I’d also advise that you carry your academic qualifications quite lightly and really work to value people, experiences and backgrounds that are less academic than you are. Recognise that academic experience and achievement is just one thing that’s needed, not the complete picture.  Employers (and colleagues!) don’t like to meet PhD graduates who come across as ‘entitled’ or ‘superior’ because they have a PhD.  It’s just a PhD after all.

HT3.pngWhere can researchers look for jobs like yours?

What professional/accrediting bodies, or qualifications are relevant to where you work?

Photos by Sally Wintle

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