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: IT project manager, Birmingham City University.
Approximate salary range for your type of role: In public sector contexts, project managers can expect to earn £32-45k (depending on type of project, seniority level/skills etc.). In private sector, it can be anything from £35-£70 (for very specialised skills and/or complex projects).
I didn’t exactly plan to get a PhD in sociology and I didn’t exactly plan to become an IT project manager 7 years after completing said doctorate, but in many ways, I can say that I am really happy where my career ended up and where I am at this stage. So how did I end up here?
I’ve always been fascinated by foreign languages and studied English and Spanish for my undergraduate degree. I quickly discovered, however, that teaching foreign languages didn’t feel as exciting as the process of acquiring languages skills and alongside that discovery, I started putting a lot of energy into the budding gay and lesbian activism in Poland at the beginning of the “noughties”. I felt very inspired by meeting a group of academics who were trying to start up gay and lesbian studies in Poland and followed their recommendation that I should consider the MA in Gender Studies at Central European University if I seriously wanted to follow in their footsteps. I was successful in getting the scholarship and doing a PhD seemed like the next logical step; I was now an activist turned researcher and was lucky to secure full funding for a PhD in Sociology at Aston University where I focused on gay and lesbian marches in Poland.
Throughout my PhD I was doing all the right things in terms of ticking the boxes for a good academic CV, I was teaching, publishing and networking and yet doubt was creeping in. I could see how big the competition was, I began to start growing roots in West Midlands and was concerned about potentially having to spend 5-6 years travelling up and down the country just to get the right experience to have a shot at an academic role but I didn’t know what else I could do, either. I just knew I needed a job and an opportunity presented itself in the form of my supervisor asking me if I wanted to join her colleagues at the Higher Education Academy Social Sciences Subject Centre (quite a mouthful!) as research assistant on an e-learning project. I jumped at the opportunity and the 18 months I spent in the unit were quite exciting – I started out providing support for projects taking place at the centre and ended up taking over managing projects, the centre was restructuring and staff were leaving left, right and centre. I had to leave eventually, too, as the centre was closing down but at that point I could write ‘project manager’ on my CV and that helped me secure another project management role at Sheffield Hallam University where I stayed on for almost four years, managing a variety of research and strategic projects, including some software-focused ones as there is so much overlap between introducing new software and business and strategic change. I really enjoyed the institution but was getting worn out by lack of security as I was going from one fixed-term contract to another and spent a good part of 2015 looking for a new role and that turned out to be managing IT projects at Birmingham City University in their newly restructured IT team.
I have to admit it’s been a steep learning curve as I have no technology background and had to very quickly pick up the technical language and take a crash course in software development; at the same time, this is where the experience of undertaking a PhD and mastering previously unknown areas of knowledge came in handy. I don’t necessarily need a PhD for my job which essentially involves breaking down the steps necessary to bring in a new piece of software into the university. Being able to speak “academese” is very helpful when it comes to interacting with academics and getting their contribution and buy-in to make sure that they do use the new software rather than the tried and tested Excel spreadsheets glued together by post-its and pieces of paper (figuratively speaking). Turns out that 80% of my role is about communication and politics, and there is plenty of it within university setting, I like to joke that software is the easy part.
In terms of typical week, there really isn’t one. I work a standard 37 hour week, and a big part of my week will be taken up by a combination of meetings and preparing documentation – I am responsible for putting together reports, project plans, risk logs, managing the SharePoint site and in general overseeing that things are progressing according to plan and escalating to relevant people when they don’t, hence the massive importance of communication. Below is a fairly representative week:
Very often, I find myself in a situation of having ‘difficult conversations’, usually because I need to convince people to do something they don’t want and/or afraid of the change that may be brought about as a result of the project. I am also responsible for organising any project-related events, workshops and training which is something I really enjoy and where the skills gained throughout the PhD come in handy again; teaching undergraduates and facilitating a workshop on a new piece of software aren’t that dissimilar!
In terms of differences between academia and my current role – I only ever worked as research assistant, so not much basis for comparison, but I’d say that the key difference for me is the emphasis on team work and peer networks. As a research assistant, I was left to my own devices, as project manager, I am constantly working with or facilitating groups of people, and this is very much reflected in terms of my work environment. The entire IT department is located in an open plan office where everyone, including the head of department, is hot-desking and it is quite common that throughout the day I will be walking across the floor to talk to my business analyst colleagues un the Strategy and Architecture team or the developers in the Operations team, and vice versa, there is no hiding! If I need to focus on a piece of work I can always escape to a more secluded area for a couple of hours but the expectation is that I will be available to my colleagues during the core hours and at the beginning, it’s been a bit of an adjustment.
Finally, in terms of top tips for people considering leaving academia – don’t limit yourself by your assumptions (and fake it till you make it can be a surprisingly successful strategy); be open to opportunities and saying yes strategically and last but not least, you’re not a failure for leaving academia, far from it.
In terms of professional networks/associations:
Last but not least, the key qualifications are:
- PRINCE2 Foundation and Practitioner (required for most project management roles especially in public sector – NHS/Higher Education etc.)
- Agile Project Management – this one is nice to have and increasingly sought after
- MSP – Managing Successful Programmes for moving into more senior/complex roles