#sheffvista 18 – Academic Skills Development Adviser, Dr Oli Johnson

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.

Twitter: @OJ301

Job title and company: Academic Skills Development Adviser at 301 Student Skills and Development Centre

Approximate salary range for your type of role: £35-39k

OJ.jpgFirst, a confession: I have no career masterplan. The path I have taken to my current job has been one of trial and error, missteps and serendipitous accidents. It is tempting to seek a retrospective kind of order in the chaos, but that would not do justice to the uncertainty of the journey.

As an undergrad I never saw myself as a researcher, but when the opportunity arose to apply for a PhD in Soviet art history (a longstanding area of interest) I jumped at the opportunity. It took me a year to ‘get’ what I was supposed to be doing, but eventually lost myself happily in the Moscow archives, where my project began to take shape. I’m probably unusual in that I loved writing up my PhD and was inspired to apply for funding to extend my research career. I was lucky enough to get a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship and was convinced that the road to professorship was laid out before me.

OJ Moscow.jpg

Wrong! A miserable year of applying for academic jobs ensued and I amassed quite a collection of near misses (‘you did well, but you are our second choice’…yeah right). On reflection, my heart might not have been in it, which tends to count for a lot. Fortunately, my postdoc was a fantastic opportunity to build up all sorts of other experience: conference organising, public engagement events, outreach, teaching and professional development. Teaching and working with students was part of the job that I enjoyed the most and I took CiLT and enrolled on the MEd in Learning and Teaching.

This expanded my networks within the University and gave me the confidence to try something different. When a new HEA-funded project on feedback came up in Academic and Learning Services, I put in a speculative application and somehow got the job (I was the ‘wildcard candidate’ as my line manager later told me). This was an eye-opener and a steep learning curve. There was a whole world out there beyond my academic department! I was the frog who had spent its life living in a single leaf discovering it was part of a whole tree. The job was a good stepping stone for a researcher, in that it was a standalone project that benefitted from a degree of academic rigour, but gave me the opportunity to work across faculties, services and departments.

The project gave me the skills and experience and most importantly the confidence I needed to apply for a permanent role in learning development. I now work at 301 Student Skills and Development Centre as an Academic Skills Development Adviser and I love my job! I get the best of all worlds: I get to work directly with students (helping them learn how to learn), with researchers (supporting them in their own learning and teaching) and with a fantastic small team of colleagues.

Calendar.jpgAs part of a relatively young department I get to try out a lot of new things within my role. Most days involve collaboration with academic departments or other professional services departments working to embed academic skills into the curriculum or providing input into institutional projects and initiatives. This might involve working 1:1 with academic colleagues or leading workshops for groups of 250+ students. I really enjoy the challenge of developing content for teaching sessions and aligning them with the needs of different disciplines and cohorts. It has been good to get out of my comfort zone to work with scientists, engineers and medical students and think about what learning looks like in different educational contexts. I also work with a team of PhD student tutors to support them in their learning and teaching at 301. Seeing the tutor team develop their confidence and skill as tutors is one of the most rewarding parts of my role.

OJ workshop.JPGI feel as though my job has a more immediate impact than was possible through my research, but it also provides an alternative way to make the most of my research background. For better or worse a PhD provides me with a platform to communicate with academic colleagues and my experience of the trials and tribulations of research gives me an insight into some of the challenges faced by students at all levels. My take on it is that we all (students and staff) play a part in the bigger process of learning and making a contribution to knowledge. My role in that process has shifted, but I still find it hugely motivating to be a part of that rich learning environment.

To offer one tip to others considering a career path outside academia: don’t expect it to be a well-metalled road. Instead, embrace the meandering, obstacle-strewn journey for the adventure that it is.

Where can researchers look for jobs like yours? Jobs.ac.uk is the go-to site for me for jobs both within and outside a traditional academic role.

What professional/accrediting bodies, or qualifications are relevant to where you work? The HEA provide a useful route to accreditation (aligned to its UK Professional Standards Framework for Teaching and Supporting Learning in Higher Education). See here for the University of Sheffield route into this. This is a good way to start evidencing and articulating your impact and to gain recognition that is recognised nationally for excellence in practice. I would also strongly recommend taking a MEd, as it provides a great opportunity to develop an area of specialist knowledge within learning and teaching.

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