#sheffvista 27 – Assistant Manager, Dr Helen Lawrence

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: Assistant Manager, Wydale Hall retreat & conference centre

Approximate salary range for your type of role: £20-£25K

IMG_1084.JPGMy PhD was in quantitative Sociolinguistics. I loved it: I loved the variety, the writing, the solving of puzzles, and the cool conference locations. I was quite good at it, too; but after three years of post-doctoral research I knew that I would have to change institutions if I were to stay in linguistics and, honestly, I wasn’t in love with it enough to want to turn the rest of my life upside down. Then for twelve years I worked in training and development, mostly with researchers – I loved it! I loved the variety, I loved how useful it was, how I could make a difference to someone by providing opportunities for them to focus on developing the skills that would make their professional lives more effective.

Then I took the job I’m in now – and I love it! As assistant manager of a retreat centre, which is a registered charity and a faith based organisation, I share responsibility for around 150-200 overnight guests each month, a dozen or so employees, and fifty-plus volunteers. If you looked at my job description you’d see lots of finance (which uses every ounce of the numerical problem-solving skill I developed during my quantitative research), you’d see the development and management of our programme of events (which taps in to the design and facilitation skills I developed first as a lecturer and then as a training consultant) and you’d see management of people (which puts into practice a great deal of the leadership theory I used to teach). You might not see the shifts behind the bar, the mending of toilet seats and the taxying guests to and from the nearest railway station, and you certainly wouldn’t see the work both locally and nationally related to helping people work out their vocation, but that’s all part of the variety which I love!

Our organisational structure is complex and managing the myriad stakeholders and their competing needs, requirements and personalities is a challenge in itself. The management structure has two people between me and the Chief Executive of the Diocese of York; the governance of the charity involves two committees similar to boards of trustees.

The only fixed points in my week are Mondays when the weekly finance and banking needs to be done and Sundays when as a general rule weekend guests leave after lunch and the house is empty. As a Christian community, however, we do have regular times of prayer during the week – every morning, Wednesday lunchtimes and Friday evenings – and in a 24/7 business that rhythm is invaluable.


As I write, I have (on top of dealing with the guest who needs a toilet roll and negotiating with the cook about a late arrival for dinner) a few significant ongoing projects on my desk. I am working out next year’s programme of events (looking at themes, negotiating with speakers/facilitators, ensuring a breadth and depth which offer enrichment to those participating), working towards a deadline of the end of next month to go to print. I’m negotiating with a software company about a significant upgrade of our bookings software, discussing our needs and the functionality of the software, as well as looking at the budgetary implications against the risk of obsolescence of our current system. And I’m worrying about a looming staffing issue which will come to the fore next week when one of full time team members leaves and when a significant review of one area of the business begins in earnest.

I don’t get to do the international travel to academic conferences that I did when I worked in sociolinguistics. I don’t get the buzz of having a journal article accepted, or the kick that I used to get from teaching undergraduates the stuff that I found interesting.  I do get the thrill of problem-solving and the liaising with people at the top of their field (we had to leave the office a few weeks ago when one of our guests needed to receive a call from Downing Street). I don’t get much of a salary, but I do get to live rent free in fourteen acres of garden and woodland on the edge of the North York Moors.

I fell out of love with sociolinguistics largely because, for me, it was important that what I did for a living was meaningful in some way and although sociolinguistics was (and still is) fascinating to me, it didn’t seem meaningful as it didn’t change anything for anyone.  People come to Wydale for a variety of different reasons – most of them, though, come because it’s somewhere to retreat to in order to be able to advance in a significant area of their life, faith or work. When the head of a national organisation comes with their leadership team and remarks ‘we have better ideas when we come here’, or when someone writes to us of their plan to end their own life which was thwarted because they came, or when someone leaves at the end of a quiet few days saying ‘I now know what questions I need to ask’, it feels that I’m part of something significant.

I don’t need to have a PhD to do my job, but the skills I learned are truly useful and nothing I’ve done in terms of qualifications or experience has been wasted. For the first time in a varied professional life my whole life is aligned in what I do to earn a living, there is no discord between the different aspects that used to compete. So my tip, for what it’s worth, is this – make career decisions according to your values as well as your professional aspirations. A role in a non-profit organisation is never going to be lucrative, and it’s unlikely to be prestigious; it’s incredibly hard work and the hours are brutal. But if you’re looking for a professional role which aligns your work with your soul it may just be the sector to look at.

Where can researchers look for jobs like yours? National and local press; charity websites.

What professional/accrediting bodies, or qualifications are relevant to where you work? Nothing necessary – though I now boast food hygiene and first aid certificates and if you were interested in the hospitality industry more generally you could usefully look at CIPD or Institute of Hospitality.

1 Comment

  1. I have neither a PhD or the background in research outlined here, but I recognise passion and enthusiasm, skill and experience which are all aligned well to a post which make s a real difference to the lives of many. Keep it up!


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