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: Chief Executive, Royal Holloway Students’ Union
Approximate salary range for your type of role: £70,000 – £90,000
From the final year of my undergraduate degree, I knew there was something special about higher education. It had given me the opportunity to grow up immersed in subjects that I found fascinating and learn about ideas I both agreed and disagreed with. But more than anything, the people I had the privilege to meet and engage with were smart, tolerant and kind – from tutors, to lecturers to the support staff. At the age of 21 I made a decision that I wanted to stick around as long as I possibly could, and that meant a master’s degree and ultimately a PhD.
During my doctorate, I went through what I know are very common phases. Initially I had my heart set on an academic career: I loved teaching, research was stimulating, and the culture was open and engaging. Over time I got more involved in other activities (in particular the Students’ Union and Graduate Students’ Association), where I took on a number of different elected roles – from event management to treasurer and even education representative. Alongside this, the Department of Politics asked me to take ownership of our open days and applicant visit events, planning activities and promoting degrees to new students. This combined experience made me soon realise that whilst I enjoyed the sector, I was better suited to the professional services side of the University rather than the academy.
I started initially working in student recruitment at the University of Warwick, where I was fortunate to be line managed by a senior member of staff who recognised my strengths, but more importantly, my development areas. The professional guidance and support I received over the next 12 months was crucial in helping me transition from the autonomy and freedom of my PhD to the working world. She helped me see where my doctorate clearly gave me an advantage, and also where I would quickly have to adopt a different working style. It was clear that the abilities to self-manage, structure work and project manage were advantageous, but that these had to be tempered by the requirement to sometimes fit into other people’s working pace. At this point I knew the next big step in my career would be managing a team, and so alongside this full time job I took on a (voluntary) role in the Residential Life team, taking a post managing a small team of staff supporting students in campus halls. This gave me the step up to eventually secure a number of management roles in a paid context much more quickly than if I had waited for the opportunity to arise in my day job.
The choice to move into Students’ Unions, and away from core professional services in universities, was driven by three factors:
- I wanted to work in a faster paced environment that was more comfortable with innovation and challenging the status quo. This also meant working with young people to achieve change and being more ‘political’. It is also much more fun.
- I wanted to experience a broader range of areas, in particular corporate services such as governance, marketing, finance and HR. Smaller organisations offer this to more staff rather than keeping it within silos in distinct departments.
- I want to [eventually] pursue a career in the third sector with a national charity, and with the changes implemented after the Charities Act 2006, most Students’ Unions have registered and formally joined the sector. It seemed like a great way in, but with the bonus of keeping one foot in a sector I knew and loved.
After Warwick, then, I had spells at Liverpool Guild of Students (as Policy & Campaigns Manager) and Huddersfield Students’ Union (Head of Membership Engagement), before joining Royal Holloway Students’ Union as Chief Executive in August 2015. I was 31 when I started, and had only been out of full time education for five years. By staying within higher education, the experience I gained alongside my doctorate (teaching, event management, organisational leadership) – all this was given consideration equal to that of full time, paid roles. In effect, the four year PhD programme was viewed as a job in itself, something that would not have been likely outside of the sector, and I was able to secure a promotion at an earlier stage. I had also taken on a number of voluntary Board level roles (trusteeships at charities), which definitely gave me an edge during the interview process.
There are many different ways that students’ union chief executives might describe their role. All of them take more time than a standard charity post, or one in a university. For my two cents, I like to characterise it using the following approach: (although they are all interrelated):
I’m responsible for running an organisation that delivers impact and benefit for a defined membership (in this case, students at Royal Holloway). It is a registered charity but with a number of key differences from those you might know best. The work we do is split into three core areas:
- Support & Engagement: providing a range of activities, services and opportunities for students to make the most of their time at university. This work is based around education, employability, welfare, citizenship and fun.
- Commercial: the organisation is funded in part by a donation from the university, but c40% of our core expenditure comes from the surplus generated from a number of trading operations (bars, venues, entertainment and shops). These run as a social enterprise, giving members the opportunity to shape how they operate and ultimately, run them as part of the paid staff team.
- Political: we don’t always provide services ourselves. A key aspect of our work is to represent our members and improve the work of others. This is done via a combination of lobbying, campaigning, research/policy work and activism support.
The role is very similar to many other organisational CEO posts. I lead a professional senior management team who are in turn responsible for c400 staff, ensure the financial sustainability of the organisation with a turnover of c£6m, and facilitate effective governance / decision-making through reporting to a Board of Trustees. In addition to these, though, the relationship with the University (as part funder, part regulator) makes the role slightly different. As well as leading one organisation, I also play a role within the wider campus community, leading a key aspect of the university’s ‘student experience’ – which makes partnership and collaboration essential.
People often ask me whether my PhD has been useful for my career. The answer, without a shadow of doubt, is yes. But the answer is also complex, and over simplifying it risks setting expectations too high (I’ll be fine, a PhD will get me a job) or too low (I’m doomed, I’m over qualified for everything and will have to start at the bottom). I would separate it into three categories:
- Direct: a PhD specifically requires the ability to project manage, conduct primary research, write / present persuasively, and analyse multiple sources of information. All of this is relevant to careers outside of academia. Indeed, it has provided me a niche USP in a number of my roles – being the ‘expert’ on research and data analysis within an organisation even if it wasn’t formally part of my job description.
- Indirect: completing a PhD also requires some of the more generic ‘graduate skills’, including time management, problem solving, adaptability and self-motivation. For many of these, it provides / requires an additional level of aptitude beyond a Bachelor’s / Masters programme, and it’s been crucial to make this clear during applications. Most people (including recruiters) haven’t been through the PhD process, so probably won’t know this.
- Associated: whilst completing a PhD can seem all consuming, it’s incredibly important to recognise and seize other opportunities alongside it. Universities are large organisations and indeed my own experience is that the extra curricula activities I got involved in (the Students’ Union, Open Days etc) – these were ultimately just as important as my academic qualification when it came to the job search. Even if you think a career in academia is the be all and end all, don’t waste the chance to get other experience – you may find it becomes invaluable if your aspirations change.
Finally then, as important as these three categories are, you also need to make sure you develop a clear narrative. Career paths twist and turn, and no one can predict the future. What’s important is how you thread all this experience together – why you did a PhD, what doors did this open up, how has it changed you, and ultimately why this makes the career you are embarking on (or job you’re applying for) perfect. Make your story clear, compelling and authentic.
Where can researchers look for jobs like yours? Most roles in higher education management are found online, particularly at www.jobs.ac.uk. For Students’ Unions, the National Union of Students has recently launched a dedicated portal to help people understand the sector – and almost all SU jobs are posted here: https://su.careers For charities, the best sites are: www.charityjob.co.uk and https://jobs.theguardian.com
What professional/accrediting bodies, or qualifications are relevant to where you work? A range of qualifications are useful – and indeed most jobs don’t require anything specific. However the further your advance, financial literacy is key – so it may be worth investing in something accountancy based.