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 of Staff / Senior Advisor to the Chief Executive of Universities UK
Although it’s nearly ten years ago now, I still remember that sense of confusion – almost betrayal – when I realised that after three years of research I would be on my own, with no obvious next step.
I had the immense luxury of doing my DPhil at Oxford, in English literature, fully funded by the AHRC. I wasn’t rolling in it by any means, but I was much better off than many of my peers in the humanities and social sciences.
I had managed to line up some teaching for when my funding ran out. I had applied to various, desperately competitive, research fellowships, without any luck. And try as I might I could not make a few days teaching a week add up to rent, never mind food. My partner at the time was also a student – no hope of a meal ticket there. My parents lived in Northern Ireland – no possibility of moving home in the interim to save money.
So when a job came up in university administration – full-time with a proper salary, in graduate development – I leaped at it. I had always been sneakily a bit more interested in the teaching and personal development side of the DPhil than the research anyway.
I tried to keep researching for a year or so after finding work, finishing my thesis, presenting at conferences and working on articles. I think it would have been perfectly possible to continue writing and publishing even when working full time. It’s no more than many academics do, frankly. But gradually I realised that I am much more constitutionally suited to a structured job. I never decided to stop trying to be an academic. But somewhere along the line I realised I was better and healthier, when I was trying to be something else.
From Oxford I moved to a policy role at the National Union of Students – aptly, working on postgraduate policy. I found that using my ability to rapidly assimilate information, identify the salient issues, and advocate for people who struggle to find their voice brought me much greater satisfaction than plugging away in a library, with no obvious outcome in sight.
At NUS I developed my higher education networks, often the youngest person in a room full of senior managers. I learned about how influence works, and how to use campaign and communication techniques to push for change. Over time, I took on leadership roles, eventually becoming Head of Policy. I also had some fantastic experiences, including working on postgraduate taught funding (finally implemented in England in 2016), student engagement and voice, and access policy. I rediscovered my academic credentials, taking on a Masters in Research in Higher Education at Lancaster, and discovered the pleasure of researching something when you can apply it professionally and come to a fresh understanding of something you are working on.
After five years at NUS, I was ready for a new opportunity in a different kind of organisation. Having spent years working in the relatively rarefied air of national policymaking I was keen to be part of making higher education work on the ground. I joined the University of Bedfordshire, as the Vice-Chancellor’s Director of Policy, working for former higher education Minister, Bill Rammell. For two years at Beds I was a member of the Executive Group of the university, with responsibility for policy, public affairs, corporate events and a sizeable chunk of communications. I saw at first hand the challenges of trying to make great teaching and research happen, and I was inspired on a daily basis by the students, the academics and my colleagues. Never believe the rubbish you hear about ‘ex-polys’ – UK higher education absolutely needs the Bedfordshires of this world as much as it needs the Oxfords.
That brings me (belatedly) to where I am now, which is Chief of Staff/Senior Advisor to the Chief Executive of Universities UK. It involves running the CEO’s office, which on a basic level about making sure he shows up to the right meeting with the right information in his hand, but also involves knowing what we’re trying to achieve across every area of work so that I can make sure he is in the best position possible to move forward the goals of the organisation. I help with drafting articles, communications to members, and speeches. I am currently working on developing the new Strategic Plan. I am a bridge between the CEO and the rest of the organisation. Often I am a cross between a sounding-board and external hard-drive.
I am confident that I am good at what I do. Why? Because all my research/teaching skills – analysis, writing, building relationships, communicating, structuring information in a way that is accessible – are mustered in the service of an agenda that I think is important, creating the conditions for universities to carry on doing what they do for students, and the whole of society.
As it turns out, for me, the accumulation and dissemination of knowledge wasn’t the thing that mattered most. Using those skills to make my bit of contribution to championing and improving higher education as a whole, that is the thing that gets me up in the morning.