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: Dr Caitlin Kight, Academic Developer, University of Exeter
Approximate salary range for your type of role: £34,500-£42,400
CaitlinKight.com & @specialagentCK
‘Academic Developer’ is not a job I was aware of as a student, let alone thought about aiming for. Even now, I struggle to describe my work, since it is so variable. For brevity’s sake, I often say ‘I teach teachers’, but the role involves much more. I research educational practice, both through the literature reviews and first-hand data collection, and then translate the findings into a format that can be used in practice by academics as they determine institutional policies on and strategies for teaching and learning, and of course in their own practice. In a typical week, I might split my time between contributing to education strategy meetings, developing new online training modules, researching best practice in a particular teaching technique, marking assignments, planning sessions at which academics can share teaching innovations with each other, and leading one of the bespoke developmental workshops that I designed and regularly revise.
It is a fascinating and rewarding job, but certainly not one I ever envisioned myself having—especially since, as the daughter of a teacher, I always swore that was the one job I would never do because of how lesson planning and paper grading can so easily take over your life. Yet here I am—how did that happen?!
I earned a BS in Biology at Haverford College, a liberal arts institution (Pennsylvania, USA) where I was also able to pursue minors in English and anthropology. I supplemented assigned reading with the sorts of popular science books I hoped to one day write myself, and worked with a wonderful Humanities professor to get my creative writing published in national publications.
Despite graduating with top marks and plenty of relevant work experience—I’d spent my undergrad summers as a field technician—I was not accepted to any of the PhD programmes to which I applied. On retrospect, I know this happened because I’d gone about the applications process all wrong; my supervisors were inexperienced with my field of interest and weren’t able to provide much help. I eventually sought guidance from an external expert, who not only offered advice, but also a place on one of the courses at his institution.
That’s how I found myself as first a Master’s student and then a PhD student at the College of William and Mary (Virginia, USA). My supervisor did many wonderful things for me during my time at W&M, but one of the best was ensuring that everyone in our research group was exposed to a behind-the-scenes view of being an academic. I could quickly see that maintaining work-life balance was even harder for academics than it was for teachers, and involved undue influence of so many factors out of the academics’ own control. So many of the duties seemed unappealing—a steep price that you paid for the privilege of the few rewarding elements of the job. For others, I knew the benefits outweighed the costs, but for me—I wondered whether and how I could continue to pursue other interests, such as the creative writing (with which I’d just had a big breakthrough with the publication of my first essay in a nature magazine).
Even as a Master’s student, I knew that I was not destined to be a professor—though I sensed that I would like to remain in higher education. I persevered through my doctorate because I knew it would provide invaluable learning opportunities (and a useful credential) that would likely open some professional doors. Just to make really certain I didn’t want to be an academic (I am nothing if not thorough!), I also did a postdoc, during which I didn’t do much research but did write a book—an enlightening and very rewarding experience. The whole reason I’d become a scientist was so I could learn about nature and share that information with people in order persuade them to be kinder to the environment. It was the communication that I enjoyed; the teaching. Writing the book reminded me of this and helped me finally get the courage to officially leave academia behind.
Thus began my move towards academic development. It was a gradual process. I first took on jobs as an editor, an education administrator, and a communications and marketing specialist; on the side, I continued to publish, do outreach, and act as a guest lecturer wherever I could. I knew my CV was probably a little baffling to anyone who wasn’t aware of my plan, but I also knew I was slowly accumulating the knowledge and experience needed to get me where I wanted to go.
Although I loved aspects of all the jobs I did before, as an academic developer I feel I have finally found my professional home. My colleagues and I always advise our workshop participants to be reflective about their professional practice in order to continually learn from experience—and, additionally, to pursue more organized developmental opportunities. Though I didn’t realize it when I was an undergraduate, these are two things I have always done, and ultimately they have made all the difference in my career path. I kept asking myself, ‘Do I enjoy this?’ ‘Could I be happy doing this every day until I retire?’ ‘Would I be able to do something more interesting if I learned this new skill?’ And, perhaps most importantly, ‘Will this allow me to feel as though I am making a real difference to society?’
When you are improving the educational experience for the next generation of learners, the answer to that last question is a resounding ‘yes’. It’s all the more pleasurable to say that about a job where you feel you are uniting what you are passionate about with what you are good at – so if you ever find that winning combination, pursue it even if it involves a circuitous path!
Where can researchers look for jobs like yours? At FEIs and HEIs, not just in the UK but also internationally. Academic developer roles (which have many names, including some which emphasize ‘teaching and learning’ over ‘academic’ and ‘enhancement’ over ‘development’) can also be found in independent organizations such as those that develop educational technologies and other learning materials; there may be similar/related roles that work on education policy in government. Many academic developers eventually go freelance and act as consultants.
What professional/accrediting bodies, or qualifications are relevant to where you work? Most academic developers have a PhD (in pretty much any discipline; doesn’t have to be education-facing), and some have a PgCert or other similar education-related degree. Almost all academic developers are at least an Associate Fellow of the HEA (now Advance HE) and many pursue higher accreditation levels as their careers progress. Many also work on additional education degrees (such as the EdD) on the side, since this fits nicely with the day job and can be useful for career progression.