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: Professional coach and trainer, Rodetal Ltd
Facebook @researchercoaching and Twitter @researchercoach and https://www.researchercoaching.com
Approximate salary range for your type of role: Extremely varied and dependant on client
This is a career story of stick or twist, one where the decision to stay or go can take you on a varied and exciting career path. Mine starts in the bluebell woods just outside Silverstone Motor Racing circuit. From a very early age, I would spend weekends listening to the racing cars near to our family home. My parents would take me to see all kinds of motorsport but my heart was in Formula One. The excitement and noise, the glamour! With little career advice, I proclaimed I would be an ‘engineer’, completing GCSEs in maths, science and design-technology, continuing with A-Levels in physics and maths (with geography thrown in for good measure – I’d need to know where I was going if I was to be part of the racing circus).
Exciting work placements soon followed, culminating in a sponsorship offer from a motor racing team, to study motor sport engineering at university. However, a year into A-levels I realised that maths and physics were not my forte. To be brutally honest, I was rubbish! However, with hard work I was sure it would all just click. I had spent a decade telling my friends, family, teachers, anyone who would listen, I was going to working F1; it was all I had ever talked of. If I changed my career goal now what would everyone think? That I was a failure? Decision time – admit defeat or plough on in hope?
It was time to ‘Stick or Twist’?
I was in too deep to change course now. So, despite feeling like a square peg in a round hole, I kept going. Engineering WOULD fit. I had extra tutoring with maths, stayed up all night to get to grips with physics and even retook the maths course at night school. I failed with flare. “If only we could award grades for effort”, my maths teacher said. I called the university “we could enrol you on our foundation year?” they suggested. Really? More of the same? Late nights of confusion, desperation and in a year to be in the same position. Decision time again.
Stick or Twist?
I took a year out and re-applied to study geography. I loved it; it just felt so right, I understood concepts and theories, could contribute to discussion with ease. I found my passion. After graduating, I was offered a fully funded PhD in agricultural geography.
Stick or Twist?
So I set about, as my supervisor called it, “training to be an academic researcher – in geography”.
I loved being my own boss during my PhD, deciding where, when and what to do. Some days I would be in the office writing, others I would be traveling around the English countryside talking to farmers, the next day I would be conducting ethnographic research whilst lifting potatoes in a muddy field. I took on some sessional teaching and enjoyed supporting others to find their passion for mys ubject. It was a perfect fit. I promoted geography as a department ambassador and helped organise open days. If this was what being an academic was like I was in – where did I sign?
As I progressed through my PhD, that square peg feeling began to re-emerge. I talked more with the post-docs in my department who spoke about the push for funding, to publish papers, how they were taking holiday to ‘catch-up’ on work or mark essays. The hours they kept were long, the pressure immense and with little guarantee of stability. Was that what I was heading towards?
Stick or Twist?
At the end of 3 years of PhD I submitted my thesis and left my department to cries of “but what will you do?” and “but you have a PhD, you can’t leave!”.
I took a job as a Vitae regional hub manager. The job, hosted at a university, involved writing reports, speaking at conferences, organising events, delivering training, traveling around the UK supporting universities to develop their researchers to reach their full potential. It turned out it was my dream job! My PhD experience put me in a great position to build rapport with researchers who were thinking about their next career steps and all the project, organisation and research skills from my PhD perfectly translated to this new role!
After nine years, the Vitae hubs were closed. Over the next few months I took on a variety of short, fixed-term roles. I applied for a selection of project management-type roles but often that square peg feeling was lingering. Decision time – if you always do what you’ve always done, you will always get what you’ve always got.
Time to twist!
Instead of searching for the perfect job I would create the job myself. I retrained as a corporate and executive coach and began actively promoting ‘Communication & Me’ the small ‘side hustle’ training company I had set up with a friend and mentor at the end of my PhD. A few opportunities arose – I was enjoying what I did. Then the directors at Rodetal Ltd approached me. They were looking for someone to buy out one of their directors in order to diversify their offerings.
Stick or Twist?
Seeing the potential in what I could do, I was asked to write my own job description- such an amazing feeling! I made sure that my peg fitted the hole. I launched Rodetal Executive Training and Coaching shortly after and began the Researcher Coaching programme. My new role (similar to ‘Researcher Developer’ or ‘Learning and Development Consultant’, ‘Trainer’, ‘Coach’, ‘Facilitator’) is a culmination of all of my previous experiences. It’s still incredibly hard work but I am using all of my skills and abilities. I still need to maintain my own personal motivation, seek funding and write proposals and reports. I go to conferences to keep my knowledge up to date and attend training and development courses for my own CPD – including having my own coach. It is very similar to being a researcher, and because I work with researchers it is important that I can relate to their experiences, having a PhD and having been through the experience means I can speak with authority. The research techniques I learnt as a researcher are vital when I am working with clients. And, those extra skills as a PhD ambassador certainly don’t do me any harm.
When people ask if I miss being a geographer I can, hand on heart, say I never stopped being a geographer. Being a geographer means constantly looking at projects and opportunities from multiple perspectives. I have to evaluate what I do and ensure that what I offer meets the needs of the researchers I serve and also aligns with the values of the company I have a stake in. I am geographer first and a company director second. I never lose sight of the knowledge and intellectual abilities my geography PhD taught me.
Stick or Twist?
Definitely Stick… But never say never!
…and if an F1 motor racing team needs a coach to support their staff… ask me the question Stick or Twist?
The main functions of my role now are designing and delivering training and development programmes for researchers including training workshops on time management, the PhD process and motivation. I especially love working with mature/ part-time/ distance learning researchers as I feel they are often overlooked by the central training provision offered by universities. I provide 1 to 1 coaching by Skype, deliver large scale, residential courses and run productivity retreats. In addition, I work with the wider team at Rodetal Ltd to build our website, dealing with client and customer queries, keeping up-to-date with government legislation, finances, emails – the list goes on.
I try to have at least one day in the office each week and try to either drop the children off or collect them from school. When I am working away from home delivering training, it is important for me to stay in touch with my family so using Skype means I’m always able to read the bedtime story wherever I am in the world.
My advice to researchers is:
- To take the opportunity to develop your public speaking skills – be comfortable in front of large audiences, sessional teaching experience would be a great first step.
- Also to understand how good you are at motivating yourself – running your own business (even as a partner) means you need to do things even when there is no-one setting deadlines.
- Be brave, as my geography teacher wrote in my year book “…have confidence in yourself and you will go further than you thought possible”, 20 years later this has never rung truer. Never worry that changing your mind will make you look weak or indecisive.
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” – Mary Oliver, The Summer Day