“The path I’ve ended up on has been partly due to following my instincts and partly due to having good mentors.”
Laura is the Student Industrial Liaison Manager within the Faculty of Engineering’s Industrial Liaison Office. She and her team ensure that our students benefit from great experiences for their personal development, particularly through industrial placements and mentoring. Here, she gives us an overview of the unusual route her career has taken so far:
Tell us about you – where are you from, who you are outside of work?
I’m a miner’s daughter from West Wales and in all honesty I didn’t get the best GCSEs or A Levels results, but as a mature student went on to get a 2:1 in my degree and equivalent in my Masters. I wanted to prove to myself that I could do a degree which gave me my drive that I’ve carried through into my career. If you told me 15 years ago, that I’d be doing the job I’m doing now I would have looked at you daft and carried on walking.
Welsh is my first language, and strangely this is the first job I’ve ever had where being bilingual wasn’t a requirement, which makes answering the telephone a lot shorter process!
Outside of work, I play hockey – I rediscovered hockey when I moved to Bristol, thinking that it would be a good way to meet people who had a passion for something similar, in fairness, I hadn’t played it for 17 years, but it was like riding a bike and something that keeps me fit and gives that sense of being part of a team. I have also been a committee member, taking up various roles, this is an area where I feel that my working experience has translated well (who’d have thought, transferable skills!).
Aside from hockey, I like to get outside as much as possible – I really like being in big green outdoor spaces. Having grown up and lived in rural and semi-rural areas, moving to Bristol was a change shall we say.
Tell us how you got here – what did you do to get here, what decisions did you make, what motivated you?
Taking it back to the beginning, having been disappointed with my A-Level results I went to work in a call centre, NTL if anyone can remember that far back. This was probably one of the best jobs I’ve had in terms of skills development – you quite quickly learn patience and grow a thick skin, when you have people shouting, screaming and swearing at you on a daily basis, because there is an issue with their cable TV.
After 4 delightful years and a change to a different team, I then I went to Neath Port Talbot council, where I worked as an administrator/trainee development officer in community development for nearly 4 years. Thanks to a fantastic mentor, I was able to go part-time to start my degree in Community Development, as a mature student.
While studying a part-time opportunity came up to work in the University’s Research and Development Office supporting student enterprise. During the summers I asked my line manager if I could help out on a short term project on a Destination Management, to which she replied, “volunteer, no Laura, we’ll pay you for that” which meant a little more money in the summer and a load of new experience as a result.
My degree opened up a lot of doors for amazing experiences, that I could never have imagined. Over one Christmas break, I volunteered in Mexico for a month on a turtle sanctuary, the following September I volunteered for three weeks in Dublin on a large Community Development programme contributing to their Community Safety strategy.
In the final year of my degree, a full-time job came up in the University looking at social enterprise franchising, that I was successful in getting. This did impact on my degree slightly, extending my final year to 18 months. But my employer and university were the same institution, so it worked out!
When I was coming to the end of my degree I found out that there was a really good Community Development Masters programme in Bangor University, as to not take a break, I applied, was accepted. The week after I handed in my undergraduate dissertation, I started my Masters in Bangor.
In the first year of my Masters course I moved roles again within the institution, this time working on an accreditation of prior learning role. I really enjoyed this job, it gave me an opportunity to get out and about in the community across South Wales, from Merthyr to Pembrokeshire talking to people about accessing higher education as mature students. This is something that I got a lot of value from having been a mature student myself.
I then did a stint in Bangor University working as a Business Liaison Officer, leading the marketing and publicity of a £32 million European project and working with companies locally bringing them together with academics that would link them with MSc, MRes and PhD projects.
Which leads me nicely on to Bristol: I saw the advert when I was ill with the flu and having worked through 2/3rd of the application I was ready to go to back to bed and wallow. Then my friend encouraged me to finish it off given the effort and time I’d already put in. I submitted on the Tuesday, not expecting to hear anything, then got the email on Friday for interview. Being excited and not actually knowing about Bristol, I took a little trip down the corridor to Trefor to ask what he knew about Bristol, so we Googled it! So the night before the interview after work, I did the all too familiar 5 hour drive to my parents in West Wales, then the 2 hour drive to Bristol in the morning (luckily with mam driving).
And so on Tuesday 6th October 2015, I started a new chapter of my life here in Bristol.
Why do you like your job?
What I like about my job is that it has never been the same since I started all those years ago. I’ve been able to see a team develop and grow, with changing roles and structures and seen individuals grow within those roles.
I came here to Bristol seeking a new challenge – I wanted the chance to do line management – and wanted to spread my wings a bit. And it has challenged and stretched me, I’ve been uncomfortable and overwhelmed, but all of those experiences have added to the narrative of who I am today.
I’ve had some particularly mind-blowing experiences in this role and this is thanks to both line managers that I have had, giving the flexibility and putting the trust in me to get the job done. I’ve been able to go to China and Hong Kong, where I was so tired on my way to a meeting I had a power nap en route. I was privileged to be part of the Faculty’s Team working on the Gromit Trail, which gave me the opportunity to work with the Faculty’s technical services team. Finally, I really enjoyed the opportunity to work with the School Education Directors, Dave Drury and Julian Booker on the proposals for the Faculty’s Year in Industry scheme.
How do you make it work in terms of work/life balance?
I try, and it’s getting better. Work life balance is something that I have struggled with for years if I’m being honest, taking a 7.45am flight from North to South Wales, managing an event until 11.30pm, then catching the 6am flight back up, to be at my desk by 9am to get the press release finalised, answering calls at 7pm on a Friday when I’m on leave, or ordering parts in a car park after hiking Snowdonia one bank holiday weekend.
However, this kind of behaviour is not sustainable, and I have experienced burnout and depression as a result. This has given me perspective and made me realise, what people have been telling me (especially mam) for quite some time that I expect too much of myself and I need to take care of myself.
There were two big things that have helped, firstly a book called ‘F**k it’ a spiritual way, a fantastic little read that has and still is doing the rounds with friends. Secondly was finding something outside of work to concentrate on, which is where hockey has been a fantastic rediscovery.
I still occasionally check emails, and work at silly hours, but this is the exception and no longer the rule.
How has career development / promotion happened for you so far?
I’ve not had a straightforward career path – I’ve done a lot of varied things! But it is that variety that has helped – working in a call centre eventually brought me here. I’ve had and pushed for the opportunity to do different things to expand my knowledge and experience. I have had three fantastic mentors in my life and count myself lucky and privileged for having met them, they each saw in me potential and encouraged it.
How have you been supported, and how do you support others?
The mentors I’ve had have all been crucial to my development, although I wouldn’t have necessarily have recognised it as mentoring at the time.
It was in my first Community Development role that I met my first mentor, Helen Davis. She was a colleague who challenged me to take on tasks I wouldn’t have thought I could do otherwise. She was the first person who saw the potential I had and pushed it. She taught me about Community Development as she saw I wanted to learn – she broke it down into simple stages and helped me understand the process.
At the University of Wales Trinity St David, I met my next important mentor, who was my line manager. She gave me the best piece of advice that I will always remember, I was struggling with padding out a funding application and she simply said “Don’t worry the B**S** will come with time!” – and it really did!
Finally, another mentor was my Head of Department when I was doing my masters, she offered me the chance to go to Perpignon one Easter as part of an European project she was participating in and on the plane there told me I would be delivering a workshop on networking for the consortium when we got there… I was a bit shocked but it was the kind of challenge I like rising to.
I try to encourage others in a similar way, who have the skills, but don’t have set progression routes. I try to help those in the team where I can to develop their confidence and skills. And I encourage and help people outside of the student team – colleagues in the ILO or Careers division. I want to help people see the potential that they have but may not have the confidence to see. That’s what the mentors I had did for me.
I am mindful as a line manager that the team are working within their capacity as to not get overwhelmed with their work. I know from personal experience how hard it can be when you feel overwhelmed – it affects you physically and emotionally. I feel quite passionate about wellbeing and would hope that the team feel that they are able to talk to me, or someone in their broader support network. can talk to me or to others.
Well there’s a question, I’m lucky that, overall, I enjoy my job. There’s scope to do a lot more, which having been in a role for nearly 5 years is an exciting position to be in!
What advice would you give people considering a similar career?
Building networks, networks are so very important, especially in these kinds of roles where there aren’t obvious career progression routes. I’ve built mine in Bristol, through both formal training and meetings with colleagues, as well as informally through birthday parties or a pint down the pub on a Friday night.
Learning from other, there is always an opportunity to learn, be that a new skill or reflecting, learning about yourself.
Transferable skills, appreciate your own skills and how these can be applied in another context, when you’ve done something new, keep a note of it, you never know when that exact skill will be asked for in a job description.
Don’t be too hard on yourself, this is something I still struggle with, but will ask for help if I need it, or if you’ve not quite written something in the right way, ask for examples of where it has been done right. If I don’t understand something, I’ll either ask or do a quick search on YouTube.
Embrace the challenge, break it down to manageable bite-sized tasks and celebrate those small wins, be it a nice walk after work, or that fancy cake you’ve had your eye on.
Take a risk, I didn’t know what awaited me in either Bangor or Bristol when I moved, but my instincts told me that they were both good decisions, and they really were. I have been able to move to different regions for roles, which I appreciate isn’t possible for everybody. But there are different areas within the University and sectors in Bristol that have a lot to offer in terms of development and growth, have an open mind.
Finally, have fun with it.