Ellie Kennedy

R&D team leader, academic development centre of a UK university

Former researcher in German literature and gender studies, Canada

Ellie KennedyAcademic research experience

I got my PhD in German from Queen’s University in Canada, with a dissertation on women’s writing in contemporary German literature. Following my undergraduate degree I’d taken a very useful month-long course to obtain a certificate in teaching English as a foreign language (EFL), and then gained some experience teaching English in a school and a university in Germany. This theory and practical experience of language teaching not only came in handy during my graduate teaching assistantship teaching German language, but would also play a vital role in shaping my future career.

After my PhD I worked as an assistant professor in my field. I landed a couple of limited-term, full-time academic posts, involving a combination of teaching, research and service. I continued to disseminate my research at conferences and in academic journals, and had the opportunity to develop and teach courses based on my thesis topic. Freed from the narrow confines of PhD work, and inspired by teaching graduate courses in gender studies, I found my focus shifting away from German literature and onto gender play in the radio and television comedy of my native Britain. I had a lot of fun researching and writing about this!

During my time as a full-time temporary assistant professor, I spent many evenings and weekends applying for permanent positions. Unfortunately, this coincided with a time of cuts to university departments, and modern foreign languages were hit particularly hard. After four years, countless written applications and 11 interviews in three different countries, there were no more tenure-track positions to apply for. At the same time, health issues in my family suggested it was a good time to move back to the UK. This was going to mean a change of career.

Transition from academic research

During my time as a graduate student I kept up-to-date with professional issues, including the job crisis in the humanities, so I was always aware of the need to keep my options open. I found it helpful to get involved with graduate student communities through academic professional associations, and even organised a couple of events and discussions on postgraduate careers.

Probably the most useful resource I encountered this way was WRK4US (now known as The Versatile PhD), an online community for PhDs transitioning out of academia. Two key messages crystallised for me out of online discussions and resources. Firstly, completing a PhD gave you a highly desirable and transferable skill set – you just had to match this with interesting work and ‘sell’ your skills, sometimes in creative ways. Secondly, options were not limited to ‘in’ (a tenure-track professorship) versus ‘out of’ academia: in fact there were many interesting jobs in the higher education sector that people with graduate degrees were already doing. I learned that failure to land a coveted tenure-track post in my field wouldn’t have to mean exile from the university world that felt like my natural home.

Another highly useful resource was jobs.ac.uk, an email service that allowed me to receive alerts about university job openings. I noticed that many institutions advertised for teachers of English for Academic Purposes (EAP), particularly during the summer months, to prepare international students for the start of the academic year. While teaching German history and culture through the medium of German language, I’d developed a repertoire of techniques to help students with limited ability in the language to engage critically with subject matter from ancient tribal customs through Freud’s dream analysis to the fall of the Berlin Wall. This was a challenge that I’d enjoyed, and it seemed like a good match with the field of EAP. The traditional route into EAP is via EFL teaching and then a Diploma (DELTA) qualification. However, I was able to use my basic EFL qualification (CELTA), my English and German language teaching experience, and my four years as a university teacher in my field to secure a short-term EAP job at a UK university.

In this job I spent a summer preparing international students to study, research, write essays and present their work: this provided a useful grounding in EAP and a commitment-free opportunity to try out life in my home country after many years away. With this experience under my belt, I successfully applied for a full-time teaching post at an international college in the UK.

I worked in EAP for four years. The most useful factors from my academic career in this job were a) my teaching experience and b) my knowledge of what learners need in the way of practical and critical thinking skills in order to succeed at university. Although research wasn’t required for this post, I took advantage of opportunities to attend conferences and read articles on teaching international students. I also joined the editorial board of the International Student Experience Journal, which gave me the opportunity to mentor EAP teachers through the peer review process when publishing their first scholarly article. And I ran workshops for colleagues within my institution to share their knowledge and skills in supporting international students.

My work in EAP sharpened my interest in how students learn and what barriers they face, particularly in an era of widening participation in higher education, when students come from varied  social and educational backgrounds, as well as different countries. We can’t assume that students arriving at university already possess the academic skills and cultural capital to thrive in this environment. This is how I discovered educational development (also called academic development) – an entire profession devoted to enhancing learning and teaching in higher education.

Another career shift

I wasn’t intending to make a further career transition: rather, I developed a habit of identifying and acting on opportunities to enhance teaching practice at the college. Interventions I initiated included workshops, resources, formal and informal peer mentoring, and an externally funded practice-exchange project. Inspired by the success of these initiatives and the positive feedback from participants, I decided to apply for a full-time position at a nearby university as a Learning and Teaching Adviser. My background in teaching and research and my commitment to enhancing student learning were enough to secure me the post.

Current job – and how it compares           

I lead the Research & Development Team in a learning and teaching unit in a large, modern UK university. The research element of the team’s work involves ensuring that our work is informed by an evidence base. This includes secondary/desk-based research, such as reading academic articles and reports to scope out the latest developments in the field, and using this information to inform policy and innovation. We also do primary research, such as evaluating how successfully a learning and teaching initiative has become embedded across the institution. Although I don’t have formal training in social science research methods (my academic background being in the humanities), I picked up the theory and practice of qualitative research by teaching it to international students in my previous role.

The development side of the work involves supporting academics to incorporate learning and teaching enhancements into their practice. On a given day this might include: meeting a teaching team to discuss ways of including more formative feedback for students; running a workshop bringing together academics to share their ideas on interactive lectures; and drafting guidance on assessment methods which can support all students regardless of gender, first language and disability. My experience of organising panels at academic conferences, and my background in developing curricula, teaching materials and assessments have proved invaluable in this role.

A major difference between this and my previous roles is that I no longer have direct interaction with students. This is both a disadvantage – I miss the buzz of a lively classroom and the satisfaction of those “lightbulb moments” – and an advantage – fewer emails to answer and no marking! However, I work closely with academics to enhance teaching practice, so I still have a strong connection to student learning. As far as research is concerned, I have less autonomy as I work to a brief from senior managers or academic committees who commission the research. Advantages to this way of working include a significant time saving in the early stages of a project, as well as a pre-existing audience who will be genuinely interested in the findings: although I generally don’t publish my research externally, it feeds directly back into the university and shapes our strategic policy on learning and teaching.

Working in a centralised professional services department, I enjoy a broad view of the whole university: I work with academics from an incredible variety of subject areas, as well as colleagues from teams such as IT Support, Outreach, and Employability. At first, I found it strange to miss the ebb and flow of academic terms, but I’m accustomed to it now. Perhaps most importantly, since I stopped teaching I no longer bring work home at weekends.

Competencies old and new

I use my research skills to carry out and oversee evaluations into learning and teaching initiatives within the institution. More broadly, first-hand knowledge of what makes academics tick is invaluable, since my role involves supporting academic staff and sometimes persuading and influencing them.

A knowledge of student learning has been vital in all my roles. This knowledge comes from direct experience and observation, and from reading and attending practice-sharing events. I couldn’t do my job as an educational developer without experience of and an enthusiastic commitment to the practice of teaching within higher education.

Good written and oral communication skills are essential to my role. Previously, I was skilled in communicating with students and with other academics; now, however, I’ve developed skills in presenting information to a wider variety of audiences, including library staff, placement students, digital technologists, and busy senior managers.

Now that I’m a team leader, I’m learning a whole new skill set related to managing people. This is something my academic experience didn’t prepare me well for. However, there are other sources of support to draw on within the institution, including manager-mentors and professional development workshops.

Reflections on my career path

It was initially difficult to let go of my academic ambitions. However, since then, I’ve enjoyed the twists and turns of my career journey in higher education. I don’t know whether I would have done anything differently: I have friends and colleagues who did gain permanent academic positions and I don’t envy the unsustainable workloads and stress levels they deal with.

My advice

1) Keep your options open. My plan A was a tenure-track position in my field. Out of necessity, I put plan B into action, and gained a lot from my four years as an EAP teacher. This led to plan C – highly rewarding work in educational development, a profession I was previously unaware of. 

2) Learn about the interesting work that other post-academics are doing. Online resources such as The Versatile PhD are great for this; you can also ask your institution or professional association to put you in touch with PhD graduates in your field. Find out what those people are doing and how they got there. 

3) Don’t buy into the myth that you have to leave academia if you don’t get a tenure-track post. There are dozens of PhDs in my institution carrying out vital and rewarding work, from educational developers to the Academic Registrar. Others work in the broader higher education sector: among funding bodies, academic publishers, and policy-making organisations our skills and insider knowledge are very much in demand.