Lorna Dargan

Careers Adviser, Newcastle University UK.

Former Research Staff at Newcastle University UK.

This story comes from our What do research staff do next? project, investigating the careers of research staff who moved from research posts to other occupations and employment sectors. You can use these stories to better understand how these researchers transition, what careers they have and their reflections on the transition process and current career paths.

Lorna Dargan

Research staff experience

I worked as a Research Associate at Newcastle University for nearly six years, in the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape.

My research focused on the discourses government employs in social and urban policy; and on the theory and practice of regeneration policies. The main focus of my work was New Labour’s participatory approach to urban regeneration, embodied in its New Deal for Communities programme, but I got involved in a number of projects over the years, from exploring diversity in town planning, to writing a forward strategy for a regeneration partnership, to a huge FP6 (EU) project exploring a range of issues related to European rural development.

I also got really involved in teaching in the department, starting out as an undergraduate dissertation supervisor, progressing through to module leader, and PhD progress panel reviewer. In my final year in post, I shared the role of Degree Programme Director for our returning Diploma students, and enjoyed the pastoral support I was able to provide.

I achieved the usual things that you’d expect in terms of publications (single and multi-authored), conference presentations, and reviewing grants and publications, and was REF submittable before I left, which I was very pleased with. But I think my favourite achievements stemmed from involving myself in the life of the department, from teaching, to staff meetings, to general administration. I was very proud, for example, that two of my students were nominated for the dissertation prize in my last year in post. I was also proud of my efforts to support other research colleagues by reviewing our induction processes, getting involved in the department’s researcher panel, and reviewing colleagues’ papers before submission.

A combination of factors led me to leave academic research. At heart, I felt that I had come to the end of what I was interested in: I was able to think of plenty of things I could research but I couldn’t think of things I wanted to research. I found this quite demotivating, which really reduced my job satisfaction. I also much preferred working with students, and I wanted to have more of that in my job.

Transition to new career

After applying for a few different jobs I met a university Careers Adviser (CA) who finally challenged me to stop complaining about my job and to think about what I enjoyed. I realised that I really enjoyed teaching and dissertation supervision, so I stopped thinking in job titles, and tried to find a job that would let me do those things. Then a ‘Curriculum Officer’ post came up - a 12-month post in careers teaching on the Careers Service’s employability modules. This seemed like nice, safe sideways step, as I was a bit nervous about leaving academia. 

It was hard to have the confidence to leave, and it was difficult at first to understand what non-academic employers were looking for. I also didn’t really understand what I had to offer, other than my subject-specific knowledge. The CA was a really helpful sounding board, as I found that my academic colleagues were not so impartial! I also found friends and family useful for helping me to think about the strengths and skills I was struggling to identify after so many years of focusing on my knowledge. 

As my contract for the Curriculum Officer post came to an end, I was asked to apply for a lectureship in my old department, but realised that I preferred the more collegiate working environment in student services. I chatted to one of the CAs about whether or not to go back, and she mentioned that a CA job was coming up. Because the CA role is so specialist, I don't think I would have got it if my colleagues hadn’t already known a bit about me and what I was capable of, and so were happy to put me through the training.

Current job – and how it compares

The principal focus of my work is career guidance (using a counselling-based approach), and training. I undertake 1-1 sessions with clients (undergraduates, PhD students and staff), and deliver specialised lectures and training within my caseload. I’m also active within AGCAS, my professional body, where there are lots of opportunities to train other careers professionals, and feel part of a career community.

The highs are getting involved in teaching and training, and the times when you can see that you have really helped someone move forward. The lows are open-plan working, and a bit of a lack of thinking time. The job is insanely busy - I’m busier than when I was research staff - so the focus tends towards doing, rather than thinking.

There’s definitely less scope for feeling in charge of yourself (as an academic, I was basically self-employed), but the trade-off is feeling part of a community working towards a shared goal of improving things for our clients, which I like.

Competencies old and new

Aside from the obvious teaching and supervision work that I did as a researcher, I think that being a CA involves being highly analytical, exploring meaning, and trying to find patterns in data (it’s just that the data are spoken words, rather than a spreadsheet).

I use the interpersonal skills I developed as a qualitative researcher, and the methodological framework for my research (discourse analysis) helps me find meanings in a client’s story by exploring the language that they use to describe it.

The new competencies I’ve developed are around guidance and coaching; theoretically informed teaching; team teaching; training; giving constructive feedback; thinking on my feet; and persuasion and negotiation. I also feel that the collegiate working environment in Careers has encouraged me to be a better team player, and I have a greater understanding of how the university works.

Reflecting on my career path

I wish I’d known that you don’t have to slog on in a job you know isn’t a good fit; that leaving academia is not a failure; and that I had loads of things to offer an employer other than my knowledge.

I’m sure that this won’t be the only career that I have, but I can see lots of potential for moving things in different directions, and I feel that I have plenty of development opportunities in my role.

Suggestions and advice

Look at your academic career as a career, not as an extension of yourself. A career needs planning and managing, and if you can take a step back and look at it, you’ll be able to consider it more strategically. It’s really easy to just drift in your research career, and focus on the research at the expense of your career management (which even the nicest PI will encourage you to do, because this works to their advantage). And you can roll along fine with that until you start hitting the top of your pay grade and become expensive, at which point someone will ask you what your plans are.

The most important thing I learnt though is this: nobody cares about your career as much as you do. Nobody. Don't put your career in someone else's hands, and remember that it is okay to put your own interests first.