Rossana Espinoza

Staff Learning and Development Adviser, University of Westminster, UK

Former research staff in Education at the University of Warwick and the University of Leicester, 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.

Research staff experience

Between 2006 and 2011 I had three research staff positions. For much of this period I was also pursuing my PhD in education.

My first research job was as a research officer on an innovative project at Warwick Institute of Education, where I was also enrolled for my doctorate. The project’s purpose was the introduction and use of information communication technology (ICT) developments in higher education institutions. Its aim was to provide support to doctoral students in the formation of networks. At the time very few UK institutions were developing blended learning support via online support and networks as part of doctoral programmes. Our results were appreciated by students and staff, and the project inspired the formation of others of similar nature.

I was continuously challenged to lead implementation of the project’s ICT developments (which included a website to support the teaching and learning of research methods) and networks. I managed an online discussion forum, a blog and an association in support of face-to-face meetings amongst doctoral students. We also developed an e-Portfolio gallery for doctoral students to showcase their profiles and achievements – helping them disseminate their work and develop networks by themselves.

This project represented a great opportunity for me to network with many different doctoral students, support staff, and academic staff. I presented my project at several conferences and published two papers at an international conference.

Out of this opportunity, two research projects arose. The first one was also at the University of Warwick, at the Learning and Development Centre. As research assistant I recruited a group of undergraduates from two universities to provide their insights on their learning activities. With my colleague who was managing this research project I developed a theoretical model to explain how students blend their learning activities. Our collaboration gave me a deep connection with a higher purpose of developing useful knowledge to understand active, informal and blended learning.

The second project was at University of Leicester. Here I worked as a research associate in the very innovative Beyond Distance Research Alliance. I developed a wiki focused on disseminating research, teaching and learning resources for the community of geographers. The model followed a successful wiki from The Royal Veterinary College.

After completing my PhD I wanted a job straightaway. I was self-aware enough to know that I needed an occupation and wanted to keep active. Cuts in the education sector and funding bodies had taken place, and it was not easy to find a job as a doctoral graduate. By chance I ended up back in my former tutoring job, from which I’d asked for study leave. One day in the street I bumped into the director of this institution and mentioned that I’d finally completed the PhD. And he said ‘Rossana, come to the office to say hello’!

I decided to return to teaching as an interim plan – a way to reconnect with people and recover from the PhD. I’d spent a great deal of time working in isolation to complete my PhD and I felt I needed a gradual return to life by enjoying teaching and socialising again!

My students were lovely and they gave me a lot of appreciation. Getting to know them during the programme I led was one of the most rewarding and valuable opportunities I ever had. I love teaching with passion and the activities very rewarding and developmental. However, there are changes taking place in education and sometimes I felt I was complying with administration rather than teaching. After nearly two years I realised I was craving for a break so I didn’t end up getting into a love-hate relationship with teaching!

I also wanted further recognition and opportunities for learning and development, unveiling a different path of personal and professional growth for me, more financial rewards, a better work life balance and more time and space to explore what I really want in life. So, over Easter 2013 I worked on an escape plan from teaching!

Transition to new career

First, there were moments of reflection, followed by a quick decision process. I looked into the palette of occupations and professions I’d performed in the past. I’d been a Spanish lecturer, a business and research methods tutor, an online tutor, a researcher, and a staff developer. Of clear importance was being able to objectively analyse my skills and complete focussed job applications and write tailored CVs. In addition, I needed to be able to:

  • get my motivation sorted: by when did I want this change to happen? (e.g. before my next birthday)
  • be honest with myself in terms of what I was willing to do (e.g. change countries, change cities, change sector)
  • be honest about how much change I could handle (e.g. I am brave and I can take the necessary steps towards change)

I had diverse job experiences and qualifications that prepared me for a range of opportunities. For example, in my native Peru I’d worked in learning and development in the human resources (HR) departments of two heavily unionised multinational corporations. When I came to the UK I did the final year of a BA Honours in International Business because I wanted to experience learning in the UK at that level to complement what I’d done back home. (It was during this year that I experienced at first hand how powerful blended learning can be as an educational approach.) The following year I completed an MA in human resources, linked with CIPD accreditation. Working as a teacher, my language lecturing experience had given me the insights to develop a very pragmatic pedagogy, which had helped me gain a subsequent role tutoring in business and research methods.

I sat in the library for a week, considering my skills and what types of job I could do. I also considered other interests e.g. possible courses, but I didn’t follow that route. I decided to get the best job that could offer me the use of my skills and the opportunity to move to a new city or country. I didn’t leave space for overthinking and I wanted to make things easy for me. I narrowed down potential applications to a lecturing post in business in my local area, tutoring in Spanish and English in China, a university research job in the east of England, and a human resources job in London.  From these I got two job interviews.

Current job

I was offered and accepted the job in London: I’m now part of the staff learning and development team at the University of Westminster. Largely I maintain and improve the Learning and Performance Management System. I design and provide training for staff at all levels on how to use it. I run complex reports using that data and this enables the University’s senior management and Human Resources and Organisation Development to take decisions. I also develop e-learning modules.

Highlights of this job are having access to learning and development opportunities. For example I’ve completed a coaching and mentoring course and I’m currently coaching staff as part of my practice to acquire the certificate. I also have a fantastic team and colleagues. Unfortunately there is probably little scope for my career to progress at the University, which is a shame because I feel that if I gained the opportunity to work with more senior managers I could learn much from the excellent practice I see at those levels in my institution.

Competencies old and new

My time as a researcher gave me a great deal of experience in working with other people whose contribution you are depending on to make the project a success, and how to introduce change successfully. To summarise what I gained overall:

  • Knowledge – in introducing ICT developments into higher education institutions, how to deliver courses, provide training and manage projects
  • Skills – application of theory to practice, problem solving skills, critical thinking skills, establishing links within the data, prioritising, planning and organisation, team working skills
  • Attitude – self-discipline, responsibility, autonomy, curiosity for learning, resilience, resourcefulness, attention to detail

Reflecting on my career path

I’d like to have tried more new experiences when I was a researcher. For example, while working at the Learning and Development Centre at Warwick my colleague suggested I take on the research management role for the project in his place. However I didn’t feel confident about taking this on and I didn’t pursue this suggestion. The important part that I missed was exploring why he felt that way. Then I could have reflected on whether I was able to do it or not, and take a more informed decision.

So, what I would do differently is ask more questions and be more curious about people, engage in more conversations with the research team and people in other roles within the institutions I worked. I concentrated on doing an excellent job, and the key lesson for me is that it is important to network more for personal reasons, not just use networking skills for my work.

Coaching is part of my future plans. Delivering training is also part of what I would like to do, especially in the development of soft skills. I’d like to carry out research, which can be used to produce something useful and of value. Something that excites is personal and professional self-development for example in the area of counselling within higher education.

Suggestions and advice

Sort your motivation out in terms of what you like doing and what your boundaries are. Assess your own strengths and areas of development. Let go of being too critical of yourself! Recognise your achievements and be proud of them. Aim for consistency in networking.

Join networks in order to provide support to each other. It is also important to collaborate with others’ research and if possible to start projects by themselves. If the panorama in research is not looking good, then explore the possibilities within industry and other sectors.