What is a Professional Services Early Careers Network and why should your institution have one too

Development Monthly | #31 May 2024 | Mindful Networks: Creating Communities of Practice and Wellbeing’

What is a Professional Services Early Careers Network

Everybody remembers their first day starting a job; the nerves, the excitement, the endless list of names to remember and everybody remembers their first day working at a university. There are acronyms for everything, streams of students to shuffle past and added walking time is needed to navigate campuses and cities so vast you can guarantee to cover miles of ground in a day (unless, of course, you’re working from home!). Let’s not forget that many institutions have a rich history to dive into. There are years of new methods of education and groundbreaking research discoveries against the backdrop of an ever-changing Higher Education (HE) sector. So, no wonder that stepping foot into professional services at a university is just a little bit daunting. We’ve all been there.

Anna Crawford (she/her), Philanthropy Officer, University of Birmingham

What happened, then, when a group of early career professionals at the University of Birmingham started talking about how much there is to learn when working at a university? By ‘early’ this didn’t mean a group of twenty-somethings but people recently moving into a professional services position in HE. This is how the Professional Services Early Careers network (PSEC) was created. After a bit of paperwork, a presentation to the university’s career development programme and approval , an ambition to bring together colleagues from across the University was realised. PSEC helps colleagues navigate the institution, understand the HE sector and foster meaningful connections between Professional Services staff.

Voluntarily led by a small committee, PSEC is dedicated to linking together staff members from across the University. One of the network’s key aims is to highlight routes for progression whilst building a supportive community committed to accompanying early career professionals on their professional journeys. The network offers open communication between members about any aspect of their career and hosts regular events including spotlight sessions, workshops, and social events!

Getting PSEC off the ground

The ways in which we work have changed since the pandemic. People are still moving to new jobs, new cities, and new industries but the way we work has become more hybrid. This makes a difference for people early on in their careers. We saw the space for a PSEC network as the University of Birmingham had existing early careers networks for academics, but not for professional services. Once initial conversations around PSEC had started, and experiences had been shared, the idea took off. PSEC has built a community of early career staff to put on a regular series of events such as “In Conversation With…” senior staff, including the Vice Chancellor, about their early career journeys, as well as themed panel discussions, networking sessions, and lunch and learn events.

Hannes Read (he/him), Policy and Data Analyst, University of Birmingham

Everyone has an early career journey, and the themed events are the hook to bring people in to discuss their own experiences. As a result, members have broadened their personal development, built networks, and seen the impact of their work, and the work of colleagues, across the University. The network offers support across career progression, networking opportunities and an informal space to share stories and make friends. With over 300 members across the University of Birmingham, PSEC is thriving and hopes to share its success with others at different universities.

Lessons learned from our first year

Looking back on our first year since launching PSEC, we’ve learned some invaluable lessons and shared experiences that have significantly shaped our journey. This first year proved to be crucial and has set the tone for how we wanted the network to be shaped. Understanding our members was our first priority because early career professionals within the University have varied aspirations. It makes sense that the needs of those working in campus services are different to those working in IT! By regularly checking in and communicating with our members, we’ve been able to tailor our events and initiatives to better meet their requirements, providing valuable support and guidance along the way.

Jules Singh (he/him), Senior Outreach Officer, University of Birmingham

Throughout our first year, we have kept evaluating our progress and built an evidence base of how we have supported the professional and personal development of our community of staff. 80% of our members have been at the University of Birmingham for under three years, and feedback from our most recent member’s survey showed 70% of members have found that being a member of PSEC had a positive effect on their experience working at the University. Members have really appreciated our work by saying PSEC has “filled a gap” in their working experience for early career professionals. PSEC have fostered a sense of belonging and improved ways of working by connecting staff across the institution, to enrich the working opportunities of countless teams, and the university as a whole.

The structure of our committee has been a key factor in our success. Diverse, passionate, and engaged committee members have been the driving force behind PSEC’s achievements. We have no formal elections for most members, and everyone volunteers their time on top of their roles within the University. Meeting regularly as a committee has been instrumental in our planning and coordination efforts. These meetings have ensured that we stay organised, focused, and keep our members at the heart of what we are doing. The areas of expertise brought to the committee have fostered creativity and innovation within our network and we aim to seek feedback to identify where we can improve.

Collaboration was also crucial to our success in our first year. As a growing network, we utilised the memberships of other staff networks and organisations within the university, to maximise our impact and reach a wider audience. Running events in partnership with other networks allowed us to learn from their experiences and work across the University to better meet the needs of our members.

What does PSEC mean for me?

Networking can be a daunting concept and when you enter the realm of HE, you question how do I do it and am I doing it right? What are the do’s and don’ts…but it’s not as complicated as that, or hopefully over time, we realise it doesn’t have to be. Quite simply, it can be a conversation. Talking to people, being confident taking the first step saying hello, being keen and showing interest in others. These are all part of building your professional network.

That is exactly how I found out about the PSEC network at the University of Birmingham. I saw someone new in our office, said hello, ended up going for lunch a couple of weeks later and that’s how I found out about PSEC. Now I am part of a group of likeminded people, coming together to share advice, ask questions we might feel afraid to ask elsewhere, share experiences and navigate our individual career journeys in HE. 

Amrit Sanghera, (she/her), Personal Assistant to Deputy Vice Chancellors, University of Birmingham

PSEC is a place where new perspectives, energy and ideas can thrive. We champion our network for fostering a sense of belonging and seeing the bigger picture. We understand needing to balance your main role and not feeling too much pressure. It can be as flexible and fluid as you like, just keep the momentum going by keeping in touch and remembering the purpose behind it all: to learn together and create those opportunities for each other.

If you are looking to set up a similar network we are happy to share our experiences and advice. As we all know, Rome wasn’t built in a day!

How I have benefitted from PSEC

Having been part of the PSEC committee for over a year, the network has been integral in helping me understand how early career staff can add value to our institutions, and enhance our personal and professional development. I was lucky enough to co-chair our EDI panel event, where senior members of staff from across our Professional Services and Academic community, sat down to talk to early careers staff about their own personal experiences, challenges, and journeys within HE. Chairing the event massively increased my self-confidence, but more than that, it really demonstrated the individual impact that I could have to create a more inclusive and open workplace. 

Charlie Crofts, (He/him) Graduate Management Trainee

My experience at the AHEP Conference

As a long-standing member of the PSEC committee, I was very excited about the opportunity to attend the AHEP conference to present a session on the importance of the PSEC network, as I believe every HEI should have one. I massively benefited from my attendance on both a personal and professional level. By taking on a public speaking challenge that was outside my comfort zone I gained confidence in myself and my presentation abilities. My participation in the rest of the conference furthered my sector knowledge and developed my networking skills. Without the support of PSEC I would not have had this opportunity to grow.   

Emma Melling (she/her) Graduate Management Trainee

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