My ‘Squiggly’ Career Journey

How the best route to progression is not always straight forward

Jake Harding (he/him) MAHEP MSci PGCE

Student Enrichment Manager

Faculty of Science and Engineering

Manchester Metropolitan University

Development Monthly | #27 January 2024 | HE Horizon: ‘Navigating the Future Landscape’

My ‘squiggly’ career story (and yes, that is the technical term) starts a decade ago now at Lancaster University from where I graduated with an integrated masters in Natural Sciences. In my final year I specialised in Astrophysics, with every intention initially of pursuing a PhD in the same field, but much like the black holes I was studying, I found most of my time gravitating towards the spaces between endless lines of code… I swiftly realised that I much preferred talking Physics at conferences than walking Physics in the lab so, supported by my university career mentor, I decided to take the first squiggle of my career from academia to teaching.

I graduated from Leeds Beckett University with my PGCE, having fallen in love with the teaching profession for its ability to impact on the lives of students so powerfully and positively, and decided to go to work in two of the most deprived areas in the country (both of which went on to be a ground zero for various waves of the coronavirus). Over the half a decade career that followed, I felt a true sense of reward and fulfilment that I had not experienced before and have not since, not quite yet. Throughout my career I had the privilege of teaching the full range of secondary year groups, abilities, backgrounds and Sciences (Physics to A-level), supported by my Institute of Physics career mentor and subject-specific CPD provided by my professional body.

I took on additional teaching and learning responsibilities in the form of coordinating inclusive, accessible and relevant enrichment opportunities (the highlight for me being able to meet an astronaut!), building my own Astronomy department, curriculum, assessment, resources and training staff from the ground up, culminating in being awarded the Royal Astronomical Society Secondary and Further Education Award, recognising my outreach and widening participation contributions and for which I was made a Fellow.

So why take the second squiggle of my career from teaching to higher education professional services?

Well, it saddens me to say that the polarised view of recognition, reward and fulfilment that I have earnestly presented above did not come without a heavy toll on my mental and physical health and wellbeing.

Ultimately, I fell out of love with the teaching profession. 60+ hour weeks with no substantial breaks or lunches due to lab prep time (there were technicians, but they were spread thin), planning, marking and other administrative duties led to burnout and exhaustion. Finally, I arrived one day, sat down at my desk and promptly burst into tears. I resigned immediately and have no regrets in doing so. Family and friends still comment that I seem significantly less stressed, happier and healthier.

Saying that, I also have no regrets from what I now refer to as my previous career as I have found that the transferable skills that I acquired are proving invaluable in the higher education sector too. In short, understanding how students think at a secondary and further level has helped me to just as successfully engage them at a higher level too. I joined Manchester Metropolitan University as an Education Services Officer six months ago and, after engaging with the AHEP CPD and career mentoring, have recently made the move to the Faculty of Science and Engineering as the Student Enrichment Manager.

For me, this progression vindicates the value that higher education professional services place on the transferable skills from the wider education sector and squiggly careers beyond. It is not merely all about time in the building. It is due to this support that I have received from professional bodies such as the AHEP, institution and colleagues during my relatively short time here that I can genuinely say that I cannot see myself ever taking another squiggle out of the sector.

To summarise, my career story so far has taught me several lessons that I would like to share with you now, in no particular order:

– Squiggly careers are certainly a thing so do not think that you cannot take that leap from one comfortable role to another more challenging but also more rewarding one. I can safely say from experience that it gets a lot less scary every time you do and sometimes the grass is very much greener.

– You cannot put a price on your mental and physical health and wellbeing. Even in fulfilling roles supporting others, remember that if you cannot care for yourself then you cannot care for others effectively either. A lesson that I learned the hard way.

– Engage with career mentoring for an outside opinion, internally with your institution and/or externally with professional bodies such as AHEP (shameless plug).

– Engage with CPD offered within your working time. This is an opportunity not available in all areas of the education sector.

– Stick to your working time and close the laptop lid. That can be a very slippery slope.

– Take time to walk away from your screens at lunch. Bring a good book.

Thank you for taking the time to read this article; I hope you found it engaging and insightful. Happy squiggling!

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