Enhancing university teaching for a living
By Sophia Donaldson, on 19 August 2019
Dr Alex Standen has a PhD in Italian Studies, and now works at UCL as Associate Director, Early Career Academic and Research Supervisor Development, in the Arena Centre. Alex helps researchers every day as part of her job, and she kindly agreed to help you even further by telling us her career story.
Tell us about your current role and organisation.
I work here at UCL in the Arena Centre for Research-Based Education. We work across UCL to support colleagues to enhance their teaching and improve the student experience in their departments. I am one of three Associate Directors and have oversight of all our training and development of PhD students who teach, new Lecturers and Teaching Fellows, Personal Tutors and Research Supervisors.
How did you move from academia to your current role?
During my writing up year I was also employed as a Teaching Fellow in my department, a role that I continued for a year post-PhD. I loved teaching and working closely with students in departmental roles such as Admissions Tutor, Year Abroad/Erasmus Coordinator and Personal Tutor, but it left no time for research. By chance, my partner was offered the opportunity to spend a year in New Zealand and we leapt at the chance: I had been at the same institution since I was an undergraduate and, while I loved my department and role, I needed a change of scenery and to give myself some time and space to focus on my research. Only that wasn’t what happened! I found I had little enthusiasm to re-visit my PhD research and no new projects I wanted to pursue; instead I was gravitating back to roles involving students. Back in the UK I got a job here at UCL as Education Officer in the Faculty of Brain Sciences which gave me so many valuable insights into HE administration, student support and wellbeing, quality assurance and enhancement, and the wider HE landscape. It was also in a Faculty whose research was so far removed from my own that I got an amazing insight into disciplines I had previously known nothing about. Working in the Faculty offered me a chance to get to know lots of the central teams at UCL and as soon as I got to know and understand about the work the Arena Centre was doing I knew that was where I wanted to be!
What does a normal working day look like for you?
It is a complete mix! I am rarely at my desk, and more often to be found delivering sessions, talking to colleagues and departments about their teaching, supporting them to gain professional recognition for their education-related roles, or liaising with other teams like the Doctoral School and Student Support and Wellbeing. Since becoming Associate Director, I also now manage a small team and am involved in finance and strategic planning conversations which has been a big learning curve!
What are the best things about working in your role?
Meeting so many inspiring colleagues from across the institution and feeling like the work we are doing is actually having an impact on students.
What are the biggest challenges you face in your work?
Not everyone is keen to hear from us! Lots of colleagues, understandably, have so many competing pressures that they just don’t have time to think about their teaching role on top of everything else. But when we do manage to convince them to make even a small change it makes it all worthwhile!
Is a PhD essential for your role?
No, but lots of experience of teaching in HE is essential, and so is a broad understanding of the HE environment. My PhD gave me the confidence to present in front of a range of audiences, to consume large amounts of information quickly and critically, to be persuasive, and to manage my time effectively – all of which are absolutely key to my role.
What’s the progression like?
There is an absolute wealth of roles in HE beyond teaching and research and I have been able to progress quickly. Centres like ours exist in all universities so there are also opportunities to move between institutions. But I have no intention of going anywhere anytime soon!
What top tips would you pass on to researchers interested in this type of work?
Treat every job with the seriousness and commitment that you give to your research role, and carry it out to the best of your abilities as you never know where it will lead. When I first came back to the UK after New Zealand I wasn’t getting shortlisted for professional services roles in HE, which I now see is because I was still presenting myself as a teacher-researcher. But at the time my main concern was financial, so I joined a temping agency which specialised in HE roles and the first role I was placed in was here at UCL as an admin assistant in the Faculty of Brain Sciences…