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Dr Bryony Parsons

Details of PhD

Veterinary Pathology, University of Liverpool, 2010. 

Years spent as a postdoc

6 years in Gastroenterology Liverpool, and then 2 years as a postdoc/project manager for Liverpool Health Partners. 

Current position

Learning Developer, Library, University of Liverpool. 

Job highlight

So many! Creating learning materials, helping students, working with lovely people, having enough work to keep me busy but not stressed, not checking emails outside of working hours. 

Case study conducted

April 2020. 

What’s your background? 

I grew up on the Wirral, and haven’t really left the area! I failed the 11+ which has always spurred me on, had amazing High School teachers, then went on to do Zoology at LJMU before doing my PhD based at Leahurst looking at a bacteria in dogs. 

I then did a postdoc based in the Gastroenterology Department, partly working at Leahurst too where we blocked Salmonella getting through the gut using banana! I did a couple of other projects on Salmonella before then getting my second proper postdoc which was fascinating and allowed me to work with the amazing Chaos Game Representation (CGR) team to do DNA sequencing on bacteria that live in people’s stomachs to see if these patterns of bacteria affect who develops gastric cancer. 

Why did you move beyond academia? 

Three main factors: I couldn’t go on with short term contracts and I wanted to stay in the area near my family. I attended a really great session by Vitae ‘Should I stay or should I go’ and in this session we listed the activities we enjoyed and I realised I wouldn’t actually like most the activities involved in being a Principal Investigator. 

Finally, I felt like a jack of all trades: I could do various things in the lab, and actually had a fair number of publications, but I wasn’t an expert in any one area so I just wouldn’t have been competitive enough to get a fellowship, which was the most likely way to get a ‘permanent’ position in research. Due to funding constraints, even ‘permanent’ positions in academia now often seem precarious, so I’m glad I made the choice to leave. 

Why did you choose the sector you’ve moved into? 

Mostly the reasons above, but I also liked the idea that all these skills I’d learnt, writing academically for journals, using referencing software, presenting, doing statistics etc would actually be an advantage in this role. I had also realised that I was really enjoying supervising honours and masters students so I had already completed the Teaching for Researchers course [now the Foundations in Learning and Teaching in Higher Education (FLTHE)]. 

How did you get this job? 

Ha ha, I remember it well. I had been told a few weeks before that my rolling contract with Liverpool Health Partners (LHP) was going to end in March 2018, along with everyone else in a similar role. So I was put on the redeployment list (as LHP came under UoL at that time). 

I saw the job come up and thought it sounded pretty amazing, although there wasn’t a huge window to apply. I assumed loads of postdocs would go for it, so I wasn’t really expecting to hear anything back. Since finding out about my role ending, I had stepped up my teaching: volunteering in Lab practicals, helping monitor a Physiology MOOC [Massive Open Online Course] and doing a lecture on immunohistochemistry. 

I had completed the Teaching for Researchers course [now the Foundations in Learning and Teaching in Higher Education (FLTHE)] so I was an Associate Fellow of the HEA, which was an essential requirement for the job, so all of those lunchtimes of studying were worth it. This meant my CV was as bolstered as it could be for a teaching role within the restrictions of my postdoc. 

I remember submitting my application on a Saturday in late November and I received an email the following Wednesday inviting me to interview, with a presentation on how I would teach an essay workshop, for the following Monday at 9am – so less than a week to prepare. 

Ordinarily, that wouldn’t be a huge amount of time on its own, but when you combined it with the events of that week, I literally don’t know how I got the job. The Wednesday I was emailed, my boyfriend came back from India, and I also had to prepare for a lecture the following morning so I couldn’t start preparing for the interview. 

I gave the lecture and when I came out, I discovered that my boyfriend had decided to get a tropical disease, so we spent most of Thursday afternoon in the Royal Hospital (I took my laptop). I basically worked on my presentation whilst my boyfriend was lying on a bed becoming increasingly incoherent, at one point only communicating to me in his native tongue, Polish. 

I went home to shower and bring him some items from home, so a pretty late night. Did I mention that one of my best friends was getting married in Crewe that weekend and that I was a bridesmaid? I was supposed to drive myself and the other bridesmaids to Crewe on Friday evening, so again not much chance of preparing! My boyfriend was a lot better on the Friday and I spoke to his doctor who said she would be sending him home later that day or Saturday at the latest. 

So I went to the wedding, and wasn’t home until 11pm on the Saturday. I got up early on the Sunday and basically had a solid day of preparing and finishing the presentation. In a way, I wondered if it helped because it made me prioritise the important bits, and I just told myself that if I didn’t get the job, I’d done the best I could under the circumstances. 

I turned up at the Library for my interview and suddenly felt quite nervous. I was used to presenting, and didn’t normally get nervous, but I think job interviews are always different. Then one of the lovely Liaison Librarians gave me a tour and I was put at ease. By the time I went into the interview I felt quite calm and collected and presented my slides. 

I think it’s good if you can present slides because you have the opportunity to show your best self by making sure you know the content and feel really comfortable presenting it. You can also include key prompts so you don’t forget to mention them (in my case key learning theories and University policy). 

One big difference I noticed from postdoc interviews, is they asked really great questions designed to get the best out of me, not testing me on whether I’d memorised something, and I felt the interview went quite well, only a couple of questions I could have done better on. 

A few hours later, I received a call to tell me I had got the job and I was amazed and delighted! She said she really liked that I came from a STEM background, and although I wasn’t what she had envisioned in a candidate, she could see the benefits. Oh, I was also trying to buy a house at this time, so not having a job would have been really bad, so I also felt relief. 

“One big difference I noticed from postdoc interviews, is they asked really great questions designed to get the best out of me, not testing me on whether I’d memorised something”. 

What sources of support did you seek while applying for jobs? 

I had previously been in the Institute of Translational Medicine (ITM) postdoc network, but I think the only source of support was talking to my cousin who is a teacher to get some tips and see if my workshop idea sounded plausible. 

Do former postdocs get hired in your company often? 

In terms of my role, Learning Developer, there are only two of us, although I know at other Universities a few postdocs do have similar roles, mostly for those who teach the statistics strands of study skills. I have a feeling I was the only person they interviewed on that day, and I’m shocked other postdocs didn’t apply/get interviewed. 

How did you approach the job search?

It was a bit different for me as I saw it on the redeployment list. I had been looking at lecturing roles so this caught my eye, even though I had never heard of Learning Developers before. 

Was there anything unexpectedly challenging you found while navigating the job market beyond academia? 

The biggest thing is having the skills to enable you to meet the essential criteria and for that it helps if you know what you want to go into, in my case teaching. Then it’s all about volunteering or doing courses to help you meet those criteria. 

The other option I considered was being part of the research coordination team, which would have involved finance. I got invited to an interview and had I have gone (if I didn’t get my current job) I would have asked to spend a few days in my Dad’s accountancy firm to gain some experience which I could honestly talk about in an interview. 

So that’s my advice, really: try and develop a few extra skills – even though you can probably do a lot of the jobs with the skills you already have, you could be competing against people with experience in that industry, or you may not meet the essential criteria so you have to make sure you get past the first hurdle. 

How did being a postdoc prepare you for your current job? 

As mentioned previously, I could present confidently – important when teaching and we also teach how to present – had experience of searching for articles, using EndNote, writing published articles for journals, and my experience with statistics has made it possible for me to introduce a whole statistics strand for the study skills we teach, which wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. 

The library also supports researchers, so when I’m in metings I put my researcher hat back on and try to give a different perspective. 

What were the first few weeks of being in your new role like?

I was given a task to do straight away (develop an academic integrity online tutorial) which was really engaging and gave me a focus so I actually felt like I fitted in straight away and for the first time I had hardly any imposter syndrome (except perhaps teaching about essay writing, but I had some great materials to use). 

I feel more confident now because I don’t need to look over workshops before I do them, I’m so used to them now, and because I’m designing sessions I’m learning more about statistics and academic integrity all the time. 

Can you describe a typical week in your job? 

When teaching was on campus, I would teach maybe 4-5 workshops a week, usually on statistics or EndNote. I would usually have an online statistics tutorial that I would be making using Articulate Storyline, and getting feedback on it from colleagues. 

We might be editing VITAL/CANVAS, preparing tweets, writing the newsletter, making videos, designing pull-ups and other promo, attending Learning Developer/study skills events, providing feedback on the Code of Practice on Assessment (COPA), designing or tweeting workshops, scheduling sessions/coordinating with other presenters meeting colleagues from across the University to see how we could be tailoring our sessions. 

We have also done a few embedded sessions within particular courses, and our Writing@Liverpool service means we have regular training/catch up sessions with our tutors and we check their time sheets, so there’s a bit of management experience in there too. Currently, we are doing webinars and trying to publish more online tutorials to help with the COVID-19 crisis. 

Have you found the workplace culture to differ from that in academia?

Yes, people generally don’t email outside of work hours and annual leave is recorded more strictly which makes you take it as you know you won’t be able to carry over more than five days. We have flexi time in the Library too which I think is very progressive as it allows people with families to take time off, knowing that they have already worked those extra hours, and again it stops you from working really long days. 

It’s a bigger place so I don’t feel I’m as close to as many people, for example no Christmas meals out with the department and departmental Secret Santa, but my team is so brilliant to work with, both professionally and on a personal level, that I really look forward to going into work. 

What impressions did you have of employment options beyond academia before you joined?

I had attended a few talks about changing career, but they mostly sounded like I would have to completely train again, i.e. to be a teacher I’d have to do teacher training, to be a medical writer I’d start at the bottom, to be an accountant I’d have to do exams etc. I knew I had skills that could fit elsewhere but it seemed like I couldn’t see through the fog to see what those careers would be. 

Now I realise there are plenty of jobs where you might only need to do a course here or there and you’d have all the skills necessary. I still think there are jobs out there I don’t know about, so that’s why the Prosper Project is a great idea. 

What are your favourite parts of the job? 

Helping students, designing engaging materials, working with my colleagues and having a nice work-life balance. 

Is there anything you miss about academia? 

I miss analysing data and publishing papers. I loved that moment when you saw an interesting result. 

How would you describe yourself now?

I’d say I’m happier and more confident now, and I’ve had the worry of short-term contracts removed. If something were to happen to my current job, I’d be gutted, but since I was invited to several interviews after my last job ended (and they ranged from lecturer to research coordinator) I actually feel confident that I could get another job, whereas after my first postdoc ended, there were several weeks when I thought I’d never find another job again. 

What advice would you give to a fellow postdoc if they are considering a career beyond academia? 

What I mentioned before really, try and get an idea about what you love, and try to gain any experience or do a short course to help boost your CV, because it’s often just getting past that first hurdle which is the problem. You are adaptable and have more skills than you realise. 

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