Career Support Staff: From Nurturing Plants to Nurturing People


I decided I wanted to be a plant breeder in 1980, during the final year of my biology degree. After an MSc in applied genetics, I worked in wheat breeding, first in the public sector and then in the private. My aim was to breed a commercially successful wheat variety. By 1990, I was managing my own team and breeding programme.

As my career developed, I realised that the part I liked most was encouraging staff development, and the part I liked least was working long hours throughout the summer. When, in 1994, the company decided to set up a learning centre and at the same time to introduce new breeding software across all crops, I approached the personnel manager and was able to create a new role for myself, facilitating both projects.

This first career change involved staying within the same sector, but changing direction. I found that what I missed was working outside and handling plants, but I was able to satisfy these interests in my own garden! What I gained was experience in teaching groups and in encouraging best practices. I developed marketing skills by promoting use of the learning centre, and interview skills by supporting individual learners. I particularly enjoyed talking to those who used the centre in their own time as a way to improve their transferable skills. Inevitably we discussed their career aspirations, and I found this a very rewarding part of my work. I even explored training as a careers adviser, but I could not afford to give up my salary to become a student again, with no certainty of employment after re-training.

In 1998, the company became part of a global plant breeding organisation. The only European crop in which they had an interest was wheat, so the other breeding programmes were closed. To concentrate on introducing their global breeding software, I had to give up the learning centre work. Regular international travel was not a commitment I wished to make, and it soon became clear that this would impede my career progression.

Globalisation was taking place right across commercial plant breeding. I had accomplished what I had set out to achieve in the field, with two spring wheat varieties on the market. I felt that my next career change would have to involve a change in organisation, but I still wanted exposure to science, education, and industry. I realised that it was important for me to work in a centre of excellence, to have the opportunity to continue learning, and to work with a degree of autonomy within a team. I wanted to carry on working with individuals, teaching groups, and sharing information.

It was then that I saw the University of London Careers Service (ULCS) advertisement. Here was an acknowledged centre of excellence, looking for career-changers to re-train as careers advisers and offering the opportunity to work within both college and university teams. I made it through the selection process and have been here for just over a year now.

I spent my 6-week induction familiarising myself with the resources, increasing my occupational knowledge, observing others working with clients, and being observed myself. Continuing professional development is taken very seriously within ULCS. I will be working towards the diploma in Careers Guidance in Higher Education, which involves a combination of short residential courses and distance learning, and I have already been trained in psychometric testing.

So what does my work entail on a day-to-day basis? Within King's College, where I am currently based, I spend a considerable amount of time seeing clients individually. This can range from a 10-minute CV check to an hour-long careers discussion or a mock interview. I also give seminars within and across departments. Examples range from short talks promoting the Careers Service to new undergraduates to half-day or day workshops for PhD students and contract research staff.

Within ULCS, there is the opportunity to get involved in a wide range of projects. I have given careers advice and seminars at recruitment fairs. I have also written a careers leaflet on career choice and articles on self-employment and the Civil Service for our vacancies bulletin, and I am part of a team producing a new edition of our book on changing careers. In addition, I have contributed links for our Virtual Careers Library. I will be helping to organise courses for contract research scientists who have limited careers provision in their own colleges or universities. In the future, I hope to join the external consultancy team that participates in the career development programme for contract scientists, arranged by the Institution of Professionals, Managers and Specialists.

We are strongly encouraged to develop relationships with employers. We invite recruiters to meet students at college and university events, and we visit them so that we can better understand different sectors and working environments. I have been to the human genome project, accountancy firms, and investment banks and spoken to environmental and management consultants, patent attorneys, and bioinformaticians.

Like all my colleagues, I work with clients from all disciplines. I think being a scientist gives me slightly more credibility within academic science departments and with scientific recruiters, just as a colleague who studied law may be better received amongst lawyers. I can obviously draw upon my personal contacts and use networks such as DAPHNET and AWiSE. But equally, I can exchange information with colleagues within ULCS or the wider Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services ( AGCAS).

So what do I like most about my new career? I enjoy working with colleagues from such diverse backgrounds, I am honoured that my clients are prepared to share their aspirations with me, and I feel privileged to have the opportunity to learn about so many areas of employment. My only regret is no longer being able to cycle to work, but university holidays are a great compensation now the children are at school!

I am sometimes asked if I feel disappointed when so many scientists want to leave science, but even in other careers, they can have enormous influence on scientific research. As educators, journalists, lawyers, and religious leaders, they can sway public opinion on scientific matters; and as financiers and civil servants they may allocate research funding. I am keen to see people achieve their ambitions and be as satisfied with their career paths as I am with mine.

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