Lizzie O'Connor

Postgraduate Community Engagement Officer for the University Graduate School, University of Birmingham
PhD English Literature, 2019

Please tell us a bit about your current role

""I’m the Postgraduate Community Engagement Officer for the University Graduate School at the University of Birmingham. The University Graduate School supports Birmingham’s postgraduate researcher (PGR) and postgraduate taught (PGT) community, to foster an interdisciplinary community, act as a gateway to support and advice, and ensure postgraduates have access to a high quality postgraduate experience.

I’m responsible for developing the University Graduate School’s work with postgraduate taught (PGT) students, designing and delivering a programme of academic and social events throughout the year to support postgraduate development and community. I liaise with students and other University stakeholders to develop Birmingham’s PGT offer and share best practice, collaborate on research into postgraduate student learning and experience, and design flagship events to support postgraduate learning and transition.

I had an office in Westmere House throughout my PhD and often attended University Graduate School workshops, socials and flagship events – so I had a fairly good understanding of who they were and what they did when I first saw the job advert. I requested an informal chat with the lead contact, which answered any questions I had about the role. I absolutely loved teaching during my PhD, so the role was really attractive as a way to think creatively about supporting student learning, the importance of a learning community, and to design and implement research into student wellbeing and success through extracurricular events.

It was also a newly-created role which would require some research and strategy at first, which really excited me as a chance to use the skills I’d gained in research, innovation and independent work throughout my doctorate. For my interview, I had to give a presentation on issues affecting postgraduate experience and recruitment to the head of the University Graduate School, the University Director for Postgraduates, and the person leaving the role. This was quite daunting as I had little experience in the Professional Services side of Higher Education, but I leaned into my experience as a PGR myself and the experiences of my peers.

What motivated you to do your postgraduate research course?

At the time it was to pursue a career in academia. I wasn’t awarded funding and started my course before the introduction of doctoral loans, so I worked in cafes and bars as well as administrative and teaching roles on campus to support myself. It was quite intense, but I was absolutely committed to my ambitions, and it came as quite a surprise to realise that academia actually wasn’t for me.

What do you enjoy most and what do you find challenging about your role?

I love working with students and supporting their learning journeys outside of their course. I am really proud of a programme of online workshops I developed with the Academic Skills Centre, which introduces PGTs of all disciplines to postgraduate skills such as research, academic conventions, and critical thinking. We get hundreds of students attending each online workshop, and the programme is going from strength to strength. Transitioning to the expectations of postgraduate work and study was something I struggled with myself, so it’s lovely to feel like I’m making a difference to others in my position. My workload is very varied which can be a challenge to juggle at times, but it has helped me to develop a wide range of skills.

Have you faced any barriers during your career journey, if so, how did you overcome them?

One of the biggest transitions for me was moving from a highly independent way of working in the PhD to being part of a team. Getting used to sharing my first drafts with my colleagues for their thoughts, asking for advice early on or even asking for help when I needed it, was a big change after the perfectionism and isolation of PhD work!

How did your time at Birmingham help you prepare for this role?

Understanding the experiences and needs of postgraduates is vital for my work, and even now I am always reflecting on my time as a postgraduate and applying that to my approach. As I started looking at next steps after my studies, I also used the Careers Network to understand my options. I booked a few one-to-one appointments with the PGR Careers Advisor (Holly) to learn more about job search strategies, understanding my own strengths and interests, and refining and structuring my answers at interview, which was invaluable and something I would highly recommend!

What advice would you give to students interested in further study?

My advice would be to be open-minded about your career at the end of the PhD. A PhD is an entry into academia, but it’s also a brilliant opportunity to develop research, critical thinking, and project management skills while spending time with a subject you’re passionate about. I’m not directly using my PhD in my job but I am using the skills I developed all the time.

When you are doing a PhD, my advice is to look for opportunities to develop and demonstrate transferable skills to give you options at the end of it. This could be getting involved in research centres in your School, working for various services across the University, or taking part in events such as Three Minute Thesis, Enterprise Summer School, and the Universitas 21 & PwC Innovation Challenge.

What advice would you give to students interested in getting into your industry or role?

I work in a small team, which means I have to be flexible and work across lots of responsibilities: delivering and managing events, but also working on communications and social media, taking on administrative duties, designing graphics, consulting with other departments on postgraduate matters, and engaging in original research.

I find this difficult to juggle sometimes, but am grateful for the range of skill sets it has enabled me to develop. I would say that one of the benefits of working in professional services in Higher Education is that you can move ‘sideways’ into other fields and departments quite openly, so remember that you are not stuck on one path.



Professional Services