Lifelong learning for Bristol academics

 In Case Study

Even the most successful people sometimes need support to progress their careers and that was certainly the case for talented educators at Bristol University.

Following a Career Development programme run by Skills 4, delegates have achieved promotions and are now part of a wider network acting as mentors to help more women achieve senior positions in the institution.

Here are the experiences of three of the participants.

Lucy Berthoud, Professor of Space Systems Engineering

“A member of senior management wrote to me suggesting that as a possible future leader, I might consider going on the course,” said Professor Berthoud. “At the time, I thought: “How can I find the time for four extra days in my schedule?” but it was worth every minute!”

Professor Berthoud has worked for 25 years in Spacecraft research and in industry. She started out with a four-year Master’s in Mechanical Engineering (with Distinction) from the University of Bristol then went to Toulouse where she studied for a PhD in Space Physics at Sup’Aero/ONERA (French National Research Organisation). She then spent Post-doctoral fellowships at the European Space Agency and NASA Johnson Space Centre, before going to work for BAe Space Systems (now Airbus Defence and Space). In 2009 Professor Berthoud started teaching at the University of Bristol. She is a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and was promoted to Professor of Space Systems Engineering in 2018.

Despite this extensive experience she said the training restored self-confidence and belief in herself, taught her how to improve her exposure in the organisation and to diversify her network – which in turn helped her to achieve promotion to professor.

“There are very few professors on the ‘teaching’ pathway at the University of Bristol, so this felt even more of a mountain to climb but I am thrilled to achieve it,” said Prof Berthoud.

“I highly recommend this course, as it has given me the confidence to aim higher, stimulated me to widen my networks and helped me to improve my communication in negotiations.”

Dr Valeska Ting: Reader in Smart Nanomaterials in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, University of Bristol /EPSRC Research Fellow (Energy Materials)

“Although I had experience in leading my own research team, I felt I had a responsibility to take on larger leadership roles within the School and in the materials and engineering research communities” said Dr. Ting, “but I wasn’t sure how to take the next steps and lacked confidence in my leadership skills.”

Dr Ting currently holds a prestigious EPSRC Research Fellowship to develop new nanocomposite materials to enable safer, more economical storage of hydrogen for sustainable transportation. Her research into materials for hydrogen storage has been recognised both nationally and internationally.

Again, despite this success she says the Skills 4 Career Development Programme has been transformative. “Learning that being assertive is not the same as being aggressive, and that assertiveness is a positive trait has made me far more confident in chairing meetings and in challenging negative behaviour, as I am no longer worried about seeming bossy or rude.

It was also astonishing to realise how often we self-sabotage by not saying no to things and putting others before ourselves. Realising that I am also deserving of protected time has made me far more productive. This has led to me achieving some long-standing goals this year that I never seemed to have time for before.”

Dr Ting has taken on a challenging new leadership role (School Research Director) and is part of the Senior Management Team in CAME School of Engineering.

“The Skills 4 course was the single best careers development programme I have ever been on. The practical advice empowered me to recognise and adopt positive behaviours and has given me the confidence and the skills to realise my leadership potential.”

Dr Dima Damen, Reader (Associate Professor) in Computer Vision

“Four years since starting my permanent position as a full-time academic member, I thought both my time and stress management skills were not as good as some of my senior colleagues,” said Dr Damen. “Having failed to pin point how to improve, I thought joining the programme would give me the necessary directions on how to feel better and happier about my day-to-day job.”

Dr Damen received her PhD and MSc from the University of Leeds and BSc in Computer Science from Birzeit University. Her research interests are in the automatic understanding of object interactions, actions and activities using static and wearable visual (and depth) sensors. In 2016, She was selected as a Nokia Research collaborator.

She said the Skills 4 Career Development Programme was the best “value-for-time” programme she had ever attended.

“I had been used to ‘fluffy’ courses where the same point is repeated on and on again to fill the allocated hours. This programme was exactly the opposite,” she said. “I had to spend a couple of hours at the end of every day going through all the material and exercises, to emphasise the points. The course highlighted some issues I didn’t even know existed. The biggest learning curve was how to conduct difficult conversations, and feeling confident before, during and after such unavoidable meetings.

“The course increased my confidence and clarified my career goals. I went for my promotion earlier than I initially thought I should, which turned out to be just the right time. I still quote some of the points Lynn (the trainer) shared with us in my daily conversations with colleagues, as well as my thoughts to myself.

“I would recommend this course to all women approaching mid-level career positions. It is a must and cannot be seen as optional. While the wheel of work keeps turning, pausing to reflect is far more valuable than one can ever think possible.”

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