My Career Story: Rachel Walls, Academic Skills Development Tutor

U.S. Studies Online is excited to introduce our new segment “Career Stories”.  Our “Career Stories” feature is an attempt to incorporate more professional development posts on U.S. Studies Online and address some of the wider anxieties in the postgraduate and early career cohorts regarding employment, employability and the options available. We hope to include interviews with professionals in a variety of research or American studies related positions.

With us this week is Rachel Walls, Academic Skills Development Tutor at the University of Leeds. Rachel holds a PhD in Canadian Studies from the University of Nottingham.

Current role

How would you describe your current role at a job interview?

My current role combines teaching, one-to-one support, creation of learning resources and participation in school initiatives.  I teach and support students with academic skills such as time management, essay writing, reading strategies and much more. The school I work in is the Lifelong Learning Centre, which is dedicated to widening participation and many of the students I work with are mature and some are part-time. My job thus requires significant interpersonal skills to understand the particular needs of the students so as to build trust and support them accordingly.

What professional organizations are you associated with and in what ways?

I am a member of SCUTREA, the Standing Conference on University Teaching and Research in the Education of Adults, and have attended their annual conference. I will attend a UALL (Universities Association for Lifelong Learning) symposium this week. I am part of the Yorkshire Network for Canadian Studies, as my PhD was in the field of Canadian Studies, and attend and support their events when I can.

What do you see are upcoming trends in the industry? What developments have you seen in your industry during your career?

My career in Lifelong Learning has only been a few months, but I’ve been working in Higher Education since June 2011 and I’ve noted increasing emphasis on employability, whilst, at the same time, concerns about the stress this causes students and the frustration that learning for learnings sake may be lost. With regard to Lifelong Learning, I’m very concerned about the cuts to further education and English as a Second Language tuition as this may have a detrimental effect on who can get the education they need in order to access University.

Is there anything you didn’t do during or after your education that would have helped you better prepare for a job in your industry? What’s the one skill I should learn to make myself more marketable in your industry?

I didn’t know much about the administrative workings of the University when I graduated with my PhD so have had to learn this in subsequent roles. The most crucial skill is relationship building because it helps to have a strong network of contacts across your institution and, of course, with your students.

What are you most looking forward to over the next 12 months?

Being more innovative in my teaching and feeling like I’ve really engaged and inspired them. This last term of teaching was fine but it was my first teaching academic skills and I feel I’ve learned a lot and could do more.

What do you think is the most common misconception about your job role/industry?

I suppose people confuse Lifelong Learning for Continual Professional Development, and think we’re providing education for any adults who want to do a course to further their career. Rather, we are here to help people who for various reasons mightn’t otherwise have had a chance to study at a Russell Group University, or indeed any University.

Across your working life

What has been your most rewarding accomplishment so far?

There isn’t a single one, but I have felt most rewarded when I feel I have been able to help people with multiple challenges move forward in either their academic studies or in their career (I worked as a careers and professional development adviser/trainer in previous roles).

Is this where you thought you would end up? Would you do anything differently if given the opportunity?

Yes, I’d realised mid-way through my PhD that I was more interested in teaching, support and widening participation than in research. I’ve been wanting to work at the Lifelong Learning Centre since I planned my move back to Leeds, two years ago, and am glad I could finally make that happen this August!

Can you name the most exciting place your career has taken you? Who has been the most inspiring person you have met in your career?

It’s exciting to be here now and hear students who are passionate about learning. My students and the tutors I work closely with are the most inspiring people I know.

What were the formative moments that have contributed to where you are today?

I was asked by the course convenor/my supervisor to give one-to-one feedback to my students whilst a PhD student/teaching assistant and this helped me to realise how motivated I was by working with students one to one. It has directed the roles I’ve sought out since. Also, my research trips to Vancouver where I spent time in a marginalised community and visited a free education programme there shaped my interests in working in this area of widening participation.

Life after the PhD

How have the skills you gained during your PhD impacted your career path?

The skills gained during my PhD are crucial – I did a lot of teaching with diverse groups, conference presentations and public engagement so these communication skills are at the core of my work. My academic skills and my awareness of how they developed during my PhD (largely due to attentive supervisers) have helped me to teach academic skills to others.

What contributed to your decision to stay, leave or take a hiatus from academia?

I love working in Higher Education and find Universities an inspiring place to work – hence I stayed. However, I departed from research because my research field was Canadian Studies and I became more interested in working in and with local communities. Also I find it hard to motivate myself to do research as it’s often a solitary activity, although I hope that at some point I’ll be involved in some collaborative research related to the work that I do now.

And finally…

Who would you invite to your fantasy dinner party?

I love to laugh and Parks and Recreation has probably been my all-time favourite TV comedy, so I would invite the entire Parks and Rec team. In character or out, I’m sure it’d be an entertaining night!

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