An accidental career journey by Deborah Beck

Deborah Beck is the Scholarship Programme Manager for the Grantham Centre. Here she gives us a work biography, detailing her non-linear route from university graduate, via primary school teacher, through the civil service, until she finally ends up as the heart and soul of the Grantham Centre. 

Primary school teacher

When I left university I wanted to become an Educational Psychologist which at that time meant I needed to teach in schools first. I therefore trained as a primary school teacher and taught in a variety of schools across Sheffield for three years. Although I enjoyed a lot of aspects of teaching I wanted a new challenge so decided to study for a Masters degree. As I was teaching full-time I decided to study for a part-time distance learning masters degree in Educational Studies. This was an amazing experience and I really enjoyed meeting and discussing educational practice with teachers from all over Europe at our intensive weekend retreats. This also gave me an opportunity to reflect and write about my experience of teaching. Although not having an immediate benefit to my career it meant that a few years later I was successful in gaining a Senior Research Officer role in the Civil Service.

Senior Research Officer in Civil Service

I managed research projects in the area of Higher Education for 12 years.  My final research projects were postgraduate study which involved providing expert advice to policy officials on postgraduate matters and liaising with external bodies about postgraduate issues. Whilst working at the Civil Service I also became an activist when I campaigned for a secondary school merger to take place in my local area. I was passionate about this issue as it would be the local school that my daughters would be attending in a few years time. Not only was this an amazing experience but I believe it gave me skills and experiences that I wouldn’t have been able to gain otherwise in the workplace.  

Activist and volunteer

I became involved in a campaign group to promote a school merger that had become a contentious local issue. Although this was a completely new experience to me I believed passionately in the opportunities a new school would bring to the local area. I got letters published in my local paper and was interviewed on Radio Sheffield. This culminated in giving a speech to the local council to argue the case for the merger. This was really scary; I had to stand up in the council chamber, somewhere I had never been, and had three minutes to speak on behalf of other parents (I vividly remember the ‘traffic light’ system where a light on the central table went from green, to amber to red to indicate when you were out of time). When the school merger was approved I got involved in the design of the school and later became a school governor. I then went on to set up, and chair, a Parent Forum group at the school. I liaised with the Senior Leadership Team at the school and parents from across six primary feeder schools.

Civil Service to The University of Sheffield

After twelve years working part-time at the Civil Service I decided I wanted a new challenge. I had been organising joint events between the university and the civil service and wanted to see if I’d like to work at the university. To test the waters I applied for a temporary, part-time role at the Centre for Study of Childhood and Youth. This enabled me to see if I wanted to work full time (albeit in two part-time roles) and find out whether I enjoyed working at the university.

Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures at The University of Sheffield

When the full time role at the Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures came up it felt like the next logical step for me. My job title is ‘Scholarship Programme Manager’ – this means that I manage the operational aspects and training programme for the Doctoral Training Centre (DTC) part of the Grantham Centre. This is a unique DTC where all 66 of our students work on interdisciplinary PhDs on the topic of sustainability. We have students across every faculty at the University and more than 20 different countries.

Every day is different in my role and I get to work with academics, PhD students, Early Career Researchers, Professional Services staff and external colleagues across the voluntary and policy sector. Two issues that I feel strongly about, and that influence how I approach my role, are diversity (especially gender diversity), and awareness of the importance of mental health. There are still many challenges to overcome in diversity and we can be an example of good practice with our young researchers. We are very conscious about creating interesting and diverse panels for our events and to showcase a diverse range of people speaking at our annual seminar series. A second key issue for some PhD students, and others, in the university setting can be mental health. This seems to be even more important today than ever before. Having had first hand experience of a close relative who suffered from a severe mental illness I hope that this has given me the compassion to be aware of the importance of good mental health, not only of our PhD students but also colleagues who work around me.