PhD in Chemistry, University of Bath (2012)
|Head of Chemistry|
Year entered into a non-academic position: 2012
Job highlight: Being able to work as part of an Independent State School Partnership
My research training set me up to be organized, effectively plan my day and multitask. It also helped me to develop resilience as during my research there were many months where reactions were unsuccessful (typical Organic Chemistry!) and I had to persevere to achieve my goals. Writing the thesis also helped improve the quality of my writing skills and improved my vocabulary.
Left academia after: PhD
What’s your background?
I am currently the Head of Chemistry at Wellington College, which I joined in September 2015. Prior to this I taught Chemistry at Canford School, Dorset, for three years after graduating from the University of Bath in 2012 with a PhD in Organic Chemistry. I am also an examiner for A Level Chemistry at AQA and an Assistant Principal Examiner for GCSE Chemistry at Pearson. I am still actively involved with local Royal Society of Chemistry committees and recently enjoyed a 7-week experience back in the lab at the Chemistry Research Laboratory, Oxford University, to check that my practical Chemistry skills were still of a good standard. I work closely with an Independent State School Partnership (ISSP) and also work with a handful of schools in South Wales (where I grew up) to continue my own CPD whilst providing additional support for their students.
Why did you move away from academia?
I always knew I wanted to be a teacher. I had applied for PGCE courses in the final year of my MChem but then I was offered the chance to study for a PhD with Professor Bull, which I felt was an opportunity too good to turn down.
Is there anything you miss about academia?
The higher-level academic challenge. Teaching is very fast paced but I look back now and feel I should have appreciated the time and space I had to do plenty of wider reading and personal development during my PhD.
How did you get this job? Did you face any challenges when considering a move away from academia or applying for the role?
I was helping out on a Chemistry Camp at the University of Bath where students and teachers visited for the week. One of the attending teachers, the Head of Science at Canford School, offered me a ‘postgraduate in residence’ role to prepare their Oxbridge candidates (and earn some extra money) for a few weeks. When I finished my PhD, I contacted him and fortunately, there was a job available. I did have to interview and go through the usual process but having been there before was a bonus. I had not been to an independent school previously, let alone a boarding school, so it changed my direction slightly from a PGCE in a state school. Teaching in the Independent Sector doesn’t require a PGCE; you can obtain one whilst doing the job, which I did in 2015. The fact I had plenty of experience teaching in schools voluntarily significantly helped my application. After 3 years I moved to Wellington College (another boarding school) for a promotion.
What motivated you to/why did you choose the sector you transitioned into?
I always wanted to be a teacher but I hadn’t figured out the right time (after degree, after PhD, maybe after a postdoc?).
When I realized the poor deal that postdocs were offered, the teaching role in an independent school was much more appealing; I started off on a higher salary, I had more promotion opportunities, and accommodation was provided. Crucially, I also had stable employment with an obvious career path.
I do love Chemistry but I definitely reached my personal academic peak by the end of my PhD.
Did you think you had the skills required for your current position before you started? Were you right?
My lab skills and specialist experience are useful to inspire Sixth Form students and to teach extension material. The roles as a lab demonstrator for undergraduates and helping out with outreach activities at the university also helped prepare me.
Did you have any preconceptions about your sector that proved to be wrong?
That it would be badly paid.
Can you describe a typical week in your job?
As a middle manager I teach roughly 14 hours a week and have many meetings in my calendar. I oversee 8 Chemistry teachers and 4 technicians in the prep room. I am responsible for ensuring the department runs smoothly, delegating tasks and supporting staff with their development and wellbeing. Within my week there will be many hours of 1-1 or small group workshops with students in the evenings. I usually run some form of extension each week but the exact activity depends on the time of the year (Oxbridge prep, Biochem extension sessions, Science Society talk etc.). I have to undertake one boarding house duty a week from 1800-2130 where I check students are completing their work, attending dinner and behaving. I also have 10 tutees to look after that have a tutorial once a week and a 1-1 tutorial each fortnight to discuss their academic progress. Often there will be some form of engagement with parents, either communication regarding my tutees or dealing with queries related to the Chemistry Department. We are also expected to run a sport session several times a week but the sport allocated to you depends on what you are comfortable with. Finally, I run a Global Citizenship activity on a Wednesday where Sixth Form students explore the topic of Ionic Liquids, advance their own knowledge and communicate this to a wider audience in the community. Plus, don’t forget UCAS references, US references, end of term reports, assessments, planning lessons and marking work to give high quality feedback. All standard teacher stuff really with middle management jobs added on top!
What is the workplace culture like? Please include comments on work-life balance, flexibility, remote working?
Staff at Wellington College are provided with accommodation on site. This means we generally have a very full-on experience during term time, but we also get generous holidays to compensate. We are all provided with an inkable device and use Microsoft Teams and OneNote to assist our teaching. This has made remote teaching during the pandemic much easier for us.
Do people with a PhD frequently get hired in the company/sector?
Yes, a PhD is not essential but it is desirable as it means you are hiring someone who is a specialist in their field. Our top Sixth Form students need academically strong teachers who can inspire them and enrich/extend their understanding beyond the specification.
What are your favourite parts of your job?
I love every part of my job but being able to collaborate with schools in the State Sector is a big passion of mine.
What are your reflections on your career path?
I’m very glad I did a PhD. Going through the experience made me a much better teacher. I wouldn’t change anything so far.
Do you have any advice for current graduate students and postdocs considering a career outside of academia?
Try your best to volunteer and gain experience beforehand so that you know the career is right for you. This also puts you in the best possible position when applying for roles. Don’t assume the degree/PhD will be enough, the best jobs often have lots of top-quality candidates. Make yourself stand out!
Can you recommend any relevant resources, organisations or events that might help somebody new to the sector find out more about it?
There is a lot available. My biggest recommendation is to contact people directly and ask if you can gain some experience. The worst thing they can do is say no, but you may end up with an amazing opportunity. For example, this is how I organised my summer experience in the labs at Oxford last year. Don’t be shy!
Wellington College is an independent co-educational day and boarding school which educates students between the ages of 13 and 18. The school offers a range of qualifications including GCSE, IGCSE, A Level and the International Baccalaureate to roughly 1,100 students each year. Adverts for teaching positions can be found on our website and on TES.
We will be recruiting for a new Chemistry teacher for September 2021.