Five things I’ve learned moving from the private sector to academia

After 20 years working as a quantity surveyor, Tom Woodbury shares his key discoveries since starting his first academic role in May

September 25, 2020
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Like many people, during the post-Christmas gloom that is January I started exploring options for a new career. In my 40th year, with plenty of professional experience under my belt, it seemed like the time was right. Higher education had long piqued my interest but, as a chartered quantity surveyor, my options had always been somewhat limited.

I had been keeping an eye on vacancies in the sector for a while, so when a lecturer position in quantity surveying came up at the University of Portsmouth − 30km from my house − I decided to give it a shot. Despite my lack of teaching or academic experience, I was delighted to be offered the role in early March. I started my new career on 1 May, after a six-week notice period.

So far, I’ve yet to visit campus − for obvious reasons − and continue to work from home. Despite the somewhat challenging situation, the process of starting out in HE has been both interesting and stimulating, so I’ve put together five things I’ve learned for anyone else considering making the leap from the private sector:

Lecturing isn’t just one job − it’s several jobs with one title

While I was expecting a reasonable level of administrative duties along with the teaching, I’ve really had to multitask since starting. Coming from a job where my role was very specific and predominantly project-based, I’ve found the plate-spinning requires a lot of time management. To date, I’ve acted as:

An administrator: There is a lot more admin to be done than I had anticipated. This is not limited to marking assignments and exams; there is also a huge amount of academic administration related to student support, course admin and planning. And we have to do it all ourselves!

A tutor and counsellor: Pastoral care is a major part of the service that the university offers, and as academics we have an important role to play in the well-being of students.

A scriptwriter/producer/director/editor/curator: A major part of my role to date has been the conversion of content intended to be delivered in-person into the “flipped classroom” model using a number of formats.

A teacher: My contact time with students in the academic year will be limited to four hours − so the vast majority of my working time is spent performing the other roles above.

Teaching is highly creative, and more so when you can’t deliver it in person

The impact of Covid-19 on HE is obviously yet to be fully determined, but my institution was quick to react with clear direction on how teaching is to be delivered next academic year. A lot of support has been provided by our technology enhanced learning (TEL) department on the resources available to us to produce engaging online content, including a week-long TEL “festival” that comprised numerous talks and demonstrations of how to produce great academic content. Unlike my previous profession, this has given me the chance to be very creative, as well as put myself in the position of a student to try to produce material that will be stimulating for them – not just a two-hour monologue over PowerPoint.

HE is a very welcoming sector to work in

Imposter syndrome had already started to set in before starting. However, at no point have I been made to feel out of place talking to professors, doctors and numerous other extremely clever people – the people here are all very nice indeed.

While I came across very few people in my previous career that I genuinely disliked, the atmosphere in HE seems to be very different – far more personal and supportive in a natural, non-corporate way. Despite not being on campus, I’ve had a chance to speak to many academics individually and they have been incredibly generous with their time and advice.

YouTube is a wonderful resource

Prior to starting this job, I thought YouTube was primarily for adolescents to watch other people playing computer games, but I have realised the error of my ways. As well as being an extremely useful platform for organising my recorded lecture content, I’ve learned an incredible amount of valuable information from YouTube, which has really helped me through this challenging period − from how to get the best results recording video content on my iPhone to how to use our software platforms such as Moodle and Camtasia. It’s been invaluable.

HE has just as many acronyms as the construction industry

Moving between sectors in my previous career meant having to deal with lots of new terminology. The rail and defence sectors, in particular, felt like having to learn an entirely new language. HE is no different – so much so, I have had to start a wall chart listing them all!

Tom Woodbury spent 20 years practising as a quantity surveyor before taking up a post at the University of Portsmouth as senior lecturer in quantity surveying on 1 May.

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Reader's comments (3)

This is a refreshing article to read, it's good to hear and be reminded that overall working in academia is great and extremely challenging. As a fellow Portsmouth academic, I agree that we have a welcoming, supportive and friendly environment. Sometimes the job drives you crazy but I can't think of anything else I'd rather do.
Nice article, glad you have a good working environment. The acronym thing, I can so relate to. When our faculty changed its name to Engineering and Physical Sciences (know as EPS) I was a bit out of the loop due to illness and I was wondering in an early meeting when I was back, what the European Physical Society had to do with the issue at hand!
A lot nicer going into academia than leaving it for the corporate world. Well chosen!