Keeping the Passion: Enhancing your Career in Higher Education

Blog for members
24 October 2016
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This month, Lizzie Huckle, UKCISA Board member, Head of International Student Support at Imperial College London and passionate international student advocate offers advice to members on how to get ahead in HE.


I often wonder how I got to where I am today in a sector that can be notoriously difficult to give you an upward trajectory. When I first started in HE as a recent graduate in 1999, I didn’t realise that I would be able to forge a successful career doing what I love so much. Having taken some time to think about it closely in advance of presenting on this subject at the UKCISA Conference in summer 2016, I realised that there were some very distinct steps you can take to give yourself the best chance to enhance your career.

What do we mean by ‘enhancing your career’?

I think it is important to acknowledge that enhancement doesn’t necessarily mean more money or promotion. For me, enhancement is about self-development and creating a sense of self-worth. “Career development is not about ‘getting ahead’, but rather about getting to be the best an individual can be and finding a place in an organisation where they can express excellence and contribute to the goals of the organisation” [i].

So how do we start to achieve this? Here are my top tips:

1. Find your champion!

A mentor / supporter can be essential to aid your personal and professional development. It needs to be someone you trust and whose opinion you respect. It can be more than one person – a line manager, a good friend, a respected colleague, a parent…It is likely you already have your champion or champions, but maybe you haven’t realised it yet. Use them! Take time to seek advice and help, to talk things through. Learn, observe and listen to your champion as they can be your greatest supporter.

2. Training and development

If you work in an HEI, there may be good options that you haven’t yet explored from your institution’s internal training provision: courses in Recruitment and Selection; Appraisal Training; Personal Effectiveness; Minute Taking; Administering Meetings; Management Programmes, and so on. The PG Certificate in International Student Advice and Support at the University of Nottingham has been a definite development tool for a significant number of the alumni to date. Plus look out for other opportunities that may come your way - and take them! I was offered the chance to apply for the Aurora Programme – Women into Leadership in Higher Education which is offered by the Leadership Foundation and benefited greatly from my time on that course.

3. Use your institution

There are all sorts of exciting opportunities within Education that you can use to enhance your career. Most institutions have dedicated Careers Advice services. Make friends with them…and then ask for help and advice on occasion. Is there an institutional mentoring scheme? Acting as a mentor either to staff or students is a great way to gain some management / coaching experience. Work Social Committee? Why not offer to Chair it? This can give you excellent experience of project management, event planning etc. Also check out what HR or Staff Development have on offer. Taking the time to learn about yourself is invaluable: Myers Briggs, 360 degree personal reviews, i-resilience training, taking advantage of secondment or job shadowing opportunities.

4. Raise your profile

You can do this both internally and externally. At work, ensure you try and work closely with other members of staff: run staff training, get yourself on relevant committees. Visit people in their office rather than just contacting them by telephone or email. Make sure people know who you are. Externally, the world of international student support gives good opportunities: become involved in AISA or ICN. Think about Chairing regional meetings or running for the national Executive committees.  Present at conference or regional events: it is a safe environment to practice presentation skills and develop your profile. Put yourself out there!

5. Push out of your comfort zone

Think about saying ‘yes’ to something you wouldn’t normally feel comfortable doing – this might be doing a presentation, chairing a meeting, attending a course or even applying for another job. We need to re-educate ourselves to accept fear as a natural part of psychological development. Embrace the power of positive thinking! Replace ‘it’s terrible’ with ‘it’s a learning experience’. Once you see how you are learning from everything you do – whether it goes wrong or right or not quite how you expected – then you will naturally develop in your role. You can practice this by pushing out of your comfort zone again and again. Read ‘Feel the Fear and do it anyway’ [Jeffers, S. 2007 New York: Vermilion].

6. Understand the bigger picture & expand your circle of influence

Have you ever read your institution’s strategic vision? Where does the work you do fit in to that? It is easy to have strong boundaries around the work you do – but it is important to understand how it fits in to the bigger picture. Align your work with that in other areas where there is crossover – working collaboratively across departments e.g. recruitment, admissions, records, careers, graduate school to help achieve the shared vision of the institution. “A shared vision, particularly one that is intrinsic, uplifts people’s aspirations. Work becomes part of pursuing a larger purpose embodied in the organisations products or services”.[ii] It is really useful to relate to the institutional vision / mission if going for job interviews.

7. Keep the passion!

We work in a difficult area at the moment and it can be easy to feel demoralised. How do we remain passionate? Remember that we are advocates. We can use our advocacy skills to champion causes – for students but also within the institution. “Advocacy is the deliberate process, based on demonstrated evidence, to directly and indirectly influence decision-makers, stakeholders and relevant audiences to support and implement actions” (UNICEF). For example, Tier 4 has enabled us to re-visit and improve processes for ALL students and allows us to lead the way as innovators. This is a good thing! Seek out the good. Remember, everything is a learning experience and once you acknowledge and understand that, everything we do has worth. Sometimes you need to find the passion elsewhere – don’t be afraid to move jobs or institution. Sometimes you have to take the plunge and move sideways to be able to start moving upwards. Ensure you enjoy life outside of work – maintain interests, retain friendships and spend time doing things you love (like decorating beautiful cupcakes!)

I want to finish with my favourite quote, and I hope it embodies how I try to model not just my working life, but my life in general, and it is from one of the greatest authors of our time, Roald Dahl:

“If you are interested in something, no matter what it is, go at it at full speed ahead. Embrace it with both arms, hug it, love it and above all become passionate about it. Lukewarm is no good.”        


[i] ‘The Role of Career Development in Improving Organizational Effectiveness and Employee Development’, Robert C. Merchant, Jr. 2010

[ii] The fifth discipline: The art & practice of the learning organization, Senge, Peter M. 2006.

30 August 2017
Laura Bryan
02 November 2016
I love this Lizzie! Very inspiring, thank you. I've even made a few notes of things to follow up on from this.
Lynsey Berrecloth
31 October 2016
Great piece Lizzie, I think your advice translates across so many HE disciplines and I'll be sending this to colleagues.
I agree wholeheartedly with widening your view and getting out of your comfort zone. Take advantage of opportunities such as shadowing; internal training; attending and/or volunteering at your institution's functions and external events, even if they don't seem to be directly connected to your current role. You'll widen your network, know who to call, perhaps meet some new friends and (quite cheeky this) gain a few favours which could be invaluable at a future date!
My top tip is to be bold, got for it and say YES! It can be scary and it might not always work out, but ultimately it's so rewarding.
Lynsey - Head of Student Services at London Met as of 31st October 2016!
Ally Layton-Bennett
27 October 2016
Thank you for your fantastic insight and inspiration, Lizzie!
Sharon Bolton
27 October 2016
I fully agree with Lizzie's suggestion of using the expertise of your friends in the Career Advice Service. Before I applied for my current role, Dean of Student Life at International Students House, I had not attended a job interview for over eight years, so it was really helpful to do some preparation with a colleague in the Careers Advice Service.
Matt Daley
27 October 2016
Well done Lizzie, this is a great blog post and inspiring advice. I am now off to identify my champions and going to try to say yes more often to opportunities and raise my profile at the University of Reading and hopefully wider.

I am sure this career advice is transferable to working in many different sectors. In fact I think some of this could be used when encouraging students to be brave and study/talk to someone new and different - make a connection.
Ian Maclellan
27 October 2016
Great blog, Lizzie. I would certainly agree with pushing out of your comfort zone - take on new things, learn new skills. And also, anyone working in International Student support should understand how important their work is to both their institution and their local community - and don't be afraid to advocate for "your" students!