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      Work/life experiences of Brookes’ academics


    Success is about recognising your skills and seeing where you want to go with them.

    Anna Barnett is a Professor of Psychology and Research Lead in the Department of Psychology, Social Work and Public Health. She joined Brookes 12 years ago as a Senior Lecturer and has since progressed to Professor, as well as having held the role of Interim Head of Department.

  • Anna never imagined that she would go on to university, let alone become a Professor. In fact, she describes herself as a “just about average” student at school and, due to health issues in her teenage years, she says that she “scraped through with two A-levels.” It was thanks to the encouragement of her family that she thought she might as well apply to university.

    I never thought about going to uni but I was encouraged to apply and then I got in. I never planned anything, it just sort of happened. Looking back, family were key, I didn’t realise that at the time.

    Anna then went on to study Psychology and Physical Education and remembers struggling with the fact that her peers were all much more serious athletes than she was. However, this apparent disadvantage in fact sowed the seeds of Anna’s lifelong research interests. At the sports centre where many PE students worked, she recalls taking a keen interest in the children’s activity club:

    Whereas all my colleagues were interested in training up elite performers, I got interested in the kids who just couldn’t catch a ball at all.

    However, she didn’t know where this spark would take her. After spending a year working in a big psychiatric hospital, when she was about to embark on a clinical psychology course, Anna saw an advert in the Guardian for a PhD at the Institute of Education, University College London which would allow her to research her passion: children with movement difficulties. She successfully applied for the place and this was to be the beginning of an illustrious research career in the field.
    Anna has been extremely lucky in having lots of support and influences throughout her career.

    I’ve had some really key people rooting for me and still do, which is really important actually.

    During and after her PhD, she was extremely close to her supervisor, who she says to this day continues to be “absolutely central to my development”. Her external examiner for her PhD also became and continues to be an important mentor.

    If I have anything I want to talk about in terms of work or development I just give him a call and he’s informally my mentor.

    Additionally, she has been influenced practically by some of the world class clinicians she has worked with. Thus, Anna’s appreciation of the role of informal mentors in her own career influences how she behaves with her PhD students today.

    I do whatever I can to support their careers because I can see how important it has been for me.

    Family is extremely important to Anna, who had both her children during her PhD. The ensuing combination of being a young mother and a young scientist was the hardest part of her career. She had short contracts and her husband’s work meant that the family regularly moved to different parts of the country. This involved frequent commuting: at one point, Anna was working part-time in London and living in Cardiff, all whilst bringing up two young children under five. Her husband and his family were particularly supportive at this stage:

    You need a whole army supporting you really and I was very lucky to have that.

    The couple considered having a third child, however made the difficult decision not to do so, realising that this would prevent Anna from being able to pursue her career, as well as being a significant financial cost. This tough decision made Anna realise that there were certain trade-offs that she had to make in order to balance both career and family. Some of these challenges are resurfacing, as Anna is now a very proud new grandmother and keen to spend a lot of time with her grandson. However, her parents are just getting to the stage of needing care themselves. Coupled with the expectations laid on an academic at the peak of their career, new balancing acts are presenting themselves, which Anna is aware that she will have to consider in due course.
    Anna now sees helping other people to progress as the most important thing for her career; this is what she values about her role as Research Lead. Anna sees success as personal attainment:

    Success is about recognising your skills and seeing where you want to go with them.

    What she has learned throughout her career is that you never know what options will present themselves to you, as the world is a constantly changing, unexpected place.

    The advice I give to all my students is keep your options open.