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      Work/life experiences of Brookes’ academics


    There’s been a few of those really big keynotes where I’ve kind of thought: people know my work. They’ve read it and they can quote it back to me. They know it better than I do sometimes. It’s like woah.

    Helen is Professor of Higher Education in the Department of Social Sciences and she teaches Geography at Oxford Brookes University.

  • Following her degree in Geography at Durham, Helen did a teaching qualification at Cambridge and then taught in Zimbabwe for two years as a Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) volunteer. Interested in a career in development work, she undertook a master’s degree in Soil Science. However, as a female at the time, she was unable to get a job in that field, finding herself losing out to lesser qualified candidates because employers doubted her ability to do the physical labour.

    However, this turned out to be a blessing in disguise as it prompted Helen to apply for the job of Lecturer at the University of Reading, with lecturing in both geography and education. Without this move, Helen says she may never have got into higher education teaching, which had seemed an impossible dream.

    Helen’s next move was to the University of Oxford where she took up a research post as soils expert in a small archaeological unit at the Pitt Rivers Museum.

    That was a massive turning point because someone stuck their neck on the line for me and said we will create a job for you at Oxford University.

    However, she missed her students and teaching and so took a part-time job at Oxford Brookes in 2002, which gradually became a full-time post.

    From a young age, Helen wanted to be a university lecturer and she describes herself as having taken a “roundabout route” to get where she wanted to be.

    I gradually shifted from being a geography and education person to a geographer but in the process developed a passion for Education and HE

    She says that now she is in the “peculiar position” that her day-to-day job is as a geography lecturer but she has just become a professor in higher education. She uses the metaphor of a ”zip” to describe how she “knits together” the two sides.

    Combining her two interests, teaching Geography and researching higher education, has not always been easy. She has had to

    Tussle between this is what I’m supposed to do and this is what I want to do…Brookes has supported me hugely and I just don’t think I would have achieved the same at another institution.

    However, Helen has always been headstrong in confronting obstacles, getting her first external examinership after writing to a list for external examiners saying, “I’m a woman, how do I get to be an external examiner if I’m not in the old boys’ network?” To which a university wrote back saying “we’ll have you”.

    A key career boost came when Helen was accepted as an international delegate on a funded research project with Elon University in North Carolina. Over three summers she would work with the other researchers and she became the team leader for that group.

    This was a big confidence boost for me that made me put my professorial application in.

    For Helen, success is linked to being recognised for your work. She says that

    There’s been a few of those really big keynotes where I’ve kind of thought: people know my work. They’ve read it and they can quote it back to me. They know it better than I do sometimes. It’s like woah.

    Having female role models has been important in enabling Helen to have the confidence to aspire to top positions and she believes that visibility of women expands your horizon of possibilities.

    Two years ago, I was sitting in the Society for Research in Higher Education conference and I just thought: how do I get to be like that lady there, who was running the show… This year I’m the keynote. It was just enough that there was a woman sitting running that society and I thought, how do I get to be like her?

    Helen takes a great deal of pleasure from helping others to succeed. She “gets a real buzz out of teaching” finding that:

    The most rewarding bit for me would be supervising dissertations and independent studies. It’s those bits of teaching where I feel I can add significant value to students by helping them through the research process.

    This desire to support others has led her to organise the student ‘Get Published!’ conference and she was delighted when someone walked out saying

    That was one of the best things that’s happened at Brookes this year.

    Her commitment to students extends to her establishing a national journal for students.

    Helen finds that having an active home life is a good way to achieve balance. She is a triathlete and a beekeeper and says having interests that also put demands on her time outside of work helps her to maintain a work-life balance.