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'Expected’ pathway versus ‘Desired’ pathway

23 Oct 2019 | Dr. Caroline Lambert 2019 Auroran graduate and Principal Lecturer, Caroline Lambert, talks about her less than conventional journey to the Aurora Programme and where participation in Aurora has led her since.

‘Expected’ pathway versus ‘Desired’ pathway? The Aurora Leadership programme can help you find that answer and instil the confidence to be you.

Two years ago, I was a stay at home mum. On the 4th November I start my new role as Deputy Head of School of Mechanical, Aerospace and Automotive Engineering at Coventry University. So how did I get from A to B? 

Post-Doc, I worked for BAE Systems as a Computational Aerodynamicist. The need for a geographical and content change brought me to Coventry University as a lecturer just two years later. I was barely out of university myself, in fact my boyfriend (now husband) was on a graduate training scheme. I quickly realised this was a job made for me as I love working with people. I love educating and inspiring people to also love my subject, nearly 30 years after asking the RAF for alternatives to being a pilot because my eyesight was so poor.

I became a Senior Lecturer two years later and then five years after that, I was appointed Associate Head of the Department of Aerospace, Electrical and Electronic Engineering. Arguably more importantly, I also became a mum for the first time. This initial foray into management was whilst my son was 18 months old. During this time I had moved my research area into innovation within engineering teaching and spearheaded the development of ‘Activity Led Learning’ within our Department.

Fairly uniform and linear so far, right?

Without going into details and turning this into a therapy session (which is a whole other blog), at the end of 2012 I embarked on a course of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and Mindfulness (highly recommended). I realised I had been following an ‘expected’ pathway rather than a ‘desired’ pathway. I could do the job I was doing, I just did not want to be doing it – it was not right at that time.

I started to explore the ‘Family Friendly’ policies that Coventry University offers all its employees. I reduced my hours to 0.8FTE whilst retaining the management role. By September 2013, 7 months pregnant with my daughter, I was 0.6FTE, back in my comfort zone of teaching only. Eventually, in October 2015, this became 0.0FTE as I embarked on a career break for two years.

It takes courage to deviate from the ‘expected’ path, and I did not acknowledge that at the time.

So many doubts, so many questions - will I have ‘failed’? Will I be able to return? Will I still be taken seriously if I do? Have I hampered any promotion opportunities? But then also, would I regret not spending the time with my children when I had the chance (and whilst they were little enough to want to spend the time with me?).

I have to say, I wasn’t a 100% stay-at-home mum really as I still did small amounts of tuition of maths, further maths, physics and piano! And my daughter could be INFURITATING….but I would not change the opportunity I was afforded, or the experience that it therefore gave me for the world.

So fast forward to 2017 and a slow, graduated return. two days a week teaching, up to three days in 2018 and an email inviting ’expressions of interest’ in Aurora. After finding out more about it, the scheme felt like what I needed. Since my return, despite very positive comments from colleagues, managers and students alike, I still lacked a level of confidence I had had before. 

We had to go through a rigorous internal application process to be one of the selected candidates for Aurora in 2019. That application process alone required me to reflect on how I saw myself, what I wanted to do, where I wanted to be, and gather feedback from colleagues/stakeholders as to how I was perceived. There is nothing more eye-opening than reading words other people use to describe you!

I attended Aurora in Birmingham and can summarise the whole experience as invaluable. From the networking with other colleagues from all aspects of higher education, to the inspiring keynote speakers. The biggest two ‘take homes’ for me were confidence and authenticity. The confidence to strive for promotion and career development as a part-time member of staff. The authenticity to be me (albeit different parts of me coming to the fore) in everything that I do.

The support we were provided as a ‘cohort’ from Coventry was amazing, being able to share that journey with others was incredible. We all have different stories and different experiences and every single one is positive – not always the journey we expected! We also were matched with an institutional based coach. My experience of having someone to talk to who knows the institution, understands the pathway I was trying to follow but was not directly involved in my day to day working life was so encouraging. We have continued our sessions after the Aurora programme ended.

The keynote speaker that resonated with me the most was Josie Fraser, Deputy Vice-Chancellor at the Open University. If you look on paper, she was a senior lecturer for a long time and then seemed to progress exponentially to where she is now. When that swift rise through the ranks has been remarked upon, her explanation is that all the personal professional development and accumulation of skills that she worked hard on were just finally being seen and rewarded.

In addition to the Aurora participation and the new job starting in November, I have also ‘exponentially’ developed this year. I became a full member of my professional body (Royal Aeronautical Society). I was successfully promoted through our academic progression evidence-based route to Principal Lecturer (Associate Professor) and I have applied for my Senior Fellowship.

My next step on the pathway is clear for now but the one after that? Who knows? But it will be ‘desired’.

Caroline Lambert is a Principal Lecturer/Associate Professor in Aerospace, with an Aerodynamics specialism. She has papers in Engineering Education Innovation and spearheaded ‘Activity Led Learning’ within Engineering at Coventry University. She has worked full-time and part-time at various academic levels from teaching-only to Associate Head of Department.

Find out more about Aurora, Advance HE's leadership development initiative for women and those who identify as a woman. 

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