By Sam Grinsell |

Universities serve a range of purposes, and employ vast numbers of people working in various roles that are far removed from the day to day life of an academic. This post is a personal account of my experience in these differing roles, largely falling under the broad categories of library services or learning technologies. I hope to encourage you to think about how well you understand your own institution(s), and whether there are opportunities to expand this knowledge. With ‘alt-ac’ careers (i.e. scholarly career paths that don’t follow the ‘traditional’ academic model) increasingly important, becoming aware of some of the more unexpected niches within your university can reveal surprising opportunities.

I hope to encourage you to think about how well you understand your own institution(s), and whether there are opportunities to expand this knowledge

The student

Most of us first experienced university as a student. For me this formative moment took place at the University of Leicester as a student in Ancient History and History. At Leicester these are taught in different departments: ancient history is taught by the School of Archaeology and Ancient History and history by the School of Historical Studies. So my teaching took place across a range of different buildings, and I was required to use two different referencing systems and submit work in two different places. Most of my reading was of books, so the library was central to my student experience. For much of my time at Leicester, the David Wilson Library was being built. A lot of my second and third years were spent navigating the rolling stacks of the interim library. As Leicester is largely campus-based with a few outlying buildings, I experienced an institution that was geographically centralised, and mixed freely with friends from a range of departments.

The employee

As well as a place of education and research, a university also plays host to large numbers of professionals who support its complex physical, financial and electronic infrastructure. As an IT Help Zone Assistant I met many staff and students and gained some insight into how they experienced the university. The problems of connectivity, access and communication that formed the bulk of what people asked about became deeply familiar to me, and I got to know staff from a range of professional service areas. Through this process, I began to understand the sheer range of activities occurring at Leicester, many of which were obscure or completely invisible to me as a student.

My second major university job was at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, where I worked as part of the Technology Enhanced Learning team on a project to improve the digital capabilities of staff and students. This made clearer to me a few cultural differences between academic and other staff of which I had only dimly been aware before. For example, Microsoft Outlook is used extensively by administrative and professional staff, but only very patchily by academic staff or by students. This leads to differences in the norms around how meetings are organized. The many different departments and groups dealing with apparently similar issues can also cause confusion: for St Mary’s I was part of a team that lay within library services, whereas at Leicester although I physically based in the library, I worked for IT services. These details can cause confusion even for people who work within universities, let alone visitors and new students. One of the habits I got into at St Mary’s was to focus on describing what I did, before clarifying exactly where I worked within the organizational structure. This enabled more open conversations to develop.

The researcher

As a PhD student, my experience of my new institution, the University of Edinburgh, is different again. I am part of the Edinburgh School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, a sub-school of the Edinburgh College of Art, which only recently became part of the university. Thus, I am packaged up in a particular way, and although I often encounter researchers in history or the history of art, my institutional home is in architecture. This presents a new kind of intellectual context for me, which I am only gradually becoming used to. I am coming to know my new home while at the same time experiencing a discipline which is in some way new to me. Architectural history within the College of Art has distinct differences from urban history within a history department, which could be a blogpost unto themselves.

Of course, as researchers we all experience other institutions as visitors for conferences or to examine archives. This again is another way of knowing a university, through the spaces used for large discussions and meetings rather than teaching.

What is it that is revealed or obscured to you by your particular role within the university, be that student, teacher, researcher, employee, or visitor?

What I hope to have done by drawing attention to these different ways of experiencing universities is to encourage you to reflect on the subjective nature of your own experience of your institution(s). What is it that is revealed or obscured to you by your particular role within the university, be that student, teacher, researcher, employee, or visitor? You will likely find that you have a highly individual insight into where you work, but also discover that your combination of knowledge is unusual. Most academics are a long way from the student experience, which we PhD researchers still partake in to some extent. By gaining work experience in other areas of university life, you can enhance your understanding of them as multi-faceted institutions. This in turn will make you unusually valuable as a university employee, as you will be able to call on a range of different experiences and understand that different people have different attitudes to university life. You are already an expert on an academic subject, but you may find it useful to also become an expert on the nature of the university itself. This will be valuable not only in alt-ac careers: the administrative and team working skills that can be developed in these kind of roles will also prepare you for elements of academic careers such as committee work, timetabling, and working across departments. By becoming more than just a scholar you can make yourself a unique asset to your department and university.

Sam Grinsell is a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, having previously earned a BA in Ancient History and History and an MA in Urban History, both at the University of Leicester. His research interests lie in colonial cities and the built environment more broadly, and he also maintains a strong interest in digital pedagogy. His current research on British imperial architecture in the Nile valley is funded by the Society of Architectural Historians of Great Britain.

Image CC0 by Daderot