Alexis McDermott - MA Personnel and Development graduate

Alexis talks about how studying changed her career aspirations and the ups and downs of balancing work, family and study

Alexis attained a merit in the MA Personnel and Development course in 2011. She had chosen Plymouth University as it was local to her and because of the option of part-time study, which enabled her to continue working full-time. Here, in her own words, she explains how, during her studies, her career goals changed, and how the support of the University and its staff helped her to complete her time there successfully.

Why did you choose Plymouth University?   

I chose Plymouth University as others who had completed the course I was interested in had recommended it to me. Cornwall College was also about to start running the course but I decided to go with Plymouth as its study times were better, it had better resources, an established course and was cheaper with more experienced lecturers. Plus it was a university rather than a college and was held in higher regard to obtain a qualification from.

Why did you choose this particular course at the University? What did you expect to gain from it?

At the time of starting the course I wanted to be a Personnel Officer. I was a Personnel Assistant and had completed my Certificate in Personnel Practice and this was the next step. I actually enrolled onto the PGCert in Leadership and Development and then transferred onto the MA after the first year.  My aim was to become an Assistant Personnel Officer and then once qualified I’d work through my employers career grade of becoming a Personnel Officer and then finally a Senior Personnel Officer.  I needed the MA (or the PGCert and PG Dip) to do this.

When my employer became a unitary authority partway through my course, my career aspirations changed as the service was restructured and the old career framework I was working towards no longer existed.  My expectations from the course changed; it became my tool to securing employment in the new structure.  The restructure was a particularly destructive, inconsistent, confusing and troublesome time for many in the workplace.  The familiarly of the students on my course, the university, the process of going to Plymouth once a week and the focus of learning, allowed me to have a constant stability in my then unstable work life.  It had regular faces, where at work they were quickly changing.  Course colleagues were friendly, whereby at work people were fighting for their jobs.  It became my safe place during that period of time.

What was your entry route to the course? Did you come straight from college/sixth form? If not, tell us about what you were doing before coming to University.

I attended University part-time for one day a week.  Therefore before I started the course and whilst doing the course I was employed full-time. I had done GCSE’s and A-levels whilst at school but had then gone into full-time employment.  In my mid-twenties, whilst at my current employers, I did the Certificate in Personnel Practice at Truro College.  Although I didn’t have a degree, due to the level of responsibility and tasks I had been given, I was allowed onto the PGCert in Leadership and Development at Plymouth University, and then transferred onto the MA.  My employers allowed me the day to attend university without having to pay it back in time.

What was your experience of the course? Did it meet your expectations? Tell us about the good and bad bits, and how you overcame anything negative.

I remember at the beginning being slightly in shock as I had been out of the learning loop for about ten years and had never studied at degree level, let alone above that.  
The first few months were a steep learning curve. In the first year we had an exam and an assignment for every topic which worked out to be one of each every 5 -6 weeks.  The set-up did change in years two and three so this eased off.  I hated exams and never really got the hang of them so I was glad when this happened.  I think I finally got the hang of writing when the time came for my dissertation. 

I also learn more effectively by ‘doing’ rather than by just reading or listening. I sometimes found lessons hard to get through, although they were better when examples from real people were given and discussed, and also when I was able to contribute to conversations.  I also found that by writing assignments I was able to retain information, so I read articles and theories etc, and applied them to my organisation; this brought it to life for me.  

I found the dissertation difficult, mainly for my work-life balance.  No one can describe the amount of time that you need to allow for it and the emotions that you go through as you’re writing it. Nor do you realise the amount of support you’ll need form family and friends, both physically and mentally. Many evenings and weekends were spent on my dissertation.  Beryl Badger was my mentor and she was amazing.  Living near Redruth, a trip to Plymouth took a while and cost a lot, so on non-university days we’d arrange telephone meetings and I’d discuss my dissertation, how it was going and any other problems I was having. When writing it I felt that I was neglecting my husband, and if I was spending time with him or my family I felt guilty that I wasn’t doing my dissertation.  However the feeling on completing it and handing it in was amazing and I felt that I’d achieved so much. I actually felt a bit lost after I’d handed it in and it took a few months to re-adjust. In the end I just swapped my time from dissertation to gardening and surfing as when I handed it in the evenings were starting to get lighter.

Did you receive support, both academically and socially while you were here?   

My workplace was difficult over my time at university, and I’d received a lot of emotional support from Beryl Badger. We’d meet for a coffee at lunch and I’d talk about my troubles and she’d listen. I had support from my employers in the way of funding for the course; travel and expenses etc. were paid for. As it was a part-time course, on one day a week it was a day-trip to attend the lesson, so no other accommodation etc. was required. 
As students, everyone in my course group supported each other and also my work colleagues, who had previously done the course, would offer support where necessary. As I’ve mentioned, I’d receive support from my friends and family, both mental and physical. 

Did the course change your career goals at all?

Yes. Some of the modules gave me a different insight into areas I didn’t want to go into and also areas I did. This was also coupled with the changes at work. The Personnel Officers at work became HR officers and only focussed on redundancies, capability issues and disciplinary proceedings. This was something I didn’t want to do all of the time, and found myself preferring topics such as motivation and engagement, learning, and how you get more out of staff. This led me to make changes in my career ideas, although at this time I wasn’t sure what they’d be, and because of the restructures taking place I was also unsure of how and when I’d achieve them.

What advice would you give to anyone else considering the same course here?

I understand that the course has now changed and has a different name and structure.  Either way I’d say don’t underestimate the time you have. Do a little bit regularly and then it’s not so hard. Give yourself reward days but also days when you work really hard, i.e. work all day Saturday but have Sunday off. Make sure you talk it through with loved ones and family so they understand what is required of you, and them, and don’t take on too much.  

Plan ahead – if you are going on holiday don’t take it with you; the month before you leave increase what you are doing, maybe just a few hours extra during the week, so the week before your holiday you have time to do holiday prep, and then relax on your holiday without feeling guilty that you still have lots of work to do when you return.

Don’t leave your dissertation to the last minute. Chip away at it and constantly think of and note down ideas. Don’t leave it alone for long periods of time either, as you’ll find it hard to pick back up and hence waste time in picking up where you left off.

Lastly, utilise the expertise of the lecturers. They have a wealth of experience and knowledge; some of them even have books published. Make the most of what they can offer you.

If you are currently in employment, please tell us about your career path.

Before starting the course I started as a Personnel Assistant; this involved creating employment contracts, setting up new starters on the payroll system, attending interviews for new starters and taking minutes of disciplinary hearings, etc. to gain some experience of the HR world.  Many of my responsibilities were outside of my role but I undertook them to gain experience as I wanted to progress within this field. A few months into the course I obtained a new job within the same organisation and implemented a new payroll system. The job required qualifications and experience at a particular level; therefore I had been eligible to apply for it, where previously I had not.

By the time the organisation had merged, we’d decided on our dissertation topics, because mine was on induction and I’d done a lot of research on it, I was able to secure a new job in the Learning and Development team. This was a new team and a new role. Although my role in this team has since changed, this has been my resting place so far within the organisation.

How has your Plymouth University qualification enhanced your career opportunities and employability? Did it equip you with the right knowledge and skills?

I was able to obtain new roles within the organisation because of the qualification I attained. Plus I have an MA, which is pretty amazing and something that I never thought I’d have the opportunity to achieve. I feel that this type of qualification certainly opens doors and increases the chance of employability. What I am doing in terms of skill is not something we did during the course, as I am implementing an Oracle-based module for learning and development as part of the ERP programme. The course gave me the skills and confidence to deal with different levels of management and staff, and the techniques for buy-in and engagement that are required if the system is to be used. 

What would you list as your greatest career achievement? Do you have any goals for the future?

There are two, the first is finishing the course and getting a merit.
The second is obtaining my ‘H’ grade job.

For the future I’d like to become a consultant at work and reach a grade J.

What advice would you give to anyone wanting to get into the same line of work?

Focus and learn as much as you can. Volunteer at any opportunity to prove yourself and to gain vital experience. Don’t take no for an answer and always come up with a solution.

As a graduate are you involved with the University now? For example, have you returned to speak to current students or kept in touch with your lecturers?

I keep in touch with Beryl Badger and I have recently registered on the website to mentor a student. 

Would you recommend undertaking a course with Plymouth University, and why?

Yes I would. The reason being for potential students in Cornwall and the South-West it provides a university on their doorstep, thus helping to keep costs down and the ability to remain in the county. For people like me, I was able to do the course and continue to work. I found it very interesting and it has aided me in all aspects of my working life. The lecturers are passionate about what they do and the topics they teach and this enthusiasm is passed onto the students.