“The non-linear career path – you get buffeted around by the winds of change and sometimes you have to let them send you somewhere else!”
Sean Lancastle is the Academic Enhancement Manager in CAME (the School of Civil, Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering). Not only is his role a unique one, but he has also taken an unusual path to get here. He tells us how he started out, and the various moments and decisions that led him to bring his skills to our faculty.
Tell us about you – where are you from, who you are outside of work?
I grew up in Bristol, and was the first in my family to go to university (it was still quite unusual in the 1980s as only around 15% of the population went to university at the time). Most of my secondary school friends were in similar position – I went to Brislington comprehensive – we all went off to do Engineering of different types. I did Physics at Warwick and, although I my family were very supportive of me going to university, I had to support myself financially from the start. So, I was very keen to find a way to work whilst studying.
Tell us how you got here – what did you do to get here, what decisions did you make, what motivated you?
I was doing A Levels in Maths, Chemistry and Physics when a project approached me and my friends about placing people on industry years before they went to university. I was interested but didn’t want to work for any of the companies on the list. I wanted to work for the BBC, and so I persuaded the project leaders to ask them to be part of the scheme. To my surprise, the BBC agreed to interview me and then gave me the job as a fresh faced 18-year-old. They were great to work for and very good at developing people. I did a full year with the BBC before university and then short-term contracts with them during most of my holidays. I secured a permanent position whilst in my final year, and after graduation I started working full-time. I was an Engineer in Engineering Services in the BBC Bristol offices, managing small technical projects for both radio and television. Within a year of graduating I was running a project with a £250k budget! I had taken an area – Electonic Graphics (these are the animations that appear on TV programmes) – under my wing, predicting investment was coming. I was there at the right time – no one else was doing it – and so I knew most about it when they needed to find someone to manage the project.
I was at the BBC for six years, until I was Senior Broadcast Engineer, working on all kinds of things supporting BBC radio 3 and 4, BBC TV news and the Natural History Unit. The BBC had exceptionally good training, which they did as residential programmes at their training centre near Evesham. They were extremely well taught and quite tough with a 90% pass mark. It inspired me to think I’d like to have a go at teaching. However, my timing was poor as this was just as the BBC was outsourcing its training provision.
Then I was buffeted by the winds of fortune. I had a friend who was Educational correspondent for Points West, and we were sitting in the pub together one day when she showed me an advert for a lecturer job at Southampton Solent university. I applied for it… and, to my surprise, got it, despite having no educational background! Solent realised that the media industry was no longer doing its own training and there was a new market emerging, and I was the right person in the right place at the right time. I helped set up everything from scratch, from curricula to lab facilities, as part of a team of just 3. I applied my experience from BBC training to how we would do it – moving from the role of ‘taught’ to ‘teacher’. I had to do a PGCE at Solent too which gave me good experience in teaching, telling stories and the all-important “soft” skills. I spent six years developing the course while commuting to Southampton from Bristol, growing student numbers from an initial cohort of 35 to more than 150 and making it one of the most successful programmes in the university.
Luck again played its part when randomly skimming a trade magazine in WH Smith as I saw a job advert for Group Technology Manager for GWR Radio Group in Bristol. I had done everything I could in Southampton and was also getting a bit fed up with commuting. Teaching had given me the communications and interpersonal skills that industry want – you can explain things well, work with people, negotiate and persuade. This range of skills successfully got me through quite a tough assessment centre to get the job.
At GWR, I was responsible for the team supporting the output of 31 FM and DAB radio stations and ensuring their conforming to Ofcom standards. There was an element of glamour to this – it was essentially the headquarters of a national radio group. I’ve played pool with Westlife, told Robbie Williams not to smoke in my studio and drank coffee with one half of Oasis! However, I sometimes had to make some tough decisions – a company is driven by profit, ultimately. As a PLC company, I found shareholders drive you in different directions as an organisation which can make your job more challenging and I learnt a lot about compromise. I was responsible for selecting new recruits graduating from university into GWR and developing and running the training programme for them. My experience in HE was really valuable to GWR here – these extras in my role growing organically from the experience I brought to it rather than what was originally advertised. I was there for 4 years and gained a set of management skills built on the interpersonal skills I’d developed in teaching. Then GWR merged with another company and the headquarters moved to London – I didn’t want to move, so opted for redundancy.
I was offered a job back at Solent running the department which had grown up around the course since we established it. I was there for another 9 years and developed it from a broadcast base into related fields such as Acoustics and supporting the Cinema and Live Events industries. Meanwhile, I took on an MSc – I had negotiated this as part of my return – in Education Technology and Society in the School of Education at UoB. I wanted to develop my skills in Education because I knew that is where my main interest lay. I took on roles in education enhancement for the Engineering Faculty, quality enhancement for the University and course approval, periodic review and external examining at several universities around the UK.
After that, I worked for myself for a bit doing consultancy work with a number of universities on improving their courses and improving their NSS scores. I even worked with one university that had the worst NSS scores in its area in the country, which was quite a challenge. I did consultancy for one year but didn’t really enjoy it and, as you have to be willing to accept when you have done the wrong thing, I decided to go back into a ‘proper’ job. I missed working as part of a team and having colleagues to develop longer-term relationships with…but you know, if you want to try things out you must be willing to make mistakes. I continue to do a few days of training BBC engineers each year as a result of that consultancy work (with the dean’s permission, of course!)
I saw the advert for my current UoB job on LinkedIn on the day it was due to close – luck again! I rushed an application in that day and was successful. This role has brought together my degree in Physics; my educational and professional background in Engineering, and my management skills – they all feed in. This was never a career path I could have planned! I’ve had lots of luck and also created my niche.
Why do you like your job?
My role is about trying to make things better – it’s nice to have a job that allows you to do this, especially if you are an engineer, as improving things is what you do. But this role, importantly, is about improving the education our students receive, and I get to help people who are really passionate about their subjects to get that info across to students in the best way we can.
How do you make it work in terms of work/life balance?
There are times when I have to apply a lot of attention to my job but will then make sure job pays me back (not financially – I mean in terms of time). Since working some fairly antisocial shifts early in my career I have always been good at work life balance, and I understand how the academic cycle works so I take that time back when it allows. This has made me more effective over time – observing other people who don’t have that balance has persuaded me that over-working is not a sustainable or effective working strategy. But still, sometimes I think to myself I’d like to do something totally different where I could switch off in the evening – like being a zookeeper…!
I’m actually quite competitive and genuinely want us here at Bristol to be the best – I would love it to be the best Engineering education in the country. I am not actually a big fan of comparing between institutions as you’re not really comparing like with like, but I do want us to be perceived as the best at some of the things we do, in teaching as well as research. I want to see our students set up to do lots of interesting things in their careers and to go in fascinating and random directions.
What advice would you give people considering a similar bespoke career?
Generate your niche and people will come to you – find something specific you like and enjoy – then your enthusiasm comes across. Don’t be frightened to suggest you have ideas or you may be the expert on something. Sometimes you need to be the person who is the most expert in a specific thing rather than the person who has the most experience overall – it pays dividends if you find the right niche, but always retain the bigger picture.
Be willing to pull in experiences from everything you’ve done into your role – don’t be limited on where the experiences have to come from, and it doesn’t have to be from work all the time.
I never really planned anything in my career, except right at the beginning. Early in your career, picking your companies based on reputation for developing people really does help, but ultimately, I don’t think you can really plan it all out. You can have an idea what you want to do but don’t hang on to the belief that the perfect job will exist at the exact moment you need it to be there. Remember that both you and the job you do will change over time. Universities do change more slowly, so maybe it’s slightly easier to predict an academic or research career. But even if you may want to be a Professor one day, you may find that actually, by the time you get there, you’re a specialist in a subject that’s very different from where you started out.
You will get buffeted around by the winds of change and sometimes you just have to see where they take you. Have the flexibility to go with it and see what interesting things happen.