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Finding a study-life balance: support for Trinity students

Dr Carys Brown charts her journey from secondary school teacher to Head of Academic, Personal and Professional Development at Trinity and how we can all benefit from ‘goal-setting breakfasts’.

Dr Carys Brown

What does the Head of Academic Personal and Professional Development do and why is the role needed?

I’m responsible for putting together a programme of workshops, regular group study sessions, and one-to-one support that gives undergraduates and postgraduates opportunities to hone their skills for study, find sustainable ways to balance work and life, and plan for the future beyond their degree.

Students come to Trinity from all over the world, and from vastly different educational backgrounds. For some, the modes of teaching and learning at Cambridge will be quite familiar, but others are faced with a whole new approach that requires totally new skills.

It’s important that we’re transparent about what we’re asking of students, and that we support them as they adjust to academic life.

It’s also apparent that for many students the need to work out what they will do after university can become a considerable cause for stress, even from quite early on in their degree. So ensuring that there is plenty of advice and support for students in thinking about their career is crucial not only in hopefully helping them find a bright future, but also in helping them enjoy the present.

How do students benefit?

They gain practical strategies for managing academic life in Cambridge, support with career goals, and (I hope) a sense of belonging in the academic community of the College.

There are currently three core aspects to the programme: practical workshops on topics such as essay writing, note-taking, or applying for internships; regular group study sessions, where students can come along and work alongside others with breaks for tea, biscuits, and conversation; and one-to-one support with academic-related issues, career aims, and (for students with English as a second language) spoken or written English.

I also run an Inclusive Teaching and Learning Group for postgrads, postdocs, and Fellows in the College, which allows us all some space to reflect on our teaching in a way that hopefully benefits our students.

What is your background?

I was an undergraduate student at Murray Edwards College, and then did a PGCE at Queens’ College. After that I taught history at a school in Essex but, while I enjoyed many aspects of teaching, I still felt like I had a research itch to scratch.

I returned to study at St John’s College, where I completed an MPhil and PhD, and after some postdoctoral work at the University of Manchester returned to Cambridge to join Trinity as a Title A Research Fellow. Although I left the secondary teaching profession, I’ve retained a strong interest in teaching and in the transition from school to university life and beyond, so my current role here suits my interests very well.

What do you enjoy most being Head of Academic Personal and Professional Development?

Meeting lots of different students! I’ve always enjoyed teaching historians, but it’s great to get to know students from across lots of different disciplines.

On Mondays I run a ‘Goal-setting breakfast’ when students come along to plan their week, and hearing about what students have been up to is a lovely start to my week! It’s an informal session, and students plan their week however they wish, but often use the planning templates that I provide.

One tip I’ve learned that I find useful (and I know some students who agree) is to choose three substantial but realistic ‘non-negotiable’ tasks for the day from my to-do list. Three things might not seem like very many, but it’s a helpful way of prioritising, and finishing those things brings a sense of satisfaction that you don’t get from a never-ending to-do list!

How do you balance your research with this role?

Term time is pretty busy with students, but that’s not always a bad thing for research! Talking to students about how they approach their studies and how they structure their writing definitely makes me reflect on my own approach to academic work.

It’s also useful to have to explain my research to people outside of my field. My current project is on children and childhood in eighteenth-century England, and the questions some students ask about it help me clarify my ideas.

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