‘Do you miss teaching?’ Almost everyone who knows me will ask me that at least once. It’s probably because of the negative publicity teaching receives, it isn’t difficult to find a “Why I left teaching.” article, but the truth is I loved teaching and truly miss being in the classroom. I spent 3 years teaching physics in the fantastic Mascalls school in Kent; one of which I had the pleasure to be ‘Head of Learning Community’ (essentially head of house). The best thing about teaching is the kids. When they achieve they feel good and when they feel good any teacher worth their salt feels good. It is incredibly hard to find a similar career where you feel good when you help someone else achieve. I didn’t actually appreciate just how true this is until I spent an afternoon running activities as a STEM ambassador last week. So why leave teaching? It wasn’t teaching that I left, rather environmental engineering that I pursued and ironically, the STEM activities were promoting careers in environmental engineering.

At school engineering meant simply cars, aeroplanes and anything mechanical, I had no idea, like many students even today I expect, that environmental engineering existed. But research on the internet led me to one of the most exciting career areas and the more I read, the more I know that this was the area that I wanted to work in.

Leaving teaching was tough but I was lucky to have a supportive boss who I could talk to about changing careers in the future. I tentatively applied for 3 environmental engineering master degrees and attended their open days. I knew immediately that Newcastle was where I wanted to study, the course is fantastic and gives such a diverse insight into all aspects of environmental engineering.

I had some money saved, but I really didn’t think that I would be able to afford the tuition fees as well as living costs for a year (Even if the price of beer is at least half of that in Kent where I was living at the time!). At the open day at Newcastle they promoted a number of bursaries, although I didn’t think I stood a chance, I was lucky enough to secure a bursary from the Worshipful Company of Water Conservators. I can remember sitting in a staff meeting and swearing loudly when I got the email through, I knew that it was happening now!

The MSc in Environmental Engineering at Newcastle is a fantastic course, I can’t recommend it enough. The teaching staff are really great and other courses could never offer the time spent in such amazing lab facilities. Although at times I felt uneasy about being a student again, and on the wrong side of a classroom, it was really easy to get back into the swing of learning and essay writing. There was never a moment when I regretted making the change.

One of the optional modules that really inspired me during the MSc was “Engineering Biology through Molecular Microbial Ecology”. The fact that we use so many biological systems day to day and we have very little understanding of how they work or even the microbes involved captures my imagination every time I think about it! I searched for a PhD project that involved using and understanding biological systems and one that would have direct applications to industry. I spoke to a number of potential supervisors before deciding to apply for my current project. The STREAM-IDC Engineering Doctorates offer both research and industrial experience as all projects have an industrial sponsor with whom researchers are encouraged to spend at least half of their time.

My short time working on this project has been fantastic, I love learning and there is certainly plenty to learn. I still maintain that few careers are as rewarding as teaching, however, working on a long term project for me, is an emotional roller-coaster which offers so many new and exciting opportunities.

Changing careers was definitely the right move for me, probably not for the reasons that most people would think. For others considering a career change my best advice would be:

  • Do plenty of research into new areas, get in contact with people from the industry (Linkedin is great for this!).
  • Get excited about the new possibilities. It is easy to feel like there is a mountain of things stopping you, but stay positive and focus on where you want to be.
  • It is easy to think that a change is not possible because you don’t have the right set of skills for jobs for that field, but remember; you have experiences and skills which maybe unique in fields outside your own. The best companies will recognise this and jump at the chance to have you on board!
  • Ease into it! It won’t always be easy, but then nothing good ever is.
  • You will always miss certain things about your old job, but remember why you changed careers, and the benefits your new role brings.

The second question that everyone asks is ‘Will you ever go back to teaching?’ That will have to be answered much later, but it certainly will not be anytime soon!