Breaking through the ceiling: BSc Business and Management at Birkbeck

Jeremy Galea came to Birkbeck to further his career. Last week, he graduated with the Best Project prize in the Department of Management.

When I was growing up, there wasn’t much emphasis on education at home, but I’ve always had a strong work ethic. I failed my last year of school in Australia and got a job straight away. I did everything from cleaning supermarkets to polishing stainless steel; being a hard worker was my way of escape.

After moving to the UK to start a junior project management role, I started to worry about hitting a ceiling. I was really into my career and very ambitious, but I could only get so far with no formal qualifications. I’d done courses along the way, but never tackled anything as big as university study.

I chose Birkbeck because it was the only university that would allow me to continue working while studying in the evening. The first two years were tough; I didn’t have access to Student Finance, so I worked seven days a week to fund my studies. Working 70 hour weeks and then studying on top meant sacrificing other areas of my life, but coming into lectures and meeting people who were in the same struggle motivated me to keep going.

I’ve always been able to put on a confident front, but Birkbeck really gave me that self-belief – my ambition is higher now than when I started. I never submitted an assignment in high school – my first university assignment was a 70!

I was just about to finish my second year at Birkbeck when I got my current role in the senior operations management team in the NHS. Drawing on my experience of my course really helped me in the interview, as did the confidence I’d gained along the way.

When it came to choosing a topic for my research project, my seminar teacher gave me some great advice: you don’t get extra points for a ‘sexy’ title! It’s best to write about what you know.

I chose to research whether outsourced organisations or in-house provide better non-clinical support services to the NHS. Having worked in operations for over ten years, I knew my subject matter pretty well. Basing my project on my work has taught me so much; it’s had an effect on how I think and I’m already directing things in a different way than I would have done before. In large organisations, management don’t know what it’s like on the front line and the front line has tunnel vision, so it was fascinating speaking to people across my organisation.

I was lucky to have the support of my line managers at work and of Dr Marion Frenz, my supervisor. In the end, I didn’t come to a definitive answer in my project, but that didn’t stop me from doing well as loads of information on management and relationships still came out of it.

My advice to students undertaking a project would be to start early: it can be hard when your nerves get in the way and you’re juggling work as well, but the quality won’t be there unless you allow yourself time.

If you’re in work, Birkbeck is the place to study to further your career. You can learn so much from other people’s life experience on campus. Undertaking a work-based project gets your name out there within your organisation – even if you work in a coffee shop there’s a business model there that you can learn from.

At school it felt like you were either naturally talented or dumb and there was no in-between, but now I believe that if you set your mind to something, you can achieve it. There’s nothing negative about further education; you learn how to analyse, research and make up your own mind. The world opens up to you once you’ve had that experience.

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“Studying at Birkbeck makes you feel part of something.”

Studying the BSc Business and Human Resource Management at Birkbeck helped Valentina Introna move from the shop floor to the role of HR Business Partner. This is her #BBKStory.

It hasn’t been an easy journey deciding to go back to study. English wasn’t my first language and I felt that the only way to be fully confident in this new country was to access an academic level of the language. I studied classics in school, back in Italy, and I thought to challenge myself with something scientific and completely new.

When it was time to submit my university application, I was scared and quite nervous; I applied for five colleges and surprisingly all of them accepted my application. I was happy and excited by the unknown! I looked up all ranks, the opinions, the videos made by former students and I decided that Birkbeck was the one for me. It could allow me to work while studying and everyone in those videos looked satisfied.

I am a people person, always have been and always will, but I loved my calculations and my budgeting: Business and Human Resources Management was absolutely the perfect fit for me. Birkbeck was the only university able to combine this dual aspect where the first year (I literally looked into all the modules of each course!) was completely business oriented -i.e. Micro and Macro Economics, Financial Accounting, Quantitative Methods- and the last two a deep dive into the fascinating world of HR. I fell in love on day one, Corporate Social Responsibility.

I started at 31 years old, I had to work, I wanted to work; I couldn’t think of myself just as a student and honestly London is not well-known for its easy-living. I was in retail, supervising a fashion-clothing concession and I remember doing 9:00 to 5:30 shift at work and 6:00 to 9:00 at Birkbeck, an intense twelve-hour day. Every professor and lecturer was so passionate and inspiring that the tiredness of a day standing serving clients was easily forgotten. I was able to understand things that the next day I could apply to my job. I still remember when my manager asked me to help her to read the company’s financial statement. I felt recognised. Once I changed company and I was in my second year, my new manager was so impressed from my commitment in studying while working that, one day, when our Europe Retail Management came to visit the store, he introduced me as “the future HR of the company”. In that moment I was on the shop floor putting shoes back in the box and yes, he was right; exactly one year later I was offered the role of HR Business Partner for the company. I still can’t believe it.

It hasn’t been easy, but studying at Birkbeck makes you feel part of something; you have the chance to meet people with a similar path, your same age, perhaps older; you have the opportunity to advise younger students by sharing your previous experience. You could simply meet special mates that will stay by your side for the entire journey or why not for life. I’ve met two great friends thanks to Birkbeck.

I probably will need few months off studying, but in my plan there is a Masters and, if it’s going to happen, it will be at Birkbeck. The College gives you the right support, everything is online, lessons are recorded, and lecturers are easy to reach. My supervisor for the final project has been so helpful and full of insights that still I am using some of his suggestions to coach my store managers. I will always have good words about Birkbeck, because it gave me a chance: it’s up to you to use it to the fullest, but without the initial opportunity there won’t be stories to tell.

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Goal-setting for women working in a professional environment

This post was contributed by Mark Panton, TRIGGER Administrator. Here, Mark reports from the TRIGGER (Transforming Institutions by Gendering Contents and Gaining Equality in Research) First Early Career Seminar, which focused on goal-setting for women working in a professional environment.

Trigger logoThe issue

Too often, women have to put their broader life goals in the shade in order to pursue their career. This is neither necessary, nor is it sustainable. On 15 September, TRIGGER’s First Early Career Seminar addressed some of the underlying tensions that exist which make it harder for women to pursue a clear and balanced set of goals for themselves and their work.

In an engaging and interactive workshop, board mentor Dr Andrew Atter discussed why goal-setting can be so hard together with strategies both women and men can use to formulate a balanced set of goals for themselves; then influence their environment to enable those goals to become a reality.

The relevance of goal-setting and why it is difficult

Goal-setting is particularly important in relation to gender.  Women often have to make more painful trade-offs than men. For women it may be trade-offs in their family and working lives leading to frustrations and limited options. There is some way to go and this can also be true for men where they may have too little time for their family and too much time at work leading to issues of isolation and loneliness. There is also a sense in which many people don’t have goals and are just influenced by the environment.

What makes goal-setting so difficult?

  • Feeling stuck
  • Always out of reach
  • Aspirational (versus planned)
  • Conflicting priorities
  • Life gets in the way

Strategies

Participants discussed goals they had achieved despite these issues and what could be learned from those achievements. Strategies that were debated included the basic step of asking for help; finding the emotional key and the need for resonance. Standard methodologies of goal setting were considered such as the linear, value alignment and realist approaches.

The seminar finished with the use of Triads (new for some of the participants) for a role-playing exercise involving coaches, clients and observers. Even in this short role-play some interesting responses and learnings included.

“I did have more goals and aims than I thought”.

“It was easier to open-up than expected”.

“It can be difficult to talk about goals with a line manager”

The seminar demonstrated there are practical and useful techniques and “life hacks” that can make a big difference. However, much will depend on your own attitudes and behaviour, rather than waiting for the world to become a more perfect place.

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Birkbeck’s TRIGGER initiative explores gender inequality in Higher Education

This post was contributed by James Fisk, graduate administrator at the School of Business, Economics and Informatics.

Trigger logoOn the 28 June Birkbeck took further strides toward gender equality and equity, as the EU Project TRIGGER (Transforming Institutions by Gendering Contents and Gaining Equality in Research) invited an audience of professionals, academics and students to consider how best to inspire aspiring female professors and managers.

Indeed, gender inequality persists in higher education despite the many positive steps that have been made by the sector in recent years. The implementation and acceleration of Athena SWAN, as well as vocal support from leading academics and professionals, has raised the profile of gender inequality substantially. Yet a report published by the Equality Challenge Unit (ECU) in 2015 and looking at statistical data gleaned from the sector elucidates the enduring prevalence of gender inequality. In 2015, 77.6% of all Professors were male, whilst in SET (Science, Economics and Technology) subjects the figure was even higher at 81.8% (ECU).

How barriers can be overcome

The event ‘Aspiring female Professors/Managers – What can aspiring female professors/managers learn from those already in these positions?’ exists within this milieu and looked to develop dialogue, networking and solidarity to consider how such barriers can be overcome. As one speaker, Simona Iammarino, Professor of Economic Geography at the London School of Economics, remarked during the panel discussion:

“We need more than just small cogs; we need a holistic culture that lends and prides itself on both gender equality and equity.”

So, how to eradicate an inequality that is both historic and persistent? To those at the event the answer seemed to become clearer as experiences were shared among the audience and the panel. Many panel speakers discussed the necessity of having role models, with young and ambitious students, academics and professionals all attesting to the benefits of inspirational figures in the guise of mentors, line managers and colleagues.

As Birkbeck’s Professor of Entrepreneurship Helen Lawton Smith stated, “we need to understand that we’re all in this together and it is up to each of us create the support necessary for women to succeed in academia and professional roles”.

TRIGGER image

The TRIGGER event on 28 June 2016

Fostering organisational change

Birkbeck’s four year TRIGGER initiative was set up in January 2014 as an applied research project aiming to foster organisational change through promoting the role of women in research and academia. It complements several other initiatives introduced by Birkbeck to reduce gender inequality in STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Medicine and Mathematics) subjects and managerial roles, such as ASTREA (Networking for women in professional and support roles), AURORA (Developing leadership skills for women) and Athena SWAN.

It is through such exchanges that commitments are made, not only to fighting disparity among gender pay and seniority, but also to fully comprehend the myriad dimensions of the struggle at hand. Indeed, until the persisting mechanisms of gender inequality are fully understood, they are doomed to perpetuate themselves. Discussions at the event ranged from the issue of age and its gendered role in the life of academics and professionals (see Fields Medal), to the challenges of younger women eager to assert themselves in male dominated professions.

The event itself embodied this sense of solidarity and commitment to gender equality, with networks forming around shared aspirations, experiences and struggles. If indeed institutions are to instigate a culture equipped to overcome inequality, it will be through a sharing of information, a proliferation of networks and through the support of key decision makers.

You can see a video taken of the event online, for those wishing to read more you can catch a summary of the panel responses posted to LinkedIn. You can read more about TriggeR  and upcoming events on their website. Students interested in mentoring programmes run by the college can check out Mentoring Pathways.

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