March 1, 2018, by Simon Langley-Evans
Spotlight on: Kirsten Whitehead, Chair of Biosciences EDI Committee
What was your career pathway leading to your current role?
I started my career as a dietitian back in the 1980s. I worked in the NHS for over 20 years in a variety of roles, both hospital and community-based. I think including my current role I’ve had 11 different jobs. I’ve also managed to do a variety of specialist areas of dietetics including weight management, oncology and HIV, which was my favourite. I was an HIV specialist for seven years in Nottingham and loved it. I also did a secondment for a year as a clinical audit officer for the NHS which has proved very useful when supervising student projects.
I think my move away from the NHS started when I did a Masters in Public Health in 2000. I really enjoyed the academic challenge and going back to a clinical role just didn’t appeal very much even though I was still passionate about dietetics. Many of my roles had involved a lot of education and training so coming to work at the University teaching dietetics seemed to me a very logical step. When a post was advertised in 2001 I jumped at the opportunity and thankfullygot the job. I carried on working in the NHS for 1-2 days a week until 2008. By then I had started a part-time Ph.D. and had two teenage children so having two different jobs as well was a bit much. It wasn’t a difficult decision at all for me to give up the clinical role. Since then I have been working in nutritional sciences, teaching nutrition and dietetics related subjects four days a week. I took over as Chair of the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Committee last year.
What challenges did you encounter along the way?
I guess the challenges change along the journey. When I moved to Nottingham because of my husband’s job I was out of work for 9 months. That showed me that I am not designed to be at home all day. I became obsessed with cleaning and my husband was very relieved when I got a job!
Much as I loved my HIV job it was also emotionally demanding because at that time treatments were limited and many of my patients died. Thankfully medication has improved dramatically and people living with HIV have a much longer life expectancy. I also experienced and witnessed a lot of stigma and discrimination. Many of my patients, their partners and families had a really tough time with attitudes and behaviours of people around them but interestingly so did I as someone who worked with people living with HIV. I did a lot of unofficial HIV awareness raising and correcting of misinformation. I still teach about HIV and enjoy being able to share some stories (anonymised of course).
Having 2 children has been both a blessing and a challenge. I did not enjoy being pregnant and am not someone who goes all gooey eyed over babies. I was fortunate to be able to work part time after having them which made it easier. They are both in their 20s now and living away from home which in many ways makes it easier, until something is wrong. However I have also found that it makes it much too easy to work excess hours when you don’t have to get home to feed people or deliver them to youth group, music lessons and so on.
Doing a part time PhD alongside work of course was demanding but I absolutely loved it. I was fortunate that I was (and still am) passionate about the subject (communication skills for consultations in dietetics) and I had great support from my team, my supervisors, my line manager and my family. I have been able to take the work forward so it is not just a milestone and an achievement, but a developing area of work which I am still excited about. There is no doubt it has opened doors and enabled me to progress in my career.
Most recently my greatest challenge has been work life balance. I most certainly have not got it right a lot of the time but I am getting better.
How did you overcome those challenges?
There certainly have been difficult times. There is no one answer but I have a few recurring themes I guess. I am a bit of a ‘heart on my sleeve’ type person and open to sharing what is going on in my life so family, friends and colleagues, and on occasions counsellors, have helped me process where I am up to. Making time to stop and think about how you are living your life, what is important and what isn’t, what you want your direction to be can be really helpful. Realising that everything doesn’t have to be done ‘now’ is essential.
Being open to the wisdom of others has helped me enormously. Here are a few quotes that have had an impact, ‘it’s only an opportunity if you genuinely have time to do it’, ‘few people get to the end of their life and wish they had spent more time at the office’. Someone one said to me ‘Kirsten I would like you to think about how you can live next year as opposed to exist’. She had a point! One of the most profound was from my daughter when she was 5. She said to my mother ‘I don’t want to grow up Grannie because grown-ups don’t have any fun’. Ouch! A real wake up call.
The other thing that is really important to me is my Christian faith. I can’t imagine life without it and the friends and colleagues I share it with. It has definitely carried me along the way and will continue to do so.
Finally it has become a bit of a joke but I have been playing tennis on a Friday for about 20 years. I am not very good but I absolutely love it. Our wellbeing programme has recently emphasised the importance of physical activity and I genuinely think that if I had let the tennis go my mental health would have deteriorated. Of course the friends and lunch also help.
Have there been any specific people or actions that you have found supportive in developing your career?
One of the things I love about Nutritional Sciences is the people I work with. They are a really good bunch and we always support each other when times are tough which has been invaluable and greatly appreciated. Andy Salter supported me to do the PhD and has patiently listened to my woes on many occasions over the years, Judy Swift and Simon Langley-Evans were amazing PhD supervisors, Martin Luck has been a great mentor. There are others of course. Having professional coaching helped me deal with some difficult situations and think more about my direction. Family have helped me keep going. Thank you everyone!
If you could give advice to your younger self, what would you say about developing your career?
One step at a time. You don’t have to do everything now. Ask yourself when an ‘opportunity’ comes your way, ‘do I have the time to do this and will it take me in the direction I want to go?’ You don’t have to say yes to everything and you don’t have to keep doing roles for ever. Try to stop and think every so often and check what you are doing. Get a mentor!
Be honest to others and yourself. Is it getting too much? Look after yourself both physically and mentally. You won’t progress if you make yourself ill.
Try to support and encourage others. It is worth it.
And most importantly, don’t neglect your family and friends.