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Sally came to DPAG in January 2020, joining us after running the University’s Internal Audit and looking after the Audit and Scrutiny Committee in Wellington Square, She is also a former Physiological Sciences undergraduate here. As HoAF, she is responsible for the department's professional services teams and ensuring the administrative support required to deliver the department's research and teaching mission. Now six months in, she has the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic to manage, alongside her continued work to support the department's overarching strategy. Interview on 21 May 2020.

SallyVineJan2020.jpgTell me about your career so far that brought you to DPAG as HoAF

I first came to DPAG as a Physiological Sciences undergraduate, the forerunner for the Biomedical Sciences degree. I was based in the Sherrington Building, did dissection over in Le Gros Clark (LGC) and Marianne Fillenz was my tutor at St Anne’s. I graduated in the teeth of a recession, so I went travelling across South East Asia and Australia for a couple of years. I came back to the UK to train as a Chartered Accountant in London, spending several years with commercial clients. Funnily enough, I ended up specialising in the pharmaceutical industry and universities. After juggling these two interests for a while, I decided to leave practice and joined Orange as a strategic analyst. Then I had a career break, moved back to Oxford and applied for a job in central administration in Wellington Square, starting in the Planning team. I’ve also spent time in Education Policy, the Humanities divisional office, the Finance Division, and, most recently, I ran the University’s Internal Audit and looked after the Audit and Scrutiny Committee. I’d come across DPAG several times during my time at the University, and when I heard there was a vacancy, I thought this is the department to jump for!

What were your first impressions of DPAG?

I was part of the panel when Head of Department David Paterson organised a departmental review in 2016, so I’d already had the warts and all tour, and I knew the operational challenges DPAG faced. However, I was delighted to find that under the surface, it was much the same as it was when I studied here, with lots of exciting activity and a great group of people.

What does your job entail?

I am responsible for all of the professional services staff that provide the infrastructure for the department’s research and teaching activities. My job is to make sure the core teams are working as efficiently and effectively as possible together in support of the department’s strategy, and I support the Head of Department in developing that strategy, giving him the tools he needs to lead the department. My overarching aim is to secure a stable and sustainable operational and financial position for the department long-term, and thus enable its research and teaching mission.

You had to face the Covid-19 pandemic just three months in – how did you manage the sudden changes faced by the department?

It’s fair to say that I was still learning the job when the crisis hit. My previous jobs focused on strategy, policy and oversight, and I had been relishing handling the real nuts and bolts for the first time when the Covid issue hit, and it’s really been an extension of the deeply operational nature of my work. What’s been impressive is that there are a lot of specialists in the professional services teams who continue to respond to whatever is thrown at them and go on delivering in a really sound and productive way. They are always one step ahead of me!

What are the key issues you are currently tackling?

First, there is significant change in my senior team, with long-serving finance and research managers leaving the department. I’m taking the opportunity to restructure those teams and am supporting them through this transition. Second, it’s budget season, and setting a budget is particularly challenging this year with the uncertainty caused by the Covid crisis. Third, we have prepared a strategic case for development and consolidation to enable us to run our space more efficiently, which will involve absorbing LGC activity into Sherrington and operating in a smaller footprint. A fourth major issue is returning to work: we are balancing people’s health considerations with an urgent need to resume productive research in the department.

You are part of a team of volunteers helping to maintain DPAG buildings, what has that been like?

I’ve really enjoyed it. It’s been a great opportunity to find out about the place, although I frequently wake up in the night in a panic that I might have left a tap running! I’m delighted to play a small part in keeping the buildings going and it’s a vast endeavour. It’s been very interesting to have an insight into some of the mechanics of the labs (and see which ones are tidy)! I think it’s left us well placed to open quickly when the time comes.

What do you most enjoy about your job?

Being at the operational end of the university has been a real privilege. It’s a delight to be where the research and teaching is actually happening and where the issues are particularly sharp. It’s also been good to bring some of my insight from working in central University into that context. I’ve had a great start at DPAG; I have excellent teams, I’ve met great people, and I couldn’t have hoped for a better welcome. While being a HoAF is difficult, I have a good support network in the Division and among other HoAFs. You’re not alone in the job, and I’ve found that really valuable. 

Is there a highlight of your time so far?

I’d love to see the department operating safely again post-Covid, so I’m hanging on until we get there for my highlight. I did survive my first budget meeting though, so that could be a highlight!

What’s the most challenging aspect of your job?

The sheer breadth and volume of work is quite relentless, and the main challenge has been coming in from outside and picking up the threads. I’m grateful to people who have generously given me advice and filled me in on how the department works. As it’s such a broad role, there are as many different ways to do the job as there are departments, so it’s a challenge to set out a structure for myself. Also, on a busy day I may have around 250 emails to get through, so I am looking for new ways to effectively manage my time!

What do you wish people understood about your job?

The HoAF has to balance the requirements of central university, division and the department. Many things come through me where I’m more the messenger rather than a decision maker, which I can find frustrating. I don’t want to be inflexible but I do need to act within the guidelines set by the University.

What do you get up to outside of work to unwind?

I’m delighted to be able to work part-time, which enables me to take a long summer holiday. My family, which includes three children, enjoys taking road trips, and we’ve enjoyed some good journeys over the last few years in Africa, the US and Europe. Right now, I’m spending more time wrangling my garden than I normally do and exploring my corner of Oxford on my bike.