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Tania has been with DPAG since late November 2013, and is responsible for providing the administrative and technical support required to facilitate the Department's teaching and research. She has been at the University of Oxford for 18 years, working at the Law Faculty, Department of Paediatrics, setting up the Medical Sciences Doctoral Training Centre, and most recently the Department of Surgical Sciences, before taking the reins at DPAG 5 years ago. Interview on Thursday 27 June 2019.

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What led you to a career in administration?

I didn't pick administration, it picked me! When I left school I wanted to be a schoolteacher, but that didn't go to plan, so I entered a youth training scheme at 16 that took me into a local government administrative role. It turned out that I was very good at it admin and finance so I spent the next 20 plus years working out what I enjoyed. Over that time, I’ve been an internal auditor, an interior office designer, a PA and Office Manager, to name just a few of my roles. Now I have over 35 years’ experience and love what I do.

Tell us about your journey to DPAG

I first came to the University 18 years ago after being made redundant. I interviewed for a Centre Administrator role in the Law Faculty, which seemed a great new challenge for me to get my teeth into after my previous role working as a PA to a Director at AT&T. Ever since, I've worked a variety of senior administration roles, each one being a promotion. From the Law Faculty, I moved to the Department of Paediatrics as Departmental Administrator, and then I was sent to set up the Medical Sciences Doctoral Training Centre. 18 months later, I decided to go back into central departmental administration, became the Business Manager of Surgical Sciences, and 5 years ago saw my current job advertised at DPAG.

What were your first impressions of DPAG?

DPAG is an interesting and challenging department for many reasons; its size, breadth of research, and the fact that it is a historically deficit department. When I applied for the role, the department had had something like 4-5 administrators in 7 years and was in need of some stability.  Working in a pre-clinical department was going to be very different experience from working in a clinical one, which was the environment I had worked in for the previous 12 years, but I like a challenge and saw DPAG as a great opportunity.

What does your job entail?

I'm responsible for all the non-academic activity undertaken within the department. The Head of Department David Paterson is responsible for the research, academic direction and teaching, and I'm responsible for providing the administrative and technical support required to facilitate the teaching and research. It's a broad role where every day is different. I oversee every support area; HR, Finance, Research Administration, Student Administration, Health & Safety, Facilities, Communications, IT, alongside whatever comes through my door during the day!

What do you enjoy most about your job?

I enjoy working on projects, but in reality, I don't have the time to do this anymore, so I tend to come up with ideas and work with my teams to turn these ideas into a reality. For example, I came up with the idea for the online induction for new starters, as it was important to me that newly appointed staff were able to engage with the department as soon as possible and not have to wait until their first day to be bombarded with information. Vicky Bullett and Kat Hadirampela did a great job of turning my idea into a reality, such a great job in fact that the online induction been adopted by other departments in the Medical Sciences Division!

What challenges do you face in your job?

The things that are most challenging are the things I like most about my job. Every day is different. I'll plan my day in my head while brushing my teeth in the morning, but I can pretty much guarantee that 10 minutes after arriving in the office, my day completely changes and my plan is thrown out of the window. As DPAG is such a big department, I can't always anticipate what challenges someone will bring to me. I have a HR background, so I really enjoy working with people, but I mainly see people on their bad days when I need to help them through a difficult time. However, that’s also the exciting part of the job: if they've hit a brick wall, my job is to figure out how to get to the other side: whether it's climbing over, going round, digging under or bashing a massive hole in the wall!

Is there anything you wish people understood about your job?

While the administration and support team are primarily here to look after academic and research staff, we are also gatekeepers, which means we need to make sure we comply with university policies and regulations, but also that we are not breaking the law. Although we are employed by the department, we also need to make sure that we are fulfilling our responsibilities to both the division and the central university. So, I guess if there was one message that I would like to get across, it would be that when we say we are unable to do something, it’s not because we don’t want to or to be unhelpful; it’s usually because there is policy or piece of legislation that says we can’t. Saying no is always a last resort, but sometimes that is the only answer. I have a good team who support both me and the department as a whole. We all come from a variety of professional backgrounds and bring with us a strong knowledge base, so if you are not sure about something, ask. It's easier for us to help you do something before you do it, as opposed to trying to fix something that has gone wrong.

What's your highlight so far?

I'm really proud of the new HR team. I restructured the whole team about 18 months ago after the old team left.  Initially, I was criticised for not taking advice, but it was never a case of not taking the advice, it was more a case of the fact I didn’t agree with it. We had a Head of Department who had very firm ideas as to the direction the department was travelling in, and I needed a HR team who would be able to action those ideas. Over 6 months, I recruited a bright and enthusiastic team who had ideas of their own. We have spent the last 12 months changing all of our policies, and we are continually reviewing policies and developing ideas to improve employee experience and engagement, and changed all our processes.

I'm also extremely proud of the Sherrington Phase 1 building work, for which David Paterson and I successfully applied for and received £4.6 million of capital funding. The funds were used to undertake 29 projects, of which 27 were managed locally by Shaun Burton and his Facilities team. The projects were predominately to modernise the communal areas of Sherrington, such as the reception, corridors and library, improving security and updating our facilities. We also refurbished a large area of the Neuroscience area on the ground and third floors to bring in Henry Dale Fellow, Dr Adam Packer, and relocate the Butt, Molnar, Szele and Kohl groups from Le Gros Clark. I am really proud of all the staff who worked together and got the practical work done to make it happen; from the Finance team, to Facilities for managing the projects, to the IT team for handling the network infrastructure. Many people have complemented the department on how it's becoming more modern and a better place to work. Now we're getting ready to apply for Phase 2, so that's another exciting challenge around the corner.

Tell us more about what's coming up for you and the Department.

The Phase 2 building work will require a much larger sum of money and will focus on three main areas. Firstly, we want to completely replace the mechanical and engineering equipment servicing Sherrington. Secondly, we will be building a cafe and interactive area for students and researchers, including a permanent home for the MSc Neuroscience programme. Thirdly, we will be refurbishing lab space to facilitate the transfer of the remaining groups from Le Gros Clark as we vacate the building over the next 18 – 24 months.

We are also starting the IT infrastructure transfer to move all of DPAG on to the MSD-IT network.  This will be a major 18 month project led by Sean Nightingale.

What do you do outside of your job?

Unfortunately, I never seem to have as much spare time as I’d like. I love learning and so I am always looking at ways to learn new things and enhance my skills.  I undertook an MBA at 32 while holding down a full-time job and looking after a young family of three children under 5 - something I couldn’t have accomplished without the fantastic support of my husband, Martin. I am currently in my final year of my MSc in Human Resource Management. I am working on a research project on the employability, engagement and training of the older workforce. On top of that, I am an elected member of Council. I am the first administrator to be an elected as a Trustee of the University and I pretty proud of that. I also sit on the Planning and Resource Allocation Committee (PRAC) as well as a large number of other committees. I love being able to help and support staff, so when I can I mentor staff at all levels across the University. This all means I work a 60-hour week - and that’s on a good week.  You could say I am a bit of a workaholic.

Outside of work and study, my husband and I enjoy walking. I was born in South London and love my home town - its history, art, architecture and atmosphere. We try to visit as often as we can and make a point of walking everywhere as opposed to taking public transport. It's not unusual for us to walk 12-15 miles a day while we are there. In 2018, I was diagnosed with Intraductual Papilloma, pre-cancerous cells that can develop into cancer if not removed. Luckily, it was caught early during a routine mammogram. After 4 procedures I was thankfully given the all clear, although I have to go for yearly checkups. Since my scare, I do what I can to raise money for Cancer Research. So this year, Martin and I are harnessing our love of walking to do the Shine Night Walk for Cancer Research, a 26 mile marathon around London on 21 September. I am supporting breast cancer and Martin is supporting Prostate cancer, so I'd love to encourage sponsorship on my Giving page (https://fundraise.cancerresearchuk.org/page/tanias-giving-page-37) for such a great cause. I've never walked 26 miles in one go - my largest distance so far is 18 miles, but I could stop for coffee and food then, so I'd better get started on my training soon!

What might surprise people to know about you?

People probably don't know that I'm a crafter - I like scrapbooking and photography and take unusual pictures everywhere I go (you'll see some of these when you're next my office for meeting)! As the owner of 2 unruly labradoodles and 5 unruly cats, I am also a bit of a cat woman to my husband's disgust! Finally, my fitness is important to me. I was ill last year at the same time as my cancer scare, and was pretty much sofa or bed bound for most of 2018. Now I am fully recovered, I try and work out for about 45 minutes a day, which includes about 200 sit-ups. What I eat is also really important to me, as I know that it will not only help my weight but also my motivation, concentration and my mental health. This is part of my motivation behind becoming one of the department’s Mental Health First Aiders, setting up the DPAG Wellbeing group and kick-starting mental health events throughout the academic year.