Dr Jenni Brooks is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Sheffield Hallam University, and Co-chair of SRA North
As a child what did you want to be when you grew up?
I don't remember feeling strongly about any particular career, although from an early age I wanted to go to university. No idea why, as nobody in my family had ever been, but I clearly had an idea it was a good thing to do. I loved project work at school - I remember we had to imagine we'd been snowed in, and spent several weeks creating menus, inventing games, writing letters to parents. I loved the sense of many small elements of work building to be part of an overall project. A bit like research really.
When did you first turn towards a social research career?
I loved my undergraduate degree (in sociology and environmental management at Keele University), and knew I wanted to study more. I almost applied for a PhD at the end of my degree, but I was wary of going straight from undergraduate to PhD in the same place without a break, and ended up doing voluntary conservation work and a succession of temporary jobs instead. I missed studying though, and a couple of years later started my PhD at the University of Sheffield.
What was your first professional job? And first project there?
My PhD was about environmental values and identity, but a part time job had given me a good understanding of the social care system, and I got a job as a Research Fellow at the Social Policy Research Unit (SPRU), University of York.
My first project was about what makes good social care support for people with very complex needs - one of the first projects funded by the newly established National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) School for Social Care Research. I stayed at SPRU for almost six years, working on a range of projects about the personalisation of social care. It was very different to my PhD but I loved the professional research atmosphere and sense of purpose. I learned a lot there.
Where did your career go next? What motivated that/those moves?
Like many contract researchers my job was dependent on research funding, and I also got to the point where I wanted more autonomy over my work instead of always working on other people's projects. I moved to a permanent post as Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Sheffield Hallam University - teaching was a shock to the system but actually I enjoy it far more than I thought I would. I teach qualitative research methods and the sociology of health, and I love to supervise student research projects, seeing them progress from the very early stages of 'I'm interested in…' to a fully-fledged dissertation in just a few months.
In terms of research, I have more opportunity to be involved in lots of different projects here. I have an ongoing project with colleagues at the University of York about workplace personal assistants for physically disabled people, but most of my other work is now around people living with dementia, and I've recently set up the Dementia Research Network here at Sheffield Hallam.
What has been your best professional moment?
Gosh that's a difficult question. The time I most recently cried happy tears was at graduation with students I'd taught from the start of their degree.
Possibly the time I got to the end of a dreadful four hour journey to a fieldwork site, only to find the person I'd been liaising with was off sick and their replacement wouldn't let me in. I wasn't crying happy tears that day.
But more seriously my first couple of years of teaching were hard, and I did sometimes feel quite overwhelmed during that time. But in a way I'm glad I was still in a 'research mindset'. My current department are supportive of research, but when you're in a teaching-focused university and new to a teaching role, it can be hard to fit everything in.
Do you have a social research hero/heroine?
I wouldn't want to name one. I try to learn something from everyone I work with.
Do you have a favourite quote?
What would you say to encourage a young person today considering a social research career?
Pay attention. There is always something to learn from the people you work with (even if it's just how not to be like them). Try job shadowing to get a feel for what different research roles are like. Take part in research yourself to see what it's like on the other side of the fence. Ask people about how they got where they are - you can never predict where your career will go.