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The Key to Professional Growth — Keep Learning

An Interview with Orla Bannon by Georgia Thompson

Orla Bannon is the current director of Trinity’s Careers Service, but before embarking on her professional path, she was a biochemistry student in Trinity. She absolutely loved biochemistry and nearly accepted an opportunity to do a PhD, but decided she was really looking for something different. Orla graduated in 1995; she finished her exams on a Friday and started work on a Monday. You’ll find this is characteristic of her dedication to all of her positions since.

Her first job out of college was in a small startup where Orla was the third hire. They were publishing scientific journals online, which was quite a novel idea in 1995. She started in operations and was very rapidly promoted to a management role and became operations director within six months. This was a bit of a trial by fire, but a fantastic opportunity to learn. Orla was soon overseeing a team of seasoned editors. The key to stepping into this role she says, was respect. The people she was now in charge of had been in publishing for 30 years. They had the expertise, that wasn’t what they needed from her; they needed management. Orla’s respect for their skills was crucial to their respect for her. She says this is true no matter where you are: have respect for what people do and be kind.

In 2001, Orla made the decision to move from the private sector to the public sector. She entered the Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC) as corporate director. As with her first job, the HPSC was in its early days. Though the work was different, Orla was able to leverage her experience in building teams. She greatly enjoyed working on policy and developing projects with hospitals and public health teams both nationally and internationally.

In 2013, Orla again moved on, this time into the Trinity ecosystem as the manager of the medical school. In many ways this was a perfect transition. Over her time with the HPSC she had built up relationships with hospitals and these she carried over into her work with Trinity’s medical and allied health programmes.

In 2017 Orla entered her current role as director of Trinity’s Careers Service. When discussing why she applied for this job, Orla spoke about seeing the job spec initially and feeling like she only ticked 6 of the 10 boxes, but for her this was not a deterrent. The key, she says, is to break down what they’re asking for into essential and desirable. Then ask yourself, do you fulfil the essential criteria? Beyond that, what else do you bring to the table? Everyone’s experience is different, so what about your own is applicable? She was attracted to the position because of the impact she knew a strong careers service could have for students. She and her team work with companies to facilitate events and offer job opportunities meaning she’s often the first person a company speaks to, and who better than a Trinity graduate to represent the college to employers? She is also continuously motivated by the team she works with. Throughout her career, Orla has always felt it is crucial to support and train the people around her. Building a strong team is key to good results. Growth has always been an important metric to her, so the careers team always takes the time to evaluate; what are we doing, how have we done well, and what could we do better?

There are two things that have driven Orla’s professional progression over the years: the desire to keep learning, and the desire to constantly be challenged. When she felt that one or both of those requirements were no longer being met, it was time for something new. In addition to learning through her professional capacities, Orla kept studying throughout her early career; completing part-time courses in management, HR, an MBA, and an accountancy program. As her responsibilities changed over the years, she thought about what she needed to know to do her job well and continued part-time study to support her professional growth.

Though she chose not to pursue academia, there are also a number of skills Orla carried from her Science Degree. These are things that are applicable in any position. The first is analytical problem solving; the ability to approach an issue with a plan rooted in evidence-based analysis. Think of everything like an experiment; what’s the background, what are you trying to figure out? What tools do you have at your disposal, what are your methods and materials? Develop your protocol, carry out your solution, then the most important step: analyze the results. What worked, what didn’t, and why? What would you change? We know this as the scientific process, but at the heart of it, it’s problem solving. Being able to then explain your data is crucial. Strong communication skills are desirable in every job. Finally, there’s the natural curiosity that drives so many of us to study Science in the first place. This, Orla says, is a key trait that employers look for. The ability to question spurs unique solutions and innovation. The best way to convey curiosity is in the things you do beyond what is required. This could mean societies you get involved in, activities outside college, or asking an additional question while developing your thesis. Whatever it is, curiosity is in high demand.

Beyond the skills we learn through Science degrees, Orla had some general advice for everyone. The first is keep your CV up to date, even if you’re not looking for a new job and not planning on it anytime soon. It acts as a record of all of your accomplishments and it’s an excellent exercise to remind yourself of how far you’ve come and how much you have to offer. It also means that when you do come across a job that you’d like to go for, you aren’t wracking your brain trying to remember every relevant detail since you last applied for a job. She also advises to take a little time to think at the beginning of your career of where you’d like to be location wise; do you want a position that lets you travel? Or one that lets you live abroad? Would you prefer to mostly be in your home country? What are you hoping to get out of your job? You’ll probably be most satisfied if you feel like the job you do aligns with your values. Not everything out there is in industry. If industry isn’t something you want, look to non-profits or the public sector. Keep an eye out for career spotlight events which will be run by the Careers Service in the second semester including Careers for Good, and Careers for Public Impact. Also be sure to check out the tools available on the Careers website (www.tcd.ie/careers) and on MyCareer, Trinity’s online careers portal, including info on careers fairs and events, job search advice, to book appointments with the careers team, mentoring, and award opportunities. Remember that what you do with your career is up to you. You can take it any direction you’d like, but it’s important to understand your values. Evaluate what you’re looking for and what you can do to get yourself there. But when the time comes, don’t be afraid to reevaluate and take the step towards something new with confidence.

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