Sixty Seconds with Catherine Swales
Catherine Swales is Director of Clinical Studies (DCS) in the Medical School, where she is responsible for the operational leadership of the Oxford clinical medicine course. She talks about the diversity of her role, the importance of supportive mentors and why she quite fancies swapping her office for the International Space Station!
Please can you tell us a little about yourself, and what attracted you to this position?
I’ve been an Oxford lass since 1997 when I moved here from UCL for my undergraduate clinical training. Since then I’ve only been away for a couple of years for my SHO rotation – now called CMT/IMT – in Nottingham. When I returned as a Clinical Lecturer in Rheumatology I took over the teaching and developed a new course….and I guess the rest all emerged from there. I’ve always loved teaching, and watching the students evolve into doctors (and marvelled at the different ways they do it); I was an Associate Director for a few years before the DCS post became available, and although on one level it seemed a natural progression and opportunity to develop plans across the School, it’s still been a bit of a leap.
Tell us a bit about your team
I have a brilliant team, which is so important and I’d be lost without them. Although every member has a specific role in which they take main responsibility, there’s a lot of collaboration, general wisdom and corporate memory around, which really makes us much more than the sum of our parts. The Associate Directors (Helena McNally, Lois Brand, Tim Littlewood and Ashok Handa) are very experienced and committed, and really student-facing. They’re also very good at sense-checking and would definitely (but tactfully) say if I was planning something daft. The Admin team (Laura Morgan, Dinah Trowbridge, Lucy Bradley, Carolyn Cook and Angela Knight - to name but a few) are excellent at keeping us on track and target. They’ve been particularly patient with me – even ‘growing up’ in Oxford and being used to its foibles and nuances, there’s still a lot about the system that you need help to navigate.
What is a typical day like for you?
There’s no such thing as a typical day - or indeed a typical week, my role is very diverse and a lot of plates spin at the same time. I’ve only been in post since July, but I’m already struck by the varifocal lens you need to take on this kind of role; one minute you may be planning large scale strategic directions for the School, with collaboration across or between Divisions on timelines of several years, and then suddenly a student comes to see you in real difficulty, and that needs a completely different form of immediate attention and nitty-gritty thought. Being able to switch from one mode to the other (and back again) is something I’m learning pretty quickly. There are definite points that are always the same though, which do lend structure – I’m in clinic all day on Wednesday and teach all day Friday afternoons. Always good to end the week on a high note!
How did you get to where you are today?
I hadn’t really thought about medical education as a major role for me until I got my Clinical Lectureship in 2003. It was then that found a new home in training students at all stages, and it was more of a natural fit than research. I just developed opportunities as they arose, whether as Clinical Lecturer, Course Director for a 5th Clinical Year Module or Associate Director, and the role and experience expanded. I can't take much of the credit though - if any. Luck and timing plays its part in any career, but I was especially fortunate to have fabulous mentor around me who supported and inspired me. Andy Carr (my HoD at NDORMS) has been amazing at helping me right from the very beginning, and my DCS predecessors (both Tim Lancaster and Tim Littlewood) made sure that I was going in the right direction and making good decisions. I learnt more from them than I thought it was possible not to know.
What do you like to do to relax?
I think I’m pretty relaxed anyway – I live by the adage “If you love your job you’ll never have to work a day in your life”, but spending time with my family is awesome. Doing absolutely anything or nothing in particular just makes me so very happy. My boys usually have matches on weekends, so sometimes I’m a sidelines-mum (although I must confess rugby still scares the hell out of me), and a lot of food and good movies feature quite highly. On Sundays I volunteer for the Oxford Food Bank – which might not seem terribly relaxing, and it is hard work, but I’ve met such inspiring people and it’s very grounding.
If you weren't Director of Clinical Studies, what would you like to be doing?
In an ideal world (for me, if not everyone else) I’d be a stage actress or a conductor, something artistic and instantaneous. Although after Tim Peake’s exploits, I did think it’d be pretty cool to be an astronaut…