Episode 20: Finding your vocation – with Sarah Turner

Sarah Turner explains why, in her 30s, she decided to switch from event management to nursing and how she found her calling.

Today’s guest

Sarah Turner, community nurse

Website: The NHS

Sarah Turner started out at secretarial college aged 18 before moving into event management.  But it was after an open day at the Open University that she eventually decided to train and qualify as a nurse and found her calling.

What you’ll learn in this episode

  • The importance of finding out what else is out there
  • Why it’s worth asking the question, even if you think the answer might be “no”
  • You’ve always got life skills that will stand you in good stead, even if you don’t have formal qualifications
  • If other people have done it, why can’t you?

Resources mentioned in this episode

Please note that some of these are affiliate links and we may get a small commission in the event that you make a purchase.  This helps us to cover our expenses and is at no additional cost to you.

To see the resources recommended by all our guests, visit the Resources page.

Episode 20: Finding your vocation - with Sarah Turner

Jeremy Cline
A phrase I came across relatively recently was 'you miss all the shots that you don't take'. Well, my guest this week took the shot, even though academically she didn't think she had what was required. And boy has she succeeded. I'm Jeremy Cline and this is Change Work Life.

Hello, and welcome to the Change Work Life podcast where we're all about beating the Sunday evening blues and enjoying Mondays again. This week's guest is Sarah Turner, who became somewhat disillusioned with the corporate world, and on the advice of friends and family gave nursing a go, even though she thought she didn't have the qualifications necessary to start a nursing degree. Let's listen to her story. Hi, Sarah, welcome to the show.

Sarah Turner
Hello, thank you.

Jeremy Cline
So Sarah, why don't you start by introducing yourself and telling us a bit about what it is you do?

Sarah Turner
My name is Sarah, and I am currently a community nursing sister locally. I'm currently studying full time - I'm a student at the moment - I'm actually studying for the district nursing qualification at uni, and obviously working on placement as well. I've been a nurse for 11 years now, I qualified just exactly 11 years ago. Originally I was a staff nurse on a ward and I've been a community nurse for seven years, and I became a sister three years ago exactly.

Jeremy Cline
And this is your second career. Is that right?

Sarah Turner
It's my second career, that's correct. Yes, yes. I went to secretarial college when I was 18 in London, and I did shorthand and typing - which is really a thing of the past now! - and I became a secretary and I worked in various places in London, and then I came back and worked locally for an off-licence company - worked in the head office, and then I got into event management a lot through working for that company and I did that really for about 17 years, and worked in marketing a bit in London, again doing event management, and then came back locally again, and worked in a company locally. And that's kind of what I ended up sort of finishing doing the secretarial work and event management as well.

Jeremy Cline
And so before we talk about how you actually got into nursing, how did you start off as a secretary? And then how did that transition to event management and that sort of thing?

Sarah Turner
So as I said I went to secretarial college in London, and just did shorthand and typing. And I think being a young 18 year old you think oh you want to work in London and work in all these great big places. So I just wrote to various different companies, one being Hilton Hotels - I thought it might be quite nice to work in a hotel - and I worked there for a bit. Actually I hated it, I have to say! I didn't like working in London, didn't like working in the Hilton Hotel. And then I came back and worked locally. I did a bit of temping - because I didn't really know then where I wanted to work and what I wanted to do - then got offered a job in an off-licence company locally. And I worked there for about 10 years. I worked for a lot of area sales managers and kind of worked my way up through being a secretary then being a PA to a couple of operations managers. And being that type of company there was always a lot of events going on - a lot of conferences - it was very, very social. You know, they took us on a lot of social events and a lot of conferences, that type of thing. And I guess I just kind of progressed from there, I just got more and more into it and I guess I enjoyed it, had a bit of flair for it. And it kind of went from there and then I kind of felt - I'd worked there for about 10 years - it was retail and I felt I'd done everything that I wanted to do, and then I thought about going back to work in London again because I'd worked in London before and where I lived at the time was very convenient for the train station. So I looked for a job in London and I worked in London in a marketing department - did a lot of events there. But as with everything, you know, budgets were cut and things change. And then I basically became really like an audio secretary, and obviously got a bit disillusioned with it because I just felt I was sitting with headphones in my ears all day just typing a load of letters, which obviously, you know, from what I'd done I wasn't really using my skills that I felt I'd kind of built up over the years.

Jeremy Cline
Why aged 18 did you decide to become a secretary in the first place?

Sarah Turner
I think probably from my mum. It was kind of something we did at school. I mean I'm 50, so when I was 14 at school - which is 1983 - everyone went and did typing classes, so I did typing from the age of 14. My mum was a secretary, there was a typewriter at home... And I suppose it just kind of manifested there. And I used to go and work in my dad's office as well - when his secretary was on holiday I used to go and do a bit of practice in the summer - and it just kind of went from there. And I enjoyed it, I felt that I had a bit of a flair for it and quite liked being organised and what have you. So it just kind of went from there really.

Jeremy Cline
And fast forwarding back to the other end - so you said that you'd done a lot of event management and that sort of thing, but then got a job which was rather more limited. Talk a bit about why you went for a complete change rather than looking for a role that was more than what you'd been doing previously?

Sarah Turner
Okay. Well, I did think about a complete change because I happened to see advertised - where is was advertised I can't remember - but it was Open University, and the Open University do events at the weekends where you can go to one of their events, and you could do taster sessions for an hour for different modules that they do. And I thought, oh that sounds quite interesting - might be something worth considering, doesn't cost anything. So I went to one in Peterborough and you just sign up for different sessions that you think you might be interested in. So one of them was about care and social care, and I really enjoyed it. So it literally was like a lesson for an hour, so things that you would do, you know, if you were in working that module, so I went to this event and it was an all day event and you can obviously chat to all the teachers and the tutors, and they have all their information packs and books that you would have to read and assignments that you'd have to do. And I really enjoyed it, I felt really enthused by it when I came home. And it's obviously something you do in your own time where you're still working full time. So I signed up, and I did a certificate in social science, which I think was about a nine-month course which also involves in the evenings going to, I think it was in St Alban's College that I went to for two-hour lessons, and I loved it - absolutely loved it. It's all remote learning, and you get a tutor that you can phone. But I think from just doing that - because I just did it off my own back - it really made me think that, oh, maybe I could do something. And actually, I was in a position where I could do something - I was living at home, I didn't have children - I didn't have that responsibility that, you know, some people might find it harder. So that's why I signed up, to do this nine month module, and then it kind of went from there that I thought you know, maybe I could do something completely different - but I didn't know what at the time.

Jeremy Cline
What were your expectations when you first went along to the Open University thing. Even before that, what caused you to go to it in the first place?

Sarah Turner
I think maybe just to give me a bit of an an eye-opener and sort of an idea of actually what could I do with maybe the skills that I've got and the stuff that I've learned. But actually, I felt that maybe I've got skills that I'm not using. And I know it sounds really cheesy but I wanted to do something more people orientated, that I could do something and make a difference - but I didn't know what I could do, I didn't know what my options were. I must have been then about 31, 32. And I thought, it doesn't cost anything - go along, do a few taster sessions and actually see, have I got the brains to do it? At school I was told that I wasn't academic, I couldn't go to university, I didn't do A-levels. So for me, it was really actually particularly during these taster sessions - actually would I understand it, could I do it? And you know, and that is the great thing with Open University. You don't have to have A-levels to get on this course - you can just sign up and do it.

Jeremy Cline
What other taster sessions did you do out of curiosity?

Sarah Turner
It was a social care one that I did and it was also the social science one from the certificate that I actually did the nine month course in. I think I might have done another one. But to be honest, I can't remember it was such a long time ago - it might have been something like environment or something...

Jeremy Cline
Okay, so you found that you really enjoyed the the social science and did the diploma in social care. So how did that then morph into nursing?

Sarah Turner
Well, funnily enough it was actually people at work that said to me, Sarah, you should be a nurse. People that I worked for when I was a secretary. I was on the phone to my sister one day who was having a terrible panic attack - she used to have them quite a lot - and she phoned me up and people came up to me and said, Gosh, you were really good, you really handled that situation - it was obviously a really difficult situation - why have you never looked into nursing? And from doing that course, it was kind of one thing that registered with me - maybe I should think about this - but I hadn't really looked into it. But I think as people started saying it to me, I suppose it kind of manifested that well actually, maybe I should look into it a bit more seriously. And I think also, I wanted to see whether I could actually study as well. And from doing that course it made me realise that actually, I really enjoyed doing that. It was hard, it wasn't easy - you're writing assignments every six weeks in your own time and you know, at that sort of age you want to go out with your mates and have a good time and you've got deadlines and what have you. But it made me think that yes, I could do something. And then when people started saying to me - and I had thought about nursing, but because it's a three year degree I wasn't too sure if I'd get the qualifications to get into the course, which actually I didn't have the qualifications to get onto the course, because you needed A-levels - so when somebody said to me, you know, what about this? and I had started thinking about it anyway - I just phoned them up one day - because I literally lived like a 10 minute walk from the uni - and said I've got this certificate in social science, but I presume I'd need an access course, I haven't got any A-levels, and they were like, don't do the access course, you don't need A-levels, you've done Open University, you'll just need to come for an interview. And you've got 10 days to apply, basically! Which was actually was great, because I just did it, you know. You can talk yourself out of it. And you think, oh, that's the set criteria, you've got to have this to do that. But actually, it's not always the case.

Jeremy Cline
Where did that come from? Where did you pick up that you needed, the A-levels, the access course, all that sort of thing?

Sarah Turner
I looked online. I looked online for Hertfordshire - I live right by there. And I also ordered a pack as well. Its probably all online now, but there was a pack about you know, nursing which I think was from the Royal College of Nursing, all about how to get into nursing, how to become a nurse, qualification that you would need. When I did it, it was diploma or degree - it's degree only now. So you needed I think, to have three A-levels or you need to do the access course. So that's why I phoned them up because I thought, well, you know, I haven't got that. And actually, I was very, very lucky because it was a summertime, I spoke to one of the tutors - I got through immediately - and she said, although you haven't got the A-Levels and you haven't got an access course, you've actually got life skills that the youngsters won't have. You know, I dealt a lot in retail, I dealt with complaints, there were people of all different hierarchies, and they said you've got life skills that the younger crew won't necessarily have. So, you know, it's not all just about having your exams and you know, what have you. And that obviously helped doing Open University because I could show them my assignments - I had to show my assignments I'd done as well, because they wanted to see that I could actually write in English, and I had to be interviewed whereas I think, if you're eighteen you don't have to be interviewed to go to uni.

Jeremy Cline
So that's really interesting. And you must have been reasonably determined to explore it, but more thoroughly than just being put off by what was in the literature then, to phone them up and say well, hang on a minute - just on the off chance, this is what I've got?

Sarah Turner
Yeah, definitely. And I think I felt really enthused when I started reading about it. And actually, nursing can give you a massive career. Something that I didn't realise - I've never really had to access the NHS myself - but actually, there's a whole wealth of stuff out there that you can do and people do you know, and I think people just think, Oh, it's in a hospital, looking after patients - there's so many avenues you can go down. So when I got that pack through it made me feel really enthusiastic about it. And then I started talking to a couple of people that I knew that were nurses, my mum's friends. And they said to me look into it, don't just be put off by that. And that's why I thought, well, I'll just phone the university - what is the worst case scenario, is they say, No, you have to go into the access course for a year, which wouldn't be the end of the world. It's only a year, isn't it?

Jeremy Cline
Especially today, but I'm sure even 10 years ago, nursing is one of those professions which my view is it's as essential as anything. I applaud anyone who wants to go down that route. But it also strikes me as being unbelievably hard and not terribly well rewarded, or at least not financially, and I don't think that was different 10 years ago as it is now.

Sarah Turner
No, you're absolutely right.

Jeremy Cline
Did that put you off? Or why didn't it put you off?

Sarah Turner
No, it didn't put me off at all to be honest with you. I mean I owned a property so I had a mortgage, but I only had a very small mortgage, and I kind of thought Right, if I'm going to do this, you need to do it now. And from looking into it, I didn't realise that the NHS paid for your university fees, so I didn't have to pay any fees for my degree and that you also got a bursary as well. And also being over 30, I got more of a bursary as well. Which obviously were things that I didn't know until I started, you know, looking into it and then I realised that actually I think I could do this - it is doable. Unfortunately they don't do the bursary now, which is is a real shame because it's obviously putting off a lot of people. I realised that when I came out of uni, hopefully I wouldn't be in debt like a lot of people are these days because, you know, like you say, you're not financially rewarded massively well. But actually, I think from my salary from coming out from university and starting my nursing, there wasn't much difference to what I ended up earning, you know, before I did it. Because I'd gone back and worked locally, and luckily, only had a small mortgage, which obviously helped.

Jeremy Cline
And so what doubts did you have along the way?

Sarah Turner
Whether I could do it, you know, whether I was academic enough to do it. Things like, you know, you'd go on placements, you'd go and work in hospitals. I'd never worked in the public sector before. I didn't know anything about the NHS. I didn't know anything about health, diseases. I'd only ever worked in an office. Completely different ballgame. And doing shift work as well, you know, suddenly you're doing earlies, you're doing lates, you're doing night shifts. And as well as doing that you're studying as well. So I was kind of like you know - could I do this? And the other thing I remember being worried about - and when I phoned up the uni I asked them - I know it sounds awful! - would it all be 18 year olds and me? At the time I was 36. I think it's important, you need study buddies, you need people to help you, to support you. You know, are they all going to be... and there were some you know, they've left home, they're going out on a night out. You know, having things in common with these people that you're going to study with every day. But actually apparently the average age of a nurse as a nursing student is about 30, so that was never an issue.

Jeremy Cline
And so the the internal fears that you had - were you're going to be academic enough, were you going to be able to cope with the shiftwork, the working nights - all that sort of thing. How did you address those internally? How did you not let them put you off?

Sarah Turner
I just said to myself, Sarah, loads of people do it. If somebody else can do it, why can't I do it? And you know, I've got a lot of people around me that can probably help me and support me. And the university seemed like they had a lot of support there as well for people. Obviously I didn't know anybody that was going to do the course and I just thought it was really important to get to know people and get study buddies. And I think it's a case of you don't know till you try. You could talk yourself out of these things, but if you really want to do something, you know, you will just get on and do it. You can sit down and say what about this, what about that? I wrote down pros and cons of doing this. And actually felt that kind of the pros outweighed the cons. It's something I felt really passionate about, I really wanted to do it. So what is the worst case scenario? I can't, I don't do it, I don't qualify. I give it up. I go back and be a secretary. That's the worst case scenario.

Jeremy Cline
And what were some of the pros on your list?

Sarah Turner
The pros on the list were things like, you know, career progression, and satisfaction, using skills that I felt that I had that I didn't use in the other places necessarily that I worked. I'm a very people person, very people orientated. I'm a very caring person. Particularly the last company I worked at was very corporate - it was very, you know, everyone sort of out for themselves - and it just wasn't me. You know I wasn't really interested that we'd win a contract and get this and get that. I didn't feel passionate about that. I felt passionate about I want to do something and make a difference. So I think I just kind of kept saying that to myself, that this is what I want to do, and I feel I've got a passion for it. And the more I looked into it, and spoke to my mum's friends and people that had been nurses that actually, what actually is out there? Avenues that it can lead you down? I had absolutely no idea.

Jeremy Cline
Is there any part of you that wishes you'd done this sooner?

Sarah Turner
Yes, definitely. Yeah, massively. But I don't know if at the age of 18 I would have had the confidence to do something like that now. Because sometimes it is quite scary. You know, nursing people that are dying, having tough, difficult conversations with people, doing quite sometimes quite traumatic things, and quite intimate personal things to people. And I don't know if I could have done that - I was very shy when I was much younger, I'm not now, but I don't think I would have had the confidence to have done it. I do wish I had, because when I talk to people my age that have been nursing since a young age, I feel they've got a wealth of experience. And I feel like I'm a bit of a child, because I obviously haven't worked in all the places that other people necessarily worked and got the experience. So yes, I do wish I'd done it when I was younger. I guess better to have done it then never at all. You can say, Oh, I wish I'd done this. I wish I'd done that. And, you know, maybe I wouldn't have been so good at it when I was 18 - you just don't know, do you?

Jeremy Cline
Its that old Chinese proverb - the best time to plant a tree is 10 years ago, the second best time is now!

Sarah Turner
Absolutely, absolutely. Yeah, definitely. And it can be like financial you know - your mates are all going out, you're not going out - that's hard as well. Because there's times where you say no, I can't come out, I'm studying, I'm doing an exam. So I had all that to think about as well. But I have to say my friends were fantastic - really, really supportive. And you know it's not forever.

Jeremy Cline
Have there been times in the past 10 years where you've thought, No, actually, no, this isn't for me?

Sarah Turner
Never. Never felt it wasn't for me, no. Even though I'd never worked in that before. I think as soon as I did my first placement, which was about six weeks after I started uni, I felt really comfortable with it. And so I never felt no, I can't do this. I felt oh you know, it's difficult when you're doing an assignment, you don't understand what they're asking you, or the exams are difficult, or that question's difficult - because nursing isn't just sticking an injection in somebody. It's so much more legalities, bound under codes of conduct. There's a lot lots of stuff that goes with it. And so there were things that I found difficult but no I never felt no, I can't do this - no.

Jeremy Cline
And where do you think it'll take you?

Sarah Turner
Well, so my course I'm doing at the moment is, as I said, it's to be a district nurse, the official qualification and I've just done the prescribing as well. To be a nurse prescriber can take you anywhere and everywhere. Maybe that I would specialise in something one day, but I don't know what at the moment. Maybe more management one day, either in the office or maybe even a practice nurse, but I'm not entirely sure at the moment. But I do know that I still want to stay in the community at the moment. That's kind of my passion, as hard as it is - and it is not an easy job because they're chucking everything into the community from hospitals. But it's what I feel really passionate about and you know, I've done this course over the last year, which I absolutely loved - again, it's been really, really hard. So that is where my passion lies at the moment. But maybe, you know, specialise something in the community so like a diabetic nurse or palliative care nurse - that's what you can go on and do.

Jeremy Cline
And how long do you think you will stay in nursing?

Sarah Turner
Hopefully forever! Hopefully until I retire, who knows? I mean, they keep putting the retirement age up, don't they? I can't see myself doing anything else now. The thought of working in office, it just fills me with dread to be honest with you. I like being out and about, I love seeing different people. Every day is a different day, you just don't know what you're going to come up against. And you know, there's challenges out there - it's not easy, because people are living longer and people have got more complex conditions for you to deal with. So there's new challenges all the time. So I can't really see myself doing anything else to be honest with you.

Jeremy Cline
That's fantastic. I've got to ask, do you ever feel like... how can I express this... in any kind of public service job, I get the impression that there is a certain amount of being at the whims of the politicians. And certainly teachers get this because the curriculums get changed every 10 minutes, and every new government that comes in seems to want to put a stamp on it. Education is obviously a very big topic here in the UK. Health and the NHS is another one. Is that something that you're aware of in your day to day or do you just block it out? Or is it actually not as bad - the politicians don't really interfere with your day to day life too much?

Sarah Turner
I mean, no, they don't really day to day, but I think actually from doing this course, because one of the modules we have to do is learn more about policy and, you know, also the NHS England and the hierarchy and how it comes down where the money goes, so I think it's made me much more aware of policies and why things happen. And I wouldn't necessarily say I think about them on a day to day basis, but a lot of it you think 'oh that's because of money' or 'that's changing, it's all to do with money' or, you know, they're doing this and it's because of this so I feel much more aware now of why things happen sometimes - not that it's necessarily for the right reasons. And I feel much more aware of what my hierarchy - so my management - what they have to deal with and why they have to do it. And a lot of it now is all about auditing, reporting, that you're showing that you can do this and you can do that because it's all about keeping like the CCGs happy that they because they commission us which is Clinical Commissioning Groups. They make the decisions for us nurses, they basically employ us so you know, you have to keep them happy. So I've got that bit more in the back of my mind that, you know, this that would be a good idea but no, you can't do that because they wouldn't agree with that. So I think that's a bit more in my head, but not so much the politicians - sometimes maybe, but not always. Yeah.

Jeremy Cline
That's good to hear.

Sarah Turner
I don't drive around thinking of, you know, Jeremy Hunt or whatever, you know.

Jeremy Cline
Yes, of course, because he was Health Secretary for a while.

Sarah Turner
That's right he was yes. And he wasn't well-liked at all when he was Health Secretary, no.

Jeremy Cline
Sarah, this has been an inspiring story actually.

Sarah Turner
Has it? Oh good!

Jeremy Cline
You described how you've really found your calling. Is there any particular help that you've had on the way, be it either external coaching or any kind of courses or any resources which people might find useful? Just something which helped you on your way?

Sarah Turner
Definitely the Open University. It's a fantastic resource, it's really well organised. I think that gave me the motivation to think actually 'I can do this'. That really, really helped me. And actually just various people that I knew, friends - they sort of got into careers just by 'I really like this, I'm going to try' and they kind of mentored me. They weren't necessarily people that gone to university and done degrees and all the rest of it, but they wanted to do something and they were really passionate about it, and I suppose instilled that bit in me that if you really want to do something, you know, you will go out and find a way - even just like financially find a way. And probably just the resource of when I, you know, sort of got all my stuff from the RCN, finding out about nursing. And then just phoning the university. The lecturer at the university - she really was 'Apply, I'm sure you'll get on the course' - she was really inspirational. And I was very, very lucky - because often you won't be able to speak to a lecturer when you phone a university because they're either, you know, lecturing or you know, off campus - so I was incredibly lucky that I actually spoke to somebody that taught the course.

Jeremy Cline
Well, good luck. Good luck and Sarah thank you so much for joining me.

Sarah Turner
Oh, no problem. My pleasure. Thank you, Jeremy.

Jeremy Cline
There's two things I love about Sarah's story. One is her passion. She's really found her vocation in one of what must be one of the most unimaginably hard jobs out there. She's been building up her qualifications. She's advancing herself. It's clearly her calling and that's absolutely wonderful. The other thing is the fact that she went for it. Though she didn't have the qualifications necessary to start a nursing degree, she phoned up anyway and asked the question, and she got in. And she was also told during that conversation that her life skills would help, which I think a lot of us forget. But it's worth remembering that any job that we've been doing for any number of years, we're going to pick up transferable skills. And those are going to be really useful elsewhere, sometimes in places where we just don't imagine that they will help. Show Notes for this episode are at changeworklife.com/20. Also, did you know that there's a resources page on the website? The guests I've had have been really brilliant in recommending some books, some websites, their favourite quotes, and so on. And if you'd like to find a complete list of all the resources they've recommended, do have a look at changeworklife.com/resources. Also, if you haven't joined the changeworklife Facebook group yet, well, what's keeping you? Take a look at changeworklife.com/Facebook, you'll find it's a great, friendly community. Just ask whatever career related questions you might have. We've got another great interview to come. So hit subscribe and I look forward to seeing you in next week's episode. Cheers. Bye

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