Department of Population Health Sciences, King's College London

Interview with Dr Maria Kordowicz, Course Lead – Public Health MSc

Dr Maria Kordowicz is an experienced lecturer in health and social care management and delivery. She is Course Lead on the Public Health MSc, responsible for student’s academic experience and support. Maria is multi-talented (she is a Chartered Psychologist, Principal Practitioner of the Association for Business Psychology, Full Member of the British Psychological Society’s Division for Teachers and Researchers in Psychology, Fellow of the Chartered Management Institute and a member of Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Services Research Network… to name just a few!) and has spent over a decade managing NHS programmes, projects and services. She also leads an advanced module on the MSc, Leadership and Management in Organisations.

Colleague and Course Administrator Benjamin Buckley sat down to interview her for the launch of her module…

Dr Maria Kordowicz

Dr Maria Kordowicz

Hi Maria, thanks for agreeing to this somewhat awkward interview considering we work so closely together!
Ha! Yes a little. You’re very welcome Ben.

OK so now that’s aside, I wanted to ask you some questions that I hope will convey who you are and what you’ve done, in a way that would be meaningful to students on the course.
Great, please do.

What does your day to day job entail?
My job is very varied, intellectually stimulating, full of interactions with people I deeply respect and am inspired by, and luckily no day is the same. I work at King’s as a health services researcher and am a social scientist. I study healthcare organisations ethnographically and this means that I get to observe healthcare teams in a wide range of settings to study whether what they do is effective and why. Though I am a Chartered Psychologist, I also apply understandings from the fields of medical sociology and management to my academic work. I value the opportunity to be an inter-disciplinary scholar, as I feel that academic disciplines have lots to learn for each other to enhance our knowledge of the world around us. Academic archipelagos are an outdated concept in my view. I also do a lot of teaching. It is a passion of mine and I am lucky enough to be course lead for the MSc in Public Health and lead several modules at undergraduate and postgraduate levels in the fields of management, medical sociology and social policy. Outside of King’s, I am a Visiting Lecturer in Health and Business Psychology at the University of Westminster (in the same department where I completed my first degree), Visiting Lecturer in Health Management at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and Associate Lecturer at Birkbeck College in Operations Management. I also teach pure business and management degree level courses in partner organisations of Roehampton, Ulster and Middlesex Universities. Being able to dip in and out of a range of higher education institutions means that I continue to teach a broad range of students and keep my teaching skills adaptable and current. As academics, yes our research can make a difference, but teaching is where we can really change lives. Nobody forgets an inspirational teacher. Lastly, I continue with some management and research consulting as part of my private business. I have been a business owner for the past 15 years and though it is now a small sideline, I still feel very lucky to be able to take on client projects which are wide-ranging and stimulating, helping me maintain links with industry. For instance, I recently finished some work looking at improving prisons and probation settings on behalf of the Royal College of Psychiatrists and Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation, which was closely aligned to my own professional and personal values. I am about to embark on providing coaching services to health service researchers nationally, as well as providing advice on large scale health service change for another influential programme of work. I have also provided organisational and people development input to private sector companies outside of the remit of health and social care and I value the opportunity to be able to work across different organisational cultures.

How did you end up becoming a university academic?
I think to answer that I ought to give you a brief overview of my career trajectory so far. Academia is really my fourth “career”. I went to university late, having worked as a manager in retail. My last retail job was as a regional manager for a major accessories retailer. Retail management formed the foundations of my managerial skills. I even had a brief stint as an estate agent! From there, I began working as a nursing assistant in general practice when undertaking my first degree in Psychology. When I graduated, I worked as an Assistant Clinical Psychologist. Here, I realised that though I was passionate about clinical work, I felt fulfilled when playing a strategic management role. From then on, I studied Mental Health and Public Policy and Management for my masters’ degrees, whilst working in forensic secure settings and prisons in health management positions. I also worked for private healthcare providers as a senior manager, then as an interim senior healthcare manager for several years across a broad range of settings, where typically contracts consisted of “turning around” ailing teams and departments in health and social care, as well as leading services, projects and programmes. My last assignments consisted of staff restructures (in essence – letting people go) and I found this increasingly demoralising. This coincided with a policy backdrop of austerity politics and I began to feel like an implementation tool for poor policy decisions. I had been working towards a PhD for several years at King’s and when I was close to finishing, I was successful in gaining a research position at King’s working alongside my former PhD supervisor, Dr Mark Ashworth. I have always felt very happy at King’s, a sense of belonging, and I jumped at the chance to at least temporarily no longer work operationally within services, but to be able to observe and study their dynamics and processes. I do feel that my previous career really gives me the insight, language and understanding for my work now. It’s probably no surprise that academia is where I have ended up. All four of my grandparents worked in education. My paternal grandmother was a Professor of Philosophy before and during the second World War in Vilnius, her husband a teacher and youth activist. My maternal grandfather was Professor of Agricultural Engineering in Warsaw. My maternal grandmother was Director of Administration at the same university, which was at the end of the road I lived on during my early childhood in Warsaw, and she typed up doctoral theses on her manual typewriter (along with typed graphs even!) late into the night to supplement the family’s income. The memories of this are very ingrained, as is the care with which she spoke of “her” students. I should also say that before studying Psychology, I had a place to read German and Russian at university as I had dreams of a career in international diplomacy – but my German teacher said to me after I comforted her when she was upset “have you ever thought of studying psychology Maria?” and here we are. And I promise you I gained 98% in my German A-Level, so this wasn’t a strategic move on her part!

We’ve spoken before about your background but I never knew you were an estate agent! You’re a loss to the profession I think. So my next question is about semi-detached housing in Poland.
What would you like to know?

Ha! Back to being informative… Given your journey, why public health above all else?
My mother is a dual trained nurse and a psychotherapist. From a young age I was exposed to clinical settings when she would take me to work. My father is a radio DJ and broadcaster however, and I ended up at his workplace just as much, though do not have much by way of mixing skills! I have always wanted to make a positive difference to people’s lives. How we care for our sick reflects what we are like as a society. Equity of healthcare provision, and public free at the point of access healthcare provision at that, is something I feel very passionate about. Working in healthcare has meant that I have been faced with moral dilemmas, human suffering, human joys – there is no other discipline in my mind where you experience humanity at its most vulnerable, where you can truly absorb yourself in the meanings of this brief wonderful life that we have.

In what areas would you like to further develop yourself?
I would like to grow in my confidence and assertiveness. I admire those who are more senior in their careers and are very good at protecting their time and not saying “yes” to everything. I am learning to be more selective in the work I take on. I also need to learn to shift my writing procrastination, which is not serving my academic career progression. It is definitely a case of “publish or perish” and I am currently reading ‘Daily Rituals: How Great Minds Make Time, Find Inspiration and Get to Work’ by Mason Currey for motivation, though this is probably a procrastination exercise in itself! I am in a wonderful position of being able to be more selective with the consultancy work I take on. When I first started my business, I took on anything that came my way and learned as I went along, working hard to deliver the best possible product to my clients. It was a steep, but very worthwhile learning curve. Now, I primarily take on contracts where I can add societal value and help improve the lives of others, especially those who are vulnerable, even if indirectly. I love providing workshops to uplift demoralised teams for instance, and those are the types of contract I have coming my way, which I am very pleased about. I probably learn more from the teams I work with than they do from me!

What are you most proud of in your career?
Choosing a career which means I don’t have to compromise my role as a mother. I have been a single parent since my children were toddlers. One of the reasons why I entered academia is that it offers flexibility around my home life and means that I rarely miss assemblies, shows, school trips, I can be present to care for my children when they are unwell. To me motherhood is the most important role I’ll ever have to play and I have learned to be assertive to make sure I work flexibly. I am very lucky to have such an understanding compassionate boss who also deeply values family life. I hope that I have embarked on a career that will one day make my children proud.

What are your career ambitions?
To finally write that book! Watch this space.

What are the most interesting things that you do outside of work?
I recently became an Elected School Governor for a local primary school. It feels good to be able to use some of my strategic and budget management knowledge in the Board meetings and I hope I can support the school in continuing to provide the best educational and social experiences for its pupils. I am in the process of completing an interior design qualification and I had a property maintenance business for a while; we had a pool of around 20 maintenance men on our books and had contract with ten or so estate agencies locally. I learnt tremendous amounts, and though the business became profitable very quickly, I realised that I cannot physically have so many diverse business interests at this point in my career, and that academia and management consultancy demand my full attention if I am to make a mark, so I sold this business on. I also have two lovely dogs and a collection of around 20 wigs. I suffered from alopecia areata and was quite bald for a while so ended up with a wardrobe full of wonderful wigs. My hair has grown back for now, and I meditate almost daily to reduce the day’s stresses, but continue to wear wigs out for the fun of it.

Who is your inspiration? I think I know who you will say…
Yes, unsurprisingly it is my former PhD supervisor and now boss, Dr Mark Ashworth, who is Reader in Primary Care here at King’s. He is my greatest inspiration on so many levels. Mark retained compassion and person-centredness throughout his career as a local GP, remaining fully dedicated to his patients. He is now a full time academic and prolific in his research outputs, whilst retaining unbelievable skills in networking and openness to others. In the decade we have worked together, I have not heard him speak with anything other than optimism and an infectious joyful energy. He also has a beautiful family. The support he has given me has been unparalleled. I hope that I can emanate at least some of his professional and personal successes throughout my life.

Thanks Maria. So my final couple questions I hope will give students interested in developing along a similar path to you some initial steps. What were your most inspiring reads?
There are so many! ‘Siddhartha’ by Herman Hesse. I try to draw on Buddhist philosophy in how I conduct myself professionally and personally. Anything by Samuel Beckett – I find energy in nihilism (the “Beckett was anti-nihilist camp” may challenge me on this). Books by the Polish poet and novelist, women’s rights and Polish uprising activist Maria Konopnicka inspired me greatly as a child. I came to England from Poland aged eight just after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and I feel an empathy and longing when reading literature from the era of the Partition of Poland – 123 from the late 18th century. Much of it was written by the intelligentsia in exile, and I have retained a sense of sentimental patriotism for Poland, as much as I do also agree with Samuel Johnson’s “patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel” pronouncement! My wonderful late stepfather wrote poetry, often at times of depression, I revisit his poetry when I need a reminder about the beauty of life.

And lastly, any career advice for your students?
Get a mentor. Approach someone senior to you, whose career you greatly admire and ask them if they would consider being your mentor. Advice from someone you look up to, who will likely have more experience and an ability to reflect on the life course, really is invaluable. Remember that careers are not fixed, they can be unpredictable, embrace change and new opportunity and go with your gut instinct. If a role you are undertaking doesn’t sit right with your values or how you want your day to day life to be, make a change. Nobody else will make that change for you and you only have one life.

Thanks Maria, it’s been lovely!
Thank you Ben.

Maria Kordowicz (@MariaKordowicz) is a Chartered Psychologist and Health Services Researcher and has been lecturing for over a decade in aspects of health and social care management and delivery. She is the Course Leader for the Public Health MSc, leads its Leadership and Management module, leads the Management in Organisations module on the MPH, as well as supervising several self-selected MBBS components and projects at the Faculty of Life Science and Medicine.

1 Comment

  1. Craig DeLarge

    Good go, Maria!

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