Meet the professors

By Julie Griffiths on 07 March 2018 Education Midwifery

Continuing the series highlighting UK midwifery professors, Billie Hunter explains how she was encouraged by others to aim higher in her career, and Tracy Humphrey describes why she still sees herself as a midwife first and foremost.

Billie Hunter, FRCM, Cardiff University

Billie Hunter’s career advisor at school was furious when, rather than sitting an entrance exam for Oxford or Cambridge universities, she expressed an interest in nursing.

‘They were outraged and told me I was wasting my brain and would not help me in any way if I went down that road. So I did my own research into it and discovered there was a new degree in nursing,’ recalls Billie.

She was one of the first bachelor of nursing students in England, completing her undergraduate study at Manchester University. She graduated in 1976 with qualifications in general nursing, health visiting and district nursing. Billie worked for a short time in each of these roles before training as a midwife at Guy’s and St Thomas’ hospitals because she was keen to do voluntary service overseas. But she didn’t expect to love midwifery so much.

For many years, she had a clinical career in both midwifery and health visiting until she began teaching at Pembrokeshire Further Education College in 1992. Her new role brought her into contact with the head of midwifery education at Swansea University, who recognised that she had more potential than she realised.

‘She became a mentor and helped me map out a career route,’ says Billie. ‘I began to do a master’s at Swansea University. I was getting good feedback and told that I could do a PhD. I remember thinking that I couldn’t transfer to a PhD, that it was much too clever and academic for me.’

Spotting potential

Billie reflects that she was very lucky to encounter people in her career who spotted her potential and encouraged her. Had she not, she may never have become professor of midwifery at all, first at Swansea University in 2006, then as RCM professor of midwifery at Cardiff University in 2012.

‘Doors kept opening, and I kept walking through them,’ says Billie.

This continues to happen. As a result of being a professor, she has been invited to undertake an international role as director of a new WHO Collaborating Centre for Midwifery Development in Europe.

Billie says that one advantage of being a professor is influence and clout – people listen. Through her research, Billie aims to give frontline midwives a voice, and one area in which this is evident is her research on what supports midwives’ resilience. She says that midwives who are keen to improve maternity services should consider professorship.

‘If you’ve just qualified and think that you would like to make changes in the profession, there are various ways to do that, such as becoming a consultant midwife or a HoM. If your strengths are questioning and thinking critically about what’s going on and you want to contribute to the evidence base for the profession, being a professor is an option,’ says Billie.

She hopes that she will be remembered for her contributions to understanding what it is like to be a midwife – the challenges and rewards – and the importance of looking after the workforce when seeking to provide high-quality care.

Tracy Humphrey, FRCM, Edinburgh Napier University

Tracy Humphrey

Tracy Humphrey’s advice to midwives who are thinking about whether or not to pursue a professorship is simple: do as I say, not as I do.

Tracy, who is dean of health and social care at Edinburgh Napier University, says she has never looked beyond the job she is in, and that good opportunities have fortuitously come her way. But she would not advise others to do the same. Tracy believes that, to become a professor of midwifery, it is important to be focused on the goal from early on.

‘I’m not ambitious for myself, though people assume I am. I’m not a great career mapper,’ she says. ‘But if you’re focused on something, you’re more likely to get there.’

Tracy qualified as a midwife in 1999 and, until the move to Edinburgh, her entire career was spent in the north of Scotland in a variety of roles, including consultant midwife. At first, she worked in an Aberdeen maternity hospital and, while working full-time, she completed a master’s degree.

Then her HoM suggested she apply for a PhD, much to Tracy’s surprise: ‘I thought I couldn’t do a PhD and I didn’t want to leave practice.’ She adds that she is grateful to her mentors, who have helped shape her career. ‘If I’d not had mentors, I would not be where I am. They saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself,’ she says.

Tracy applied for a PhD studentship with the nurses, midwives and allied health professionals research training scheme, a flagship Scottish Government initiative to increase research capacity among these professional groups. She was the only midwife to be awarded a funded studentship and she went on to successfully complete her PhD, again while continuing to work in clinical practice one day a week.

Midwife and academic

In 2012, Tracy became professor of midwifery at Aberdeen’s Robert Gordon University. Until the role she has now, which she took up in 2015, she was always a clinical academic – continuing to practise midwifery as well as carry out research. She says that she still identifies as a midwife rather than an academic.

‘If people ask me to describe myself, I say I am a midwife. This job is the first time I’ve been fully employed by a university – in the past it was a 50/50 post with the NHS,’ she says.

Tracy has a track record of influencing and implementing national maternal and neonatal policies in Scotland through her research, practice and role as a government advisor. Her areas of research and publications are on reducing unnecessary interventions during childbirth and improving outcomes for women and families in remote and rural areas through educational and service improvement initiatives.

Internationally, she is known for her work with health ministries across Africa and Asia, where there are high rates of maternal and newborn mortality.

To be a professor, Tracy says it is important to have vision, leadership qualities, self-confidence and a belief in what you’re doing.

‘It also helps to have a bit of charisma,’ she says. ‘That helps with engagement. You need to be able to inspire and motivate others around the midwifery agenda.’