Today is a momentous occasion in the life of Jonathan Backhouse as he graduates with a Professional Doctorate from the University of Sunderland.
The 47-year-old has achieved his career highlight having lived with dyslexia since being diagnosed as a teen, leaving school with just two GCSEs. On top of this he has also been managing the debilitating symptoms of Multiple Sclerosis (MS) for the last 10 years.
Despite these conditions, Jonathan, from Stockton, has never stopped achieving his career goals, working as a self-employed chartered safety and health professional, a qualified teacher and an author. He has 18 years of experience providing consultancy services across the UK and teaching health and safety qualifications worldwide, in addition to supporting students online.
In that time, he has achieved two Masters degrees in Occupational Health, Safety and Environmental Management, and in Education. He has also been a member of the Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) since 2005 and is Chair of the IOSH Tees Branch, in addition to becoming an IOSH council member. He has authored three health and safety related books, undertaken over 70 peer review interviews, and presented and organised more than 30 seminars.
However, Jonathan says a Professional Doctorate has been his academic goal for as long as he can remember, adding: “While it took me almost five years to complete, due to a year out managing health problems, I was determined that MS, alongside dyslexia, was not going to stop me.”
“I left school with two GCSEs discovering two years later I had dyslexia. I was only ‘good’ at maths and trained to become an accountant but struggled and decided this was not for me. In 2000, I completed my first NEBOSH (National Examination Board in Occupational Safety and Health)
qualification and by 2002 I became a self-employed safety and health consultant/trainer. Had anyone suggested back then I would teach all over the world, write books, hold two Masters degrees and be graduating with a doctorate, I would never have believed them.”
The Professional Doctorate is the same level of academic qualification as a PhD and is designed for experienced professionals who wish to undertake a programme that is of practical value to their career.
Just as Jonathan’s career has been focused on making a difference in other’s lives, inspired by those who have supported him on his journey, his motivation for undertaking the Doctorate was not just for the ‘challenge’, personal achievement, and career progression, but to give back to his industry community through research.
His doctorate undertakes a critical review of the role of IOSH in supporting its members’ professional development and improving their membership benefits.
Jonathan explained: “My doctoral research question was: ‘what does it mean to be a member of IOSH, and how can IOSH support their members’ professional development? It also critically examined the construct of professional identity in the context of IOSH Membership.”
Although Jonathan was unable to attend the Winter Graduation Ceremony at the Stadium of Light, (December 1-3) due to his vulnerable status as a MS sufferer and Covid restrictions, he says he’ll still celebrate with his proud family, in particular his wife Diane.
“She has been my rock throughout this journey, and on days when I felt like giving up, she wouldn’t let me,” says Jonathan. “She deserves this award as much as anyone! I also can’t thank the University and my lecturers enough for their support these last five years.”
Jonathan was diagnosed with MS in September 2011. Over the previous two months, he had been having tests after experiencing various symptoms including back pain, dropping things and not walking well.
He explains: “At the time of my diagnosis, I was about 6,500 miles from home. I was teaching a health and safety course in Nairobi, Kenya. Being diagnosed while so far away from home gave me time to reflect on what life with MS would mean without the concern of how it might impact the rest of my family.”
“I had been unwell for some months and, in a way, I was relieved to understand what I had. MS is now part of my identity, but I am determined not to let it be a defining part. My frame of reference was my mum, who was diagnosed with primary progressive MS when I was about four, and died when I was about to turn 14. Once I had my diagnosis I read as much as I could about the condition.”
“I remember it being conveyed by my dad that my mum, after being told she had MS, asked what was the worst that could happen? My approach was the opposite – I asked what the best-case scenario would be.”
Jonathan says his MS symptoms continue to include balance issues (occasionally using a stick to walk) and dropping things. But by far the worst condition for him is cognitive fatigue – ‘brain fog’ which lasts anything from a couple of hours to several days.
He says: “At these times I have learnt to be kind to myself and not feel guilty when I need to take time out and rest. Over the years I have learnt to pace my work and study commitments more realistically. I have also learnt to be open and honest with my clients, not hiding my MS or dyslexia and seeking, as well as accepting, support. I’ve also learnt to use software that helps transcribe what I speak rather than having to write the text myself, which helps.”
Jonathan’s advice to someone facing a similar situation with MS is not to look or aim for the worst-case scenario. “Aim high instead,” he says. “Don’t be afraid to seek support from professionals, friends or family or even fellow MSers. Remember, you may have MS – MS does not have you!”
Jonathan plans to continue his academic career and says the Doctorate has sparked the next chapter of a successful career.
He aims to continue his various voluntary roles within IOSH and to develop an academic role incorporating supervising students and writing peer reviewed articles, alongside his role as a self-employed fire, safety and health practitioner and trainer.
Dr Derek Watson, Associate Professor in Cultural Management at the University of Sunderland, said: “Supervising Jonathan through his doctoral journey has been highly rewarding, in terms of Jonathan’s stoic approach to life. Jonathan’s ability to balance his consultancy business and Professional Doctorate, whilst at the same time adapting to his MS has been inspiring. I am delighted that Jonathan successfully completed his doctorate, which he continues to utilise in drawing international attention to his health and safety expertise. As with all our graduates, we will be staying in close contact and look forward to Jonathan sharing his experiences with our current doctoral students across the University and also as a post graduate motivational guest speaker.”