Meet the HAF: Simon Probert
Simon Probert is Head of Administration & Finance for the Department of Physics, one of Oxford’s large, lab-based science departments, based at the Clarendon Laboratory in the heart of the city’s Science Area. He took up his current role after several years as the department’s finance lead, and his professional background lies in commercial finance. Before coming to Oxford he was Group Financial Controller of an automotive group, and he also has a Master’s degree in Chemistry. Today he oversees a department of more than 2,000 staff, students and contractors.
What have been the highlights of the role so far?
For Simon, the best thing about being a HAF is getting to work with people who are world leaders and international experts in their field, on a day-to-day basis. He said, "I’m surrounded by people who are changing the world – for us and for our grandchildren. My colleagues are doing things that will lead to step-changes in the way we all live.”
Simon was involved in the opening of the iconic Beecroft Building in 2018 – a capital project that started 18 months after he took up his role.
“After seeing that work through to completion, I get to see people working and learning in it, and enjoying that amazing space, every day. It’s at the forefront of enabling ground-breaking research thanks to its vibration and temperature-stable environment, and it’s also bringing new talent to Oxford.”
His department was also involved in a project that built a seismograph for the lander now exploring Mars, bearing the University’s logo. “Not many people could say they’ve had a part in something like that as part of their day-job!"
What might surprise people about your role?
“It would have to be the breadth and scope of it. Physics is about the size of a medium-sized company, so I work with a huge number of people.
“Discussions range from the trivial to the intellectual to the truly mind-blowing. A conversation about hiring a new academic to forward an area of research can quickly spiral into a debate about the future trajectory of humanity!”
What advice would you give to someone thinking about becoming a HAF in MPLS?
“As HAFs, we’re at the coalface. You can’t please everyone, and there’s the old saying: ‘Get three Oxford academics in a room and you’ll get five different opinions!’ The relationships you form with your Head of Department and team leads will be particularly important.”
“Being a HAF means embracing the sheer complexity of things. It’s about managing people, implementing change, managing risks, solving problems, collaborating, and making things happen. Oxford departments are, in many ways, masters and mistresses of their own destiny, but ‘with great power comes great responsibility’.
“It’s an enormously rewarding role, but enormously hard work as well. Don’t over-estimate the opportunities, nor under-estimate the challenges. When all is said, it's hard to think of any other role in which you could influence the University’s core academic mission quite so directly.”