Technicians

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 Photo by Emma Mitchell (Bradley Stoke Community School, a winner of the Technicians Make it Happen photo competition) at http://technicians.org.uk/

Today, I want to bring the focus back to technical staff. A few months ago, we had a guest blog post from Marianne Keith who discussed their story. Since then, I have met a few technicians around the university to ask about what support they need and what is draining their resilience. What surprised me is that a lot of the same issues are affecting both technicical and postdoc staff.

Similarly to postdoc staff, technicians need to have incredible time-management skills to keep on top of their work. We all know the feeling of having too much to do and not enough time to do it in, but this shouldn’t always be the case. By stepping back and implementing some strategies, it is possible to gain control and be more productive. Sara has already written an excellent time-management post with a range of tips from academics – so give this a read.

Technical staff also have incredibly varied positions (similarly to postdocs who may be allocated time for their PI’s project, independent research and/or teaching). Some technicians are also involved in the teaching side of university, helping students learn to use equipment and answering questions. Others may be involved mainly in animal care or preparing equipment for researchers.

This was also highlighted by the UK Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). 60% of the technicians surveyed had supervised students and 80% had contributed to papers (19% were lead authors). Therefore, these technical roles appear to be very similar to academic roles in some respects. The variation of technical staff responsibilities, as well as the crossover with academic staff appears to blur the technician identity and may increase the difficulty in establishing technical staff communities.

Sheffield’s ‘TechNet’ is a great example of what can happen at a university. TechNet aims to increase visibility of technicians, to improve the profile of technical community and connect individuals with common interests. The great thing is that TechNet, while based at Sheffield, is open to all technicians from other Higher Education Institutions! You can receive newsletters, get involved in online forums of technicians and attend quarterly events.

One of the main differences between technicians and research postdocs emerges when talking about career development. Most postdocs aim for a permanent position at the university, so their postdoc job acts as a stepping stone to the next stage. However, technical staff career progression seems to be less clear.

Some technicians may feel stuck in a role, without knowing how to progress to the next grade/level. However, technical staff can apply to certain funding for research or development if that’s the direction they want to pursue (e.g. only 12% of technical staff surveyed new that they could apply to BBSRC funding). Look for opportunities in your department and talk to your line-manager about career progression opportunities!

The IAD also offers a range of workshops which technicians are welcome to attend. Don’t think that you cannot attend because you are based at a different campus, take advantage of the opportunity! These will allow you to make new networks with staff across the university, as well as developing skills that are key to your current position and development.

HEaTED also provides a range of opportunities for development and networking, aimed directly at technical staff. Online support is also available at technicians.org.uk, including case studies so you can see what other technicians have done.

Some preliminary plans are underway to try to establish technician communities at the university. If you see something at another university, you would like to implement in Edinburgh, talk to your line-manager/PI and head of department to explore whether it’s possible. Don’t forget that the IAD is also here to support technical staff, please get in touch if you have any ideas!

Wellbeing and resilience ‘map’

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Many post-docs have said that they maintain their wellbeing and resilience mainly by using networks and talking to people. Others have highlighted that finding the right support network can be difficult. Sometimes, colleagues may be the best support because they have probably faced similar situations but in other situations, it may be useful to seek support around the university.

The University of Edinburgh has a range of campuses and services spread across the city. Therefore, it’s important that all researchers are aware of the wellbeing and resilience support systems in place. In this post, I’ll demonstrate some of these support systems around the university and how they have helped early career researchers.

Chaplaincy

  • The chaplaincy is there for people of all faiths and none, so everyone is welcome. There are a number of chaplaincy locations spread across different campuses.
  • Do you want to learn about mindfulness and ‘slow down’ your university experience?
  • The chaplaincy holds a range of mindfulness events, including mindfulness courses , Tai Chi and yoga.
  • Do you need someone to talk to for support?
  • The Chaplaincy also runs pastoral support for staff. These sessions offer confidential and non-judgmental listening and support that can help to identify your talents and find methods to help you to focus on your work.

Gyms

  • Are you stressed? Being active can help you clear your thoughts and allow you to approach your problems more calmly. Some post-docs have also said that doing sport when they wouldn’t be productive (e.g. mid-afternoon) helps them to be more productive when they go back to the office/lab.
  • There are gyms at Pleasance  and King’s Buildings along with a range of centres across the city.
  • The gyms offer a range of fitness courses and workshops, including Yoga and Pilates, to help combat stress.
  • Since 2013, a Healthy University Project has been aiming to promote and deliver health and wellbeing benefits for the University community through the promotion of physical activity. A range of activities for staff have been ongoing as part of this.

Staff counselling service

  • A range of self-help materials is available online, including websites and books.
  • Eligible staff are offered short-term counselling to discuss problems or situations, which are causing concern or distress at work or home.
  • From September 2017, all staff will gain access to The Big White Wall, a safe and anonymous online forum where staff can discuss their challenges and pressures and receive support from peers and trained professionals.

Research support office

  • Have you received some rejections from funding applications? Not sure which funder would suit your project?
  • Contact the research support office to help you with your application. They can ensure you are meeting all of the criteria for the funder and show you a range of successful applications so you know what the funder is expecting.

The Institute for Academic Development

  • Want to improve your skills? Having trouble with writing?
  • The IAD runs a range of workshops and courses allowing staff to develop skills in writing and management.
  • Worried about becoming a supervisor or a Principal Investigator?
  • The IAD offers a range of support for researchers who are managing teams and supervising researcher.

Careers Service

  • Are you not sure about the next step of your career? Attending workshops or consultations at the Careers Service could help ease your worries and allow you to actively think about and strategically plan your career.
  • Early Career Researchers are also encouraged to attend the PhD Horizons Career Conference. A range of people with PhDs (many of which have completed postdocs too) return to Edinburgh to discuss what they have done since and how.

Communities

  • Do you want to get more involved in the community?
  • Getting involved in staff societies will help you make networks with people in your discipline
  • There are also a range of groups and communities in Edinburgh that you can get involved with.

Staff mentoring scheme

  • Feeling alone at the university? Maybe you’re in a small department and your colleagues are always too busy to support you?
  • Sign up to the staff mentoring scheme to receive support from a senior staff member over an extended period of time in relation to career progress and aspirations
  • If you feel like you would benefit from helping others, become a mentor! The scheme is currently looking for mentors of Grade 9 and above to sign up to the program

Have I missed anything? Post-doc staff have highlighted that they have used the above services to gain support and improve their wellbeing. If you found that another service has been useful for you, please get in touch, as it could be useful for other postdocs that may not have heard of it!

Careers, JUST careers

Last week’s blog from Amy featured a great cartoon from The Upturned Microscope depicting a meeting of “Postdocs Anonymous” which may have resonated with some of you. In it there’s a reference to “information about alternative careers” which I’m going to focus on in this post.

Like many researchers developers I have a bit of an issue with the phrase “alternative careers” because it implies deviation from a norm. This was summed up by Marie Thouaille at a meeting recently which was summarised in a tweet by Inger Mewburn.

The reality from the information we have about research staff career paths is that the so-called alternative paths are the norm. Your career is far more likely to develop outside the academic path and I think many postdocs accept this as fact. Despite this, there seems to be an unwillingness to engage in career decision making.

I’m not sure what lies behind this reticence but here are a few resources to help any of you who are aware that there are more options open to you than the fellowship/lecturer route, but may not be sure about how to get started.

Set a deadline to start 

It’s all too easy to push this down the to-do list. I find it easiest to move things along when I can link them to a meaningful deadline. You might be able to use your annual review meeting for this – the deadline for the year here at Edinburgh is approaching fast. If that has already passed why not schedule a similar conversation with someone you would like to talk about where you are, how things are going and what track you are on.

Think about your preferences

There are a number of different frameworks you can use to prompt your thinking about the way you like to work and the types of things you find interesting. You might use our skills audit based on the RDF and just reflect on what you enjoy doing. You can also ask people what they think you are good at and whether they have any ideas about careers or directions that might suit you. Working out what to do for the rest of your life can be intimidating so don’t think of this as a fixed decision. If you also talk to people about the paths they’ve taken (more on this below), you’ll discover that careers develop constantly and often in directions that can’t be seen in advance. Instead of trying to fix on something forever, work out what your next career needs to have more of and less of and see where this takes you.

Look at the destinations

There are a range of sources which set out the careers taken after postdoc research. Vitae, professional bodies, publishers and individual universities have all tried to provide better insights to help researchers be confident about their options. If you are struggling to find something that resonates, let me know and I’ll see what I can add here.

We now have more information about the destinations of postdoctoral researchers than ever before but the picture is incomplete. I make this point because no matter how rich the options are, I suspect there are far more opportunties taken by research staff than we are aware of.

Follow the paths

If the information from reports and profiles doesn’t give you the inspriation you are seeking, why not look at individual paths? Use social media and networks to understand career paths by connecting with people through your boss, former colleagues and start to build a picture of where postdocs have gone afterwards and where they are now. Connect with as many people as you can with on LinkedIn and look back through their online career summaries. If your network is a bit thin, ask around – most people would be happy to make virtual introductions to help you do this.

Be positive

I know it’s easy to say this, but I genuinely believe that you can do ANYTHING after a  postdoc. Some options might require some training or experience, but the value of being a researcher will shine through. Most postdocs still have the VAST majority of their working years ahead and if you put your experience into the context of a forty year working life (more for most of us, probably) any temporary side-stepping or reset is worth the short-term set backs.

Talk the talk

My final message is that once you have worked out what’s next for you, make sure you describe your skills and value in terms that the employer will appreciate and engage with. This is probably best explored in a future post if there is interest, but in the meantime, here’s a resource from my last role where I rewrote a postdoc CV for a new direction.

And finally, 

Can I encourage you all to look hard at where you will have most impact in the wider labour market? We need you…

 

Internship update

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Photo by The Upturned Microscope at theupturnedmicroscope.com

The past 5 weeks have flown by! At the midpoint of my internship, I will use this blog post as an opportunity to step back and think about what I have achieved so far and what I need to focus on next.

There has been a lot of interest in my project so far. A range of early career staff have met with me to talk about issues that they have faced in the university, what support they need(ed) and what advice they would give others. Each meeting has revealed another slightly different situation, but some issues are repeatedly coming up. Speaking to senior staff members has also been useful to learn about what our university already offers postdoc staff. The university offers a huge amount of opportunities for early career researchers, including workshops, face-to-face support and mentorship schemes.

Some postdocs have highlighted that they were not aware about this support that the university offers. Some are unsure as to whether ‘staff events’ actually includes them. The role of postdoc appears to fall between the cracks; they are no longer a PhD student but some do not feel like a staff member yet. This is especially the case when a new staff member did their PhD in the same department. An online resource aimed specifically at postdocs or early career researchers will go a long way to ensure that postdoc staff can access support and feel valued in the university.

It follows on that postdocs have a lack of community in the university, as they are a separate group with different pressures to PhD students and senior staff. The role of postdoc even varies between staff members, depending on the type of funder and the project. Some postdocs have various projects simultaneously, along with teaching requirements. This can pose an array of different challenges, including managing time effectively, dealing with expectations from a range of different PIs and finding time to plan their next career stage. It is clear that postdocs face a range of challenges and need support to be resilient and succeed in their position.

As the University of Edinburgh has a huge number of staff and is divided into different campuses, it would be extremely difficult to establish a university wide network for our postdocs. A range of postdoc societies have been established consisting of early career staff in specific disciplines. This is a perfect way for staff to network with peers who have similar interests and for building a sense of community in the school. But, how would a postdoc gain a sense of community in subject areas where there aren’t established societies?

I am interested as to whether a campus or school based network system may be feasible. Since postdocs often have short-term contracts, we need to bear in mind the issue of organisational sustainability – the network needs to be organised in a way such that when one postdoc staff member leaves the university, the network doesn’t become inactive. Possible ways to do this would be to have two postdocs in charge (a president and vice-president system) or giving some responsibility to a permanent senior staff member. This responsibility may be to recruit a new postdoc to become the new president and ensuring that the society is offering frequent events/support.

At this point in the internship, I am beginning to draft together a resource addressing some of the key issues postdocs face. This includes signposting to resources and events around the university, to make them more accessible and providing new resources where necessary. I hope that this resource encourages postdocs to reflect on their experiences and make small changes to ensure they are working in a positive and sustainable way.

Over the next few weeks, I will continue to develop this resource using feedback from postdocs. I will also continue meeting staff around the university to share their perspectives on my work – if you would like to contribute, please get in touch!

The road to misconduct

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Photo by DodgertonSkillhause at Morguefile.com

We are making preparations to launch a new online resource for research integrity which should be available later in the summer. Aimed at our research students and their supervisors, this will complement the extensive support and guidance researchers receive in their schools. During the consultation process I’ve spoken to a range of university staff about integrity and added to my understanding of regulations, policies and systems across the University and disciplines.

One of the most interesting of these conversations happened last week when I met Dr Willem Halffman from the University of Nijmegen who was on a brief research visit to Edinburgh. We talked about a wide range of topics in our short meeting, with particular focus on the circumstances which lead to misconduct. My interest in integrity is both old and new. Old, in that I’ve spent close to twenty years training and developing research students and staff, and fostering good practice has been part of this. New, in that it was only last year that I attended the UK Research Integrity Office conference and became fascinated by wider discussions which went far beyond policies and looked at the behaviours and tendencies which lead to misconduct.

One speaker, Dr Maura Hiney spoke about these and referenced  David Kornfeld’s paper on the categories of people who violated the rules of research. Kornfeld’s paper is an interesting read, so I won’t give away the headlines, but he summarises that

These acts of research misconduct seemed to be the result of the interaction of psychological traits and/or states and the circumstances in which these individuals found themselves.

This prompted Willem to point me to a model from financial misconduct – the fraud triangle. This originated from the work of Donald Cressey (Donald R. Cressey, Other People’s Money (Montclair: Patterson Smith, 1973) p. 30.), who tried to explain the circumstances under which people commit fraud. The three factors which make up the triangle  – opportunity, pressure and rationalistion – are described with a simple animation by the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners. Although the examples used relate to financial fraud, it isn’t difficult to extend the model to research.

 

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Image from ALGA – Association of Local Government Auditors

 

I find this model useful as it points to the role that pressure plays in misconduct and is something that cannot be ignored by any institution wishing to develop a high integrity culture. It isn’t enough to play lip service to the regulations and training whilst the pressures on researchers continue to build.

This connection between integrity and resilience is something that I hope to explore and has been a significant driving force in the initial focus I’ve had at Edinburgh on wellbeing and resilience for researchers. As we tailor and embed the integrity module I’ll be looking at how we ensure that our training plays a part in minimising the pressure in the environment as well as being clear about good practice and honest cultures.

Willem’s research has resulted in a number of pubications on scientific  integrity, (Whilst you are looking at his publications, The Academic Manifesto [Halffman, W. & Radder, H. (3 April 2015), The Academic Manifesto, Minerva, Vol. 53, no.3, p. 165-187. doi: 10.1007/s11024-015-9270-9.] makes a number of other suggestions to release the pressure in the system!)

 

Imposter syndrome

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By Courtney Seiter at open.buffer.com

The diagram above is commonplace when beginning a new job. Before you’ve settled in and learned the ropes, everyone around you seems to know more than you and it’s incredibly daunting to catch up. Over the past few weeks, I have discovered that some amazing postdocs at Edinburgh university still feel like this, even after they have been in their job for years!

One staff member I spoke to said that each stage you go through feels more unusual, more like you don’t fit in – suggesting that imposter syndrome is not constrained to the first few months of a researcher’s job, but can pose a challenge throughout their whole career. Imposter syndrome is prevalent in academia, due to peer review, rejections and the hierarchical structure of our universities. As postdocs are the newest research staff at the university, it’s likely that imposter syndrome is going to have a large effect on them. For these reasons, imposter syndrome needs to be confronted and discussed.

Have you had imposter syndrome?

Imposter syndrome is a “psychological phenomenon that arises from an incorrect assessment of ones’ abilities compared to peers” (Liu, 2014). This means that someone may have imposter syndrome without realising it.

A common thought when suffering from imposter syndrome is that you’re a “fraud” and worried that you’re going to be “caught out”. These thoughts are often amplified when doing something challenging, such as collaborating with a distinguished researcher on a new topic.

Imposter syndrome can have large effect on your resilience and your research. To feel more prepared, you might feel like you need to spend more and more time working and reading. This will affect your work-home life balance and might leave you feeling drained and less able to cope with challenges in your job. Furthermore, since imposter syndrome can feel more acute when undertaking challenging or risky project, you may be less likely to take risks and pursue great ideas, which could have a negative effect on your research.

My advice to researchers (mainly from other researchers):

  1. You are not alone: the vast majority of researchers have imposter syndrome at some point. If you don’t believe me, ask somebody in your department!
  2. Talk to other researchers about their experiences: social media has made it more acceptable to talk about problems and online networks aimed specifically at researchers facilitate this. Hearing how other people deal with imposter syndrome may help you too.
  3. Confidence is not competence: some people in your department may act confidently, but this does not mean they are any more competent than you.
  4. Don’t take criticism personally: everyone in research receives criticism. Criticism is not aimed at you, but it’s important that you use any feedback you get to improve your research.
  5. Make small goals and evaluate them regularly: Once you see that you are achieving your goals, you’ll build a sense of satisfaction and confidence in your capability.
  6. Take time to look after yourself: the people who I’ve spoken to have a wide variety of mechanisms to look after themselves – whether it’s going for long cycle rides or classes on mindfulness – find something that works for you and fit it in to your routine.

Sara’s lovely blog post about how imposter syndrome is a badge of honour includes further insights and advice: http://www.shintonconsulting.com/a-badge-of-honour/

Thank you to everyone around the university who has talked to me this week about their experiences! I hope to meet lots more researchers at the university in the next 6 weeks. If you would like to get involved by sharing your thoughts or experiences about resilience in your research position please get in touch.

Reduce Confusion, Manage Expectations

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Photo by amann at Morguefile.com

Last week I was involved in two events which on the surface looked different, but actually covered some very similar themes. The first was the launch of a new PhD supervisors’ network here at Edinburgh. This is part of the Supervision workstream of the Excellence in Doctoral Education and Career Development Programme and was a chance for us (principally my colleague Dr Fiona Philippi, Head of Doctoral Education who leads the project) to share some initial ideas and ask the supervisors present how they would like the network to operate.

As part of the discussion, Fiona illustrated an example of the resources available to support supervision by sharing a version of the Griffith University Expectations in Supervision questionnaire. I’ve used this for many years in PhD induction and “getting started” events so it was interesting to see the reaction of supervisors to the tool which is a series of paired statements which demonstrate the dichotomies possible in PhD supervision. The response was very positive, with all those present seeing the value in having a tool to prompt discussion but also clarify the details of their supervisory approach. No one wants to impose a single, cookie-cutter model on doctoral supervision as the questionnaire demonstrates. People talked about the value the discussions would have to students coming to the UK for their PhDs as it might uncover any assumptions they might have. Most importantly, used well, the discussion will reduce uncertainty and the resulting anxiety for students.

During more detailed discussions, the topic of co-supervision emerged as a key area which needed more scrutiny so we are planning to develop the questionnaire further to help students and supervisory teams work together with more transparency and clearer responsibilities.

Co-supervision is now pretty universal at Edinburgh, both as a means of quality assurance but also often reflecting the multi- and inter-disciplinary nature of many PhD projects. This links us to the second event of the week – the Digital Economy Crucible. I was a speaker at the second Crucible “lab” in Edinburgh last week and decided to speak on the topic of Confusion in Collaboration. This is a interesting idea to explore but I can’t take the credit for the idea which came from Professor Barry Smith at Welsh Crucible when he spoke about the steps to really effective collaboration as being Contact, Communication, Confusion and Conflict.

Barry was one of three “heroes” of collaboration I mentioned in my talk, the others being Professor Catherine Lyall from Edinburgh who’s established a deep understanding of models of collaboration as well as producing a series of incredibly useful practical guides to help people in the interdisciplinary space work more effectively.

Catherine was the “critical friend” for a guide to collaboration I wrote for the Institute of Physics in 2015 which featured my last hero, Professor Tom McLeish. Tom is a physicist so has had a career collaborating with with other scientists in academia and industry, but in recent years has worked within the Durham Institute for Medieval and Renaissance Studies (IMRS) reexamining scientific thinking in the 12th-14th centuries on The Ordered Universe project. A collaborative close reading of works by teams of medieval scholars and scientists is generating new insights into the vital but overlooked foundations of modern science.

The slides from my talk are below, but the key activity in my slot was to get the Cruciblists to talk to someone from another discipline about the assumptions that people made about their discipline or area. Some fascinating conversations followed but I moved them promptly on to try to come up with some new questions to reduce confusion. Their list complements one that was produced by a Stirling Crucible group a few years ago which I blogged about in a former life (Confusion in Collaboration).

Confusion in Collaboration <- The Slides

The questions generated by the group:

DE Crucible Confusion June 2017
DE Crucible 2017 Confusion in Collaboration

My final act was to share the Griffith questionnaire with this group as a final test of their understanding of each other’s research models.

What questions could help you avoid future conflict and bring confusion to the surface?