Resilient Researchers

First of all a huge thank you to the speakers at the Resilient Researcher event which I was involved in today. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, resilience is my word of the year so I was really pleased to be able to work with two sponsors, SUPA and the IOP, to put on a day of talks, discussions and (best of all) live music to help some of our researchers understand and develop their thinking around this idea. It was a huge pleasure to work with Anne Pawsey from SUPA and the School of Physics and Astronomy on developing and delivering the day.

It was amusing that most of the speakers started by admitting they had looked up the word as part of their preparation. This echoes my own experiences of writing a guide to resilience for the IOP last year (in my pre-Edinburgh existence). My favourite definition was probably the appropriately physics based one given by Christian Killow (University of Glasgow) …

170421 Killow resilient researcher

Most of us agreed that resilience is about bouncing back and being flexible when faced with new challenges.

In order to maximise the value of the day I want to share the slides quickly, so this short post will be limited to the presentations from the day rather than an analysis of the themes, but these will follow. Thanks to everyone at the event for their engagement and willingness to talk about the challenges and failures which are part of researcher life.

10 am Arrival and outline of day Anne’s slides

10:15 Resilience and success in science – personal perspectives and strategies Dr Graham Smith, St Andrews

11:00 Understanding and building my resilience Dr Sara Shinton (also includes slides from 2pm session)

11:30 Becoming a resilient research student (Katherine Rumble, PhD Student, Edinburgh)

12:00 Here to help – insights from the Student Counselling Service Dr Jenny Leeder, Edinburgh

12:30 Lunch and networking, The Sirrocco Wind Trio with support from Live Music Now

Sirocco Winds

1:30 Developing resilience in a research career – advice on managing uncertainty and rejection as your research independence grows. Dr Christian Killow, RA, Glasgow

2:00 What might work for me? Facilitated discussion in groups to make resolutions for personal resilience plans, community activity and ask for support from SUPA/schools Dr Sara Shinton – included above with your favourite advice and feedback written up in the slides


Thanks to our speakers – Katherine, Sara, Graham, Anne, Christian and Jenny (not pictured…) and to Vishanti from the IOP for talking to people about the work of the Institute and the value of membership.

Industry or academia, to succeed – learn to fail

Today’s blog comes from one of our researchers, Hamish Runciman. He’s currently on a Masters by Research programme and talks here about his transition from industry into academia. In a rare moment to draw breath on the Masters, he reflects that developing resilience for managing frustration and failure in research is common to both sectors. (We’ll be returning to this theme in the next post which will be a report on the SUPA/IOP Resilient Researcher event.)

Firstly I would like to thank Sara for inviting me to write this short post about my experience in transitioning from the pharmaceutical industry into the world of research. Hopefully, some of my insights are also relevant to the many others who are yet to determine whether research (or industry) is for them. It’s also hugely refreshing to write in the first person!

I am currently studying for a Masters by Research (MScR) in Biomedical Sciences at the University of Edinburgh. Before this I worked for the pharmaceutical research giant Charles River Laboratories for about two years. I took the job after my undergraduate degree in Cell Biology at the University of Stirling partly because I understood that authentic lab experience is severely lacking for many graduates. I now appreciate that I didn’t have a clear idea of exactly what I wanted to do; what I did know is that I didn’t want to end up taking what many feel is ‘the next step’ (MSc or PhD) and studying a topic that I was not particularly enthusiastic about or interested in.

At Charles River I held a Senior Assistant Scientist position in the product characterisation department which operates under immense regulation. I therefore received extensive training and learned a lot during my time there. However, the most important lesson was in failure. Even when performing an assay for the hundredth time under identical conditions science has an ability to stick a spanner in the works. Initially I adopted the common attitude in the lab and took solace in repeated profanities – an attempt to deal with the undercurrent of blame that runs through commercial pharmaceutical labs. Unfortunately it’s a lot easier for a pharmaceutical company to blame you rather than their expensively calibrated, expensively serviced, expensive equipment.

What I found is that science has good days and bad days and what matters is how you react to them. It’s no use to continue swearing at your computer screen. Worse still is to let that manifest itself as self-doubt as your tally of failed assays (inevitably) rises. I developed a patient, stoic attitude towards the ups and downs, something that many of my colleagues lacked, and this maturity helped me become a well-respected member of the department in a relatively short time. Ultimately the prescriptive, rigid nature of the work was not offering any new challenges and had me desperate for the creative, inventive approaches of research.

Taking this experience with me into my MScR course has been really valuable. The course is split into two 20-week research projects in which my classmates and I are expected to gather data and write a report on each in the style of a research article for each. I have just handed in my first project plus a graded grant proposal for the second (meaning I have just enough time to squeeze this in). It’s been an interesting time to reflect on the progress I’ve made and to identify areas I need to improve on as I settle into a new lab.

During this settling-in period I have observed my fellow classmates and undergraduates alike. I have noticed that most of them have a distorted view of failure in science. Most, if not all of them, arrived into the labs trying to make the very best of first impressions and end up feeling massively stressed or worried because their experiments don’t work. This is perhaps the fault of what little lab experience they have been afforded during their undergraduate degrees. Largely, undergraduate practical lab work consists of an experiment that works like clockwork after which everyone skips home happily to write a report. Very rarely do these experiments fail and when these students begin research projects they are suddenly confronted with the wafer-thin margins between significance and failure. They are forced to learn very quickly what research is really like.

Therefore it is no wonder that when these students take ‘the next step’ onto PhD study they have been shown to have a much higher prevalence of mental health issues as compared with highly educated members of the public. The issue of mental health is of great interest to me both personally and professionally; I plan to study mental health at PhD level having witnessed the effects of anxiety and depression within my family. I am very glad of my experience in industry as it has focussed me on a career in research; plus I was able to develop the resilience I’ll need continue onto PhD study.

Thank you Hamish for a great start to our researcher led blog posts. If you are involved in research at Edinburgh as a student, supervisor, technician, postdoc or researcher and would like to share your ideas and perspectives on any topic (ideally related to researcher development), please get in touch.

A Researcher’s Guide to Social Media

How can I use twitter to develop my career?

How much should I share with people? 

What other sites are researchers using?

How do I develop a social media strategy for my group?

Social media has become part of (most of) our lives, but if our use has developed principally for personal and social use it can be challenging to work out how to reap career benefits. Today I ran a workshop for researchers in our College of Medicine and Vetinary Medicine to help them develop their online profiles and work out which social media options were best for them. I tried to answer the questions above (and others) and also promised to post a blog with the slides and useful links. (This is it.)

I know that the University of Bristol is about to launch a researcher’s guide to social media which I’ll link to from here once it is available. This will cover the themes of my workshop in more depth and includes a series of worksheets to help their researchers develop effective approaches online. Watch this space…

The workshop was also an opportunity to bring together researchers in the College and build some connections and awareness about IAD and the new focus on research staff and their support in the College. A new twitter feed EdMedECR is part of the communication strategy and hopefully is getting new followers as a result of the workshop.

It’s important to note that this was a general introductory session from a user of social media with an expertise in researcher development. I’d strongly recommend that anyone wanting to develop a stronger digital presence engages with the real experts in the Univesrity either by signing up for the brilliant Digital Footprint MOOC or by working through the list on 23 Things . I’m currently doing both and am learning a LOT. You can learn a little more about the MOOC by reading about the topics covered in the first few weeks – Behind the scenes at the Digital Footprint MOOC –  from Nicola Osborne of EDINA, and you can read the paper that I mentioned on the Uncontainable Self (the version of you that exists online because of the way you are mentioned by others.)

The SLIDES: MVM Soc Med online

The links and additional content:

Those fun guys in pathology know a thing or two about twitter#autopsy

Verifying social media content: John Hopkins University Library

How to get started on twitter – an introduction from a very basic level (will get your started but is a little dated)

An overview of the potential value of Twitter for academics  – another introduction, broken down into five themes.

How academics use twitter – links to the lighter side of academic twitter

Paul Coxen, University of Cambridge explains why twitter has particular value for early career researchers 

What are the funding models for key academic sites? – an article from Times Higher on the underlying business models for a few familiar platforms.

A review of ResearchGate by a researcher at Exeter University

Facebook for Researchers – from a researcher at Warwick University

Broadening your network and visibilty on LinkedIn – from Impact Story

What do others see when they look for you online? Search for yourself without filters at

Blogs about university and higher education issues can help you develop a more strategic view of research. One example is Professor Dame Athene Donald, Chair of the new REF interdisc panel:

Many academics have blogged about the approaches they’ve taken to build the impact of their research on the LSE Impact of Social Sciences blog (not just for social scientists) which has built into a fantastic resource on strategies for engaging people with your work.

I also mentioned The Conversation which is an online newspaper/magazine written by researchers. Lots of UoE posts but room for more…

Finally, we mentioned Piirus, the collaboration hub owned by The blog they publish has many articles about academic life and advice for early career researchers.

If you attended the session and have any new questions, just post them in the comments below and I’ll add in any additional answers. If you want more details of other resources I mentioned, just drop me an email and I’ll send these out.


A couple of things have prompted today’s post. One was a session I ran yesterday for our School of Health in Social Sciences on building a research vision. Unsurprisingly, as part of the workshop we talked about where the time to do this would come from so the talk turned to time management.

I have a “ten tips” approach to time management based on conversations and workshop discussions, but the last tip has been particualrly resonating with me of late. This is to do things well enough (but no better). Of course there are things in academic life that we have to do PERFECTLY but sometimes that drive for perfection slows us down and even paralyses us. Most of the time getting something 80% good enough (by our own high standards) is enough for most people, most of the time.

Since starting at the University three months ago I’ve been trying to stick to this principle. I get my ideas into a coherent form, check that they make sense but then get them off for feedback and comment. I know the fine tuning and perfecting of these ideas will come during the process of implementing them, but at the moment the important thing is to get them moving.

I’m currently working my way through the 23things initiative and the Digital Footprint MOOC which have both given me lots to think about regarding my online presence and interactions. I seem to have spent a lot of time so far apologising the course leaders about not being on top of the work and they are being great. “Do what you can, when you can” is the vibe of both courses. (It’s also made me realise that I need to start tagging my blogs – a job for next week…) Rather than waiting until I had time to focus on these programmes, I decided to start knowing that I wouldn’t be a perfect student. I’m learning lots and I’m making progress. It doesn’t need to be perfect.

It’s the same with grant proposals – don’t hold onto that first draft for too long. Your ideas will be well enough formed for partners and collaborators to get the gist and to start thinking about their role and reactions. That draft of a paper can probably go to a critical friend now – perhaps with an apology for any rougher moments but the interaction with someone else could be the best way of getting things to crystallise in your head.

Take a look at your own to-do list – is there anything on it that you’ve got to “good enough” and can move on?

The other moment of inspiration came from an article

We’re losing brilliant female scientists – here’s how to change that

by Professor Polly Arnold, a University colleague in our School of Chemistry. Writing on a very different topic – the haemorrhaging of female talent from the sciences – she repeated a familiar statistic about the different levels of confidence that men and women have when applying for jobs. Women tend to demonstrate 120% of the skills/experience needed, whereas men apply when they are 80% ready. There’s that 80% again.

I’m not sure if the time management issues we were discussing yesterday had a gendered element to them. I’m not sure if the fact that time management problems which stem from solving other people’s problems, taking on the lion’s share of pastoral roles for students or over-committing are gendered. I have my suspicions but as this is an 80% blog I’m not going to spend two hours looking for evidence – I’ll just say that I’m not sure.

Try to embrace the 80% today in everything except your wellbeing which does require perfection. (I type this on a day off and although I haven’t quite managed to switch off 100% I’m going to try and manage 90% – consider me a work in progress…)

Change the world*

(*of researcher development at The University of Edinburgh.)

I wrote a few weeks ago about the importance of the Research Staff Survey. This morning the survey opened and I’m delighted to see that we’re already getting responses from colleagues. It would be great to hear from as many of you as possible and for you to tell us honestly about your experiences as a researcher here. The survey is your opportunity to tell us about your working conditions, careers aspirations and development opportunities.  It takes around 20 minutes to complete, is anonymous and can be saved part way through if you can’t complete it in one sitting.

All research staff should have received an email today, sent on behalf of Professor Jeremy Bradshaw, informing you that the Research Staff Survey is now live at the University of Edinburgh until the 10th May 2017. If you haven’t had this and think that you are eligible (you are a member of research staff, and employed primarily to conduct research) please let me know. If you are a research leader or principal investigator, you should have received a link to a different survey – again, it’s really important to us that you complete this so if you haven’t had an email from  this morning, please let us know.

The results of the surveys will have a direct influence on the strategy for researcher development here in IAD. There is a high level commitment to the survey and to listening to the messages that it generates. Although we always pay attention to feedback and suggestions, it’s fair to say that this one comes with an “amplifying effect” as we will use it to generate reports to senior management and use it as evidence for policies related to research and researchers in the University. Don’t let these decisions happen without your input.

A heartfelt thanks to all our researchers who complete the survey and I hope that you gain satisfaction as you see the impact of your influence in the next year or so . You have a voice today, please use it!

Keep Looking to Europe

A number of things prompted this week’s post – an email from a colleague in our Finance Department about spaces on some of their Financial Skills Development courses, including  “Managing an EU Research Grant Budget” (April 20th) and a meeting with our Research Support Office about another event “How to Write a Competitive Proposal for Horizon 2020” on May 24th. 

I’d also been running a Research Leaders course this week and heard about some recent successes from our academics in European funding (including an ERC Advanced award) and run a few workshops on funding. As part of the latter, I was pointing to various resources to help you tune into minds of funders and pointed to Phil Ward’s blog – Research Fundermentals. A recent post took stock of the European situation and I was particularly struck by Phil’s closing comments – “As a recent editorial in Nature, put it, ‘leaving the European Union is not yet a done deal, and UK researchers must look past a pay-off and take a stand.

The extent of your campaiging to urge more careful consideration of the implications of leaving the EU is a matter for you. However, the key line above is that “leaving the European Union is not yet a done deal” and we must continue to behave as the full members that we currently are. Many of the claims about UK applicants being treated unfavourably by reviewers and panels appear to be refuted by the latest results from those panelsl. We are still being awarded many grants and in fact, topped the table for the recent “Proof of Concept” awards as detailed in the Research Support Office’s recent blog.

The two workshops highlighted above demonstrate both the University’s current and future commitments to European funding streams. If you are planning to pursue an academic career, I’d encourage you to attend the proposal writing course which is given by one of the recognised experts in European funding and provides you with an opportunity to learn from his experience leading, reviewing and managing many projects.

If you are a researcher on a European funded projects, the other course could provide you with an opportunity to develop skills that will be valuable on the research and many other tracks. Why not discuss this with your current PI and come along to understand how the finances on these complex projects are managed?

Europe still presents us with many opportunities as researchers. Whatever the future holds, now is not the time to be stepping away from chances to develop your understanding and applying for funding.


Your career, your choices

I spent part of the afternoon talking to a researcher about science festivals. For the last 7 years I’ve been the director of Bang Goes the Borders, a community science festival which many Edinburgh researchers have supported over the years. Dr Gary Kerr from Salford University is doing a PhD on science festivals in society (yes, you read that right DOCTOR Gary Kerr is on his second PhD. He’s surprisingly normal.) We had a great chat about how the festival formed, has grown and where it is going.

As usual I felt a little defensive when asked questions about my aspirations for the festival, how it might grow and where we saw it going in the future. The reality is that a festival run by volunteers is always limited to the time and goodwill we can draw on. Our numbers are largely dictated by the venue we work in, so if we were to grow dramatically I don’t think it would be as much fun (and more seriously, potentially less safe). We have an event which is a recognised success and it works really well. Most importantly, I have no appetite to make this more complicated than it already is.  It’s fine as it is, but I felt awkward admitting that I don’t want it to grow. Then he turned off the tape recorder and I discussed this awkwardness – and of course discovered that it’s very common amongst the directors of festivals like mine and makes complete sense.

Gary also asked me about my engagement with science festival networks and I had to admit that I haven’t ever engaged with them. I’ve never felt I needed this because I was too busy getting on with things and assumed that their focus was on growth and world domination. When he pointed out that there are a number of festivals very similar to mine in the network and that they are probably facing similar challenges sustaining, rather than growing, I realized that I should take another look.

It struck me that there were parallels here with an email earlier in the day about a new research staff development framework we’ve developed. Most of our research staff can also be classified as “early career researchers” with up to five years’ research experience post-PhD. The programme has been written with them in mind and the statistical likelyhood that they will leave the academic path, whilst providing a fellowship track for those who want to pursue independent funding. However, there is a (much smaller) group who have extended their research careers for many more years and effectively become career postdocs. They work on contracts and projects (often precariously) but have little motivation in becoming principal investigators and group leaders. They love their specialism and want to continue to develop, but as researchers, not leaders. The email was about getting their reactions to some of our plans and letting me know where I’ve got it wrong.

I suspect they feel a little frustration about the relentless sense of needing to move on and up that pervades the postdoc years. I also suspect that they may not see kinds of things we do at the IAD as relevant to their needs (I hope this isn’t the case.) The universe sent Gary this afternoon to remind me that there are all kinds of choices in our careers and that we should support our researchers to follow all kinds of paths in all kinds of ways.

We remain committed to supporting researchers who want to leave academia, particularly if they have their choices undermined by messages around them which only focus on the academic path. This is the most likely destination for most of our research staff and we need to be more honest about their options and more supportive in helping them make transitions into new careers.  We will continue to help the next generation of research leaders to develop their ideas and proposals so they can grow new research groups. But we are also here to offer appropriate development to researchers following different trajectories.

I don’t know how it feels to be a long-term postdoc because I was never one, so I’m asking them. I’m looking forward to getting their feedback and seeing if this requires a re-think from us. A similar process is happening for technical staff, who are also welcome at our workshops and events.

If you feel that our programmes aren’t addressing your career challenges, then let me know. But please don’t assume that what we offer isn’t right for you. Whatever your choices about your career path and the way in which it will develop,  we will do our best to help.  But only if we know what you need.