Researcher Development at The University of Edinburgh

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.


Cracking the Code

This week I’ve been discussing the “lifecycle” of research staff in a variety of meetings and conversations. We are looking at how we make the wealth of information and support we can offer at IAD more accessible and how to become more visible in the researcher community. We’re just starting to review and plan our programme for the next academic year (so it’s a good time to let us know what you want). A number of projects starting to gain momentum which I’ll update on as they begin to deliver results.

The slight frustration I’ve felt at times is that many of the things that people want from us, are already in place. One of the most important of these, and the thing I’m going to focus on in this post, is our Code of Practice for the Management and Career Development of Research Staff. I suspect that this title puts people off – it sounds like a bureacratic document which sets out HR policies and regulations, but it’s not and I’d encourage you to take a look.

Written with clarity and straightforward checklists, our Code of Practice sets out the responsibilities of the researcher, their manager and the University in ensuring that both the researcher’s project and personal development receives appropriate support and attention. If you are uncertain about the types of conversations you could be having with your PI, the Code suggests that in the early stages of your contract they should be available to:

  • Discover the researcher’s interests and career aspirations and help them to explore relevant opportunities
  • Discuss and identify training and development needs and priorities for the researcher
  • Highlight university-wide and local mentoring schemes

As the project gains momentum, your PI should ensure your development is on track as they

  • Give feedback on strengths and weaknesses of the researcher’s contribution to the project and the group
  • Discuss whether the research is on target or if goals/timescales need to be adjusted
  • Encourage the take-up and review the outcomes of training and development where relevant
  • Highlight and create opportunities for professional academic activities such as supervision, teaching, writing grant applications, knowledge exchange and demonstrating research impact

Although I’ve chosen to extract sections relating to the PI’s responsibilities, the focus of the Code is on ensuring that our researchers are taking responsibilities for their own careers. It sets out the various career paths that are open to you at the end of your contract and urges you to prepare for the transition into either further research, an academic position or a role beyond the University. The message is to take control – and we’ll help you.

My postdoc years were in the 1990s (yes, before most of you were born…meh) and I was hugely fortunate in having two postdoc supervisors who were happy to talk to me about what I was going to do next, and then supported my transition away from the bench. At that point there was no information available about the career options and paths ahead which at times made me feel like I was the first postdoc to leave the research path. I wasn’t – the information we now have shows that I was in the majority!

So, please take advantage of these far better insights. Read the reports on the destinations of research staff and take the tailored advice available through our Careers Service. Become familiar with the Code of Practice and use it to help you plan a conversation with your PI about what will come next. Take control of your career and start looking at what is around to help you. I think you’ll be surprised – and if there’s something missing, let us know:  survey season approaches!


Remember the perks

I got very excited today after an email from a colleague letting me know about an offer related to Academic Book Week, being run by Blackwell’s in Edinburgh. This makes a selection of academic related e-books free to read for a period of time, giving you a perfect opportunity to try out a text. This week’s book includes a chapter on using social media in research and I thought would be a great way to see some ideas without having to commit to buying the book.

I got in touch with the shop and had a quick email exchange with the very helpful Jaki, who told me more about the offer and what other books were still available (I’ve included some of the details below, with her permission). I enjoyed the prospect of some “free stuff”, then stopped and reminded myself that I’m part of the University. “Free stuff” abounds. After years of having to annoy my academic friends in order to get access to peer reviewed articles rather than pay £30 a go, I keep forgetting that I can now enjoy the perks of our Library (and much, much more).

So, I had a little dig around the Library site and discovered the appropriately named Discover.Ed. It turns out that this week’s free book from Blackwells is always free if you’re a member of the University. I then did a quick search on a few of the books I’ve bought in recent months and found most of them.  Access is easy and I’ve now downloaded a few chapters to help me plan a couple of programmes in the next week.

If you’re a researcher here at Edinburgh, you may already be a regular reader of free ebooks, but I suspect it’s easy to forget that there’s far more to our library than textbooks and articles. If you are thinking about career and skills development, there are many titles to supplement our training programmes.

And for those of you who aren’t at Edinburgh, below you will find a little more about the Blackwell’s offer that prompted my stroll through the virtual shelves of the Library. As The Case of the Poisonous Socks isn’t available there, I’ll be redeeming my voucher on that…

Happy reading, both virtual and paper based.

Doing Your Research Project – free e-book offer

For any student and/or young researcher, Blackwell Edinburgh are giving away free, time-limited access to digital copies of Judith Bell and Stephen Waters’ Doing Your Research Project, A Guide for First-Time Researchers this week. If you’d like a little more information, the book is here on the Blackwell website in its physical version, or here as digital.

There is absolutely no purchase necessary to obtain the e-book, and it can be read on any internet-accessible device. However, the offer is for a week’s free access rather than perpetual access. Sections can be printed or saved, and after a week you will be offered continuing access to the full text at a reduced rate.

If you would like to take advantage of this offer, individual access codes are available as cards from the Blackwell Bookshop on South Bridge, or via e-mail singly or in bulk for distance learners and others from Academic Manager Jaki Hawker,

This e-book offer is part of Academic Book Week, and Blackwell’s have also offered How to Get a First, SPSS Survival Manual, Academic Writing, The Case of the Poisonous Socks, Galileo’s Finger: The Ten Great Ideas of Science, and Powerhouse. If you’d like codes for any of these titles, please contact Jaki, who will be glad to help.

Have your say

We are gearing up for the launch of the set of 2017 researcher surveys. Every two years we participate in the national programme of acronyms – CROS (we call this the Research Staff Survey at Edinburgh) and PIRLS – to help us evaluate our impact in the university, understand the current concerns and situations of researchers and look ahead to future developments.

We’re now asked for our opinions about everything. It’s impossible to buy a cup of tea, walk through an airport or click on a website these days without being asked to rate services and experience. If you’ve attended any of our programmes you’ll have been sent an evaluation form (and hopefully completed it) and we spend a lot of our time meeting researchers, supervisors and support staff to ensure we’re on the right track.

These interactions give us valuable information, but the national surveys give us far, far more. They allow us (and more importantly you, our researchers) to see how we compare with other institutions. They give you the chance to explain about the whole of your experience as a researcher so we can design programmes and projects which have the greatest impact. The information you give us also helps us to develop more effective partnerships with other supportive people in the University.

As I look back at the results of the last few surveys the influence they have had on our practice is clear to see. Your calls for greater support on grant writing led to progammes for early and mid career researchers delivered by our colleagues in the Research Support Office. We’ve broadened the scope of our public engagement training to help more of you get involved in outreach and festivals. There are now courses to help researchers develop teaching skills which will be part of future job applications and created courses which count towards Higher Education Academy Fellowships for those with enough teaching experience.

We’ve introduced writing retreats to help you deliver key outputs; we run new courses on assertiveness to help you negotiate more control in your career and on networking to boost your profile and reputation.

Our next big ambition is to make our support more flexible and open by moving some materials online. This will involve a lot of decisions about which topics people are likely to engage with, which need to be available year around and which lend themselves to online delivery. Our “face-to-face” programme will also expand but we’ll need to prioritise. Please be part of this process by giving us a sense of what you need – the surveys will explictly ask about online support, so let us know what you need.


The Edinburgh surveys open at the end of this month and we will be promoting them through newsletters, meetings, at events and on social media. All our research staff, principal investigators and research leaders will receive a link to the relevant survey, once they open at the end of March.  At times it may get a little wearing to receive yet another request to complete the survey, but please take it as a sign that your opinion is critical to the shape and scope of researcher development here. We’re ready to listen – are you ready to talk?

Tipping the scales of writing

A few weeks ago I dropped in on one of the follow up sessions that we offered to the alumni from one of our programmes. The group had asked for help with writing and came in search of some magical tips that would help them to make more progress with their plans.

Writing is one of the areas that we offer most support for in IAD. We run writing retreats, train people to run writing retreats, have courses on many different aspects of writing (see the lists for postgraduate researchers and research staff ) available face to face and online.

I’m talking to a few different schools about how we can support staff to develop better strategies for writing in schedules which are dominated by teaching, supervision and other duties.  The struggles that many researchers face with writing are partly to do with this “fragmentation” of time, although there are ways to carve out writing time, and you may find some suggestions in the ten tips described by Raul Pacheco . Although it is possible to write some things under fairly challenging conditions (yes, I’m looking at you ScotRail) and in small pockets of time, the nature of academic writing is such that it often requires a particular set of conditions to be met. And even then the muse doesn’t always strike.

Just before I started my job here I had to complete a number of fairly substantial writing projects. Despite setting aside time to complete these, I often found that on the writing days, that I was lost for words. Eventually all the projects were completed and so far it looks as though they were completed well enough to achieve what was expected of them. I just wish that I could write with less pain and frustration.

As part of the writing session we talked about what makes us write well and I realised that my writing happens when certain tipping points occur. In the early stages of writing, it feels like the scales are imbalanced and that there are more things stopping me from writing than driving me to action. Over time, I can feel the scales start to move, although this can also be the most stressful time – I start to feel the urgency of the piece but still don’t make any substantial progress. Finally things tip over and I can usually write fairly quickly once I feel that internal momentum is in place.


So having articulated this insight a few weeks ago I’ve been trying to work out what I can “add to the scales” to write with less pain. These are some of the things that help me – if you also struggle to get started, keep going or finish, it may be worth thinking about how your personal scales can be loaded differently.



I’m more likely to write…

  • With a fixed and immovable deadline so I try to set these for important pieces of writing. These don’t have to be with other people – I’m trying to blog every week and even though this is challenging, I don’t want to miss this internal deadline.
  • If it’s on a topic that I have a good story about The deadline only works if the words are there. What’s interesting through is that often the story is in my head, albeit in a draft form. I suspect that for many people who struggle with writing it isn’t that they don’t have anything to say. Perhaps it’s good to remind yourself of this because I think every other problem is more easily addressed!
  • If someone else is waiting for the work and I have made a commitment to them I don’t like to let people down so including other people in the process can create momentum through guilt and fear of disappointing others. One thing I’m trying at the moment is being part of a group of four who have shared writing plans and will nudge each other to keep making progress.
  • When I’ve worked out a structure and can write shorter sections rather than as a whole It’s a cliche, but you can’t eat the elephant in one bite. I can usually motivate myself to write a couple of pages at a time, so if I can create a structure with this kind of scale, I find it easier to make progress.
  • When it becomes a habit A few months ago I started to send a daily email to a group. At first it was hugely daunting, but over the month I was committd to it became easier and seems to fuel other writing. I find the early mornings the best time to write, but I don’t let this stop me writing at other times.
  • In certain places I have always had problems working from home despite doing it for many years. I can often write well on the train, in public (that sense of guilt kicks in again) and in a group. I suspect I’m not alone, which explains why our writing retreats and movements like Shut Up and Write are so popular.


So, if you have intent to write but aren’t getting the words to flow out of you, what might tip your scales?

You are the next World Class Supervisor

This is our first guest post on iad4researchers and I’m delighted that Dr Kay Guccione (@kayguccione) at the University of Sheffield took the time to share her perspectives on the valuable role postdocs play in supervision. Unless there are factual errors I won’t be making any edits to our guest posts, so their views are their own.

Postdocs view experience in supervision, teaching and learning as core to scoring that academic career (Akerlind 2005). And post-doctoral research staff are actually very active in teaching and learning*. I believe that post-docs are a really important but often under-recognised group of teachers in research intensive universities. Development of an academic sense of self is in part a result of having the right formal institutional responsibilities and resources (McAlpine et al., 2013) yet, post-docs aren’t often included directly in university Learning & Teaching strategies, or seen as key assets with specific skills, position, and the right experience to teach. So, the work they do tends to be under the radar, informal, ad hoc, and without formal permissions or structures in place that recruit, recognise or reward post-doc teaching. It’s not always included in the post-doc job description for example, or during the annual appraisal systems. Yet, the sector en masse believes it’s a function that post-docs, if they want to progress their careers, should be engaging with — it’s right there on the Researcher Development Framework. And it comes up at interviews for lectureships too, to a greater or lesser extent depending who’s interviewing.

Often I speak to post-docs who complain they can’t get ‘supervision experience for their CV’ — but any opportunities we create for post-docs to be supervisors have to be about much more than a line on a CV. If we want to promote the concept of ‘World Class Supervision’ (which DOES get a mention in Learning & Teaching strategies), departments need to stop employing academic staff who are just great at research.

So, where do early career researchers learn not just how to ‘do supervision but also what it’s like to ‘be a supervisor in a university setting. Not just enough to ‘get the job’, but to actually ‘do a good job’? Not by the solo act of attending a workshop (which is a good start) but by actually putting in the hours of supervision practice that embeds real understanding. By doing academic work for real, on the job. Look at the list below again, the top five on the list are real supervision experiences.

Supervision is a form of 1:1 teaching, and like all teaching, in order to become good at it we need to practice at it, in a self-aware way. The best way I know of becoming aware of what you know, what you’ve done, why, and how, is to apply for nationally recognised accreditation as Fellow or Associate Fellow through the Higher Education Academy. At Edinburgh the link to find out more is here (SS note – and we welcome the chance to support postdocs through our teaching programmes.)

So how can early career researchers learn not just how to ‘do supervision’ but actually how to ‘be a supervisor’. 

At the University of Sheffield, I designed a Thesis Mentoring programme where the mentors are post-docs, trained in mentoring. They meet fortnightly with their mentee over 16 weeks and they discuss everything to do with the practices of academic writing — from how to overcome negative thinking, to how to integrate data with the literature, to how to create a writing plan you can stick to, to how to get the feedback you need from your supervisor in a timely way. They help PhD writers chunk the task down, focus on what they can achieve, and figure out what works for them.

Mentors tell me that after participating they feel more confident helping PhD writers in their own groups and departments. They also tell me that they feel way more informed about what support PhD students need, how to motivate them, and how to deal with difficult issues. Sounds like World Class Supervision to me.

Perhaps you as a post-doc don’t have a similar programme to belong to? How you can emulate this without the institutional structures in place? Below are guidelines for setting yourself up as a thesis mentor:

  1. Read your university’s PGR Code of Practice on thesis writing so you know what the rules are.
  2. Research ‘what do mentors do’ (and see the video below) — often mentoring is equated with advice giving, but also think about a more sophisticated repertoire beyond just giving advice. Read here for some ideas about what Sheffield mentors do.
  3. Decide how much time can you give to this — how many 1h sessions per person, how often, how many mentees?
  4. Decide what you won’t cover as part of your mentoring — be ready to signpost to other places at your university that cover the things you can’t (see image below).
  5. Create yourself a template ‘agreement form’ so you can set out with each mentee with a clear set of expectations (one is shared with you here).
  6. Email PhD writers in your dept. and see who’s interested, arrange to meet on campus.
  7. Don’t forget to ask them how they’re finding it and get their feedback before your next session.



For universities to do this properly we have to look around at the value that research staff offer to our teaching & learning, and supervision strategies, and put structures in place to enable our future visions of excellent supervision. Rather than viewing post-docs as unqualified amateurs, having a play at teaching to get the experience, recognise there are teaching jobs in universities that ONLY POST-DOCS can do. Thesis support is one of those things.

But until we change our institutional approaches to recognising the value of post-docs, it’s up to you to navigate and familiarise yourselves with the work you will be doing every day as an academic member of staff.

*teaching is way more than standing a lecture room spouting off.

  • In the lab teaching new people techniques, making sure they’re competent and safe
  • looking over the data students generate and helping them interpret
  • tutoring informally e.g. supporting people who are new/feeling pressure/struggling with writing etc
  • managing project students
  • giving feedback to peers and students on their ‘practice’ presentations
  • running a journal club, especially if you facilitated a discussion, wrote guidance etc
  • facilitating on undergrad/masters/doctoral modules e.g. research methods or research ethics
  • second marking, or substitute marking, or unofficial ‘please help me’ marking
  • peer mentoring of colleagues
  • writing for a research-communication blog
  • doing outreach or public engagement — teaching different audiences
  • running an event where you have thought about how people will learn something e.g. inviting a career talk and providing guidance to the speaker
  • designing an evaluation that feeds back into design of the next event or opportunity
  • contributing to learning & development agendas, e.g. being active on a post-doc committee that steers the work of researcher developers
  • Contributing to a network designed to share learning or knowledge e.g. a software users group.

McAlpine, L., Amundsen, C., & Turner, G. (2013). Identity-trajectory: Reframing early career academic experience. British Educational Research Journal.

Åkerlind, G. S. (2005). Postdoctoral researchers: Roles, functions and career prospects. Higher Education Research & Development.

SS note: If you know of good practice or ideas in Edinburgh or other institutions that we could feature here, please let me know. If you want to suggest a topic or author for a post, I’d be delighted to hear from you and I’m happy to reciprocate if of mutual benefit. 

Come, join us…

I’m very excited that we are currently advertising for a Researcher Well-Being Intern to work with us in the summer. This is open to 2nd, 3rd and penultimate year undergraduate students from the University of Edinburgh and will give you a chance to work with us on a project which will directly the way we support our research students and staff. I wrote a blog on this topic last week which may be useful background for potential applicants.

More details are below and we’d be very grateful for any help in publicising the vacancy. If you know of a student who is interested in wellbeing and resilience, considering a research career or curious about higher education issues, please encourage them to apply or contact me for more information. The closing date is Feb 19th so get cracking!

Job Purpose:
As pressures on researchers increase, gaining a greater understanding of researcher well-being and how it can be supported and promoted is essential. The main purpose of this internship is to undertake a project focusing on the promotion and support of well-being for researchers at the University. There will also be opportunities to become involved in a range of other activities and projects as part of the researcher development programme.

Main Responsibilities:
• Conduct an initial scoping exercise which highlights relevant research into researcher well-being, identifies existing support and proposes priorities for future work. Produce a written summary of this work.
• Undertake some national and international benchmarking into the ways in which other institutions are supporting researcher well-being.
• Liaise with other support units and Schools at the University to build up an overview of well-being for researchers and identify links and synergies.
• Generate ideas and draft text for webpages and other support materials

The intern can hope to build on the following skills/ experience during their project:
– Analytical and reporting skills
– Time management and organisation
– Team-working
– Strategic thinking
– Project development

Person Specification:

• A 2nd to penultimate year undergraduate student
• Excellent written English
• Strong organisational skills and the ability to prioritise
• Excellent interpersonal skills
• Attention to detail
• The ability to complete tasks and to meet tight deadlines
• Willingness to work as a team and work collaboratively
• Ability to use data from various sources to draw conclusions and make recommendations
• Digital/ IT skills

• An interest in well-being
• An interest in researcher development.

IAD is a great place to work and we’re looking forward to hosting an intern for the summer and hearing their ideas about how to address this important topic effectively and appropriately.