Wake up and smell the statistics

This morning I was working with the Researcher Development team on restructuring the section of our website aimed at research staff. Once we’re got some feedback from research staff and those who support them (please let me know if you want to give us your thoughts on our plans), we’ll have a busy summer developing new content, connecting to other support around the University and finding resources from further afield.

After spending the morning continually asking ourselves “what do research staff come looking for and what do they need to find?” I then dashed to join the SRHE “Postgraduate study and employability” conference which was happening just up the road. The reason for my haste was to catch the presentation by Dr Charlie Ball from the Higher Education Careers Services Unit on the postgraduate labour market.

Charlie and I go back a long way – we collaborated on the first ever analysis of PhD destination data and spoke on the phone most days trying to work out how to extract the information we needed from the information we had. I was delighted to hear that after much lobbying (and I suspect some tears of frustration) he has convinced the gods of destination data gathering to include a box on the form which PhD graduates complete which asks “are you a postdoc?” This, along with his excellent work over the last (ahem) years means that we have a much clearer picture of the paths that researchers take through their careers.

Photo by Luanarodriquez at Morguefile.com

Since the very first analysis over ten years ago, we’ve known that over half PhD graduates leave universities on graduation and never return. Yes, really – immediately on graduation OVER HALF leave academia. We know that those who stay are mostly on fixed term research and teaching contracts (with clear discipline differences in career paths between STEM and AHSS). We know that of these, only a minority continue along the academic path. We know that PhD graduates and former research staff move into a wide array of sectors and roles. Compared to my own time as a postdoc, when our options away from the university or industries related to our research were a complete mystery, researchers now have a wealth of information about their options.

And yet…  some of the old myths seem determined not to die.

One of the clearest messages I’ve had from our schools has been to be really explicit about the small number of academic opportunities available. One of the new developments on our webpages will be a section which highlights the different options and how widely employable researchers are outside universities. I have never seen the solution to the mismatch between the number of researchers we train and the number of academic posts, as taking steps to reduce the former.  Instead I think we should celebrate the value that research training has to both the individual and their future employers.  Let’s face it, populating the labour market with people with high-level critical analysis, a habit of behaving with integrity and personal tenacity is no bad thing.

Someone asked a question about what we it will take to ensure researchers transition more easily into the wider labour market. Charlie’s answer included the suggestion that a wider range of employers should be aware of the value of PhDs – something that is happening through secondments in doctoral programmes and projects like one run by the University of Aberdeen to place research staff for short projects with local companies. (Those of us who have been in researcher development for too long will recall this approach taken with great success by Cardiff University at the turn of the millennium.)

So, today’s post is in part a thank you to Charlie for his work over the last (ahem) years improving the quality of data about researcher destinations and disseminating facts which have challenged a number of assumptions, but also a wake up call to any researcher who thinks that a PhD or postdoc puts them “over the hump” of the journey to an academic career. It’s a counter to any local messages you hear that the academic career is the only real path open and that everything else is a failure or compromise. Or that there aren’t any interesting opportunities out there that would match your interests or values.

Rather tantalisingly (don’t judge me for finding destination data tantalising) he mentioned that comparisons of Bachelors, Masters and Doctoral level destinations show that some career areas appear to open up at PhD level – it would be great to know more about this and to be able to highlight these positive messages about the wider and added value of a PhD. In an attempt to revisit our youth we’re going to try to identify a new project to collaborate on, perhaps on this theme.

My PhD and postdoc experience have paid a dividend throughout my career, not simply because of choosing to work in researcher development, but because of the skills I gained through doing research AND the wider opportunities I took whilst at university. YOUR PhD and postdoc experience will do the same for you, but start preparing for what comes next. The data tells a compelling story. Start building your CV so it tells just as compelling a story about your value.

Retreat and Write

2016-04-23 15.31.19
Photo by Diannehope at Morguefile.com

This week started with a rare treat – a whole day to write. More accurately, I was facilitating a writing retreat for our current cohort of CAHSS Mid-Career Fellows, but I took the opportunity to join them in spirit as well as body.

Writing retreats are one of the most popular offerings from IAD, probably a reaction to the double whammy of fragmented academic time and increased pressure to produce outputs. We based our approach on the work of Professor Rowena Murray and in advance of the retreat we encourage all those attending to read the Murray and Newton paper which considers the value of structured writing interventions.

At the end of the day, I asked people to briefly consider if there was anything they could take away which might help to write in less focused circumstances. We talked about the ease or difficulty of writing at different times of the day which reminded me of the work of Dr Raul Pacheco-Vega, in particular a blog post in which he shared his academic writing approach. He talked about both the discipline of writing every day but also finding a slot where this is possible. For him it’s around 5am – perhaps linked to another of his pieces of advice which is about not being interrupted. The early morning writing habit was admitted by several of us in the room.

Another tip was making an appointment with yourself to write and preparing for the appointment in the same way that you would any other (because clearly everyone reads committee papers in advance). This isn’t just about putting a writing slot in your diary (although in an era of shared diaries you should do this and make sure it appears as “busy” rather than “tentative”) but about starting that appointment with a clear plan. All preparations in place, tools to hand and ready to make the most of the time available. Someone mentioned that they’d “saved up” their best writing ideas for the day so it felt like more of a treat and an occasion that they weren’t going to squander.

We also talked about the guilt of not writing when in a room full of people who know you should be. There’s many a “you should be writing” meme that you can print out and have glaring at you when you lift an eye from the screen or page, nothing is as effective as another human. There was nothing competitive about the atmosphere, so I don’t want to suggest there was an unseemly comparison of word count in each break. More that we all gently willed each other on to keep pushing on until the end of each slot. Someone referred to this as “strength in numbers”.

However, despite the fact that it’s possible to weave some of the features of the retreat into a daily routine, when asked if they could see a way to achieve some of the same value, for some the answer was a clear “no”. The cumulative effect was key to the impact of the day. One person talked about their final hour being the most productive by far. Although there might be some value in the planning and scheduled commitment, nothing could come close to the impact of being able to achieve a flow.

The fact it has again taken me until late on a Friday to do this week’s blog (& Sunday  to post it) shows that these habits aren’t easy to weave into busy schedules, but here are some things that might help.

SUAW and mini retreats – there is a regular SUAW hour on Twitter each Tuesday which could help achieve a sense of strength in virtual numbers. There may also be part or half day retreats in your school which you can attend when you need to. The Mason Institute runs a fortnightly retreat, but you could start one – IAD has written a facilitator guide which I used as the basis for the one this week.

Writing plans – I often plan to spend time on writing, but then get slightly paralysed thinking about what to write. The process of mapping out each of the hours in the retreat meant that I started the first hour almost effortlessly. This might be a good use of the next writing slot – to make a set of writing plans rather than fail to write.

Write by hand – this was an interesting reflection from one person. We start the day with a free writing warm up exercise and at points he found it easier to return to pen and paper. If the distractions of a keyboard and screen prove impossible to resist, perhaps it’s better to go back to basics and get a first draft out the old fashioned way.

Whatever helps you to write, persevere.

Success in Funding

Photo by Quicksandala at Morguefile.com

This blog is based on a talk I gave for our PGCAP. Given that a repeated message during the day was about the appalling tendency of academics to use acronyms that mean nothing to people outside their narrow field, I will of course elucidate… The Post Graduate Certificate in Academic Practice.

My talk was part of a day delivered jointly between IAD and the Research Support Office (RSO) on the theme of building a stronger research profile. As part of this, participants were given an overview of some key strategic funding opportunities by my colleague, Catherine Burns, from RSO and then asked to consider the funders and schemes best suited to their research experience and interests. I then closed the afternoon with a few perspectives on what makes for a successful application and applicant.

My slides are here (Funding landscape_SS) but I wanted to use today’s blog post to add some detail to the presentation and explain why I made the points it covers. I’ll also try to include what I can remember of the additional points made by Gordon and Hamish from RSO. The presentation was built around 6 big ideas:

  • Pick the Right Funder
  • Understand the Funder
  • Understand the Process
  • Convince the Reader of the Proposal’s Importance
  • Present the Right Profile and Experience
  • Get the Right Support

Pick the right funder 

Once again I used this section to encourage people to feed their inner wonk as I think this becomes much easier if you have read the key strategic reports which are influencing UK research funding. You also need to understand how the University is reacting to these. Our current funding landscape is incredibly complex but that’s good news for us because we have a team of experts who will help you to navigate it.

Understand the funder

Once you’ve worked out the best fit, the next stage is to research the funder. They will usually have a bigger purpose – can you work out what it is? If it isn’t clear from their strategy documents and vision statements, look at examples of successful awards and  how they come to decisions about funding. Looking at the track records of successful applicants will also help you work out what they expect to see in your CV on the way to this proposal. The clues are all out there, but also find out what internal expertise we have – Edinburgh is full of reviewers, panel members and successful grant holders. Pick their brains.

Understand the process

Decisions about the funding usually involve a multistage process. Any proposal must be effective at each stage and meet the needs of the different audiences it will face. The first hurdle is to apply for schemes you are eligible for. Don’t ignore this point because it is always the first thing that any programme manager will say when asked about funding success. (This suggests they spend a lot of time returning unsuitable applications.) The next gatekeeper is the  reviewer, who I described as an expert with a magnifying glass – they will scrutinise costings, feasibility, methodology. Finally the panel play their part, but they have to look from the helicopter. Their concerns are about the big ideas in the proposal – what’s the state of the art, why are you novel and why should anyone care?

Convince the Reader of the Proposal’s Importance

These points came from reflections on proposals I’ve seen over last few years (with the cautionary note that these have mostly been complex EU and doctoral cohort grants). Despite the size and detail in these I can still remember the ones that were well written. I felt a sense of excitement about the research and an almost personal commitment to getting the funding. You want to get reader to feel that excitement. You want them to sense how important it is to you and that they want to play their part in getting it funded. It’s difficult to explain how to do this, but if you read a few successful grants you’ll udnerstand what I mean.

I would find it almost impossible to find the right tone of voice to achieve this on my own, so my advice is to get lots of people to read it as it develops. Look for people who can represent the reviewer and panel perspectives and find a way to convince both sets of decision makers with your writing.

Taking this apporach is also more liekly to result in an application which is easy to read and understand. This often manifests itself as internal consistency – a phrase I first heard from a very experienced panel member. This means that the idea is developed in a way that the reader can follow – all the key information is there and builds to convince that this is the right time, the right way and the right person. Ultimately it achieves the right outcome. When you set the context this leads to the core question which leads to the approach you will take which leads to the results you’ll expect which leads to the grand change in the world you are promising. (At no point should the reader feel baffled about anything that’s suddenly been thrown in – guide us gently through your big ideas.)

Present the Right Profile and Experience

This means that I’m convinced you are the right person for the job. Funding research is a risky business, not just in terms of who you give the money to, but also who you don’t. Every rejected proposal is a huge missed opportunity, so panelists want to be convinced that you are worth that risk. They need to see consistency between your track record and ambition; they need to see you will be able to achieve results because of experience and skills; they need to see you are working with the right people and these people want to work with you. In short, convince them you are safe.

Get the Right Support

This covers a number of ideas. There are the actual “letters of support” which must be specifically enthusiastic and committed. You want them to talk about how important the work will be to them and what a difference it will make, rather than general luke warm sentiments. Whilst thinking about this, remember that you take these people out of the reviewer pool by including them in the proposal, so pause for a moment and think who you want cheering from the inside and who you hope might cheer from the outside.

Anyone who reviews the proposal has the potential to become one of your cheerleaders,  so make it easy to read and easy to review. Understand the review process and structure your proposal to present all the information they need and to be convincing about the strength of your case.

Finally, remember that your reputation may walk into the room ahead of you. Are you out building your profile through seminars, visits, collaboration and engaging with others. What do people say about you and your work? Think about your uncontainable self and make sure that everyone who could be an advocate knows about your plans.  This way they can highlight your potential and achievements to the right people.

The final message is that there is an art to grant writing and it does come with practice, feedback and guidance. To anyone reading this I wish you good luck, but also the message that failure isn’t personal. Keep trying.

A couple of final references:

Arevalo, J. A Measure of Excellence of Young European Research Council Grantees Research Management Review, Volume 21, Number 1 (2016) I spotted this on twitter during the European Association of Research Managers and Administrators Conference which I sadly didn’t attend in Malta. (No, not bitter. I like Birmingham.) It’s not perfect – our local expert isn’t convinced of the link between h-index and success, but it shows that you can learn a lot about funding by doing a bit of research.

The reference above to the “Uncontainable Self” comes via the Digital Footprint MOOC and is taken from The academic online: Constructing persona through the World Wide Web Kim Barbour and David Marshall First Monday Volume 17, Number 9 – 3 September 2012 


Resilient Researchers

Photo by ImBooToo at Morguefile.com

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.)

Photo by Diannehope at Morguefile.com

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

Photo by Ladyheart at Morguefile.com

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 https://duckduckgo.com

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: http://occamstypewriter.org/athenedonald/

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 jobs.ac.uk. 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.


Photo by Clarita at Morguefile.com

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…)