Taking Control of Your Career


September has been a big month for researcher development at Edinburgh. Last week the response of the Concordat Steering Group to the Concordat Review was published. This week we have started the recruitment process* for our Inclusion Matters project (*don’t get too excited yet – but we hope to have the adverts open by mid October) and we’re about to begin the consultation for our new Strategic Leadership in Research programme which aims to build a cohort of future big grant leaders.

Today I’m in IGMM giving a short careers seminar to their postdoc network, PODS. My focus is going to be on how the following recommendation in the Concordat Review needs to be translated in action from researchers and institutions.

Recommendation 4: There should be increased support for researcher independence, including autonomy in their own career development, and the freedom to innovate.

• A revised Concordat should address the tension between PIs and postdoctoral independence, setting out clearly the obligations for both groups.

• There should be increased emphasis and support, by both funders and employers, for uptake of researchers’ 10 days training allowance.

• Development of researcher independence should be supported through allocated time within grants.

• 20% of a researcher’s time should be allowed for developing independent research and skills.

My slides are here and that final bullet point features heavily:

PODS postdoc talk

My talk will focus on the need for researchers to be able to make coherent career plans if they want to make the most of the opportunity that the new Concordat will offer (assuming that the final consultations leads to inclusion of the 20% in funders’ terms and conditions). In simple terms to make a career plan you need to know where you are and where you want to be.

I’ll also be referring to the various opportunities that are open to postdocs in the university and more widely (perhaps referencing my earlier blog on broader development) including public engagement, committee membership, funding and supervision.

In a few weeks I’ll be working with our School of Chemistry to develop a template for career conversations between researchers and their managers and will share the outputs on this blog. For now, if you are a researcher, there’s much to be pleased with in the Concordat Review, but remember that the opportunity for developing independence and skills comes with added responsibility for developing a strong career plan. Let us know how we can help you with this – and feel free to use these slides and ask for other resources if you want to run your own career seminar.

Added post session: There was interest in information about researcher career options at the workshop. The most comprehensive set of resources on this topic is on the Vitae website:

Researcher Careers

This includes 150 researcher stories, copies of various reports on doctoral and post-doctoral destinations and careers resources to help you plan your next steps, whatever sector or role appeals. For those who were interested in how to market research experience in more general terms there are sample CVs aimed at a variety of sectors.

I also mentioned that the University is full of non-academic staff who may have career insights to share. A research background is often advantageous in research-related professional services roles – the Research Support Office and IAD are two areas which recruit into roles which would value a PhD and research experience.


Learning outside the (IAD) box

I had a meeting with a post-doc this morning and we were talking about her career and the next steps to take. Earlier in the week I’d been working with another postdoc on a fellowship application which needed to include a professional development plan and in both cases the training that we offer in IAD, although extensive and tailored to postdocs, wasn’t the right fit. (I add with some haste that I’m not offering career 1:1s with all postdocs – the first was someone I had interviewed for a post recently and we were meeting so I could give her some feedback on her performance at interview and the second was a researcher who is going to be supporting me on one of the EPSRC projects which I’m a Co-Investigator – more on these on the blog soon!)

I was able to draw on the strategies I have for my own professional development. Having spent years running leadership programmes, I’m a bit of an oddity in career terms and I’ve not found a course or programme in the University yet that I think is right for me or my role. That doesn’t mean I haven’t developed since I started here 20 months ago. In fact I think that this has been one of the most intensive periods of personal development since I moved from being a postdoc to a trainee careers adviser. Much of my development has come from taking opportunities (such as the EPSRC grants and the Ingenious Women Scotland award from the Scottish Government) and from saying yes to events and projects which were different from things I’d done before, (trying not to listen to the imposter syndrome whispers in my head.) One of the highlights was last year’s trip to India to work on research for international development which I blogged about at the time, and another was running a senior (really senior) leadership consultation event for another university which was terrifying and brilliant.

Other development opportunities have come from using the networks that stretch beyond the University, particularly the learned societies. I was a member of the RSC for many years and have a “you’re a chemist – ugh-  but we’ll let you in as long as you don’t touch anything” membership of the IOP so these networks have been open, but interestingly most of my recent development has come from the British Computing Society Women Scotland group.

The link came about because of the Ingenious Women programme as we ran a series of networking events earlier in the year to raise awareness of the programme and get women in STEM roles together. At one of these I spoke alongside Sharon Moore OBE from IBM and we instantly hit it off. Sharon then asked me if I’d like to come and give a longer version of the talk from that evening at a BCS Women evening. Many of their events are open to all so I agreed and had a great evening talking about luck with a very lively group in the Informatics Forum a few months ago. (Stephanie Zhims, a postdoc at Heriot Watt was in the audience and blogged about the talk.)

Last night I was at another event run by BCS Women in the RBS headquarters in Gogarburn run jointly with the RBS Women Network. The theme of the night was “The High Potentials and Top Talent Registers” and the speaker, Gail Logan shared with us the gist of a book written with a “big corporate” perspective. Not all of the X-Factors of high potentials translate to an academic career path, but it was interesting to think about what makes people stand out and I went way with some new ideas. In other words, just what I hope our research staff get from our programmes. (I’ll write a second blog about the X-Factor model.)

Although interesting, the main learning of the night came from talking to the other women there. I had a great conversation about women who were a similar age to me about how we’d been “high potential” at points in our careers and then things had changed for us – sometimes a change in leadership, sometimes a change in our life circumstances or a feeling that you’d taken a particular set of skills and knowledge as far as you were interested in. I took along my daughter who is about to get her first leadership role at school and she found it fascinating to hear all the career stories from people across a roughly 35 year age range.

So, if you look at the programmes that we offer and you don’t see anything I’d encourage you to come and talk to us as we introduce new workshop all the time. Don’t stop there though – if you can design your own development approach and take advantage of the events that are happening all around the city and beyond, you’ll give yourself the high potential advantage. And if commitments or circumstances prevent attendance, look out for blogs and videos (there’s one of mine for example which I’ll try to track down and link from here.)

If you fancy attending a future BCS Women Scotland event, many (not all) are open to non-members – I found out about this one through twitter, but you can also join the events mailing list.


Shut Up and Wrote

This is a quick blog at the end of a self-imposed exile to the Borders to get a few key bits of writing done ahead of my holiday. I used the principles at the heart of our writing retreats but used twitter to replace the colleagues who are usually in the room with me when I run or attend these. Sharing objectives at the start of the day has helped people focus on the retreats I’ve helped out on over the summer, so I wanted to keep this element despite my isolation.

A couple of my writing goals were pretty straightforward (writing up notes from an interview for our upcoming fellowship guide) and turning a workshop on resilience into an article for Fearless Femme. I started with the easiest because it also involved someone else who I needed to review and approve my work. I wanted to give them as much time to do this as possible and to make the deadline even more “real” I told them that they’d get it today.

With productive use made of the short break, I got back to the keyboard. This was a tough hour – it took three attempts to find the right voice for my article, but after about 25  minutes of false starts I managed to find a flow and hit the word target. more importantly I wrote something I was pleased with. Happily, it looks like the Fearless Femmes are happy to – this is an important piece as it will be in a rare printed edition of Fearless Femme that we’re producing for Freshers’ Week (I don’t think they call it that any more but I’m very old and don’t spend enough time with undergraduates to change my ways…). So, time for another tweet update.

This mimics the updates that we get people to give during the retreats – it’s helpful to be reminded that you haven’t failed if you haven’t hit your word count, but that it might be a sign that you need to be more realistic with the next target. I managed to achieve both of these first two goals, although it’s worth noting that I was very generous with myself when anticipating the time I’d need. In reality it wasn’t quite enough and by lunchtime I was running about 30 minutes behind schedule.

I took the planned lunch break (the breaks are important in our retreats, especially if you are struggling!) and then onto the big meaty project. It’s worth noting why I chose to write in this order. The project after lunch was the most important but I didn’t start with it because I’ve been struggling a little to get to grips with it over the last month. I wanted to have a morning of getting into flow and hitting targets. This time, that strategy paid off, but I’m aware that the writing muse is an elusive little beast and she doesn’t always strike twice in the same way…

One thing I did before lunch was to get everything I’d need to for big project ready to go. All the source material I needed and a document ready to populate with content –  i just needed to pop things into the report structure which was all ready. Time to shut up and write…and write… and write.

I managed to get the report finished, but it took a lot longer than expected (to be honest there was no way I was going to get it done in an hour), but once I was making progress it was easier to keep going. This is one of the weaknesses of our retreats – if you hit your stride we will still interrupt you to stick to the plan – write – rest – write – rest – write – share schedule. Sorry.

I don’t think I would have made the progress I’ve made if I was in my office, as I’m easily distracted by colleagues and not very good at resisting the call of Levels. So some lessons on why I think my writing worked today

  1. I told people I was writing at home today and I would have been embarrassed to show my face tomorrow with no progress made
  2. I had someone else (important) waiting for the first thing on my to do list which helped me get on with it
  3. I took breaks in the morning when I wasn’t writing very productively rather than trying to push on
  4. I turned off email, social media and wifi to minimise distractions
  5. I drank plenty of water through the day which I think helped to keep my head clear

If you are trying to make progress on writing projects over the summer, I hope this might spur you on to finding your own best methods. Don’t forget that you can download the guide to writing retreats and other resources to help you write on the Researcher Development website. 


Criteria to collaborate

safety plan
 A simple project safety plan

Last week two ideas collided in my head. One of the upsides of a busy schedule is that I’m constantly hopping from topic to topic under the very broad umbrella of researcher development. The two big ideas that came together were mental health and collaboration.

The mental health element came from the conference I co-organised for the Universities Scotland Research Training Sub-Committee on Researcher Mental Health (that link takes you to the programme) which included a range of talks and workshops. I took full advantage of having responsibility for finding speakers to invite Eve Hepburn of Fearless Femme and Olivia Kirtley  of KU Leuven who both gave important and insightful expert views. The one that stuck in my head and refused to go away was about a “safety plan” which came from a conversation with Olivia the day before the conference (again a perk of being the speaker organiser is that you have first dibs on their time before the conference starts – take note postdocs!)

The conference report is in progress as I type this, but will follow soon. It was a fantastic day and has already prompted a range of conversations with colleagues at Edinburgh and beyond.

However, Friday was another day and I needed to switch from organiser to speaker mode to contribute to the Digital Economy Crucible. In previous years I’ve facilitated this event, but now I’m part of the speaker line-up and use this as a chance to explore a range of issues linked to collaboration. Last year I spoke about confusion in collaboration, inspired by a talk at another Crucible (Welsh this time!) from Professor Barry Smith, a philosopher and someone who always sparks interesting ideas when we meet.

This time, with the mental health theme refusing to leave my thoughts I adapted my planned talk (on criteria for collaboration) to include a version of a safety plan.

My slides are here: DE Crucible Criteria

I should explain that a safety plan is a written, prioritized list of coping strategies and resources for reducing suicide risk. It is a prevention tool that is designed to help those who struggle with their suicidal thoughts and urges to survive. If you are interested in learning more about the work of Drs Barbara Stanley and Gregory K Brown who conceived the safety plan, their website explains more about the intervention approach they’ve developed.

I used this as inspiration for a simple “project safety plan” which is a template for what will help you notice that a project is slipping towards problems which will help you agree with partners in advance (i.e. whilst you are still talking to each other) what you will do to bring the project and your relationship back on track.

Alongside a summary of the key criteria for successful collaborations identified in the 2015 Dowling Report ( you can enjoy my enthusiasm for this report elsewhere on this blog) this led to a range of useful discussions about where project failure stems from. I will return to the other ideas that the safety plan has prompted in future posts, but if you want to use the project safety plan idea in your own work, please do and let me know if it helps and feel free to use the DE Crucible template as a guide.

DE Crucible Top Ten Key Success Factors for a Successful Collaboration


Buy-in from the Busy

Image from http://www.psdgraphics.com/

In the last post I started exploring the idea of getting others to help with your career development before diverting into a post about how to say no. To return to my initial theme, what are the questions we should have in mind if we are to convince someone to invest some time in our development?  

As an illustration, at a recent Ingenious Women networking event a PhD student approached me and asked what she should do about an email she’d sent to someone in her field who hadn’t replied. She knew this person was very busy, so was nervous about following up. This resonated with me as I regularly get asked for advice or help. Sometimes I reply to these emails quickly and easily and sometimes I just never get around to it. And sometimes…I don’t feel at all inclined to help.

So here is MY take on what makes it more likely for me to reply. Bear in mind that these are my “buttons” – you may react to different styles of approach.

  1. Ask very clear and specific questions that are easy for me to answer. Ideally one question.
  2. Demonstrate that you are a person who is proactive and has done everything they can to answer this question for themselves. If I can get the answer from Google in 15 seconds you’ve just wasted the opportunity to ask me something that isn’t at the end of a search engine. 
  3. Explain why you think my knowledge is so valuable to you indicating that you’ve done a bit of homework into me and my background.
  4. Acknowledge that I’m busy and indicate how much of a commitment you need from me.
  5. Indicate when you will follow up or where we might have a chance to meet. (But don’t make it sound like stalking.)
  6. Thank me if I can help, show understanding if I can’t.  

Unsurprisingly there are a number of blogs on this theme (for some reason the advice on “The Art of Manliness” one didn’t really speak to me, but could be just your thing) . I liked https://psychologyforphotographers.com/how-to-request- something-from-a-busy-person-and-get-a-reply which includes the line

Would you ever walk up to a well-dressed stranger on the street and say “Hey, you look great! Can I have $20?”

 I imagine not, but we often treat other people’s time with this breezy disregard then mutter with dismay when they choose not to hand over their precious minutes.

Do I really want to do this?

I’ve been speaking at a few events recently, many connected with the Ingenious Women programme which we’ve got Scottish Government Can Do funding to run for Scottish STEM researchers. This means I’m talking  a fair bit about how to make the most of your network and use it for help and opportunities. In a talk last week for the BCS Women and BCS Edinburgh branch about how to distill luck, I put up the following slide to guide attendees before asking busy people to help them.

Background image from http://www.psdgraphics.com/

As I talked through the ideas on the slide it struck me that the guidelines were very similar to the questions my boss asks me when I go to him with a cool idea that will take up even more of my time. If I can convince him of the value of the activity, he’s usually happy for me to go ahead and if not, he usually does me the huge favour of saying no. Quickly I realised that this was a set of guidelines I should apply to myself more often as a technique for working out what to say yes to…and what to politely decline.

For those who are keen to say no more often, here are some tricky questions to help you.

  • Can you sum up the demands of this task/opportunity in a few words and what value it adds?

Is this as appealing when I have to dig into the pros and cons?

  • What evidence do you have that your answer to the question above is reliable?

Are tasks usually more straightforward than they appear at first? Do they usually deliver more than at first glance? Will the benefits just happen or do I need to ask for them?

  • Will this help you in the future? Or is it more of the same in terms of your development?

Is this a development opportunity for someone else? Hmm…who can I pass this to?

  • Can you accurately work out what time you will need to commit to this?

Do I have this time to spare? What will I have to stop doing in order to do this?

  • Is this opportunity a solution to a problem you’re facing?

Does this put you into a new network? Does it give you chance to develop a skill you need? Does it add a line – the right line – to your CV?

I’ll return to my original theme of asking busy people for help in the next blog, but for now take a moment to work out which questions you need to ask yourself to make better decisions about the very precious resource which is your time.

Not a Hard Drive

After a pretty lengthy break, I’m trying to get back into my blogging routine at the moment. On one level it shouldn’t be too challenging. I have a personal rule that my blogs aren’t polished pieces of prose (equivalent say to a conference presentation), but instead are some quick thoughts about things on my mind (more like grabbing me for a coffee at our imaginary conference). Each blog takes me about 25-30 minutes to write and no matter how busy I am, I should be able to find that each week.  Except that most weeks for the last six months, even if I have found the time I sit in front of my keyboard unable to find the words.

We all have days like this when the muse refuses to visit for a variety of reasons. We come in determined to get THAT ONE KEY THING done and before we know it, it’s after noon, after four, after eight and the to-do list remains untouched, yet we feel like we’ve been working flat out. Sound familiar? Today’s post is on the theme of productivity and why we can find it so difficult to just get things done. The inspiration for the post is a podcast that I listened to one morning, entitled “Your Brain is Not a Hard Drive” which is an interview between the people behind the Blinkist app and David Allen Green (hailed as a productivity guru in the podcast blurb)

The main theme is that we don’t use our brains properly and try to retain too much information rather than having space to think. As a result we feel overwhelmed, frazzled and like we’re going around in circles. The podcast outlines three simple stages to get out of this trap…

  1. Capture – write down everything that you’re trying to remember on a “trusted storage device” (aka notebook) (this is likely to take some time but will be time well spent)
  2. Clarify – think about what you are committed to work on and therefore going to do first because this is important to you. Use your brain to process the problem (brains love problem solving)
  3. Organise – now plan the steps to take to get the one thing done (again, using your brain to solve a problem)

So for the last few weeks I’ve been writing more things down and then thinking about my priorities and the time I have available. Rather than setting myself up to fail, I’m realistic about what I can do and when. Someone else suggested that I only have three things at any one time that I’m planning to tackle (this is another technique which I’ve forgotten the author of because I didn’t write it down. Ahem.)

There are other things that will help – our writing retreats provide a protected and industrious space in which to focus – but for the next few weeks I’m going to try and stick to this regime and see if it helps to reduce the feeling of being overwhelmed, but unproductive.

So, with the first of my current three things done, I wish you a productive day too!