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

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 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

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!

Subject to Planning

Subject to Planning
Glasgow College redevelopment sign. Photo by Sara

I spotted this sign on my way to an event in Glasgow this week. I’m doing a photo challenge thing on twitter so trying to notice my surroundings more and perhaps because of my link to Borders College, it caught my eye.

The Tower and Podium of Glasgow College are pretty distinctive, but rather than this been viewed as a challenge, the tone is of exciting possibilities, new leases of life and “just think of the wonderful things you can do with this unique space”. Today’s post is going to link this redevelopment to my role in researcher development. As soon as I took the photo I realised it was a great metaphor for postdoc career planning.

The key words in the sign above are POTENTIAL and PLANNING.

Too often when I talk to audiences of postdocs and individuals, they are anxious about their prospects. This anxiety can be prompted by a range of challenges

  • becoming aware of the competition for academic positions
  • wanting to sustain a postdoc career for longer, but aware you are becoming expensive
  • not really wanting to carry on, but not knowing what else to do
  • being convinced that you’re over-qualified for the jobs that seem available
  • not having the right experience for jobs

I’d like to think that one of the most reassuring things I can say to these groups is that my postdoc experience has really helped my career and continues to have value for me, even 20+ years after I changed direction. With this positive message in mind, here are five steps you can take to make a plan for your own “alternative uses”.

  1. think about what you are good at and what you enjoy – think broadly and use RDF wheel to think about all aspects of professional skills. There’s a training needs analysis tool in the doctoral section of our website which will help you do this.
  2. look for opportunities to broaden and build your skills. Public engagement, roles in staff societies, representation on committees, health and safety, work package management, supervision – all of these will add valuable skills and stories to strengthen a CV and create talking points at interview
  3. talk to people around you about their career stories and ask for connections. You can’t make an informed decision about a career without real insights into what it’s like. Although you are surrounded by academics all day everyday, have you ever spoken to one about their transition from postdoc to group leader? About what they wished they’d done more or less of at your career stage? Don’t take the next step until you have a sense of the best and worst of the careers you’re considering.
  4. use the training available – make the most of your staff status and look beyond the  IAD (although we’re a good place to start!). As a staff member you are eligible for training offered by lots of different experts in the University. Look at HR, the Library, IS and seminars in other schools and centres. ALL THIS TRAINING IS FREE unless clearly stated otherwise.
  5. use your P & DR as a tool to develop your career. This is a protected time each year for you and your line manager to talk about your skills profile and the opportunities you need to develop. Prepare for this and think about how to convince your boss that your development is important. You may find PI is delighted to have someone to delegate to if they can see how you’ll make it work alongside project responsibilities.

There’s a lot you can do to broaden your skills and employability as a postdoc, but very little (if any) of it will just happen. Just like the development company trying to sell the old College buildings, start your planning, be positive and be open to the possibilities.

Acknowledge, Facilitate, Intervene


A slide from my talk at the learned society conference on researcher mental health

My final blog post of mental health awareness week is a showcase of some of the work being done at The University of Edinburgh to support researchers, particularly those who are struggling with mental health problems. One of the great joys of working here is having great colleagues so I’m pleased to have the chance to share some of their work. However, there’s a tiny cautionary note. I’m not claiming that Edinburgh is the kindest university – I don’t think any institution could make that claim (although now I think about it I’d be a lot more interested in a KEF if the K stood for kindness…).

I know from my personal experiences working in four UK universities (and a much greater experience as a consultant for a few dozen), that every university is probably the most supportive, more understanding and simultaneously the most callous and damaging. The experiences of researchers are very influenced by the individuals around them, especially their supervisors and bosses, so please don’t read into this a sense that we’ve cracked it here. It’s a work in progress and it always will be, but here are some of our efforts.

This post will feature three school case studies from Chemistry, Biology and Physics.  (As the final case study is from our Chaplaincy, I was going to describe them as the holy trinity of science, but apparently that’s Reason, Observation and Experience!) Each school has taken a different approach, prompted by different issues, but together they provide some great starting points, If you are reading this for inspiration about how to develop some initiatives in your own academic community. (BTW if you’re reading this in England or Wales, we call our academic department up here “schools”)

Chemunity launched in March and is a staff/student collaborative project involving undergraduate and postgraduate research students. One of their aims is to promote good mental health and wellbeing among all students. In time this will lead to the creation of an online collection of desirable resources, as defined and designed by students. As mentioned earlier this week, the School of Chemistry here has an enviable communal space which will be used to host events (e.g. board game evenings) that encourage discussion and build the sense of academic community.

The Chemunity Facebook page explains:

As the title suggests, we aim to bring the collective School of Chemistry community together for an evening of entertainment (did someone say board games?), celebrating the launch of our website & a whole host of special guests.

*What’s our mission I hear you ask?*

It’s actually quite simple. We are absolutely passionate about improving the quality of academic support for both UG & PG students, opening up more conversations about our mental/health wellbeing & bridging the gap between students & lecturers.

SolidariTEA is a new initiative being piloted in our School of Biological Sciences and led by Dr Louise Horsfall. This informal, fortnightly coffee/tea session for PhD students, starts with a student or staff member opening  with a very short story about when they may have encountered and overcome a difficulty in their research or career.


Leading on from this,  people can bring any non-technical queries to discuss but the focus should be on mental health and wellbeing. Like Chemunity it’s funded through our Student Partnership Agreement Grants. SolidariTEA is new but the School plans to develop more resources on supporting students with mental health problems for supervisors whilst recognising that the whole school community needs to be part of this as students will often approach other staff, notably technicians when things start to get too much for them.

The final example from the School Of Physics and Astronomy demonstrates how straightforward it is to embed wellbeing into the doctoral process. The first year pastoral meeting happens about 4 months in the PhD, when the students are likely to have established a working relationship with their supervisor and to have tuned in sufficiently to the PhD for them to be aware of potential problems. It also establishes early that the School is interested in their wellbeing and makes clear how future problems can be raised and are likely to be tackled.

Pastoral Physics
A screenshot from the SOPA wiki

The School’s wiki also makes it clear that needing pastoral support is NORMAL and EXPECTED, trying to dispel any sense that feeling overwhelmed is a sign of failure. It clearly points students to sources of help and talks about interruptions as part of the support available, minimising stigma.

Picture3 School of Physics and Astronomy wiki

Our final little gem is our Chaplaincy . It offers support in many forms – there’s a wellbeing and mindfulness programme, a listening service and has a wonderful calming atmosphere even though it sits in the heart of our Central campus. Staff and students are welcome at all times and it proudly proclaims itself to be – a place of all faiths and none.

We’re a large university so I’m sure this only scratches the surface of wellbeing support here. If you are from The University of Edinburgh and have more examples, I’d love to share them here. If you are from elsewhere I hope it gives you to confidence to look for similar initiatives in your own institution. At the Universities Scotland Researcher Mental Health event on June 14th there will be many more examples from our colleagues in other Scottish institutions – book your place here.  If you can’t find anything, please take these ideas – as someone summed up at the event last week, science should have space for everyone.

Particular thanks to Caroline Proctor, Louise Horsfall, Chris Mowat and Will Hossack for their help and suggestions, and to our Chaplaincy for being a sanctuary on campus.