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.


Keep trying
Image by kakisky at morguefile

I’ve been running research leader/principal investigator development programmes for over a decade in universities. As part of these we invariably get in a couple of senior academics to talk about their backgrounds and share advice with those taking the first steps into group leadership. Two particular talks have stuck in my mind, both at Newcastle University and both related to funding.

I’m embarrassed that I can’t remember the name of the first academic, but she appeared with her slides and began to talk about her funding portfolio. Each slide had a list of proposals she’d written against the dates. There were about 4 slides, each with 7 or 8 proposals listed. She talked about the range of projects and how her ideas had developed over time. Then she paused. She went back to the first list and explained that she was about to share the most important lesson she had for the group.

The slides now included whether the research was funded or rejected. All the proposals on the first slide were rejected. As were all on the second slide. She got 3/4 down the third page before we saw a “FUNDED” and the whole room cheered. Then the next proposal… REJECTED. Eventually the tide seem to turn and on her final slide there were more successes than failures. She said that we had to remember this. That the competition for funding was such that we had to persevere and that she was honest enough with herself to know that some of her success was down to the fact she was still trying.

Fast forward a few years and another speaker comes in. Professor Mike Trenell sits down with the group and proceeds to tell us not about the ~£7.5 million he’s brought into the University, but the ~£35 million that he didn’t. He talked about all the moments in his career when he did the wrong thing and the fact that failure is a part of research and you have to learn to accept it and learn from it. He told us about how he felt when things were going wrong and the support he had which kept him going.

These two talks had a big effect on me and I hope they helped the audience of new and aspiring academics, particularly at moments in their subsequent careers when things went badly.  In my previous role I used to run workshops on funding, getting started in research and moving on from postdocing into new careers. There is a lot of failure wrapped up in these topics, so I made sure we talked about how to cope with it when it came.

A few things have popped up on twitter this week – the mental health awareness hashtag is throwing up all sorts of gems and I hope we continue these conversations next week. One that particularly resonated was a link to an opinion piece in the Journal of Cell Biology from 2008 entitled The Importance of Stupidity in Scientific Research by Martin Schwartz. In this, Professor Schwartz talks about the two disservices that the scientific community does to young researchers – not talking about how hard research is and not teaching students how to be “productively stupid” so they have the confidence to wade deeper into the unknown. I wish I’d read this as a PhD (impossible as it would have required a time machine. Ahem.) because I was incredibly tentative with my steps into the unknown and can recall a meeting with my supervisor where he expressed frustration about the fact that when he challenged another student about his ideas, that the student “folded” and backed down. At that moment I realised that all of the criticism of my ideas I’d faced from him was part of his supervision – I needed to be able to defend my thinking or fix its flaws if I was going to have the confidence to wade deeper. Some people reading this will think I should have realised this sooner, but I didn’t – I thought he was criticising my ideas because they were rubbish. My attitude to my PhD shifted in that instant. It was OK to be stupid and wrong because that was how I would learn (and I was probably neither).

I had another reminder of my failures last week as I walked to Burlington House for the RSC conference. As I turned out of the train station my view was filled with the Grant Thornton building, then I walked through various bits of UCL. One the way back I diverted via Parliament Square. Each of these were landmarks on my failure map (there’s a lot of them). I was rejected from pretty much every accountancy firm in the UK in my final year but I remember the Grant Thornton one because I was rejected for writing an application form in blue ink (their form was printed blue so I thought it looked better…) During my last postdoc, I didn’t get a job at UCL as a careers adviser, having previously failed to get a job as a researcher in the House of Lords. At the time each of these rejections really hurt, but they meant that I was available for the opportunities that followed. I can’t go back and tell my former self that it will be OK, but I do take every chance to tell students and researchers that there are lots of options for them.

Researchers and research leaders are becoming more at ease about sharing failure, but there was a lively discussion at last week’s event about the rhetoric that you have to present in science all the time. You have to be bombastic about your ideas, your uniquely wonderful track record and present a confident picture of the world leader you will become. Some people realise that this is “part of the game” but many struggle to exaggerate their achievements and deselect themselves from opportunities that seem to demand superhuman qualities. Hopefully the funders in the room were listening to this and went away considering how to shift the tone of their calls to be more appealing to people who don’t think they are transcendentally marvellous.

As always, there are things we can do as individuals (talk about our failures and reassure those who aren’t successful that it’s expected and accepted), but the research “infrastructure” can do more. My final thought comes from a tweet that got a lot of attention last week from journal editor John Hayes on the subject of journal reviewers. He retweeted an earlier message from  who had highlighted the aggressive tone of a reviewer’s comments.

Like yesterday’s suggestion that organisations who badge conferences have the power to insist on organisers taking steps to make them more inclusive, could journal editors take steps to ensure that feedback is constructive and objective? It’s OK to fail, but not easy. We don’t have to make it any harder.


Healthy, Happy Conferences

Green means I’m happy to talk to anyone 

Today’s post on this week’s mental health theme considers academic conferences. For some, conferences are one of the perks of the academic lifestyle – a chance to travel, immerse yourself in new ideas, meet interesting people and see your own research through fresh eyes. But if you are currently in a barren patch with your research, struggling with imposter syndrome, uncomfortable and exhausted by networking, or balancing research with other demands, conferences can be debilitating. Add to this the persisting acceptance (resigned or otherwise) of bad behaviour at conferences (Eurovision fans may have seen this recent reworking of “it’s more of a comment than a question“) and it’s no wonder that conferences can feel more like a trial to endure than a reward.

At the joint learned societies mental health event in early May, we talked about conferences and shared a few examples of how they might be tweaked to be kinder, more inclusive places. One great idea was the traffic light system on conference badges which I’ve recreated above. I can’t remember which conference this came from so please let me know and I’ll give credit. This is a beautifully simple idea. If you don’t want to talk to anyone, tick the red light. If you are happy to talk to people you know, tick amber. And if you will talk to ANYBODY, then tick green. There was probably more to this than I’m reporting, but I thought it was a great idea to help nervous networkers approach people, to help introverts enjoy some peace and to help offset some of the power differentials at conferences. I’m guessing you can change the “setting” during the conference and I would be tempted to add a few other lights – perhaps a purple one for when I’m feeling a bit vulnerable so you don’t come and challenge me too robustly or a turquoise one to say “I’m here alone, so please ask me to join you at lunch” (that’s the voice of my younger self you hear plaintively calling there…)

Another idea is to offer childcare (or other care) at conferences. We do this for the Ingenious Women programme that we run at Edinburgh and at the new national programme we are running with Scottish Government funding. This means that those with caring responsibilities can still engage and by having children at the conferences we show that you can have kids, spent time with them and still be an effective and successful researcher.

At an upcoming conference I’m involved in, we’re planning to have a Stress Awareness Space using the fantastic, simple resource from MIND which includes posters and downloadable stress awareness cards. For our conference this is a bit of a given because it’s about researcher mental health, (Please come along – it’s on June 14th in Edinburgh and we’d love to see you there). However, I’d like to include this space at our other events and think it would be particularly powerful at research conferences. Wouldn’t it be great if we could ask everyone to complete a card as they register and to sign it IF they were happy to. It’s interesting to imagine what the impact on our researcher community might be if we were happy to share what we struggled with and show that people’s external demeanour isn’t necessarily what they feel on the insides. This could be another step towards a more inclusive culture.

At the Oscars, Frances McDormand talked about the opportunity the powerful had to improve things in the film world by insisting on inclusion riders, a phrase that Stacy Smith described in her TED talk about sexism. Most conferences are badged or organised by big organisations that claim to want to support more inclusive cultures. Has the time come for an academic conference inclusion rider?


Departmental Tea Rooms – A Silver Bullet?

Edinburgh Chemistry’s Wall of Purest Green

Last week, whilst talking about practical strategies to support researcher mental health, I faced a tricky question about what I would do to make things better. The question has been bouncing around my head and prompted reflections about my own time as a researcher and why there used to be less talk about stress. I suspect this is partly down to shifting attitudes which make it easier for us to talk about our mental health, but largely down to the fact that academia was a less stressful environment in the 80s and 90s. So much has changed in the 30 years since I started as an undergraduate, but when I consider the differences, one idea persists in my thinking. Much of the stress associated with research was dissipated because I worked and studied in a department with a tea room (Chemistry at Swansea University).

It’s surprising how often I come back to that tea room when I consider what would make things easier for researchers (collaboration, equality and mentoring are all facilitated by shared spaces). It was open from 10-11 and 3-4 each day and always busy in these times with PhD students, postdocs, technicians and academic staff. We all sat together and talked about all sorts of things – research problems, social activities, uncertainty about our futures, upcoming conferences, stories from demonstrating in labs, our successes and our failures. There was a strong community in the department and although we sat in the familiar silos of organic, inorganic, physical and analytical chemistry  we mixed thoroughly twice a day. As the only woman in my research group, it was also a fantastic way to connect with other women each day, eliminating any sense of isolation.

People noticed if you missed a few tea breaks and would often seek you out to check all was well. It was a place where you could be honest about problems which helped you prepare to discuss them with a supervisor. We were able to tap into each other’s expertise or just share the frustrations of research. We got used to seeing other people fail, then triumph – invaluable reminders of the fact this is part of the job when it was your research that started to falter. It gave us an identity – we were part of the Department of Chemistry.

The tea-room was closed not long after I left that department in the mid-90s – victim of changes to estate management that saw departments having to justify every square inch of floor space. The department gradually lost more space (the library went next) and eventually closed. I’m not claiming that the closure of the department was caused by the loss of the tea room, but I suspect it took a lot of the heart away and weakened the ties between people.

In most of our universities there is a space crisis and I suspect dedicated tea rooms are a rarity although there is a fantastic flexible, communal multi-purpose space in the School of Chemistry at Edinburgh (I hesitate to call it a tea room as they probably aren’t allowed anymore). As with most things related to inclusion, I can’t back up my claims about the benefits of tea rooms with any evidence, but a caffeine-supplemented common room was mentioned in the RSC report on inclusion written in 2004 (read page 4, the University of Utopia.).  It would be interesting to see if anyone reading this shares my views and has their own examples of the positive impact of these spaces.

Chemistry has now reopened at Swansea. I hope there’s a tea room.

Investigating Mental Health in the Research Community

In mental health awareness week, with the current flurry of activity in HE  focusing on the pressures on researchers and the impact this is having, (not least Research England funding projects through a £1.5 million programme), it can be tempting to feel that we’ve crossed a threshold of acceptance and are working to create a better culture in academia. The Investigating Mental Health in the Research Community  event jointly organised by the Royal Society of Chemistry, Institute of Physics, Royal Society of Biology, Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering (and attended by the Royal Astronomical Society) gave attendees some optimism about academic culture. It highlighted a range of useful resources, good practice and began to build a community of scientists and engineer who are committed to change.

Although I have no wish to burst the bubble of the day, I did use the phrase “preaching to the choir” at one point. Although it was important to connect those of us who want to arrest and reverse the negative impact academic research is having on its community’s mental health, we probably aren’t the problem.

There are many different reasons mental health is being talked about with so much concern and we heard from Dr Susan Guthrie from RAND, co-author of the 2017 report “Understanding Mental Health in the Research Environment” who set the scene for the day with some alarming headlines.

  • Higher education staff report worse wellbeing than those in other employment
  • Causes of stress includework demands, change management, managerial support and poor role clarity
  • The majority of university staff find their jobs stressful
  • PhD students face the same challenges as other researchers
  • Academics aren’t disclosing mental health problems
  • Mental health is a gendered issue, with women more likely to have issues
  • Spending more time on research reduces stress
  • Poor wellbeing negatively impacts on productivity
  • Mental health interventions haven’t been properly evaluated

Having been characteristically frank in my presentation about my views on the reasons for declining researcher mental health, I was asked what I would do to fix it. I had a few suggestions but I struggled to answer because I don’t know. We don’t know. We don’t properly evaluate mental health interventions. We don’t have reliable evidence about what causes problems (Susan began her talk with some serious caveats about the data they had drawn on for their report). And many of us are fearful about doing more harm than good if we try to help. An important early step is to properly understand what is going on.

This doesn’t need to stop us in our tracks though. There are things we can do and many resources to support individuals, communities and institutions who want to do more. Universities UK published a framework last year to help university leaders support student mental health:

The Institute of Physics was an “early agitator” with the publication in 2016 of its Resilience Toolkit* to support the physics community and included interviews with undergraduates, PhD students, postdocs, academics and the head of a School of Physics.

The interviews were analysed and generated 12 pieces of advice for better resilience:

  1. Have motivating goals
  2. Have realistic goals
  3. Build a community
  4. Awareness of imposter syndrome
  5. Take proper breaks
  6. Ask for help
  7. Find perspective
  8. Work to your strengths
  9. Develop coping strategies
  10. Look at failure differently
  11. Focus on what you can do
  12. Know what works for you

Although only available to members, at the University of Edinburgh we were inspired by this guide to conduct our own interviews which led to the publication of two guides for postdocs last summer written by our intern Amy (she also blogged as she was researching and writing the guides)

Getting Started as a postdoc

Thriving in your postdoc

One of the great joys of my role at Edinburgh University has been the connection with Fearless Femme, an online magazine designed to counter the negative voices and messages that young women hear online with positive ones. I’d strongly encourage you to look at their articles and approach and to pass on details to all young women around you. We can’t reach our students in the way this magazine does and we support it because we need to use all the channels and mechanisms in our means to reach people, especially when they are vulnerable.

We won’t find one solution to the mental health crisis, we will need many. Some of the most effective solutions are things we can all do. Look at the list above and think about how you can support everyone around you. One of the most memorable moments of the day was when someone shared their story about being a researcher with mental health problems. She spoke to a colleague about this and they said something very simple “I still want to work with you.” If our colleagues begin to have the courage to share their challenges, we have to have the compassion and insight to help them see how valued they are.

My presentation described some of the different ways that Schools in Edinburgh are working on this key topic. My thanks to all the colleagues who shared their ideas. My slides are below:

RSC & IOP Researcher mental health event for web

I’m delighted that after the event I sat down with the RSC to consider what they could do and we’ve got some ideas which we’ll develop in the coming weeks. If you were at the event and want to add anything that will help us, please get in touch with myself or Pip Matthews. And if you weren’t at the event but can highlight resources, ideas or just voice your support please let us know. I’ll post more here once we’ve decided where we can have the most impact in the short term whilst we consider our longer term goals.

As the groups were discussing the problems and solutions I heard a wonderful message from someone in one of the groups.

There should be space for every kind of scientist.

I can’t put it better than that. There SHOULD be. Let’s all commit to making that space.



(This blog has only scratched the surface of the topics we covered during the event so more will follow).

* A small disclaimer: I wrote the IOP guide as a consultant, so our work at Edinburgh has been heavily influenced by it.




Time to Get Connected


On the 4th June 2018, the IAD is running our informal induction event for new research staff and academics, in all Schools / Colleges, who have recently joined the University.

The ‘Get Connected’ event is aptly named to try and encourage all new staff in research related roles to connect with other new researchers and the support services around the university. Our Research Leader course emphasises the importance of having a diverse and supportive network which includes internal experts in areas such as funding, data management and information services – Get Connected is our attempt to accelerate this for new staff.

The half day event has been created to help new staff find and navigate the support available in the University.  With table discussions focussing on: career development opportunities; applying for research funding; advice on engagement, impact and consultancy; information services; finance; and developing teaching skills, participants are able to choose which table discussions they would like to attend, based on their interests and areas of research. All our table hosts also contribute key information to our Get Connected guide, so if you don’t manage to meet everyone you wanted to at the event, you won’t miss out.

The event begins with a networking skills session to give participants tips on how to network effectively, an area that most people dread or feel they don’t do effectively! We include the chance to practice networking because it is crucial in the research environment and plays an important role in establishing new collaborations and research opportunities.

There will also be a talk from the library support team about PURE,  the University’s Current Research Information System (CRIS), which helps research staff to share and capture their publications, projects and activities information. The event closes with a talk from a senior academic giving insights into establishing an academic career.

With the option to also get a free profile picture taken on the day –  a professional photographer in attendance at the event – the event has been set up to allow new researchers to become more knowledgeable, informed and visible in their new roles. If you are a new researcher (or haven’t been able to attend a previous event), come along!

Date: Monday 4th June, 2018

Time: 08:45 – 13:00 (brunch is included)

Venue:  Outreach Centre – 9c Holyrood Road