We are making preparations to launch a new online resource for research integrity which should be available later in the summer. Aimed at our research students and their supervisors, this will complement the extensive support and guidance researchers receive in their schools. During the consultation process I’ve spoken to a range of university staff about integrity and added to my understanding of regulations, policies and systems across the University and disciplines.
One of the most interesting of these conversations happened last week when I met Dr Willem Halffman from the University of Nijmegen who was on a brief research visit to Edinburgh. We talked about a wide range of topics in our short meeting, with particular focus on the circumstances which lead to misconduct. My interest in integrity is both old and new. Old, in that I’ve spent close to twenty years training and developing research students and staff, and fostering good practice has been part of this. New, in that it was only last year that I attended the UK Research Integrity Office conference and became fascinated by wider discussions which went far beyond policies and looked at the behaviours and tendencies which lead to misconduct.
One speaker, Dr Maura Hiney spoke about these and referenced David Kornfeld’s paper on the categories of people who violated the rules of research. Kornfeld’s paper is an interesting read, so I won’t give away the headlines, but he summarises that
These acts of research misconduct seemed to be the result of the interaction of psychological traits and/or states and the circumstances in which these individuals found themselves.
This prompted Willem to point me to a model from financial misconduct – the fraud triangle. This originated from the work of Donald Cressey (Donald R. Cressey, Other People’s Money (Montclair: Patterson Smith, 1973) p. 30.), who tried to explain the circumstances under which people commit fraud. The three factors which make up the triangle – opportunity, pressure and rationalistion – are described with a simple animation by the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners. Although the examples used relate to financial fraud, it isn’t difficult to extend the model to research.
I find this model useful as it points to the role that pressure plays in misconduct and is something that cannot be ignored by any institution wishing to develop a high integrity culture. It isn’t enough to play lip service to the regulations and training whilst the pressures on researchers continue to build.
This connection between integrity and resilience is something that I hope to explore and has been a significant driving force in the initial focus I’ve had at Edinburgh on wellbeing and resilience for researchers. As we tailor and embed the integrity module I’ll be looking at how we ensure that our training plays a part in minimising the pressure in the environment as well as being clear about good practice and honest cultures.
Willem’s research has resulted in a number of pubications on scientific integrity, (Whilst you are looking at his publications, The Academic Manifesto [Halffman, W. & Radder, H. (3 April 2015), The Academic Manifesto, Minerva, Vol. 53, no.3, p. 165-187. doi: 10.1007/s11024-015-9270-9.] makes a number of other suggestions to release the pressure in the system!)
Last week I was involved in two events which on the surface looked different, but actually covered some very similar themes. The first was the launch of a new PhD supervisors’ network here at Edinburgh. This is part of the Supervision workstream of the Excellence in Doctoral Education and Career Development Programme and was a chance for us (principally my colleague Dr Fiona Philippi, Head of Doctoral Education who leads the project) to share some initial ideas and ask the supervisors present how they would like the network to operate.
As part of the discussion, Fiona illustrated an example of the resources available to support supervision by sharing a version of the Griffith University Expectations in Supervision questionnaire. I’ve used this for many years in PhD induction and “getting started” events so it was interesting to see the reaction of supervisors to the tool which is a series of paired statements which demonstrate the dichotomies possible in PhD supervision. The response was very positive, with all those present seeing the value in having a tool to prompt discussion but also clarify the details of their supervisory approach. No one wants to impose a single, cookie-cutter model on doctoral supervision as the questionnaire demonstrates. People talked about the value the discussions would have to students coming to the UK for their PhDs as it might uncover any assumptions they might have. Most importantly, used well, the discussion will reduce uncertainty and the resulting anxiety for students.
During more detailed discussions, the topic of co-supervision emerged as a key area which needed more scrutiny so we are planning to develop the questionnaire further to help students and supervisory teams work together with more transparency and clearer responsibilities.
Co-supervision is now pretty universal at Edinburgh, both as a means of quality assurance but also often reflecting the multi- and inter-disciplinary nature of many PhD projects. This links us to the second event of the week – the Digital Economy Crucible. I was a speaker at the second Crucible “lab” in Edinburgh last week and decided to speak on the topic of Confusion in Collaboration. This is a interesting idea to explore but I can’t take the credit for the idea which came from Professor Barry Smith at Welsh Crucible when he spoke about the steps to really effective collaboration as being Contact, Communication, Confusion and Conflict.
Catherine was the “critical friend” for a guide to collaboration I wrote for the Institute of Physics in 2015 which featured my last hero, Professor Tom McLeish. Tom is a physicist so has had a career collaborating with with other scientists in academia and industry, but in recent years has worked within the Durham Institute for Medieval and Renaissance Studies (IMRS) reexamining scientific thinking in the 12th-14th centuries on The Ordered Universe project. A collaborative close reading of works by teams of medieval scholars and scientists is generating new insights into the vital but overlooked foundations of modern science.
The slides from my talk are below, but the key activity in my slot was to get the Cruciblists to talk to someone from another discipline about the assumptions that people made about their discipline or area. Some fascinating conversations followed but I moved them promptly on to try to come up with some new questions to reduce confusion. Their list complements one that was produced by a Stirling Crucible group a few years ago which I blogged about in a former life (Confusion in Collaboration).
Over the past week, I have begun meeting postdoc staff to explore what influences their wellbeing and resilience. A key area that I have picked up on is the importance of communities within and outside of the university.
Line-managers and other research staff in the department understand the pressures of academia so they are perfect for getting support and advice. For many postdocs, realising that senior staff face the same issues and have been in similar situations as them has helped them realise that they are not alone! Great ways to build relationships within the university include getting involved in sport, conferences and societies.
SS note: Don’t forget our Research Staff Societies as well – this is a way to build a community around your needs and interests. If there isn’t a society in your School we can help you set one up!
Getting involved in the larger community can also be beneficial for wellbeing and academic development. Whether this is starting a new hobby, charity work or public engagement events, you will meet many new people and have a break from your research environment.
Public engagement is a brilliant way to…
Gain perspective on your own research by taking a step back and thinking about which elements will be relevant and interesting to the public
Meet a new network of people, who may come in handy in the future!
Gain confidence and skills by communicating with a large range of people
Create new ideas about possible applications or directions of your research
Improve funding possibilities! Some funders may ask for lay summaries, have non-specialist interviews and place high importance on impact.
There are lots of opportunities for public engagement. For example, many primary and secondary schools would be happy for researchers to lead a one-off exciting lesson. There may be barriers for this though, such as PVG requirements.
Furthermore, every August the Fringe invades campus, what a perfect opportunity! The Beltane team at IAD run the Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas , which is a great chance to meet new people and do something new.
Over the next few weeks, I will continue exploring this idea that talking to people can be a great way to improve your wellbeing and resilience! If you would like to chat about your resilience as a researcher and what helps you, please get in touch.
This week’s guest post is a member of a critical, but sometimes unsung, community at Edinburgh – our technical staff. Marianne Keith is currently a research technician based at The Roslin Institute, supporting the work of a Career Track Fellow into the prevalence of non-O157 E.coli in cow faeces across the UK.
I am currently working in a research environment, having chopped and changed several times since starting on my career path back in 2005. I left The University of Edinburgh with a BSc in Biological Sciences (with Honours in Microbiology) with a plan to get a job, save some money, and then do a MSc to bump up my BSc grade. Well once I started working, I never quite managed to start saving money, especially when I left home and I needed to pay for my new lodgings and all the associated bills.
I was actually offered a PhD in Combinatorial Chemistry early on, but declined, knowing virtually nothing about chemistry! Wanting to stay in science, I’ve used my lab skills in a variety of University technical positions. I was a teaching technician for a few years but have worked mainly in research labs, with this being my 4th research laboratory. 13 years out of University, I don’t have the same kind of focused expertise as PhDs or postdocs because no single post requires all the various skills which I have gained to varying levels of experience. Also, nowadays there are many more strengths and abilities which make up a valuable technician, beyond a range of wet lab techniques. Communication is key and I’ve developed a range of skills through my work, but been aware that might be more out there to learn.
This year I made a fantastic discovery. The IAD runs a plethora of courses, most of which are appropriate for both academic staff AND technical staff. There is a misguided assumption by many technicians (and also some academic staff) that the IAD only caters for people who are working towards or already have the initials “MSc” or “PhD” after their name.
I confess to feeling self-doubt when I hear post docs or PhD students present their work, as changing post repeatedly over the last few years has impacted on the depth of my knowledge. This probably influenced my decision to attend the “Assertiveness” course and recently the “Refining Your Presentation Skills” workshop and I can heartily recommend both. I did learn a considerable amount on each day, but most of all, I was made aware that there are other people who encounter the same difficulties in working life as I do. I left each workshop having met new supportive people, carrying a sense of well-being, and feeling slightly more confident each time than when I arrived.
I have now set myself a goal to work my way through all the IAD courses which I believe are relevant to my personal development (regardless of exactly which research project I may be attached to as my career continues), and I would encourage all technical staff to do the same and to take advantage of this excellent resource for professional development.
And don’t forget – The IAD is here to support all staff involved in teaching and research – we are equally welcoming to academic and technical staff. We’ll be publishing our new programme for 2017/8 over the summer so there’s still time to suggest ideas.
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.
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) …
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.
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.
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.)
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.