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. 


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.

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.




International Researcher Development

On Saturday I’ll be joining Professor Neil Robertson from our School of Chemistry to travel to Pune, India and deliver a workshop funded under the UK-India Researcher Links scheme funded by the British Council and Royal Society of Chemistry. Entitled “Translating Clean Energy Research to Rural India” the workshop will bring together researchers from the UK and India, working in social and physical sciences to understand the challenges of bringing clean energy technology to rural villages and introduce them to a range of experts who will explain how they have overcome these challenges. My plan is to blog throughout the week on what we’ve done, sharing the good practice that emerges and making the process as transparent as possible to support other researchers and researcher developers. I’m grateful to Neil and other colleagues at Edinburgh for being so open to this idea.

This initial post will share how we planned the workshop and what we’ve done to get to the point of departure. I should make it clear that I came into the organising team very late – the funding had already been awarded. Neil and his co-applicants Dr. Jamie Cross (University of Edinburgh), Prof Satish Ogale (IISER, Pune) and Dr. Priyadarshini Karve (Samuchit Enviro Tech) developed the concept and aims of the workshop; my role has been to think about how these can be successful achieved.

Drawing on my experiences from Scottish, Welsh and other Crucibles as well as workshops on collaboration and intercultural working, I started with the aims from the proposal:

  • To introduce physical scientists to the real-world use of energy technologies in rural India. (A visit to selected villages in Maharashtra at the start of the workshop to inform the subsequent presentations, discussions and problem-solving activities of the workshop.)
  • To introduce social scientists to the latest progress in emerging technologies to raise their awareness of immediate and future technological approaches to pressing problems.
  • To facilitate communication and network building between physical and social scientists.
  • To identify short-term projects for immediate impact to consolidate new partnerships that develop during the workshop.

Although an outline for the workshop formed part of the application, I made a couple of changes – principally building in more time for participants to explore and develop ideas and bringing forward their presentations to each other by a day.  It’s worth noting that Neil and his co-organisers have built the whole concept of the workshop around an initial day spent visiting a number of villages in Maharashtra so that the researchers on the workshop can truly appreciate the context in which their ideas need have have impact and the challenges presented by the environment. I think this will have a dramatic and positive impact on the outputs of the week, and I suspect a very personal impact on all of us. If you are reading this and planning your own international development workshop look out for a blog at the start of next week where I’ll try to capture the day and what it meant to us all.

Back to my planning – I structured the workshop around a set of daily themes which helped me to ensure we had a clear flow to help with briefing speakers and attendees:

  1. Setting the scene and understanding the context
  2. Getting to know fellow participants
  3. Generating ideas, learning from experts
  4. Selecting and developing ideas
  5. Reviewing ideas, the programme and sustaining the network

Having done this and produced a brief outline programme I sent it to a few people who had previously attended Researcher Links workshops (many thanks to Dr Ankush Aggarwal of Swansea University and Dr Hu Du of Cardiff University for their feedback) and made further adjustments to maximise the time for participants to understand each other and start developing their ideas. I wanted to minimise the danger of the momentum that will grow during the workshop being lost once people returned to home institutions and their considerable responsibilities. Although they will be at an early stage, I’ve also included a day where we review the ideas so that further work on them is done with a clear understanding of how they will be evaluated.

The outline programme is here but this is a flexible starting point which we expect to develop during the week once we get to know the participants, hear from the speakers and gauge the demands that the course is making on those attending. In the next blog I’ll explain how we briefed the speakers and attendees.

Translating Clean Energy Research to Rural India Initial Workshop Schedule


The road to misconduct

Do Not Cross
Photo by DodgertonSkillhause at

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.


Image from ALGA – Association of Local Government Auditors


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!)


Reduce Confusion, Manage Expectations

Photo by amann at

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.

Barry was one of three “heroes” of collaboration I mentioned in my talk, the others being Professor Catherine Lyall from Edinburgh who’s established a deep understanding of models of collaboration as well as producing a series of incredibly useful practical guides to help people in the interdisciplinary space work more effectively.

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).

Confusion in Collaboration <- The Slides

The questions generated by the group:

DE Crucible Confusion June 2017
DE Crucible 2017 Confusion in Collaboration

My final act was to share the Griffith questionnaire with this group as a final test of their understanding of each other’s research models.

What questions could help you avoid future conflict and bring confusion to the surface?



People are key for improving resilience!

blog2 pic

Photo by Civic Soup CIC

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.

At Edinburgh we have the wonderful example of the Festival of Creative Learning, where anyone can apply to run an event linking to learning in new ways. Past events include the application of Artificial Intelligence in Law, creating an art/office space for a community and a workshop for children to express their musicality. If you would like to put on an event, there are funds and support available.

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.

IAD >heart< Technicians

The Technicians Make It Happen campaign



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.

Many thanks Marianne! This post came about from a conversation between Marianne and Sara at the Technicians’ Support Steering Group which they both sit on. Today (May 30th) is the “Visibility, outreach and professional development – network event”  for technicians, designed to raise awareness of the HEaTED network and various CPD opportunities.

Sara’s slides from the HEaTED event.

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.


Success in Funding

Photo by Quicksandala at

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

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

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

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

Pick the right funder 

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

Understand the funder

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

Understand the process

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

Convince the Reader of the Proposal’s Importance

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

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

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

Present the Right Profile and Experience

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

Get the Right Support

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

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

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

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

A couple of final references:

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

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