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?


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


Take the plunge and join the ingenious women

On November 24th applications will close for our 4th Ingenious Women programme. It was conceived in 2012 following the great experiences that Janet Wilkinson and I had running a weekend workshop for Girl Geeks Scotland which aimed to equip women in IT with confidence, skills and a powerful network. We saw so much potential in the model that we developed it into a programme for early career researchers. Interestingly, a similar programme runs at the Judge Business School in Cambridge University where, like here, they found that women tended not to engage with similar workshops.

Our programme runs at over three weekends and you must commit to attending all of them. The community that we’ve built on (and across) previous cohorts has been one of the biggest outcomes for people, so it’s a key criterion for selection. The programme is open to researchers, research technicians, academics and for the first time, professional services staff who have a focus on research.

We’ve deliberately chosen this approach for women (including those with family commitments) but realize that it might be useful provide a little additional information which might help you to decide if this programme is something that you can be part of.

The residential weekend model has been very popular and effective with over 90 women from the University including those with children. The weekend model was chosen because many of the women we have worked with struggle to commit to a two day programme within the working week, particularly if they work part-time. Some of the women who have attended the programme in previous years particularly commented on the number of times they had to drop out of training commitments because of the pressure at work. By choosing a weekend model, this pressure is greatly reduced. Another thing we have noticed is that the “psychological” effect of a weekend programme is that it makes it easier to prioritise your own career as you are undertaking the development in your own time.  Rather than being something that was decided without consideration of the caring commitments of women, it was chosen specifically because of these. We don’t claim that this will work for all women, so a non-residential programme covering similar themes is available (we’ll be publicising this soon.)

Peebles Hydro is one of the most child friendly hotels in Scotland so that anyone who cannot arrange weekend child care can bring their children with them. The hotel offers a fantastic range of activities for children over 2 years old, which we will cover the costs of. Most of our previous attendees have chosen to come alone, but for single parents, breast-feeding mothers or those who’s caring responsibilities aren’t flexible, we do everything we can to make Ingenious Women inclusive and we’ll work with our selected attendees to make the programme work for them.

Having said that, the programme for the three weekends is busy and we work into the evenings to maximise the time we have together. The value comes from the immersive nature of IW and it’s amazing how quickly the network forms and people start to feel the benefits of thinking about themselves and their career.

If you’ve seen details of the programme but hesitated, get in touch with either myself or Nicola. Most compelling though, may be some of the comments from the last cohort.

Ingenious women has led me to greater clarity and inspired practices that are motivating me to increased, better outputs from my work. It has sparked ideas for projects and papers and collaborations that would not have happened otherwise. Watch this space.

I am a new member of staff at the University and consider this a unique opportunity which has allowed me to meet some incredibly talented women and has given to confidence that I’m working at a University that values its staff and their development. I think this investment reflects well on the University. I feel inspired to reach for possibilities within the University that I didn’t know existed or which I previously felt powerless to reach.

Meeting with peers to discuss common challenges has provided valuable confidence in how I approach my daily work, interact with colleagues and generate and execute ideas for future projects.

A UNIQUE opportunity to discover, and learn from an otherwise INVISIBLE cross-section of our institution.

This course definitely increased my self awareness and confidence. Now I know lots of researchers that I can collaborate with to be more successful and productive. My performance at the institution has also improved dramatically following the encouraging conversations and transfer of ideas with other ingenious women.

So, if you are interested in spending three weekends with a group of like-minded colleagues who want to develop their ideas, their career and themselves, don’t hesitate – apply before November 24th!

Boring but important

I subscribe to a magazine which digests the week’s news and always includes a column called “boring but important” which I make myself read (although obviously after I read the “it’s must be true, I saw it in the tabloids” column which is far more entertaining). I planned this blog as I sat in a meeting this afternoon discussing the Concordat for the Career Management of Researchers. As a group of researcher developers we were all very engaged in the discussion and we’ve put a lot of energy over the last couple of years into supporting the idea of a review and now into putting forward our thoughts.

At Edinburgh, the Concordat influenced the development of our own Code of Practice – a document which I’ve blogged about before and again encourage you to look at.

One key feature of the consultation process for the review is that it is open to anyone and we agreed that it’s critical that researchers engage. We then shared our suspicion that although institutions and organisations such as Universities Scotland will be putting forward responses, that individual researchers may not be as aware as we are of the opportunity to contribute and the importance of feeding in your experiences.

This blog is a call to action to our research staff to take a look at the consultation process and let the review panel know what you think. You are the MOST IMPORTANT voice in this process. The Concordat is ten years old. Has it made any difference? Are the guidelines set out in it recognisable and familiar? When you look at the environment and culture in our university, do you think it supports your career management?

Here are the consultation questions:

And you can enter the survey here. Consultation closes on December 1st.

I’ll be honest –  responding to the Concordat Review may not be the most fun you have this week, but it could be the most important thing you do. Your opinions will be given real weight by the review committee (more weight than my thoughts, I hope), so please take this opportunity to influence a document which will in turn influence funders and institutions. Make yourself comfortable, set aside an hour and have your say.

From idea to project

Although the Newton Bhabha Fund workshop on Clean Energy Research for Rural India is now over there are still a few outstanding posts I want to complete. Our plan is to turn these into a guide for others running these kinds of workshops once we’ve given the participants a few weeks to settle back into their usual routines. Today’s post looks at the theme we covered on day 4 of the workshop when we looked out the resources which facilitating turning ideas into projects.

Clearly a significant factor here is the availability of funding, but we also heard from Stuart Govan, from the Royal Society of Chemistry which co-funded the workshops with the British Council. I’m going to comeback to some of the points that Stuart made in a future post, but to be efficient, here is a link to his slides from the workshop which make it clear how many benefits there are to being an engaged and active member of a professional learned society.

Again, we recognised that the expertise on this topic lay in the group rather than solely with the organisers, so we gave a brief introduction to the general  funding and opportunity map  as we know it in the UK (with a healthy warning that this is currently in a state of flux). This presentation was based on others I’ve previously given in funding workshops but didn’t focus on international development research opportunities. For this we handed over to the group, first creating 5 headings for them to cluster their knowledge of funding schemes :

  • visits and exchanges
  • proof of concept/initial studies/seed funding
  • workshops and networks
  • project funding
  • programme funding

The group produced a wealth of information from both the UK and India. Finding links for all the schemes is going to take some time, but here are a few key funders.

UKIERI – the UK India Education Research Initiative

The Universities themselves  – almost all of those represented at the workshop from both UK and Indian institutions had internal funds which were available for visits.

RCUK – the UK’s cluster of research funding councils have a range of schemes. Coincidentally, the BBSRC launched its India Partnering calls today.

Indian Council of Social Science Research

Although currently closed, the SAGES/PECRE funds from the Scottish Funding Council were mentioned.

Participants were also encouraged to use the “Pathways to Impact” section of RCUK proposals to cost visits and exchanges if international development was a relevant impact area.

Another Indian funder mentioned was the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research.

I’m just scratching the surface here of the schemes and funders that the group were aware of – the point is that there is a significant and flexible funding landscape but it is complex – for many schemes you will need partners, so a good starting place is to attend workshops (such as ours) and to ask these questions of your fellow attendees.

For our group the next steps will be a mix of student exchanges, visits and proof of concept funding. If you are interested in engaging with this kind of research, Newton Bhabha (and other Newton Fund iteration) workshop are a great starting point. In the next blog I’ll look at how our attendees became aware of the workshop and why they chose to attend.


The Groan Zone

Our Newton Bhabha Fund workshop (remember, we’re tweeting about the workshop using #CERRI) was carefully planned with the challenges of international development in mind. We began with a trip to rural villages, spent a day debriefing the visit and ensuring everyone understood the ethos of this type of funding. On the third day, when we stimulated idea generation, we spent the morning listening to people who had a wealth of experience linked to our theme of clean energy and rural India. Then it was time to see what this had prompted from our group.

The night before we did an initial “brain dump” in mixed groups so that people could share initial ideas and I encouraged them to be as creative and open as possible. In planning the workshop, we had in mind a framework for the week. At first we would broaden the perspectives of the participants through the visits and early discussions. In the second half of the week we would try to guide them to find a focus and begin to develop some project ideas. (This is explained as part of an interesting blog on Design Thinking and Social Innovation from Elon University.) When I explained the idea to the workshop PI, I added in an area at the point when you switch from Divergent to Convergent thinking – the “Groan Zone”.


I happily introduced this model and told everyone that we expected them to be uncomfortable and that it was fine and all part of the process. We then asked them to start thinking about what their initial ideas were and asked them to put them onto post-it notes so we could find clusters and overlaps.

The ideas flowed – we quickly filled the wall with possibilities. We merrily grouped them into themes and then stood back. People began to cluster and started to develop their ideas into project outlines with enthusiasm. And all the organisers and guest watched with discomfort, as we realised that despite the exposure to the village environment and a morning of hearing from experts, the group had instantly fallen back into their comfort zone. The projects that were emerging were solution led. The board of ideas was polarised into science problems and social science problems. One of the participants noticed this and everyone agreed that it wasn’t why we were here, but people hesitated to move.

A couple of our speakers intervened and said that the research had to start with the need. They stressed that the need was usually caused by complex, overlapping issues which weren’t respecters of disciplines. They urged the group to go back and start with the need of the villagers and communities.

To help, Neil quickly drafted a set of questions:

  • Who are you helping?
  • What is your impact?
  • How will you do this?
  • How will you communicate and engage people in your project?

Everyone went back to their ideas. Slowly, and with some inital difficulty, the need became the priority. The projects were set to one side as the group used the expertise of the guests and the personal experience of village life in the room to deepen their understanding of the need. We nudged one or two groups to take a look at their constituents – we’d noticed that one was devoid of social scientists and another had only one physical scientist. In one of my favourite moments of the workshop so far, a social scientist was “kidnapped” by one group who needed her skills and perspectives. We finished the day with a quick overview of each project and suddenly we started to get excited about what was emerging. Clearly these ideas have the potential to grow in proposals so I won’t share details here but they are now strongly aligned with the principles driving GCRF.

I wanted to write the post about our “near-miss” because there is so little information about the workshop running process that it can be easy to think that they all run like clockwork. We are spoilt here by having someone (me!) who’s only focus is the workshop facilitation and it was still challenging to work out how to intervene and to understand what had caused the slight deviation from the path we’d tried to set up.



I think what happened is that the complexity of the rural environment is such that we all felt a little overwhlemed by the scale of the challenge. Faced with so many unknowns, people retreated a little from the “groan zone” into the comfort of their expertise and disciplines.


img_5143The problem with this is that the really beautiful ideas were past this point. We pushed the group out of their comfort zones and better ideas emerged. I’ll be honest about how surprised I was that this didn’t happen naturally, but it’s important to share this to give future workshop leaders an insight so they can look out for the same moment with their groups.


Some advice is to “shine a light” onto the idea generation and development process regularly in the early stages. We had three separate whole group idea sharing slots so we picked up on the limitations of the early projects quickly. We got everyone to put all their ideas onto the wall (using post-its) so the clustering of ideas around disciplines was immediately evident. Neil and the guest experts kept sitting in with the groups whilst the ideas were forming to challenge and guide them. Without these interventions it would have been difficult to spot the issues.

Overnight, the ideas have developed and new ones have emerged. There are now six ideas in development and they are all truly needs-led so the principles of ODA-compliance are embedded from the start. (In the next post I’ll talk a little about the ODA compliance that we discussed as well as sharing some of the resources we’ve found to fund the network and ideas in future.)

Today the group are expanding on their ideas and we’ve given them some new questions for guidance:

  • What are the gaps in the idea/stakeholders or team’s skills base?
  • What are your first steps?
  • Who needs to be involved?
  • What resources will you need?
  • What else is happening in this space? (Do an initial literature search)

Tomorrow is our final day. The focus will be on building ownership of potential projects so everyone leaves with a clear plan and we’ll also think about the best strategies for maintaining the network. And I may cry a little as this has been a very special experience.