HR Excellence in Research Award | what do you think?

You may have noticed reference to the “HR Excellence in Research Award” on our website or in our brochures and not given it much thought, but it’s worth paying some attention to – and we’d really appreciate hearing from you if you have. The Institute for Academic Development is currently in the process of working on our review for the Award.  We were amongst the first Universities to receive the Award from the European Commission in September 2010 and it’s had a significant impact on that way we support you, our researchers.

The award framework requires us to review our support of research staff every two years and it’s led to a number of projects, initiatives and new approaches. These include

  • Rewriting our Code of Practice so it is more researcher-focused and includes clear roles and responsibilities for researchers, their managers and the University
  • Working in collaboration with HR Learning & Development to deliver a university wide mentoring programme – Mentoring Connections – for all staff, with the IAD focusing on supporting the academic mentoring partnerships
  • A researcher-led development fund, which has evolved into the IAD Action Fund, which supports staff and students to develop academic communities and/or test ideas for creative learning activities. Funding is also available to support the professional and personal development of groups of students, researchers and academics at every stage of their career

Every other biennial review involves UK peer reviewers working alongside a selected number of international reviewers to assess all UK submissions. We welcome this additional scrutiny as it helps us to hear about good practice from across and beyond the UK. The recommendations from the review will also help us to secure internal support for new researcher development ideas.

The ‘HR excellence in Research’ badge acknowledges our alignment with the principles of the European Charter for Researchers and Code of Conduct for their Recruitment[i].  In the UK this also includes the QAA Code of Practice for Research Degree Programmes and the Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers – you may be familiar with the latter as it is currently being reviewed and we expect the revised Concordat to make more robust recommendations to funders and universities to further improve their support for researchers. As this long list of Codes and Condordats suggests, the action plan that we produce and follow is detailed and lengthy, but it’s one that we’d like more of our researchers to see and comment on. You can find our current action plan and further information about the award on our website:

Although we work in partnerships with Colleges, Schools and various networks, centres and institutes, we’re aware that we are only hearing a fraction of the researcher voices in the University. This is your chance to contribute to this key process and to let us know

  • If you are aware of the HR Excellence in Research Award
  • Which initiatives you’re aware of and how you are benefiting from them
  • What should be in the 2018 action plan for researchers or research staff societies

So, if you are an Edinburgh researcher, please share with us your perceptions of the effects of the various initiatives we’re already running and what you would like to see included in the 2018 action plan.

Please email with any comments/feedback

[i] In 2005 the European Commission launched the European Charter for Researchers and Code of Conduct for the Recruitment of Researchers which set out some principles for good working conditions for researchers.  The European Commission (EC) seeks to ensure that steps are being put in place by institutions to enhance working conditions for researchers across Europe as set out in the European Charter and Code and this is done through the ‘HR Excellence in Research’ Award.



Criteria to collaborate

safety plan
 A simple project safety plan

Last week two ideas collided in my head. One of the upsides of a busy schedule is that I’m constantly hopping from topic to topic under the very broad umbrella of researcher development. The two big ideas that came together were mental health and collaboration.

The mental health element came from the conference I co-organised for the Universities Scotland Research Training Sub-Committee on Researcher Mental Health (that link takes you to the programme) which included a range of talks and workshops. I took full advantage of having responsibility for finding speakers to invite Eve Hepburn of Fearless Femme and Olivia Kirtley  of KU Leuven who both gave important and insightful expert views. The one that stuck in my head and refused to go away was about a “safety plan” which came from a conversation with Olivia the day before the conference (again a perk of being the speaker organiser is that you have first dibs on their time before the conference starts – take note postdocs!)

The conference report is in progress as I type this, but will follow soon. It was a fantastic day and has already prompted a range of conversations with colleagues at Edinburgh and beyond.

However, Friday was another day and I needed to switch from organiser to speaker mode to contribute to the Digital Economy Crucible. In previous years I’ve facilitated this event, but now I’m part of the speaker line-up and use this as a chance to explore a range of issues linked to collaboration. Last year I spoke about confusion in collaboration, inspired by a talk at another Crucible (Welsh this time!) from Professor Barry Smith, a philosopher and someone who always sparks interesting ideas when we meet.

This time, with the mental health theme refusing to leave my thoughts I adapted my planned talk (on criteria for collaboration) to include a version of a safety plan.

My slides are here: DE Crucible Criteria

I should explain that a safety plan is a written, prioritized list of coping strategies and resources for reducing suicide risk. It is a prevention tool that is designed to help those who struggle with their suicidal thoughts and urges to survive. If you are interested in learning more about the work of Drs Barbara Stanley and Gregory K Brown who conceived the safety plan, their website explains more about the intervention approach they’ve developed.

I used this as inspiration for a simple “project safety plan” which is a template for what will help you notice that a project is slipping towards problems which will help you agree with partners in advance (i.e. whilst you are still talking to each other) what you will do to bring the project and your relationship back on track.

Alongside a summary of the key criteria for successful collaborations identified in the 2015 Dowling Report ( you can enjoy my enthusiasm for this report elsewhere on this blog) this led to a range of useful discussions about where project failure stems from. I will return to the other ideas that the safety plan has prompted in future posts, but if you want to use the project safety plan idea in your own work, please do and let me know if it helps and feel free to use the DE Crucible template as a guide.

DE Crucible Top Ten Key Success Factors for a Successful Collaboration


Buy-in from the Busy

Image from

In the last post I started exploring the idea of getting others to help with your career development before diverting into a post about how to say no. To return to my initial theme, what are the questions we should have in mind if we are to convince someone to invest some time in our development?  

As an illustration, at a recent Ingenious Women networking event a PhD student approached me and asked what she should do about an email she’d sent to someone in her field who hadn’t replied. She knew this person was very busy, so was nervous about following up. This resonated with me as I regularly get asked for advice or help. Sometimes I reply to these emails quickly and easily and sometimes I just never get around to it. And sometimes…I don’t feel at all inclined to help.

So here is MY take on what makes it more likely for me to reply. Bear in mind that these are my “buttons” – you may react to different styles of approach.

  1. Ask very clear and specific questions that are easy for me to answer. Ideally one question.
  2. Demonstrate that you are a person who is proactive and has done everything they can to answer this question for themselves. If I can get the answer from Google in 15 seconds you’ve just wasted the opportunity to ask me something that isn’t at the end of a search engine. 
  3. Explain why you think my knowledge is so valuable to you indicating that you’ve done a bit of homework into me and my background.
  4. Acknowledge that I’m busy and indicate how much of a commitment you need from me.
  5. Indicate when you will follow up or where we might have a chance to meet. (But don’t make it sound like stalking.)
  6. Thank me if I can help, show understanding if I can’t.  

Unsurprisingly there are a number of blogs on this theme (for some reason the advice on “The Art of Manliness” one didn’t really speak to me, but could be just your thing) . I liked something-from-a-busy-person-and-get-a-reply which includes the line

Would you ever walk up to a well-dressed stranger on the street and say “Hey, you look great! Can I have $20?”

 I imagine not, but we often treat other people’s time with this breezy disregard then mutter with dismay when they choose not to hand over their precious minutes.

Do I really want to do this?

I’ve been speaking at a few events recently, many connected with the Ingenious Women programme which we’ve got Scottish Government Can Do funding to run for Scottish STEM researchers. This means I’m talking  a fair bit about how to make the most of your network and use it for help and opportunities. In a talk last week for the BCS Women and BCS Edinburgh branch about how to distill luck, I put up the following slide to guide attendees before asking busy people to help them.

Background image from

As I talked through the ideas on the slide it struck me that the guidelines were very similar to the questions my boss asks me when I go to him with a cool idea that will take up even more of my time. If I can convince him of the value of the activity, he’s usually happy for me to go ahead and if not, he usually does me the huge favour of saying no. Quickly I realised that this was a set of guidelines I should apply to myself more often as a technique for working out what to say yes to…and what to politely decline.

For those who are keen to say no more often, here are some tricky questions to help you.

  • Can you sum up the demands of this task/opportunity in a few words and what value it adds?

Is this as appealing when I have to dig into the pros and cons?

  • What evidence do you have that your answer to the question above is reliable?

Are tasks usually more straightforward than they appear at first? Do they usually deliver more than at first glance? Will the benefits just happen or do I need to ask for them?

  • Will this help you in the future? Or is it more of the same in terms of your development?

Is this a development opportunity for someone else? Hmm…who can I pass this to?

  • Can you accurately work out what time you will need to commit to this?

Do I have this time to spare? What will I have to stop doing in order to do this?

  • Is this opportunity a solution to a problem you’re facing?

Does this put you into a new network? Does it give you chance to develop a skill you need? Does it add a line – the right line – to your CV?

I’ll return to my original theme of asking busy people for help in the next blog, but for now take a moment to work out which questions you need to ask yourself to make better decisions about the very precious resource which is your time.

Not a Hard Drive

After a pretty lengthy break, I’m trying to get back into my blogging routine at the moment. On one level it shouldn’t be too challenging. I have a personal rule that my blogs aren’t polished pieces of prose (equivalent say to a conference presentation), but instead are some quick thoughts about things on my mind (more like grabbing me for a coffee at our imaginary conference). Each blog takes me about 25-30 minutes to write and no matter how busy I am, I should be able to find that each week.  Except that most weeks for the last six months, even if I have found the time I sit in front of my keyboard unable to find the words.

We all have days like this when the muse refuses to visit for a variety of reasons. We come in determined to get THAT ONE KEY THING done and before we know it, it’s after noon, after four, after eight and the to-do list remains untouched, yet we feel like we’ve been working flat out. Sound familiar? Today’s post is on the theme of productivity and why we can find it so difficult to just get things done. The inspiration for the post is a podcast that I listened to one morning, entitled “Your Brain is Not a Hard Drive” which is an interview between the people behind the Blinkist app and David Allen Green (hailed as a productivity guru in the podcast blurb)

The main theme is that we don’t use our brains properly and try to retain too much information rather than having space to think. As a result we feel overwhelmed, frazzled and like we’re going around in circles. The podcast outlines three simple stages to get out of this trap…

  1. Capture – write down everything that you’re trying to remember on a “trusted storage device” (aka notebook) (this is likely to take some time but will be time well spent)
  2. Clarify – think about what you are committed to work on and therefore going to do first because this is important to you. Use your brain to process the problem (brains love problem solving)
  3. Organise – now plan the steps to take to get the one thing done (again, using your brain to solve a problem)

So for the last few weeks I’ve been writing more things down and then thinking about my priorities and the time I have available. Rather than setting myself up to fail, I’m realistic about what I can do and when. Someone else suggested that I only have three things at any one time that I’m planning to tackle (this is another technique which I’ve forgotten the author of because I didn’t write it down. Ahem.)

There are other things that will help – our writing retreats provide a protected and industrious space in which to focus – but for the next few weeks I’m going to try and stick to this regime and see if it helps to reduce the feeling of being overwhelmed, but unproductive.

So, with the first of my current three things done, I wish you a productive day too!


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?