Technicians

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 Photo by Emma Mitchell (Bradley Stoke Community School, a winner of the Technicians Make it Happen photo competition) at http://technicians.org.uk/

Today, I want to bring the focus back to technical staff. A few months ago, we had a guest blog post from Marianne Keith who discussed their story. Since then, I have met a few technicians around the university to ask about what support they need and what is draining their resilience. What surprised me is that a lot of the same issues are affecting both technicical and postdoc staff.

Similarly to postdoc staff, technicians need to have incredible time-management skills to keep on top of their work. We all know the feeling of having too much to do and not enough time to do it in, but this shouldn’t always be the case. By stepping back and implementing some strategies, it is possible to gain control and be more productive. Sara has already written an excellent time-management post with a range of tips from academics – so give this a read.

Technical staff also have incredibly varied positions (similarly to postdocs who may be allocated time for their PI’s project, independent research and/or teaching). Some technicians are also involved in the teaching side of university, helping students learn to use equipment and answering questions. Others may be involved mainly in animal care or preparing equipment for researchers.

This was also highlighted by the UK Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). 60% of the technicians surveyed had supervised students and 80% had contributed to papers (19% were lead authors). Therefore, these technical roles appear to be very similar to academic roles in some respects. The variation of technical staff responsibilities, as well as the crossover with academic staff appears to blur the technician identity and may increase the difficulty in establishing technical staff communities.

Sheffield’s ‘TechNet’ is a great example of what can happen at a university. TechNet aims to increase visibility of technicians, to improve the profile of technical community and connect individuals with common interests. The great thing is that TechNet, while based at Sheffield, is open to all technicians from other Higher Education Institutions! You can receive newsletters, get involved in online forums of technicians and attend quarterly events.

One of the main differences between technicians and research postdocs emerges when talking about career development. Most postdocs aim for a permanent position at the university, so their postdoc job acts as a stepping stone to the next stage. However, technical staff career progression seems to be less clear.

Some technicians may feel stuck in a role, without knowing how to progress to the next grade/level. However, technical staff can apply to certain funding for research or development if that’s the direction they want to pursue (e.g. only 12% of technical staff surveyed new that they could apply to BBSRC funding). Look for opportunities in your department and talk to your line-manager about career progression opportunities!

The IAD also offers a range of workshops which technicians are welcome to attend. Don’t think that you cannot attend because you are based at a different campus, take advantage of the opportunity! These will allow you to make new networks with staff across the university, as well as developing skills that are key to your current position and development.

HEaTED also provides a range of opportunities for development and networking, aimed directly at technical staff. Online support is also available at technicians.org.uk, including case studies so you can see what other technicians have done.

Some preliminary plans are underway to try to establish technician communities at the university. If you see something at another university, you would like to implement in Edinburgh, talk to your line-manager/PI and head of department to explore whether it’s possible. Don’t forget that the IAD is also here to support technical staff, please get in touch if you have any ideas!

Wellbeing and resilience ‘map’

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Many post-docs have said that they maintain their wellbeing and resilience mainly by using networks and talking to people. Others have highlighted that finding the right support network can be difficult. Sometimes, colleagues may be the best support because they have probably faced similar situations but in other situations, it may be useful to seek support around the university.

The University of Edinburgh has a range of campuses and services spread across the city. Therefore, it’s important that all researchers are aware of the wellbeing and resilience support systems in place. In this post, I’ll demonstrate some of these support systems around the university and how they have helped early career researchers.

Chaplaincy

  • The chaplaincy is there for people of all faiths and none, so everyone is welcome. There are a number of chaplaincy locations spread across different campuses.
  • Do you want to learn about mindfulness and ‘slow down’ your university experience?
  • The chaplaincy holds a range of mindfulness events, including mindfulness courses , Tai Chi and yoga.
  • Do you need someone to talk to for support?
  • The Chaplaincy also runs pastoral support for staff. These sessions offer confidential and non-judgmental listening and support that can help to identify your talents and find methods to help you to focus on your work.

Gyms

  • Are you stressed? Being active can help you clear your thoughts and allow you to approach your problems more calmly. Some post-docs have also said that doing sport when they wouldn’t be productive (e.g. mid-afternoon) helps them to be more productive when they go back to the office/lab.
  • There are gyms at Pleasance  and King’s Buildings along with a range of centres across the city.
  • The gyms offer a range of fitness courses and workshops, including Yoga and Pilates, to help combat stress.
  • Since 2013, a Healthy University Project has been aiming to promote and deliver health and wellbeing benefits for the University community through the promotion of physical activity. A range of activities for staff have been ongoing as part of this.

Staff counselling service

  • A range of self-help materials is available online, including websites and books.
  • Eligible staff are offered short-term counselling to discuss problems or situations, which are causing concern or distress at work or home.
  • From September 2017, all staff will gain access to The Big White Wall, a safe and anonymous online forum where staff can discuss their challenges and pressures and receive support from peers and trained professionals.

Research support office

  • Have you received some rejections from funding applications? Not sure which funder would suit your project?
  • Contact the research support office to help you with your application. They can ensure you are meeting all of the criteria for the funder and show you a range of successful applications so you know what the funder is expecting.

The Institute for Academic Development

  • Want to improve your skills? Having trouble with writing?
  • The IAD runs a range of workshops and courses allowing staff to develop skills in writing and management.
  • Worried about becoming a supervisor or a Principal Investigator?
  • The IAD offers a range of support for researchers who are managing teams and supervising researcher.

Careers Service

  • Are you not sure about the next step of your career? Attending workshops or consultations at the Careers Service could help ease your worries and allow you to actively think about and strategically plan your career.
  • Early Career Researchers are also encouraged to attend the PhD Horizons Career Conference. A range of people with PhDs (many of which have completed postdocs too) return to Edinburgh to discuss what they have done since and how.

Communities

  • Do you want to get more involved in the community?
  • Getting involved in staff societies will help you make networks with people in your discipline
  • There are also a range of groups and communities in Edinburgh that you can get involved with.

Staff mentoring scheme

  • Feeling alone at the university? Maybe you’re in a small department and your colleagues are always too busy to support you?
  • Sign up to the staff mentoring scheme to receive support from a senior staff member over an extended period of time in relation to career progress and aspirations
  • If you feel like you would benefit from helping others, become a mentor! The scheme is currently looking for mentors of Grade 9 and above to sign up to the program

Have I missed anything? Post-doc staff have highlighted that they have used the above services to gain support and improve their wellbeing. If you found that another service has been useful for you, please get in touch, as it could be useful for other postdocs that may not have heard of it!

Careers, JUST careers

Last week’s blog from Amy featured a great cartoon from The Upturned Microscope depicting a meeting of “Postdocs Anonymous” which may have resonated with some of you. In it there’s a reference to “information about alternative careers” which I’m going to focus on in this post.

Like many researchers developers I have a bit of an issue with the phrase “alternative careers” because it implies deviation from a norm. This was summed up by Marie Thouaille at a meeting recently which was summarised in a tweet by Inger Mewburn.

The reality from the information we have about research staff career paths is that the so-called alternative paths are the norm. Your career is far more likely to develop outside the academic path and I think many postdocs accept this as fact. Despite this, there seems to be an unwillingness to engage in career decision making.

I’m not sure what lies behind this reticence but here are a few resources to help any of you who are aware that there are more options open to you than the fellowship/lecturer route, but may not be sure about how to get started.

Set a deadline to start 

It’s all too easy to push this down the to-do list. I find it easiest to move things along when I can link them to a meaningful deadline. You might be able to use your annual review meeting for this – the deadline for the year here at Edinburgh is approaching fast. If that has already passed why not schedule a similar conversation with someone you would like to talk about where you are, how things are going and what track you are on.

Think about your preferences

There are a number of different frameworks you can use to prompt your thinking about the way you like to work and the types of things you find interesting. You might use our skills audit based on the RDF and just reflect on what you enjoy doing. You can also ask people what they think you are good at and whether they have any ideas about careers or directions that might suit you. Working out what to do for the rest of your life can be intimidating so don’t think of this as a fixed decision. If you also talk to people about the paths they’ve taken (more on this below), you’ll discover that careers develop constantly and often in directions that can’t be seen in advance. Instead of trying to fix on something forever, work out what your next career needs to have more of and less of and see where this takes you.

Look at the destinations

There are a range of sources which set out the careers taken after postdoc research. Vitae, professional bodies, publishers and individual universities have all tried to provide better insights to help researchers be confident about their options. If you are struggling to find something that resonates, let me know and I’ll see what I can add here.

We now have more information about the destinations of postdoctoral researchers than ever before but the picture is incomplete. I make this point because no matter how rich the options are, I suspect there are far more opportunties taken by research staff than we are aware of.

Follow the paths

If the information from reports and profiles doesn’t give you the inspriation you are seeking, why not look at individual paths? Use social media and networks to understand career paths by connecting with people through your boss, former colleagues and start to build a picture of where postdocs have gone afterwards and where they are now. Connect with as many people as you can with on LinkedIn and look back through their online career summaries. If your network is a bit thin, ask around – most people would be happy to make virtual introductions to help you do this.

Be positive

I know it’s easy to say this, but I genuinely believe that you can do ANYTHING after a  postdoc. Some options might require some training or experience, but the value of being a researcher will shine through. Most postdocs still have the VAST majority of their working years ahead and if you put your experience into the context of a forty year working life (more for most of us, probably) any temporary side-stepping or reset is worth the short-term set backs.

Talk the talk

My final message is that once you have worked out what’s next for you, make sure you describe your skills and value in terms that the employer will appreciate and engage with. This is probably best explored in a future post if there is interest, but in the meantime, here’s a resource from my last role where I rewrote a postdoc CV for a new direction.

And finally, 

Can I encourage you all to look hard at where you will have most impact in the wider labour market? We need you…

 

Internship update

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Photo by The Upturned Microscope at theupturnedmicroscope.com

The past 5 weeks have flown by! At the midpoint of my internship, I will use this blog post as an opportunity to step back and think about what I have achieved so far and what I need to focus on next.

There has been a lot of interest in my project so far. A range of early career staff have met with me to talk about issues that they have faced in the university, what support they need(ed) and what advice they would give others. Each meeting has revealed another slightly different situation, but some issues are repeatedly coming up. Speaking to senior staff members has also been useful to learn about what our university already offers postdoc staff. The university offers a huge amount of opportunities for early career researchers, including workshops, face-to-face support and mentorship schemes.

Some postdocs have highlighted that they were not aware about this support that the university offers. Some are unsure as to whether ‘staff events’ actually includes them. The role of postdoc appears to fall between the cracks; they are no longer a PhD student but some do not feel like a staff member yet. This is especially the case when a new staff member did their PhD in the same department. An online resource aimed specifically at postdocs or early career researchers will go a long way to ensure that postdoc staff can access support and feel valued in the university.

It follows on that postdocs have a lack of community in the university, as they are a separate group with different pressures to PhD students and senior staff. The role of postdoc even varies between staff members, depending on the type of funder and the project. Some postdocs have various projects simultaneously, along with teaching requirements. This can pose an array of different challenges, including managing time effectively, dealing with expectations from a range of different PIs and finding time to plan their next career stage. It is clear that postdocs face a range of challenges and need support to be resilient and succeed in their position.

As the University of Edinburgh has a huge number of staff and is divided into different campuses, it would be extremely difficult to establish a university wide network for our postdocs. A range of postdoc societies have been established consisting of early career staff in specific disciplines. This is a perfect way for staff to network with peers who have similar interests and for building a sense of community in the school. But, how would a postdoc gain a sense of community in subject areas where there aren’t established societies?

I am interested as to whether a campus or school based network system may be feasible. Since postdocs often have short-term contracts, we need to bear in mind the issue of organisational sustainability – the network needs to be organised in a way such that when one postdoc staff member leaves the university, the network doesn’t become inactive. Possible ways to do this would be to have two postdocs in charge (a president and vice-president system) or giving some responsibility to a permanent senior staff member. This responsibility may be to recruit a new postdoc to become the new president and ensuring that the society is offering frequent events/support.

At this point in the internship, I am beginning to draft together a resource addressing some of the key issues postdocs face. This includes signposting to resources and events around the university, to make them more accessible and providing new resources where necessary. I hope that this resource encourages postdocs to reflect on their experiences and make small changes to ensure they are working in a positive and sustainable way.

Over the next few weeks, I will continue to develop this resource using feedback from postdocs. I will also continue meeting staff around the university to share their perspectives on my work – if you would like to contribute, please get in touch!

Imposter syndrome

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By Courtney Seiter at open.buffer.com

The diagram above is commonplace when beginning a new job. Before you’ve settled in and learned the ropes, everyone around you seems to know more than you and it’s incredibly daunting to catch up. Over the past few weeks, I have discovered that some amazing postdocs at Edinburgh university still feel like this, even after they have been in their job for years!

One staff member I spoke to said that each stage you go through feels more unusual, more like you don’t fit in – suggesting that imposter syndrome is not constrained to the first few months of a researcher’s job, but can pose a challenge throughout their whole career. Imposter syndrome is prevalent in academia, due to peer review, rejections and the hierarchical structure of our universities. As postdocs are the newest research staff at the university, it’s likely that imposter syndrome is going to have a large effect on them. For these reasons, imposter syndrome needs to be confronted and discussed.

Have you had imposter syndrome?

Imposter syndrome is a “psychological phenomenon that arises from an incorrect assessment of ones’ abilities compared to peers” (Liu, 2014). This means that someone may have imposter syndrome without realising it.

A common thought when suffering from imposter syndrome is that you’re a “fraud” and worried that you’re going to be “caught out”. These thoughts are often amplified when doing something challenging, such as collaborating with a distinguished researcher on a new topic.

Imposter syndrome can have large effect on your resilience and your research. To feel more prepared, you might feel like you need to spend more and more time working and reading. This will affect your work-home life balance and might leave you feeling drained and less able to cope with challenges in your job. Furthermore, since imposter syndrome can feel more acute when undertaking challenging or risky project, you may be less likely to take risks and pursue great ideas, which could have a negative effect on your research.

My advice to researchers (mainly from other researchers):

  1. You are not alone: the vast majority of researchers have imposter syndrome at some point. If you don’t believe me, ask somebody in your department!
  2. Talk to other researchers about their experiences: social media has made it more acceptable to talk about problems and online networks aimed specifically at researchers facilitate this. Hearing how other people deal with imposter syndrome may help you too.
  3. Confidence is not competence: some people in your department may act confidently, but this does not mean they are any more competent than you.
  4. Don’t take criticism personally: everyone in research receives criticism. Criticism is not aimed at you, but it’s important that you use any feedback you get to improve your research.
  5. Make small goals and evaluate them regularly: Once you see that you are achieving your goals, you’ll build a sense of satisfaction and confidence in your capability.
  6. Take time to look after yourself: the people who I’ve spoken to have a wide variety of mechanisms to look after themselves – whether it’s going for long cycle rides or classes on mindfulness – find something that works for you and fit it in to your routine.

Sara’s lovely blog post about how imposter syndrome is a badge of honour includes further insights and advice: http://www.shintonconsulting.com/a-badge-of-honour/

Thank you to everyone around the university who has talked to me this week about their experiences! I hope to meet lots more researchers at the university in the next 6 weeks. If you would like to get involved by sharing your thoughts or experiences about resilience in your research position please get in touch.

Social policy and wellbeing

While applying for the position of Wellbeing Researcher Intern at the IAD, I developed an interest in how the idea of ‘wellbeing’ has changed over time. Historically, discussions about wellbeing were restricted largely to philosophy. More recently however, wellbeing has become a central focus for many fields, including psychology, politics and economics.

What has caused the recent surge of popularity in the concept of wellbeing and how is this new interest being used to improve societal wellbeing?

Where has this attention come from?

The first major of interest in wellbeing in society emerged in the 1950s when income began to increase and a range of social issues failed to be addressed. However, wellbeing did not begin to dictate policy until much later; before anyone could try to improve societal wellbeing, they needed to find a way to reliably measure it.

How can wellbeing be measured?

Originally, GDP was the main measure used to indicate societal progress, but it became clear that there is not a direct link between happiness and income beyond a certain threshold – the Easterlin Paradox. Furthermore, an individual that scores highly on quantitative measures relating to quality of life does not necessarily feel like they have increased wellbeing or happiness.

Consequently, emphasis was placed on subjective measures, including surveys and reports. Some studies have shown that subjective wellbeing scores relate to other measures, including rates of sociability and happiness ratings given by family members, providing evidence that subjective wellbeing results are valid (Kahneman & Krueger, 2006). One major problem in measuring and improving societal wellbeing is that it is influenced by a huge number of factors, and the exact impact that many of these factors have on societal wellbeing (as well as each other) is not well understood yet. Some of these factors were investigated by the OECD Better Life Initiative, demonstrated in the diagram below.

 

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Diagram by OECD 2013 at oecd.org

Policy change

Another surge of interest in wellbeing developed in the 90s, where the emphasis for research focussed primarily on how environmental factors, such as sustainability, influence wellbeing. As more valid and reliable methods for measuring wellbeing became available, these statistics were able to make a difference in guiding policy.

Some policies were established pre-2000, but David Cameron made wellbeing a high-profile issue in politics by supporting the ONS Measuring Wellbeing Program in 2010. ONS wellbeing data was used across departments and, by 2015, self-reported wellbeing statistics were used for evaluating policies.

How does this affect researchers?

Researchers have high stress and, often, low security positions, which obviously has extremely negative repercussions for their wellbeing. But all researchers should have the opportunity to fulfil their potential and achieve a sense of purpose in society due to their role (e.g. through public engagement as I discussed in last week’s post). For this reason, wellbeing is, and must remain, a priority for the government and all universities. This is further demonstrated by the following quote written by the Government Office for Science, London.

“The world of work is changing, with far-reaching consequences: globalisation and the growing intensification of work will combine to increase workers’ levels of stress and anxiety, and affect their health and efficiency. Changes in the nature of work will also interact with changes at home, such as growing numbers of two-earner households and increased need for care for older relatives, thereby creating pressures on families. Maintaining and improving wellbeing in the face of these trends will be a major challenge.” (Final Project Report, Foresight Mental Capital and Wellbeing Project 2008, page 25)

 

If you’re interested in reading more about this topic, I recommend these resources:

Bache, I. and Reardon, L. (2016). The Politics and Policy of Wellbeing: Understanding the Rise and Significance of a New Agenda. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing Limited.

Kahneman, D. and Krueger, A. B. (2006). Developments in the Measurement of Subjective Well-Being. The Journal of Economic Perspectives, 20, (1), 3-24.

Networking – How?

Today’s post is by Claire Keenan, who works in the Consultancy and Business Services section of ERI. We are working with Claire and her colleagues to support them in engaging more researchers with consultancy as a means to developing research relationships, building impact and generating new projects.

The importance of network building was a focus of the Global Challenges Research Fund Session for Post Docs in Chemistry (for more information on the link between science and international development see UKCDS). Each speaker emphasised how Post Docs need to start to build a cross disciplinary network based on their interests and their future interests.  So how do you do that in practice?     

First, you can start local – with the other post docs and PIs in your school, and workshops and departmental meetings are a great way to do that – just make sure to engage with one another.  Also, you can build and maintain your presence on Edinburgh Research Explorer.  This is a tool that both internal and external parties use to find academics with particular interests, and your publications sit within it.   If your profile is up to date, you can use it as a link to forward to other academics you might meet, and it’s branded so you look official!   Another tool with a similar aim is Research Gate , which is a social networking tool for academics.  Wherever you go, this will stay with you and can simply be updated with your new jobs and research projects. 

(SS note: Research Gate has a science and technology focus. If you are in the arts, humanities or social sciences you may find Academia.edu has more relevant networks.)

 Next, try to get outside your own School and into others – Chemists can look to Biology, Informatics, Maths and Engineering for inspiration and collaboration opportunities, and cross College interaction is increasingly important now to put together projects for GCRF.  Symposia are held for each of the Schools of current research – keep an eye on  Eventbrite  to get notified of when they are coming up.  Have a look on School webpages to see if there are any interesting Seminars you could attend in line with an interest you might have – here’s a recent example from the School of Engineering.  Go along to AimDays when available – there’s one coming up in a couple of weeks for Energy.   You will see first-hand how academics from different Schools and industry come together to discuss problems: this is  networking and knowledge exchange in front of your very eyes! 

It’s never too early to start engaging with the outside world.  Conferences are the obvious way to do that, and though some are expensive, you may find ones that are within your scope and some of the industry funded ones are free.  Scottish Enterprise and Industry groups run events, such as Venturefest Scotland.  It’s free, and you’d get to meet SMEs in all kinds of industries and not only get inspired as to how your research interests might be applied, but also have a platform to sell your wares as a Consultant.  Post Docs are entitled to do consultancy work as part of their contracts, and projects can attract funding.  However,  the best outcome is that you can engage directly with companies and start building a network by engaging in short contracts –  e.g. feasibility studies, literature review, and expert advice.  Most consultancy projects lead to something more – research collaborations, jobs, publications, demonstrating impact for REF.  If you’d like to find out more about how to pitch yourself as a consultant, contact us in the consultancy team and we can give you the support and training you need to get going.  Come and speak to us about your interests and we can help you make contacts with the academics and businesses we know – we can even come with you to conferences and help you work the room, or attend initial meetings. 

 So now you know how…get involved!  Please also get in touch and add comments as to other ideas you have about networking.