Writing retreats and containment


Photograph: Douglas Robertson Photography

It can be refreshing when someone calls a spade a spade. Paul Silvia does when he sums up in three words that ‘Writing is hard’ (How to Write a Lot. A Practical Guide to Academic Writing). He elaborates that writing about research is ‘frustrating, complicated, and un-fun’. I expect many researchers would agree with that.

Writing is hard but it has to be done, even when many other commitments and competing tasks vie for attention (as they do, for almost all academics). Writing outcomes matter more in academia than in almost any other environment, especially when another REF looms on the horizon.

I work with researchers on writing because I know just how hard it is. And every so often someone asks, with a mixture of hope and defiance in their voice, what my top piece of advice would be to someone who struggles with (academic) writing. I used to indulge in long answers, but these days I keep it short: ‘Sign up for a writing retreat’. When it comes to writing, different things work for different people but writing retreats seem to work for (almost) everyone.

There’s a fair amount of research on what makes writing retreats work: they offer a dedicated block of time with an exclusive focus on writing, without the usual distractions, in an atmosphere of collegiality and trust. These things can be in short supply in the day-to-day life of academics. And that’s why short simple formats like the ‘Just Write” sessions offered by the IAD are so valuable: writing alongside others is usually more productive than writing in isolation.

But a (longer) writing retreat has added value, and according to Rowena Murray, whose retreat model has been adopted by the IAD, some of that value lies in ‘containment’. ‘Containment’ is provided by two key aspects of Murray’s retreat model: the role of the facilitator and the structure of the retreat.

What does ‘containment’ mean in the context of writing retreats? What is contained, and how does that make a difference?

Murray couches her retreat model in ‘Containment Theory’, which was coined in the context of child psychology and psychoanalysis by Wilfred Bion (1897 – 1979), a British psychoanalyst. Bion used the term ‘containment’ to describe a key aspect of the interaction between a mother and her infant, or a psychoanalyst and their patient.

In Bion’s work, what is contained for the infant (or patient) are feelings that are experienced as frustrating, overwhelming or even intolerable. Containment occurs when the mother (or analyst) receives and understands what the child (or patient) experiences, and reflects back, or models, how something experienced as overwhelming can be managed.

We seem to have moved a long way from academic writing! Murray is careful to emphasise that retreats are not a form of therapy. But she does draw a parallel between Bion’s containment and the role of facilitative leadership at a writing retreat.

Why is that important? It comes back to Paul Silvia’s statement: Writing is hard. Writing about research involves a complex process based on complex material, and that process is poorly defined, particularly when it comes to questions like ‘Where (and when) do I start?’ (tomorrow), ‘How long will it take?’ (forever), ‘Can I actually do this?’ (no).  When academic writers talk openly about the process of writing a PhD, or writing for publication, they often mention feelings like bewilderment, overwhelm, frustration, self-doubt and inadequacy.

Part of the retreat leader’s role lies in recognising the complexity of the process that participants are involved in, and modelling how to engage with that complexity. That takes us to the second added value of the retreat: the structure that is introduced and upheld by the facilitator. That structure makes complexity manageable by breaking it down. Writing at a retreat does not happen ‘out of the blue’; instead, it emerges from interactive reflection. Each morning and afternoon at a retreat contain two writing sessions. Before each session, participants need to articulate their envisaged writing outcome for that session to a fellow writer; and after the session, they review what they have achieved, in conversation with the same person.

In other words, an amorphous process (‘writing’) is shaped into manageable units, punctuated by reflective planning and mutual engagement. This organisational containment removes some decisions (When do I start? How long do I write for?) and compels authors to makes others (What will I do? What, specifically, will be a realistic outcome?).

In short, the combination of facilitative leadership and structure allows authors to make progress on specified writing tasks (‘doing’) and move more comfortably through the emotions that accompany it (‘feeling’). Organisational (or outer) containment is complemented by the emotional (or inner) containment of affective and attitudinal responses to writing.

Interestingly, the terms ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ containment are also used in another Containment Theory, proposed in the work of American criminologist Walter Reckless (1899 – 1988), a contemporary of Bion. Reckless put containment in a sociological context, to model what potential juvenile delinquents need: both the outer containment of social control, and the inner containment of managing feelings of frustration, overwhelm or inadequacy.

Academic writers are neither infants nor delinquents! But containment theory (whether Bion’s, Reckless’ or Murray’s) acknowledges that achieving growth by moving through complex processes and strong feelings requires recognition, modelling and social support.

That’s what writing retreats offer.

And that’s why participants often leave a retreat with a spring in their step, and the glow of satisfaction that comes with time well spent.

Mimo Caenepeel
November 2018

Mimo runs Research Communication Scotland (mimocaenepeel.com/) where she works closely with academics on honing the skills that are vital to communicating research clearly, concisely and effectively.  Mimo runs a number of writing workshops for the IAD.


Taking Control of Your Career


September has been a big month for researcher development at Edinburgh. Last week the response of the Concordat Steering Group to the Concordat Review was published. This week we have started the recruitment process* for our Inclusion Matters project (*don’t get too excited yet – but we hope to have the adverts open by mid October) and we’re about to begin the consultation for our new Strategic Leadership in Research programme which aims to build a cohort of future big grant leaders.

Today I’m in IGMM giving a short careers seminar to their postdoc network, PODS. My focus is going to be on how the following recommendation in the Concordat Review needs to be translated in action from researchers and institutions.

Recommendation 4: There should be increased support for researcher independence, including autonomy in their own career development, and the freedom to innovate.

• A revised Concordat should address the tension between PIs and postdoctoral independence, setting out clearly the obligations for both groups.

• There should be increased emphasis and support, by both funders and employers, for uptake of researchers’ 10 days training allowance.

• Development of researcher independence should be supported through allocated time within grants.

• 20% of a researcher’s time should be allowed for developing independent research and skills.

My slides are here and that final bullet point features heavily:

PODS postdoc talk

My talk will focus on the need for researchers to be able to make coherent career plans if they want to make the most of the opportunity that the new Concordat will offer (assuming that the final consultations leads to inclusion of the 20% in funders’ terms and conditions). In simple terms to make a career plan you need to know where you are and where you want to be.

I’ll also be referring to the various opportunities that are open to postdocs in the university and more widely (perhaps referencing my earlier blog on broader development) including public engagement, committee membership, funding and supervision.

In a few weeks I’ll be working with our School of Chemistry to develop a template for career conversations between researchers and their managers and will share the outputs on this blog. For now, if you are a researcher, there’s much to be pleased with in the Concordat Review, but remember that the opportunity for developing independence and skills comes with added responsibility for developing a strong career plan. Let us know how we can help you with this – and feel free to use these slides and ask for other resources if you want to run your own career seminar.

Added post session: There was interest in information about researcher career options at the workshop. The most comprehensive set of resources on this topic is on the Vitae website:

Researcher Careers

This includes 150 researcher stories, copies of various reports on doctoral and post-doctoral destinations and careers resources to help you plan your next steps, whatever sector or role appeals. For those who were interested in how to market research experience in more general terms there are sample CVs aimed at a variety of sectors.

I also mentioned that the University is full of non-academic staff who may have career insights to share. A research background is often advantageous in research-related professional services roles – the Research Support Office and IAD are two areas which recruit into roles which would value a PhD and research experience.


Learning outside the (IAD) box

I had a meeting with a post-doc this morning and we were talking about her career and the next steps to take. Earlier in the week I’d been working with another postdoc on a fellowship application which needed to include a professional development plan and in both cases the training that we offer in IAD, although extensive and tailored to postdocs, wasn’t the right fit. (I add with some haste that I’m not offering career 1:1s with all postdocs – the first was someone I had interviewed for a post recently and we were meeting so I could give her some feedback on her performance at interview and the second was a researcher who is going to be supporting me on one of the EPSRC projects which I’m a Co-Investigator – more on these on the blog soon!)

I was able to draw on the strategies I have for my own professional development. Having spent years running leadership programmes, I’m a bit of an oddity in career terms and I’ve not found a course or programme in the University yet that I think is right for me or my role. That doesn’t mean I haven’t developed since I started here 20 months ago. In fact I think that this has been one of the most intensive periods of personal development since I moved from being a postdoc to a trainee careers adviser. Much of my development has come from taking opportunities (such as the EPSRC grants and the Ingenious Women Scotland award from the Scottish Government) and from saying yes to events and projects which were different from things I’d done before, (trying not to listen to the imposter syndrome whispers in my head.) One of the highlights was last year’s trip to India to work on research for international development which I blogged about at the time, and another was running a senior (really senior) leadership consultation event for another university which was terrifying and brilliant.

Other development opportunities have come from using the networks that stretch beyond the University, particularly the learned societies. I was a member of the RSC for many years and have a “you’re a chemist – ugh-  but we’ll let you in as long as you don’t touch anything” membership of the IOP so these networks have been open, but interestingly most of my recent development has come from the British Computing Society Women Scotland group.

The link came about because of the Ingenious Women programme as we ran a series of networking events earlier in the year to raise awareness of the programme and get women in STEM roles together. At one of these I spoke alongside Sharon Moore OBE from IBM and we instantly hit it off. Sharon then asked me if I’d like to come and give a longer version of the talk from that evening at a BCS Women evening. Many of their events are open to all so I agreed and had a great evening talking about luck with a very lively group in the Informatics Forum a few months ago. (Stephanie Zhims, a postdoc at Heriot Watt was in the audience and blogged about the talk.)

Last night I was at another event run by BCS Women in the RBS headquarters in Gogarburn run jointly with the RBS Women Network. The theme of the night was “The High Potentials and Top Talent Registers” and the speaker, Gail Logan shared with us the gist of a book written with a “big corporate” perspective. Not all of the X-Factors of high potentials translate to an academic career path, but it was interesting to think about what makes people stand out and I went way with some new ideas. In other words, just what I hope our research staff get from our programmes. (I’ll write a second blog about the X-Factor model.)

Although interesting, the main learning of the night came from talking to the other women there. I had a great conversation about women who were a similar age to me about how we’d been “high potential” at points in our careers and then things had changed for us – sometimes a change in leadership, sometimes a change in our life circumstances or a feeling that you’d taken a particular set of skills and knowledge as far as you were interested in. I took along my daughter who is about to get her first leadership role at school and she found it fascinating to hear all the career stories from people across a roughly 35 year age range.

So, if you look at the programmes that we offer and you don’t see anything I’d encourage you to come and talk to us as we introduce new workshop all the time. Don’t stop there though – if you can design your own development approach and take advantage of the events that are happening all around the city and beyond, you’ll give yourself the high potential advantage. And if commitments or circumstances prevent attendance, look out for blogs and videos (there’s one of mine for example which I’ll try to track down and link from here.)

If you fancy attending a future BCS Women Scotland event, many (not all) are open to non-members – I found out about this one through twitter, but you can also join the events mailing list.


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: http://www.ed.ac.uk/institute-academic-development/research-roles/research-only-staff/advice/concordat/hr-award

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 iad.researchers@ed.ac.uk 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 http://www.psdgraphics.com/

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 https://psychologyforphotographers.com/how-to-request- 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 http://www.psdgraphics.com/

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.