Acknowledge, Facilitate, Intervene

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A slide from my talk at the learned society conference on researcher mental health

My final blog post of mental health awareness week is a showcase of some of the work being done at The University of Edinburgh to support researchers, particularly those who are struggling with mental health problems. One of the great joys of working here is having great colleagues so I’m pleased to have the chance to share some of their work. However, there’s a tiny cautionary note. I’m not claiming that Edinburgh is the kindest university – I don’t think any institution could make that claim (although now I think about it I’d be a lot more interested in a KEF if the K stood for kindness…).

I know from my personal experiences working in four UK universities (and a much greater experience as a consultant for a few dozen), that every university is probably the most supportive, more understanding and simultaneously the most callous and damaging. The experiences of researchers are very influenced by the individuals around them, especially their supervisors and bosses, so please don’t read into this a sense that we’ve cracked it here. It’s a work in progress and it always will be, but here are some of our efforts.

This post will feature three school case studies from Chemistry, Biology and Physics.  (As the final case study is from our Chaplaincy, I was going to describe them as the holy trinity of science, but apparently that’s Reason, Observation and Experience!) Each school has taken a different approach, prompted by different issues, but together they provide some great starting points, If you are reading this for inspiration about how to develop some initiatives in your own academic community. (BTW if you’re reading this in England or Wales, we call our academic department up here “schools”)

Chemunity launched in March and is a staff/student collaborative project involving undergraduate and postgraduate research students. One of their aims is to promote good mental health and wellbeing among all students. In time this will lead to the creation of an online collection of desirable resources, as defined and designed by students. As mentioned earlier this week, the School of Chemistry here has an enviable communal space which will be used to host events (e.g. board game evenings) that encourage discussion and build the sense of academic community.

The Chemunity Facebook page explains:

As the title suggests, we aim to bring the collective School of Chemistry community together for an evening of entertainment (did someone say board games?), celebrating the launch of our website & a whole host of special guests.

*What’s our mission I hear you ask?*

It’s actually quite simple. We are absolutely passionate about improving the quality of academic support for both UG & PG students, opening up more conversations about our mental/health wellbeing & bridging the gap between students & lecturers.

SolidariTEA is a new initiative being piloted in our School of Biological Sciences and led by Dr Louise Horsfall. This informal, fortnightly coffee/tea session for PhD students, starts with a student or staff member opening  with a very short story about when they may have encountered and overcome a difficulty in their research or career.

SolidariTEA_Poster[1]

Leading on from this,  people can bring any non-technical queries to discuss but the focus should be on mental health and wellbeing. Like Chemunity it’s funded through our Student Partnership Agreement Grants. SolidariTEA is new but the School plans to develop more resources on supporting students with mental health problems for supervisors whilst recognising that the whole school community needs to be part of this as students will often approach other staff, notably technicians when things start to get too much for them.

The final example from the School Of Physics and Astronomy demonstrates how straightforward it is to embed wellbeing into the doctoral process. The first year pastoral meeting happens about 4 months in the PhD, when the students are likely to have established a working relationship with their supervisor and to have tuned in sufficiently to the PhD for them to be aware of potential problems. It also establishes early that the School is interested in their wellbeing and makes clear how future problems can be raised and are likely to be tackled.

Pastoral Physics
A screenshot from the SOPA wiki

The School’s wiki also makes it clear that needing pastoral support is NORMAL and EXPECTED, trying to dispel any sense that feeling overwhelmed is a sign of failure. It clearly points students to sources of help and talks about interruptions as part of the support available, minimising stigma.

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Picture3 School of Physics and Astronomy wiki

Our final little gem is our Chaplaincy . It offers support in many forms – there’s a wellbeing and mindfulness programme, a listening service and has a wonderful calming atmosphere even though it sits in the heart of our Central campus. Staff and students are welcome at all times and it proudly proclaims itself to be – a place of all faiths and none.

We’re a large university so I’m sure this only scratches the surface of wellbeing support here. If you are from The University of Edinburgh and have more examples, I’d love to share them here. If you are from elsewhere I hope it gives you to confidence to look for similar initiatives in your own institution. At the Universities Scotland Researcher Mental Health event on June 14th there will be many more examples from our colleagues in other Scottish institutions – book your place here.  If you can’t find anything, please take these ideas – as someone summed up at the event last week, science should have space for everyone.

Particular thanks to Caroline Proctor, Louise Horsfall, Chris Mowat and Will Hossack for their help and suggestions, and to our Chaplaincy for being a sanctuary on campus.

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Departmental Tea Rooms – A Silver Bullet?

Edinburgh Chemistry’s Wall of Purest Green

Last week, whilst talking about practical strategies to support researcher mental health, I faced a tricky question about what I would do to make things better. The question has been bouncing around my head and prompted reflections about my own time as a researcher and why there used to be less talk about stress. I suspect this is partly down to shifting attitudes which make it easier for us to talk about our mental health, but largely down to the fact that academia was a less stressful environment in the 80s and 90s. So much has changed in the 30 years since I started as an undergraduate, but when I consider the differences, one idea persists in my thinking. Much of the stress associated with research was dissipated because I worked and studied in a department with a tea room (Chemistry at Swansea University).

It’s surprising how often I come back to that tea room when I consider what would make things easier for researchers (collaboration, equality and mentoring are all facilitated by shared spaces). It was open from 10-11 and 3-4 each day and always busy in these times with PhD students, postdocs, technicians and academic staff. We all sat together and talked about all sorts of things – research problems, social activities, uncertainty about our futures, upcoming conferences, stories from demonstrating in labs, our successes and our failures. There was a strong community in the department and although we sat in the familiar silos of organic, inorganic, physical and analytical chemistry  we mixed thoroughly twice a day. As the only woman in my research group, it was also a fantastic way to connect with other women each day, eliminating any sense of isolation.

People noticed if you missed a few tea breaks and would often seek you out to check all was well. It was a place where you could be honest about problems which helped you prepare to discuss them with a supervisor. We were able to tap into each other’s expertise or just share the frustrations of research. We got used to seeing other people fail, then triumph – invaluable reminders of the fact this is part of the job when it was your research that started to falter. It gave us an identity – we were part of the Department of Chemistry.

The tea-room was closed not long after I left that department in the mid-90s – victim of changes to estate management that saw departments having to justify every square inch of floor space. The department gradually lost more space (the library went next) and eventually closed. I’m not claiming that the closure of the department was caused by the loss of the tea room, but I suspect it took a lot of the heart away and weakened the ties between people.

In most of our universities there is a space crisis and I suspect dedicated tea rooms are a rarity although there is a fantastic flexible, communal multi-purpose space in the School of Chemistry at Edinburgh (I hesitate to call it a tea room as they probably aren’t allowed anymore). As with most things related to inclusion, I can’t back up my claims about the benefits of tea rooms with any evidence, but a caffeine-supplemented common room was mentioned in the RSC report on inclusion written in 2004 (read page 4, the University of Utopia.).  It would be interesting to see if anyone reading this shares my views and has their own examples of the positive impact of these spaces.

Chemistry has now reopened at Swansea. I hope there’s a tea room.

Investigating Mental Health in the Research Community

In mental health awareness week, with the current flurry of activity in HE  focusing on the pressures on researchers and the impact this is having, (not least Research England funding projects through a £1.5 million programme), it can be tempting to feel that we’ve crossed a threshold of acceptance and are working to create a better culture in academia. The Investigating Mental Health in the Research Community  event jointly organised by the Royal Society of Chemistry, Institute of Physics, Royal Society of Biology, Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering (and attended by the Royal Astronomical Society) gave attendees some optimism about academic culture. It highlighted a range of useful resources, good practice and began to build a community of scientists and engineer who are committed to change.

Although I have no wish to burst the bubble of the day, I did use the phrase “preaching to the choir” at one point. Although it was important to connect those of us who want to arrest and reverse the negative impact academic research is having on its community’s mental health, we probably aren’t the problem.

There are many different reasons mental health is being talked about with so much concern and we heard from Dr Susan Guthrie from RAND, co-author of the 2017 report “Understanding Mental Health in the Research Environment” who set the scene for the day with some alarming headlines.

  • Higher education staff report worse wellbeing than those in other employment
  • Causes of stress includework demands, change management, managerial support and poor role clarity
  • The majority of university staff find their jobs stressful
  • PhD students face the same challenges as other researchers
  • Academics aren’t disclosing mental health problems
  • Mental health is a gendered issue, with women more likely to have issues
  • Spending more time on research reduces stress
  • Poor wellbeing negatively impacts on productivity
  • Mental health interventions haven’t been properly evaluated

Having been characteristically frank in my presentation about my views on the reasons for declining researcher mental health, I was asked what I would do to fix it. I had a few suggestions but I struggled to answer because I don’t know. We don’t know. We don’t properly evaluate mental health interventions. We don’t have reliable evidence about what causes problems (Susan began her talk with some serious caveats about the data they had drawn on for their report). And many of us are fearful about doing more harm than good if we try to help. An important early step is to properly understand what is going on.

This doesn’t need to stop us in our tracks though. There are things we can do and many resources to support individuals, communities and institutions who want to do more. Universities UK published a framework last year to help university leaders support student mental health:

http://www.universitiesuk.ac.uk/news/Pages/New-framework-for-universities-to-help-improve-student-mental-health.aspx

The Institute of Physics was an “early agitator” with the publication in 2016 of its Resilience Toolkit* to support the physics community and included interviews with undergraduates, PhD students, postdocs, academics and the head of a School of Physics.

The interviews were analysed and generated 12 pieces of advice for better resilience:

  1. Have motivating goals
  2. Have realistic goals
  3. Build a community
  4. Awareness of imposter syndrome
  5. Take proper breaks
  6. Ask for help
  7. Find perspective
  8. Work to your strengths
  9. Develop coping strategies
  10. Look at failure differently
  11. Focus on what you can do
  12. Know what works for you

Although only available to members, at the University of Edinburgh we were inspired by this guide to conduct our own interviews which led to the publication of two guides for postdocs last summer written by our intern Amy (she also blogged as she was researching and writing the guides)

Getting Started as a postdoc

Thriving in your postdoc

One of the great joys of my role at Edinburgh University has been the connection with Fearless Femme, an online magazine designed to counter the negative voices and messages that young women hear online with positive ones. I’d strongly encourage you to look at their articles and approach and to pass on details to all young women around you. We can’t reach our students in the way this magazine does and we support it because we need to use all the channels and mechanisms in our means to reach people, especially when they are vulnerable.

We won’t find one solution to the mental health crisis, we will need many. Some of the most effective solutions are things we can all do. Look at the list above and think about how you can support everyone around you. One of the most memorable moments of the day was when someone shared their story about being a researcher with mental health problems. She spoke to a colleague about this and they said something very simple “I still want to work with you.” If our colleagues begin to have the courage to share their challenges, we have to have the compassion and insight to help them see how valued they are.

My presentation described some of the different ways that Schools in Edinburgh are working on this key topic. My thanks to all the colleagues who shared their ideas. My slides are below:

RSC & IOP Researcher mental health event for web

I’m delighted that after the event I sat down with the RSC to consider what they could do and we’ve got some ideas which we’ll develop in the coming weeks. If you were at the event and want to add anything that will help us, please get in touch with myself or Pip Matthews. And if you weren’t at the event but can highlight resources, ideas or just voice your support please let us know. I’ll post more here once we’ve decided where we can have the most impact in the short term whilst we consider our longer term goals.

As the groups were discussing the problems and solutions I heard a wonderful message from someone in one of the groups.

There should be space for every kind of scientist.

I can’t put it better than that. There SHOULD be. Let’s all commit to making that space.

 

 

(This blog has only scratched the surface of the topics we covered during the event so more will follow).

* A small disclaimer: I wrote the IOP guide as a consultant, so our work at Edinburgh has been heavily influenced by it.

 

 

 

Wake up and smell the statistics

This morning I was working with the Researcher Development team on restructuring the section of our website aimed at research staff. Once we’re got some feedback from research staff and those who support them (please let me know if you want to give us your thoughts on our plans), we’ll have a busy summer developing new content, connecting to other support around the University and finding resources from further afield.

After spending the morning continually asking ourselves “what do research staff come looking for and what do they need to find?” I then dashed to join the SRHE “Postgraduate study and employability” conference which was happening just up the road. The reason for my haste was to catch the presentation by Dr Charlie Ball from the Higher Education Careers Services Unit on the postgraduate labour market.

Charlie and I go back a long way – we collaborated on the first ever analysis of PhD destination data and spoke on the phone most days trying to work out how to extract the information we needed from the information we had. I was delighted to hear that after much lobbying (and I suspect some tears of frustration) he has convinced the gods of destination data gathering to include a box on the form which PhD graduates complete which asks “are you a postdoc?” This, along with his excellent work over the last (ahem) years means that we have a much clearer picture of the paths that researchers take through their careers.

Exit
Photo by Luanarodriquez at Morguefile.com

Since the very first analysis over ten years ago, we’ve known that over half PhD graduates leave universities on graduation and never return. Yes, really – immediately on graduation OVER HALF leave academia. We know that those who stay are mostly on fixed term research and teaching contracts (with clear discipline differences in career paths between STEM and AHSS). We know that of these, only a minority continue along the academic path. We know that PhD graduates and former research staff move into a wide array of sectors and roles. Compared to my own time as a postdoc, when our options away from the university or industries related to our research were a complete mystery, researchers now have a wealth of information about their options.

And yet…  some of the old myths seem determined not to die.

One of the clearest messages I’ve had from our schools has been to be really explicit about the small number of academic opportunities available. One of the new developments on our webpages will be a section which highlights the different options and how widely employable researchers are outside universities. I have never seen the solution to the mismatch between the number of researchers we train and the number of academic posts, as taking steps to reduce the former.  Instead I think we should celebrate the value that research training has to both the individual and their future employers.  Let’s face it, populating the labour market with people with high-level critical analysis, a habit of behaving with integrity and personal tenacity is no bad thing.

Someone asked a question about what we it will take to ensure researchers transition more easily into the wider labour market. Charlie’s answer included the suggestion that a wider range of employers should be aware of the value of PhDs – something that is happening through secondments in doctoral programmes and projects like one run by the University of Aberdeen to place research staff for short projects with local companies. (Those of us who have been in researcher development for too long will recall this approach taken with great success by Cardiff University at the turn of the millennium.)

So, today’s post is in part a thank you to Charlie for his work over the last (ahem) years improving the quality of data about researcher destinations and disseminating facts which have challenged a number of assumptions, but also a wake up call to any researcher who thinks that a PhD or postdoc puts them “over the hump” of the journey to an academic career. It’s a counter to any local messages you hear that the academic career is the only real path open and that everything else is a failure or compromise. Or that there aren’t any interesting opportunities out there that would match your interests or values.

Rather tantalisingly (don’t judge me for finding destination data tantalising) he mentioned that comparisons of Bachelors, Masters and Doctoral level destinations show that some career areas appear to open up at PhD level – it would be great to know more about this and to be able to highlight these positive messages about the wider and added value of a PhD. In an attempt to revisit our youth we’re going to try to identify a new project to collaborate on, perhaps on this theme.

My PhD and postdoc experience have paid a dividend throughout my career, not simply because of choosing to work in researcher development, but because of the skills I gained through doing research AND the wider opportunities I took whilst at university. YOUR PhD and postdoc experience will do the same for you, but start preparing for what comes next. The data tells a compelling story. Start building your CV so it tells just as compelling a story about your value.

Resilient Researchers

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Photo by ImBooToo at Morguefile.com

First of all a huge thank you to the speakers at the Resilient Researcher event which I was involved in today. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, resilience is my word of the year so I was really pleased to be able to work with two sponsors, SUPA and the IOP, to put on a day of talks, discussions and (best of all) live music to help some of our researchers understand and develop their thinking around this idea. It was a huge pleasure to work with Anne Pawsey from SUPA and the School of Physics and Astronomy on developing and delivering the day.

It was amusing that most of the speakers started by admitting they had looked up the word as part of their preparation. This echoes my own experiences of writing a guide to resilience for the IOP last year (in my pre-Edinburgh existence). My favourite definition was probably the appropriately physics based one given by Christian Killow (University of Glasgow) …

170421 Killow resilient researcher

Most of us agreed that resilience is about bouncing back and being flexible when faced with new challenges.

In order to maximise the value of the day I want to share the slides quickly, so this short post will be limited to the presentations from the day rather than an analysis of the themes, but these will follow. Thanks to everyone at the event for their engagement and willingness to talk about the challenges and failures which are part of researcher life.

10 am Arrival and outline of day Anne’s slides

10:15 Resilience and success in science – personal perspectives and strategies Dr Graham Smith, St Andrews

11:00 Understanding and building my resilience Dr Sara Shinton (also includes slides from 2pm session)

11:30 Becoming a resilient research student (Katherine Rumble, PhD Student, Edinburgh)

12:00 Here to help – insights from the Student Counselling Service Dr Jenny Leeder, Edinburgh

12:30 Lunch and networking, The Sirrocco Wind Trio with support from Live Music Now

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Sirocco Winds

1:30 Developing resilience in a research career – advice on managing uncertainty and rejection as your research independence grows. Dr Christian Killow, RA, Glasgow

2:00 What might work for me? Facilitated discussion in groups to make resolutions for personal resilience plans, community activity and ask for support from SUPA/schools Dr Sara Shinton – included above with your favourite advice and feedback written up in the slides

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Thanks to our speakers – Katherine, Sara, Graham, Anne, Christian and Jenny (not pictured…) and to Vishanti from the IOP for talking to people about the work of the Institute and the value of membership.

Industry or academia, to succeed – learn to fail

Today’s blog comes from one of our researchers, Hamish Runciman. He’s currently on a Masters by Research programme and talks here about his transition from industry into academia. In a rare moment to draw breath on the Masters, he reflects that developing resilience for managing frustration and failure in research is common to both sectors. (We’ll be returning to this theme in the next post which will be a report on the SUPA/IOP Resilient Researcher event.)

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Photo by Diannehope at Morguefile.com

Firstly I would like to thank Sara for inviting me to write this short post about my experience in transitioning from the pharmaceutical industry into the world of research. Hopefully, some of my insights are also relevant to the many others who are yet to determine whether research (or industry) is for them. It’s also hugely refreshing to write in the first person!

I am currently studying for a Masters by Research (MScR) in Biomedical Sciences at the University of Edinburgh. Before this I worked for the pharmaceutical research giant Charles River Laboratories for about two years. I took the job after my undergraduate degree in Cell Biology at the University of Stirling partly because I understood that authentic lab experience is severely lacking for many graduates. I now appreciate that I didn’t have a clear idea of exactly what I wanted to do; what I did know is that I didn’t want to end up taking what many feel is ‘the next step’ (MSc or PhD) and studying a topic that I was not particularly enthusiastic about or interested in.

At Charles River I held a Senior Assistant Scientist position in the product characterisation department which operates under immense regulation. I therefore received extensive training and learned a lot during my time there. However, the most important lesson was in failure. Even when performing an assay for the hundredth time under identical conditions science has an ability to stick a spanner in the works. Initially I adopted the common attitude in the lab and took solace in repeated profanities – an attempt to deal with the undercurrent of blame that runs through commercial pharmaceutical labs. Unfortunately it’s a lot easier for a pharmaceutical company to blame you rather than their expensively calibrated, expensively serviced, expensive equipment.

What I found is that science has good days and bad days and what matters is how you react to them. It’s no use to continue swearing at your computer screen. Worse still is to let that manifest itself as self-doubt as your tally of failed assays (inevitably) rises. I developed a patient, stoic attitude towards the ups and downs, something that many of my colleagues lacked, and this maturity helped me become a well-respected member of the department in a relatively short time. Ultimately the prescriptive, rigid nature of the work was not offering any new challenges and had me desperate for the creative, inventive approaches of research.

Taking this experience with me into my MScR course has been really valuable. The course is split into two 20-week research projects in which my classmates and I are expected to gather data and write a report on each in the style of a research article for each. I have just handed in my first project plus a graded grant proposal for the second (meaning I have just enough time to squeeze this in). It’s been an interesting time to reflect on the progress I’ve made and to identify areas I need to improve on as I settle into a new lab.

During this settling-in period I have observed my fellow classmates and undergraduates alike. I have noticed that most of them have a distorted view of failure in science. Most, if not all of them, arrived into the labs trying to make the very best of first impressions and end up feeling massively stressed or worried because their experiments don’t work. This is perhaps the fault of what little lab experience they have been afforded during their undergraduate degrees. Largely, undergraduate practical lab work consists of an experiment that works like clockwork after which everyone skips home happily to write a report. Very rarely do these experiments fail and when these students begin research projects they are suddenly confronted with the wafer-thin margins between significance and failure. They are forced to learn very quickly what research is really like.

Therefore it is no wonder that when these students take ‘the next step’ onto PhD study they have been shown to have a much higher prevalence of mental health issues as compared with highly educated members of the public. The issue of mental health is of great interest to me both personally and professionally; I plan to study mental health at PhD level having witnessed the effects of anxiety and depression within my family. I am very glad of my experience in industry as it has focussed me on a career in research; plus I was able to develop the resilience I’ll need continue onto PhD study.

Thank you Hamish for a great start to our researcher led blog posts. If you are involved in research at Edinburgh as a student, supervisor, technician, postdoc or researcher and would like to share your ideas and perspectives on any topic (ideally related to researcher development), please get in touch.

Change the world*

(*of researcher development at The University of Edinburgh.)

I wrote a few weeks ago about the importance of the Research Staff Survey. This morning the survey opened and I’m delighted to see that we’re already getting responses from colleagues. It would be great to hear from as many of you as possible and for you to tell us honestly about your experiences as a researcher here. The survey is your opportunity to tell us about your working conditions, careers aspirations and development opportunities.  It takes around 20 minutes to complete, is anonymous and can be saved part way through if you can’t complete it in one sitting.

All research staff should have received an email today, sent on behalf of Professor Jeremy Bradshaw, informing you that the Research Staff Survey is now live at the University of Edinburgh until the 10th May 2017. If you haven’t had this and think that you are eligible (you are a member of research staff, and employed primarily to conduct research) please let me know. If you are a research leader or principal investigator, you should have received a link to a different survey – again, it’s really important to us that you complete this so if you haven’t had an email from IAD.Researchers@ed.ac.uk  this morning, please let us know.

The results of the surveys will have a direct influence on the strategy for researcher development here in IAD. There is a high level commitment to the survey and to listening to the messages that it generates. Although we always pay attention to feedback and suggestions, it’s fair to say that this one comes with an “amplifying effect” as we will use it to generate reports to senior management and use it as evidence for policies related to research and researchers in the University. Don’t let these decisions happen without your input.

A heartfelt thanks to all our researchers who complete the survey and I hope that you gain satisfaction as you see the impact of your influence in the next year or so . You have a voice today, please use it!