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.

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

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

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


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.)

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!

Keep Looking to Europe

A number of things prompted this week’s post – an email from a colleague in our Finance Department about spaces on some of their Financial Skills Development courses, including  “Managing an EU Research Grant Budget” (April 20th) and a meeting with our Research Support Office about another event “How to Write a Competitive Proposal for Horizon 2020” on May 24th. 

I’d also been running a Research Leaders course this week and heard about some recent successes from our academics in European funding (including an ERC Advanced award) and run a few workshops on funding. As part of the latter, I was pointing to various resources to help you tune into minds of funders and pointed to Phil Ward’s blog – Research Fundermentals. A recent post took stock of the European situation and I was particularly struck by Phil’s closing comments – “As a recent editorial in Nature, put it, ‘leaving the European Union is not yet a done deal, and UK researchers must look past a pay-off and take a stand.

The extent of your campaiging to urge more careful consideration of the implications of leaving the EU is a matter for you. However, the key line above is that “leaving the European Union is not yet a done deal” and we must continue to behave as the full members that we currently are. Many of the claims about UK applicants being treated unfavourably by reviewers and panels appear to be refuted by the latest results from those panelsl. We are still being awarded many grants and in fact, topped the table for the recent “Proof of Concept” awards as detailed in the Research Support Office’s recent blog.

The two workshops highlighted above demonstrate both the University’s current and future commitments to European funding streams. If you are planning to pursue an academic career, I’d encourage you to attend the proposal writing course which is given by one of the recognised experts in European funding and provides you with an opportunity to learn from his experience leading, reviewing and managing many projects.

If you are a researcher on a European funded projects, the other course could provide you with an opportunity to develop skills that will be valuable on the research and many other tracks. Why not discuss this with your current PI and come along to understand how the finances on these complex projects are managed?

Europe still presents us with many opportunities as researchers. Whatever the future holds, now is not the time to be stepping away from chances to develop your understanding and applying for funding.


Your career, your choices

I spent part of the afternoon talking to a researcher about science festivals. For the last 7 years I’ve been the director of Bang Goes the Borders, a community science festival which many Edinburgh researchers have supported over the years. Dr Gary Kerr from Salford University is doing a PhD on science festivals in society (yes, you read that right DOCTOR Gary Kerr is on his second PhD. He’s surprisingly normal.) We had a great chat about how the festival formed, has grown and where it is going.

As usual I felt a little defensive when asked questions about my aspirations for the festival, how it might grow and where we saw it going in the future. The reality is that a festival run by volunteers is always limited to the time and goodwill we can draw on. Our numbers are largely dictated by the venue we work in, so if we were to grow dramatically I don’t think it would be as much fun (and more seriously, potentially less safe). We have an event which is a recognised success and it works really well. Most importantly, I have no appetite to make this more complicated than it already is.  It’s fine as it is, but I felt awkward admitting that I don’t want it to grow. Then he turned off the tape recorder and I discussed this awkwardness – and of course discovered that it’s very common amongst the directors of festivals like mine and makes complete sense.

Gary also asked me about my engagement with science festival networks and I had to admit that I haven’t ever engaged with them. I’ve never felt I needed this because I was too busy getting on with things and assumed that their focus was on growth and world domination. When he pointed out that there are a number of festivals very similar to mine in the network and that they are probably facing similar challenges sustaining, rather than growing, I realized that I should take another look.

It struck me that there were parallels here with an email earlier in the day about a new research staff development framework we’ve developed. Most of our research staff can also be classified as “early career researchers” with up to five years’ research experience post-PhD. The programme has been written with them in mind and the statistical likelyhood that they will leave the academic path, whilst providing a fellowship track for those who want to pursue independent funding. However, there is a (much smaller) group who have extended their research careers for many more years and effectively become career postdocs. They work on contracts and projects (often precariously) but have little motivation in becoming principal investigators and group leaders. They love their specialism and want to continue to develop, but as researchers, not leaders. The email was about getting their reactions to some of our plans and letting me know where I’ve got it wrong.

I suspect they feel a little frustration about the relentless sense of needing to move on and up that pervades the postdoc years. I also suspect that they may not see kinds of things we do at the IAD as relevant to their needs (I hope this isn’t the case.) The universe sent Gary this afternoon to remind me that there are all kinds of choices in our careers and that we should support our researchers to follow all kinds of paths in all kinds of ways.

We remain committed to supporting researchers who want to leave academia, particularly if they have their choices undermined by messages around them which only focus on the academic path. This is the most likely destination for most of our research staff and we need to be more honest about their options and more supportive in helping them make transitions into new careers.  We will continue to help the next generation of research leaders to develop their ideas and proposals so they can grow new research groups. But we are also here to offer appropriate development to researchers following different trajectories.

I don’t know how it feels to be a long-term postdoc because I was never one, so I’m asking them. I’m looking forward to getting their feedback and seeing if this requires a re-think from us. A similar process is happening for technical staff, who are also welcome at our workshops and events.

If you feel that our programmes aren’t addressing your career challenges, then let me know. But please don’t assume that what we offer isn’t right for you. Whatever your choices about your career path and the way in which it will develop,  we will do our best to help.  But only if we know what you need.


Cracking the Code

This week I’ve been discussing the “lifecycle” of research staff in a variety of meetings and conversations. We are looking at how we make the wealth of information and support we can offer at IAD more accessible and how to become more visible in the researcher community. We’re just starting to review and plan our programme for the next academic year (so it’s a good time to let us know what you want). A number of projects starting to gain momentum which I’ll update on as they begin to deliver results.

The slight frustration I’ve felt at times is that many of the things that people want from us, are already in place. One of the most important of these, and the thing I’m going to focus on in this post, is our Code of Practice for the Management and Career Development of Research Staff. I suspect that this title puts people off – it sounds like a bureacratic document which sets out HR policies and regulations, but it’s not and I’d encourage you to take a look.

Written with clarity and straightforward checklists, our Code of Practice sets out the responsibilities of the researcher, their manager and the University in ensuring that both the researcher’s project and personal development receives appropriate support and attention. If you are uncertain about the types of conversations you could be having with your PI, the Code suggests that in the early stages of your contract they should be available to:

  • Discover the researcher’s interests and career aspirations and help them to explore relevant opportunities
  • Discuss and identify training and development needs and priorities for the researcher
  • Highlight university-wide and local mentoring schemes

As the project gains momentum, your PI should ensure your development is on track as they

  • Give feedback on strengths and weaknesses of the researcher’s contribution to the project and the group
  • Discuss whether the research is on target or if goals/timescales need to be adjusted
  • Encourage the take-up and review the outcomes of training and development where relevant
  • Highlight and create opportunities for professional academic activities such as supervision, teaching, writing grant applications, knowledge exchange and demonstrating research impact

Although I’ve chosen to extract sections relating to the PI’s responsibilities, the focus of the Code is on ensuring that our researchers are taking responsibilities for their own careers. It sets out the various career paths that are open to you at the end of your contract and urges you to prepare for the transition into either further research, an academic position or a role beyond the University. The message is to take control – and we’ll help you.

My postdoc years were in the 1990s (yes, before most of you were born…meh) and I was hugely fortunate in having two postdoc supervisors who were happy to talk to me about what I was going to do next, and then supported my transition away from the bench. At that point there was no information available about the career options and paths ahead which at times made me feel like I was the first postdoc to leave the research path. I wasn’t – the information we now have shows that I was in the majority!

So, please take advantage of these far better insights. Read the reports on the destinations of research staff and take the tailored advice available through our Careers Service. Become familiar with the Code of Practice and use it to help you plan a conversation with your PI about what will come next. Take control of your career and start looking at what is around to help you. I think you’ll be surprised – and if there’s something missing, let us know:  survey season approaches!