International Researcher Development

On Saturday I’ll be joining Professor Neil Robertson from our School of Chemistry to travel to Pune, India and deliver a workshop funded under the UK-India Researcher Links scheme funded by the British Council and Royal Society of Chemistry. Entitled “Translating Clean Energy Research to Rural India” the workshop will bring together researchers from the UK and India, working in social and physical sciences to understand the challenges of bringing clean energy technology to rural villages and introduce them to a range of experts who will explain how they have overcome these challenges. My plan is to blog throughout the week on what we’ve done, sharing the good practice that emerges and making the process as transparent as possible to support other researchers and researcher developers. I’m grateful to Neil and other colleagues at Edinburgh for being so open to this idea.

This initial post will share how we planned the workshop and what we’ve done to get to the point of departure. I should make it clear that I came into the organising team very late – the funding had already been awarded. Neil and his co-applicants Dr. Jamie Cross (University of Edinburgh), Prof Satish Ogale (IISER, Pune) and Dr. Priyadarshini Karve (Samuchit Enviro Tech) developed the concept and aims of the workshop; my role has been to think about how these can be successful achieved.

Drawing on my experiences from Scottish, Welsh and other Crucibles as well as workshops on collaboration and intercultural working, I started with the aims from the proposal:

  • To introduce physical scientists to the real-world use of energy technologies in rural India. (A visit to selected villages in Maharashtra at the start of the workshop to inform the subsequent presentations, discussions and problem-solving activities of the workshop.)
  • To introduce social scientists to the latest progress in emerging technologies to raise their awareness of immediate and future technological approaches to pressing problems.
  • To facilitate communication and network building between physical and social scientists.
  • To identify short-term projects for immediate impact to consolidate new partnerships that develop during the workshop.

Although an outline for the workshop formed part of the application, I made a couple of changes – principally building in more time for participants to explore and develop ideas and bringing forward their presentations to each other by a day.  It’s worth noting that Neil and his co-organisers have built the whole concept of the workshop around an initial day spent visiting a number of villages in Maharashtra so that the researchers on the workshop can truly appreciate the context in which their ideas need have have impact and the challenges presented by the environment. I think this will have a dramatic and positive impact on the outputs of the week, and I suspect a very personal impact on all of us. If you are reading this and planning your own international development workshop look out for a blog at the start of next week where I’ll try to capture the day and what it meant to us all.

Back to my planning – I structured the workshop around a set of daily themes which helped me to ensure we had a clear flow to help with briefing speakers and attendees:

  1. Setting the scene and understanding the context
  2. Getting to know fellow participants
  3. Generating ideas, learning from experts
  4. Selecting and developing ideas
  5. Reviewing ideas, the programme and sustaining the network

Having done this and produced a brief outline programme I sent it to a few people who had previously attended Researcher Links workshops (many thanks to Dr Ankush Aggarwal of Swansea University and Dr Hu Du of Cardiff University for their feedback) and made further adjustments to maximise the time for participants to understand each other and start developing their ideas. I wanted to minimise the danger of the momentum that will grow during the workshop being lost once people returned to home institutions and their considerable responsibilities. Although they will be at an early stage, I’ve also included a day where we review the ideas so that further work on them is done with a clear understanding of how they will be evaluated.

The outline programme is here but this is a flexible starting point which we expect to develop during the week once we get to know the participants, hear from the speakers and gauge the demands that the course is making on those attending. In the next blog I’ll explain how we briefed the speakers and attendees.

Translating Clean Energy Research to Rural India Initial Workshop Schedule

 

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Promote yourself

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Pavel Iosad and Warren Maguire at http://www.twitter.com

A crucial part of research involves promoting yourself. Self-promotion in academia can allow you to gain recognition for your work, increase your research impact, secure funding and create networks in your field. Self-promotion can be difficult for postdocs because of the power difference between them and their PI, they may be relatively new to the field, have few connections and working on a relatively isolated project.

The ways to promote yourself varies depending on discipline and country, so you need to understand what is acceptable and won’t come across as obnoxious. The best way to do this is to talk to people in your department – ask them how they got on a review panel and how they were invited to give a talk. In this post, I suggest some steps you can take to promote yourself.

In your department

The first step you should take is to make sure everyone in your department knows what you are researching. If your department does weekly lunchtime seminars, this is a great way to get your name out there and tell people what you are doing. You are also likely to get asked questions and be given feedback, which may be very useful.

Also, if you do a task for someone else, own up to it. Put your name on it if you can. This will ensure you are recognised for your work in your department.

Staff Quote:

Recognise your achievements…The perfect postdoc would have the fawning admiration of all her peers, but the real world doesn’t work like that. In academia, you can’t expect your colleagues to magically divine the amount of effort you’ve put in to something. If you receive a compliment, say thank you, but never be afraid to take ownership of your work.” (Postdoc Researcher at the University of Edinburgh’s Veterinary School).

Outside of your department

Conferences are a great way to raise your profile and make sure people know about your research. Networking at these events may provide you with new contacts with people who are interested in your work.

Giving talks at different institutions is also a great way to get your name out there. Ideally, you’ll be invited to give a talk, but this is uncommon unless you have had a few major papers. It might be appropriate to mention that you are interested in giving talks to your PI, as they may recommend you for talks they have been invited to but can’t attend.

Use you connections. If you are spending a few days in a city for a conference, ask someone in a local university whether they’d like you to talk. It’s unlikely that they will say no (departments are always looking for cheap speakers and they may even pay for your accommodation).

I’m aware that these methods all involve you ‘putting yourself out there’, which may be a nightmare for some people. Social media is also a great way to increase your online visibility inside and beyond your department. It can be useful to:

  • Make new networks and communicate with someone instantly
  • Collaborate internationally
  • Feel less isolated
  • Get your next job
  • Maintain networks and connections

An increasing number of researchers have their own websites including their current projects, research interests, CV and description. If someone googles your name, this would be the site that comes up first. It’s also important to ensure that your details on LinkedIn profile and your institution’s website are up to date.

If you use social media, make sure you make it very clear which sites are professional and personal. On your professional account, tell people about your current research and share new ideas. For example, the photo above shows how two linguistics researchers at the University of Edinburgh are using twitter to allow the public/students/other researchers to engage with their research. Social media is being used to promote research, so you should too. Some social media platforms will also allow you to receive comments, which people can use to give feedback and mention further ideas.

Blog by Andy Miah at LSE Top 5 social media platforms for research development

I hope this post made you think about what you have done so far to promote yourself and what you can do now to broaden your networks and increase your impact. Next week is the last week of my internship, so I’ll give you an overview of the exciting things I’ve been doing over the past 10 weeks!

Postdoc transitions

 

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Photo by Abby Shovlin at http://www.ed.ac.uk

This week, I have been developing a new resource for new postdoc staff to guide their transition. This includes links to practical information along with a ‘transition guide’ to encourage a smooth and reflective transition to Edinburgh. Here I will go through some of the background literature that helped me structure and design the resource.

Transitioning into postdoc positions are particularly interesting due to the variety of different paths getting here (e.g. traditional academic path or coming from industrial/clinical/teaching positions) and the varied nature of the postdoc positions themselves (independent research vs. PI’s project and different levels of teaching/supervision). These differences mean that postdoc transitions are a personal and unique journey.

This need for individualised transition support has also been highlighted in research investigating student transitions from school/college to an undergraduate degree. For example, as part of the Scottish Higher Education enhancement themes, Abby Shovlin (Academic Transitions Advisor at IAD) developed a 5 element model for student transitions. This workshop was very successful as 96% of the students found it helpful or very helpful.

On top of this individual support, postdoc transitions should focus on ways to allow researchers to grow and succeed in their position. According to Self-Determination Theory (Deci & Ryan, 2002), there are three requirements to achieve this:

  1. Competence: feeling able to successfully complete tasks and fulfil goals. This is crucial for people to overcome insecurity, make risks and develop in their career.
  2. Relatedness: feeling connected to others
  3. Autonomy: ‘being the perceived origin or source of one’s own behaviour’

New postdocs in Edinburgh may not feel competent straight away. To increase competence, postdocs need to:

  • Have easy access to practical information (e.g. where things are who can support them)
  • Be aware of workshops, training and support to develop skills
  • Clearly understand the expectations and goals of their PI and the planned timeline/outcomes of their project

To facilitate relatedness, postdocs need to be learn about the people around them and get involved in activities in Edinburgh (e.g. peer support, sport, social events and department seminars). This also involves combatting issues such as overworking and insecurity, as they may prevent staff from engaging in activities.

Gaining autonomy requires researchers to feel as if they are following their own research interests and values (e.g., they are researching something because they want to). This is more difficult for the transition guide to address because postdocs will have already applied for their research position, which usually states the research project. However, taking control of their career will help gain autonomy (e.g. by thinking about what they aim to get out of their postdoc and how they will achieve this)

From this research and feedback from postdoc staff, I have begun to develop a three-step model for postdoc transitions. This aims to be relevant for all new postdocs/ early research staff at the university, but is likely to be particularly useful for people beginning their first postdoc. The steps are:

  1. Learning

This section aims to increase competence and relatedness. By learning about the working environment, project and institution, they will gain awareness of what is expected of them. Also, by reflecting on discrepancies between their prior-expectations and their experiences in the position, they can identify issues that they should find support to resolve and skills they can improve by attending training/workshops.

Learning about their principal investigator and networks in Edinburgh will increase a sense of relatedness.

2. Working

This is based on an element of the undergraduate model: reflecting on your own assumptions and own academic orientation. Reflecting on previous working habits, identifying whether any of these are unhealthy and learning some strategies that could help will allow staff to work sustainability.

Learning about the importance of work-life balance will also increase competence and productivity at work.

3. Developing

The focus of this section is autonomy. Thinking about how they can get the most out of their postdoc and work towards their next position will allow them to gain direction and focus.

By including these three requirements, I hope that this guide will be a succinct and user-friendly way for postdocs to reflect on their experiences and give them the tools to succeed in their postdoc!

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!