Sharing expertise – briefing the speakers

An important part of any workshop which seeks to inspire emerging research leaders to do great things are the messages from more established researchers. We have invited a range of speakers to the Newton Fund workshop running in Pune, India this week  and this blogs will explain how we briefed them as well as sharing some of the insights I’ve gained from watching previous speakers at collaborative building events.

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Photo by cohdra (https://morguefile.com/creative/cohdra) at MorgueFile

The first step is to make it clear that the event is not like other research conferences or meetings. The audience does not sit relatively passively through each day, engaging with the speaker through questions and breaks, but largely sitting and listening. On this programme the attendees will spend a significant proportion of their time developing links, exploring ideas and developing projects. Given that these projects will be both interdisciplinary, involve far distant collaborators and have an international development focus, and that each of these aspects presents additional challenges, one role of the invited speakers is to ensure that researchers learn as much as they can about how to manage these kinds of projects, as well as being inspired by what others have done.

We’ve therefore briefed the speakers in a different way, making it clear to them that the “how” is the focus whilst the “what” provides context, and also asking them to stay with us for an entire day and provide mentoring during the initial idea generation stage. We’ve also asked all the guest speakers to complete the same summary slides as the participants (as described in the previous post where you can download our template) and added these to the course booklet.

This is an excerpt from the email Neil sent to the guest speakers:

The aims of the workshop are to bring together a variety of physical and social scientists from India and from the UK to stimulate new ideas and to build new connections in rural energy research. The talk/discussion on the 6th is an opportunity for the participants to learn from some experts who have already worked on successful projects in rural India. So for your contribution, I would suggest the following…

(i) Basic description of a prior project or projects you have worked on

(ii) Select and highlight whatever you think is most important from the following points: insight into practical considerations, unexpected pitfalls, learning from failures, things you would like to have known before starting, what kind of people are needed in a successful team and how do you build that team, how to get funding, other important points.

(iii) Answering questions and discussion.

My suggestion would be to keep (i) and (ii) to around 20 – 30 minutes maximum so that there is plenty time for (iii). It’s difficult to know in advance exactly what the group will be most interested in, hence making sure there is plenty of time for questions and discussion. Clearly some outline of the project itself is important to set the context and give an example of what can be achieved, however the participants will be particularly looking for ideas and insight that they can use in their own project ideas. This means that generic issues that might be relevant to any project will be of particular interest.

The number of external expert speakers that day now looks to be five. As well as the presentations/discussions from the experts, we also plan to include you in some of the ongoing project idea generation so that the participants can benefit from your insights and feedback on their own ideas. We would therefore hope that could join us for the full day.

My plan is to write a post based on the advice and expertise we hear next Wednesday and I’m really looking forward to learning about international development themed research as well as gaining some insights into the research culture in India. I can’t exaggerate how influential an experienced researcher can be when they give honest and constructive advice tailored for researchers who are just starting to collaborate or lead projects.

As an example, this is a blog on confusion I wrote in my previous role about a talk from Professor Barry Smith  at Welsh Crucible, where he spoke about leadership in collaborations in his capacity as the AHRC‘s Leadership Fellow for the theme of Science and Culture. Barry’s insights have subsquently inspired me to develop a workshop on this theme which I’ve run repeatedly. Although Barry’s talk stands out for me as we are talking about collaboration, I’ve heard from many, many researchers over the years on this theme and distilled some of their wisdom elsewhere into advice on first steps in collaboration.

The next blog post will hopefully come from Pune as we get ready to start the workshop!

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Building connections – briefing the participants

As part of the series of blogs documenting the Newton Fund workshop I’m involved in, today we’re looking at how we’ve briefed the speakers who will be visiting the event and the participants who will be introducing themselves at the start of the workshop. As I’ve written this it’s expanded beyond a single blog so I’ll start with the participant introductions and add in the speaker briefing later.

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Photo by Sam Hakes (www.SamHakes.com) at Morguefile.com

This is a critical part of the preparation for the workshop as the energy and momentum we will need to make progress towards collaborative discussions will evaporate if everyone has to sit through lengthy and detailed descriptions of the minutiae of people’s research interests. With multi-disciplinary groups (as we will have) the purpose of the participant introductions is to provide an overview of skills, experience and interests that will accelerate the “getting to know you” stage and help us all start to see potential connections. I’ve seen these introductory presentations run at Crucible* events over many years and they work really effectively when the following principles are understood

  • Convey the essence of what you do in a single phrase (if you don’t control this, others will do it for you when they say “you should talk to the soil guy” or “the laser woman might be interested in this as well”)
  • Don’t make ANY assumptions about people’s understanding. LIDAR, ELISA and SSRI might roll off your tongue but they will either distract or disengage listeners from outside your field. (And don’t assume that disciplines far from yours are particularly guilty of this, whereas all the terms you use are in common parlance – you ALL do it and no, they mostly aren’t)
  • Similarly, make sure you explain your research so that those in other disciplines can see connections with their own work. Even better, talk about what limitations could be overcome through collaboration and how your work might be of value in partnerships.
  • No-one can cope with more than about 45 minutes of introductions, so stick to the time you’ve been given, however challenging that is. You might think that it won’t hurt to overrun by a minute or so, but the accumulation of these will eat time allocated for other things AND your audience may not take kindly to you ignoring the instruction that they followed.
  • Be as visual as you can. People generally remember pictures and schematics rather than text. If you need to animate a diagram or scheme, you can, but…
  • Don’t put too much information on your slide/s. If you’ve been asked to introduce yourself using a single slide that’s because this is the level of detail we want to hear. It’s not an invitation to use 12 font and cram every corner.
  • Be enthusiastic about your research – I’ve put this as a final point but it is the MOST important aspect. If you love what you do and think it is vital, then that energy will be evident and people will invest their own energy and time in you. If you appear to barely be able to get out of bed to talk about it, some might think twice. This doesn’t mean you have to jump around like a children’s entertainer – just let us see how much your work matters to you.

The introduction that you give at events like this is very different from talks you might give at conferences or seminars. To help our participants deliver the type of introduction we think the event needs, we’ve put together a slide template which we sent in advance. If you are organising this kind of event, we’d recommend you do the same and we’re happy to share our template here.

Newton Fund Edinburgh IISER intro slide template

To help people start to prepare for the workshop we’ve collated all these slides in advance and they form the heart of the workshop booklet which was circulated electronically in advance. Printed copies will be available when we arrive so people can annotate as they listen to the introductions and we hope the conversations will flow!

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

 

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!