Social policy and wellbeing

While applying for the position of Wellbeing Researcher Intern at the IAD, I developed an interest in how the idea of ‘wellbeing’ has changed over time. Historically, discussions about wellbeing were restricted largely to philosophy. More recently however, wellbeing has become a central focus for many fields, including psychology, politics and economics.

What has caused the recent surge of popularity in the concept of wellbeing and how is this new interest being used to improve societal wellbeing?

Where has this attention come from?

The first major of interest in wellbeing in society emerged in the 1950s when income began to increase and a range of social issues failed to be addressed. However, wellbeing did not begin to dictate policy until much later; before anyone could try to improve societal wellbeing, they needed to find a way to reliably measure it.

How can wellbeing be measured?

Originally, GDP was the main measure used to indicate societal progress, but it became clear that there is not a direct link between happiness and income beyond a certain threshold – the Easterlin Paradox. Furthermore, an individual that scores highly on quantitative measures relating to quality of life does not necessarily feel like they have increased wellbeing or happiness.

Consequently, emphasis was placed on subjective measures, including surveys and reports. Some studies have shown that subjective wellbeing scores relate to other measures, including rates of sociability and happiness ratings given by family members, providing evidence that subjective wellbeing results are valid (Kahneman & Krueger, 2006). One major problem in measuring and improving societal wellbeing is that it is influenced by a huge number of factors, and the exact impact that many of these factors have on societal wellbeing (as well as each other) is not well understood yet. Some of these factors were investigated by the OECD Better Life Initiative, demonstrated in the diagram below.


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Diagram by OECD 2013 at

Policy change

Another surge of interest in wellbeing developed in the 90s, where the emphasis for research focussed primarily on how environmental factors, such as sustainability, influence wellbeing. As more valid and reliable methods for measuring wellbeing became available, these statistics were able to make a difference in guiding policy.

Some policies were established pre-2000, but David Cameron made wellbeing a high-profile issue in politics by supporting the ONS Measuring Wellbeing Program in 2010. ONS wellbeing data was used across departments and, by 2015, self-reported wellbeing statistics were used for evaluating policies.

How does this affect researchers?

Researchers have high stress and, often, low security positions, which obviously has extremely negative repercussions for their wellbeing. But all researchers should have the opportunity to fulfil their potential and achieve a sense of purpose in society due to their role (e.g. through public engagement as I discussed in last week’s post). For this reason, wellbeing is, and must remain, a priority for the government and all universities. This is further demonstrated by the following quote written by the Government Office for Science, London.

“The world of work is changing, with far-reaching consequences: globalisation and the growing intensification of work will combine to increase workers’ levels of stress and anxiety, and affect their health and efficiency. Changes in the nature of work will also interact with changes at home, such as growing numbers of two-earner households and increased need for care for older relatives, thereby creating pressures on families. Maintaining and improving wellbeing in the face of these trends will be a major challenge.” (Final Project Report, Foresight Mental Capital and Wellbeing Project 2008, page 25)


If you’re interested in reading more about this topic, I recommend these resources:

Bache, I. and Reardon, L. (2016). The Politics and Policy of Wellbeing: Understanding the Rise and Significance of a New Agenda. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing Limited.

Kahneman, D. and Krueger, A. B. (2006). Developments in the Measurement of Subjective Well-Being. The Journal of Economic Perspectives, 20, (1), 3-24.

Networking – How?

Today’s post is by Claire Keenan, who works in the Consultancy and Business Services section of ERI. We are working with Claire and her colleagues to support them in engaging more researchers with consultancy as a means to developing research relationships, building impact and generating new projects.

The importance of network building was a focus of the Global Challenges Research Fund Session for Post Docs in Chemistry (for more information on the link between science and international development see UKCDS). Each speaker emphasised how Post Docs need to start to build a cross disciplinary network based on their interests and their future interests.  So how do you do that in practice?     

First, you can start local – with the other post docs and PIs in your school, and workshops and departmental meetings are a great way to do that – just make sure to engage with one another.  Also, you can build and maintain your presence on Edinburgh Research Explorer.  This is a tool that both internal and external parties use to find academics with particular interests, and your publications sit within it.   If your profile is up to date, you can use it as a link to forward to other academics you might meet, and it’s branded so you look official!   Another tool with a similar aim is Research Gate , which is a social networking tool for academics.  Wherever you go, this will stay with you and can simply be updated with your new jobs and research projects. 

(SS note: Research Gate has a science and technology focus. If you are in the arts, humanities or social sciences you may find has more relevant networks.)

 Next, try to get outside your own School and into others – Chemists can look to Biology, Informatics, Maths and Engineering for inspiration and collaboration opportunities, and cross College interaction is increasingly important now to put together projects for GCRF.  Symposia are held for each of the Schools of current research – keep an eye on  Eventbrite  to get notified of when they are coming up.  Have a look on School webpages to see if there are any interesting Seminars you could attend in line with an interest you might have – here’s a recent example from the School of Engineering.  Go along to AimDays when available – there’s one coming up in a couple of weeks for Energy.   You will see first-hand how academics from different Schools and industry come together to discuss problems: this is  networking and knowledge exchange in front of your very eyes! 

It’s never too early to start engaging with the outside world.  Conferences are the obvious way to do that, and though some are expensive, you may find ones that are within your scope and some of the industry funded ones are free.  Scottish Enterprise and Industry groups run events, such as Venturefest Scotland.  It’s free, and you’d get to meet SMEs in all kinds of industries and not only get inspired as to how your research interests might be applied, but also have a platform to sell your wares as a Consultant.  Post Docs are entitled to do consultancy work as part of their contracts, and projects can attract funding.  However,  the best outcome is that you can engage directly with companies and start building a network by engaging in short contracts –  e.g. feasibility studies, literature review, and expert advice.  Most consultancy projects lead to something more – research collaborations, jobs, publications, demonstrating impact for REF.  If you’d like to find out more about how to pitch yourself as a consultant, contact us in the consultancy team and we can give you the support and training you need to get going.  Come and speak to us about your interests and we can help you make contacts with the academics and businesses we know – we can even come with you to conferences and help you work the room, or attend initial meetings. 

 So now you know how…get involved!  Please also get in touch and add comments as to other ideas you have about networking.

People are key for improving resilience!

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Photo by Civic Soup CIC

Over the past week, I have begun meeting postdoc staff to explore what influences their wellbeing and resilience. A key area that I have picked up on is the importance of communities within and outside of the university.

Line-managers and other research staff in the department understand the pressures of academia so they are perfect for getting support and advice. For many postdocs, realising that senior staff face the same issues and have been in similar situations as them has helped them realise that they are not alone! Great ways to build relationships within the university include getting involved in sport, conferences and societies.

SS note: Don’t forget our Research Staff Societies as well – this is a way to build a community around your needs and interests. If there isn’t a society in your School we can help you set one up! 

Getting involved in the larger community can also be beneficial for wellbeing and academic development. Whether this is starting a new hobby, charity work or public engagement events, you will meet many new people and have a break from your research environment.

Public engagement is a brilliant way to…

  • Gain perspective on your own research by taking a step back and thinking about which elements will be relevant and interesting to the public
  • Meet a new network of people, who may come in handy in the future!
  • Gain confidence and skills by communicating with a large range of people
  • Create new ideas about possible applications or directions of your research
  • Improve funding possibilities! Some funders may ask for lay summaries, have non-specialist interviews and place high importance on impact.

There are lots of opportunities for public engagement. For example, many primary and secondary schools would be happy for researchers to lead a one-off exciting lesson. There may be barriers for this though, such as PVG requirements.

At Edinburgh we have the wonderful example of the Festival of Creative Learning, where anyone can apply to run an event linking to learning in new ways. Past events include the application of Artificial Intelligence in Law, creating an art/office space for a community and a workshop for children to express their musicality. If you would like to put on an event, there are funds and support available.

Furthermore, every August the Fringe invades campus, what a perfect opportunity! The Beltane team at IAD run the Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas , which is a great chance to meet new people and do something new.

Over the next few weeks, I will continue exploring this idea that talking to people can be a great way to improve your wellbeing and resilience! If you would like to chat about your resilience as a researcher and what helps you, please get in touch.

First week in IAD


Photo by David Ould at

 This post is written by one of IAD’s new interns! Amy will be writing weekly posts about her experiences in the department and interesting topics relating to researcher resilience at the university.

During the academic year, I am an undergraduate linguistics student at the University of Edinburgh. However, the Employ.ed on Campus Internship program has given me (and 49 other undergraduates) the opportunity to learn about the inner workings of the University; aspects that students would not usually see.

My internship title is “Researcher Wellbeing Intern” at IAD, so what will this involve? I am going to spend the next 10 weeks investigating what pressures our postdoc research staff are put under and how these pressures influence their resilience and wellbeing. By the end of the internship, we aim to produce a resource for researchers addressing these pressures and offering advice and signposting to people and resources that can help.

This resource will hopefully have a large impact on research staff at the University. After meeting a range of staff, I have begun to realise the amount of pressures that drain resilience. By recognising these pressures and adopting coping methods, I hope that more research staff will be able to enjoy and thrive in their working environments. Another reason for applying for this internship is that I am a prospective postgraduate student, possibly embarking on a research career myself. So this internship will teach me ways to look after myself and support my friends and colleagues when dealing with the pressures of research.

Today is my third day working in IAD and I have already learned a lot. The working environment in IAD is fantastic, I’ve had a very warm welcome and everyone is willing to help wherever they can! I have also learned about a number of services in the university (that I had not heard of before), which are directly aimed at supporting University staff. For example, I was amazed at the amount of help the Research Support Office can provide to researchers applying for funding – anything from deciding which funder best suits the project to reading draft applications to ensure it meets the requirements! I hope that researchers are aware of this massive support system and regularly use it. Using the expertise these services would massively affect resilience and wellbeing because by getting a grant approved first time or getting the best deal from publishers would reduce time spent on admin and allow researchers to actually focus on research!

Thank you to everyone who has helped and talked to me this week! I hope to meet lots more researchers at the university in the next 10 weeks. If you would like to get involved by sharing your thoughts or experiences about resilience please get in touch.


IAD >heart< Technicians

The Technicians Make It Happen campaign



This week’s guest post is a member of a critical, but sometimes unsung, community at Edinburgh – our technical staff.  Marianne Keith is currently a research technician based at The Roslin Institute, supporting the work of a Career Track Fellow into the prevalence of non-O157 E.coli in cow faeces across the UK.


I am currently working in a research environment, having chopped and changed several times since starting on my career path back in 2005. I left The University of Edinburgh with a BSc in Biological Sciences (with Honours in Microbiology) with a plan to get a job, save some money, and then do a MSc to bump up my BSc grade. Well once I started working, I never quite managed to start saving money, especially when I left home and I needed to pay for my new lodgings and all the associated bills.

I was actually offered a PhD in Combinatorial Chemistry early on, but declined, knowing virtually nothing about chemistry! Wanting to stay in science, I’ve used my lab skills in a variety of University technical positions. I was a teaching technician for a few years but have worked mainly in research labs, with this being my 4th research laboratory. 13 years out of University, I don’t have the same kind of focused expertise as PhDs or postdocs because no single post requires all the various skills which I have gained to varying levels of experience. Also, nowadays there are many more strengths and abilities which make up a valuable technician, beyond a range of wet lab techniques. Communication is key and I’ve developed a range of skills through my work, but been aware that might be more out there to learn.

This year I made a fantastic discovery. The IAD runs a plethora of courses, most of which are appropriate for both academic staff AND technical staff. There is a misguided assumption by many technicians (and also some academic staff) that the IAD only caters for people who are working towards or already have the initials “MSc” or “PhD” after their name.

I confess to feeling self-doubt when I hear post docs or PhD students present their work, as changing post repeatedly over the last few years has impacted on the depth of my knowledge. This probably influenced my decision to attend the “Assertiveness” course and recently the “Refining Your Presentation Skills” workshop and I can heartily recommend both. I did learn a considerable amount on each day, but most of all, I was made aware that there are other people who encounter the same difficulties in working life as I do. I left each workshop having met new supportive people, carrying a sense of well-being, and feeling slightly more confident each time than when I arrived.

I have now set myself a goal to work my way through all the IAD courses which I believe are relevant to my personal development (regardless of exactly which research project I may be attached to as my career continues), and I would encourage all technical staff to do the same and to take advantage of this excellent resource for professional development.

Many thanks Marianne! This post came about from a conversation between Marianne and Sara at the Technicians’ Support Steering Group which they both sit on. Today (May 30th) is the “Visibility, outreach and professional development – network event”  for technicians, designed to raise awareness of the HEaTED network and various CPD opportunities.

Sara’s slides from the HEaTED event.

And don’t forget – The IAD is here to support all staff involved in teaching and research – we are equally welcoming to academic and technical staff. We’ll be publishing our new programme for 2017/8 over the summer so there’s still time to suggest ideas.


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

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.

Retreat and Write

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Photo by Diannehope at

This week started with a rare treat – a whole day to write. More accurately, I was facilitating a writing retreat for our current cohort of CAHSS Mid-Career Fellows, but I took the opportunity to join them in spirit as well as body.

Writing retreats are one of the most popular offerings from IAD, probably a reaction to the double whammy of fragmented academic time and increased pressure to produce outputs. We based our approach on the work of Professor Rowena Murray and in advance of the retreat we encourage all those attending to read the Murray and Newton paper which considers the value of structured writing interventions.

At the end of the day, I asked people to briefly consider if there was anything they could take away which might help to write in less focused circumstances. We talked about the ease or difficulty of writing at different times of the day which reminded me of the work of Dr Raul Pacheco-Vega, in particular a blog post in which he shared his academic writing approach. He talked about both the discipline of writing every day but also finding a slot where this is possible. For him it’s around 5am – perhaps linked to another of his pieces of advice which is about not being interrupted. The early morning writing habit was admitted by several of us in the room.

Another tip was making an appointment with yourself to write and preparing for the appointment in the same way that you would any other (because clearly everyone reads committee papers in advance). This isn’t just about putting a writing slot in your diary (although in an era of shared diaries you should do this and make sure it appears as “busy” rather than “tentative”) but about starting that appointment with a clear plan. All preparations in place, tools to hand and ready to make the most of the time available. Someone mentioned that they’d “saved up” their best writing ideas for the day so it felt like more of a treat and an occasion that they weren’t going to squander.

We also talked about the guilt of not writing when in a room full of people who know you should be. There’s many a “you should be writing” meme that you can print out and have glaring at you when you lift an eye from the screen or page, nothing is as effective as another human. There was nothing competitive about the atmosphere, so I don’t want to suggest there was an unseemly comparison of word count in each break. More that we all gently willed each other on to keep pushing on until the end of each slot. Someone referred to this as “strength in numbers”.

However, despite the fact that it’s possible to weave some of the features of the retreat into a daily routine, when asked if they could see a way to achieve some of the same value, for some the answer was a clear “no”. The cumulative effect was key to the impact of the day. One person talked about their final hour being the most productive by far. Although there might be some value in the planning and scheduled commitment, nothing could come close to the impact of being able to achieve a flow.

The fact it has again taken me until late on a Friday to do this week’s blog (& Sunday  to post it) shows that these habits aren’t easy to weave into busy schedules, but here are some things that might help.

SUAW and mini retreats – there is a regular SUAW hour on Twitter each Tuesday which could help achieve a sense of strength in virtual numbers. There may also be part or half day retreats in your school which you can attend when you need to. The Mason Institute runs a fortnightly retreat, but you could start one – IAD has written a facilitator guide which I used as the basis for the one this week.

Writing plans – I often plan to spend time on writing, but then get slightly paralysed thinking about what to write. The process of mapping out each of the hours in the retreat meant that I started the first hour almost effortlessly. This might be a good use of the next writing slot – to make a set of writing plans rather than fail to write.

Write by hand – this was an interesting reflection from one person. We start the day with a free writing warm up exercise and at points he found it easier to return to pen and paper. If the distractions of a keyboard and screen prove impossible to resist, perhaps it’s better to go back to basics and get a first draft out the old fashioned way.

Whatever helps you to write, persevere.