Healthy, Happy Conferences

Green means I’m happy to talk to anyone 

Today’s post on this week’s mental health theme considers academic conferences. For some, conferences are one of the perks of the academic lifestyle – a chance to travel, immerse yourself in new ideas, meet interesting people and see your own research through fresh eyes. But if you are currently in a barren patch with your research, struggling with imposter syndrome, uncomfortable and exhausted by networking, or balancing research with other demands, conferences can be debilitating. Add to this the persisting acceptance (resigned or otherwise) of bad behaviour at conferences (Eurovision fans may have seen this recent reworking of “it’s more of a comment than a question“) and it’s no wonder that conferences can feel more like a trial to endure than a reward.

At the joint learned societies mental health event in early May, we talked about conferences and shared a few examples of how they might be tweaked to be kinder, more inclusive places. One great idea was the traffic light system on conference badges which I’ve recreated above. I can’t remember which conference this came from so please let me know and I’ll give credit. This is a beautifully simple idea. If you don’t want to talk to anyone, tick the red light. If you are happy to talk to people you know, tick amber. And if you will talk to ANYBODY, then tick green. There was probably more to this than I’m reporting, but I thought it was a great idea to help nervous networkers approach people, to help introverts enjoy some peace and to help offset some of the power differentials at conferences. I’m guessing you can change the “setting” during the conference and I would be tempted to add a few other lights – perhaps a purple one for when I’m feeling a bit vulnerable so you don’t come and challenge me too robustly or a turquoise one to say “I’m here alone, so please ask me to join you at lunch” (that’s the voice of my younger self you hear plaintively calling there…)

Another idea is to offer childcare (or other care) at conferences. We do this for the Ingenious Women programme that we run at Edinburgh and at the new national programme we are running with Scottish Government funding. This means that those with caring responsibilities can still engage and by having children at the conferences we show that you can have kids, spent time with them and still be an effective and successful researcher.

At an upcoming conference I’m involved in, we’re planning to have a Stress Awareness Space using the fantastic, simple resource from MIND which includes posters and downloadable stress awareness cards. For our conference this is a bit of a given because it’s about researcher mental health, (Please come along – it’s on June 14th in Edinburgh and we’d love to see you there). However, I’d like to include this space at our other events and think it would be particularly powerful at research conferences. Wouldn’t it be great if we could ask everyone to complete a card as they register and to sign it IF they were happy to. It’s interesting to imagine what the impact on our researcher community might be if we were happy to share what we struggled with and show that people’s external demeanour isn’t necessarily what they feel on the insides. This could be another step towards a more inclusive culture.

At the Oscars, Frances McDormand talked about the opportunity the powerful had to improve things in the film world by insisting on inclusion riders, a phrase that Stacy Smith described in her TED talk about sexism. Most conferences are badged or organised by big organisations that claim to want to support more inclusive cultures. Has the time come for an academic conference inclusion rider?



Departmental Tea Rooms – A Silver Bullet?

Edinburgh Chemistry’s Wall of Purest Green

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

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

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

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

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

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

Investigating Mental Health in the Research Community

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting Started as a postdoc

Thriving in your postdoc

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

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

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

RSC & IOP Researcher mental health event for web

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

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

There should be space for every kind of scientist.

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



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

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




Time to Get Connected


On the 4th June 2018, the IAD is running our informal induction event for new research staff and academics, in all Schools / Colleges, who have recently joined the University.

The ‘Get Connected’ event is aptly named to try and encourage all new staff in research related roles to connect with other new researchers and the support services around the university. Our Research Leader course emphasises the importance of having a diverse and supportive network which includes internal experts in areas such as funding, data management and information services – Get Connected is our attempt to accelerate this for new staff.

The half day event has been created to help new staff find and navigate the support available in the University.  With table discussions focussing on: career development opportunities; applying for research funding; advice on engagement, impact and consultancy; information services; finance; and developing teaching skills, participants are able to choose which table discussions they would like to attend, based on their interests and areas of research. All our table hosts also contribute key information to our Get Connected guide, so if you don’t manage to meet everyone you wanted to at the event, you won’t miss out.

The event begins with a networking skills session to give participants tips on how to network effectively, an area that most people dread or feel they don’t do effectively! We include the chance to practice networking because it is crucial in the research environment and plays an important role in establishing new collaborations and research opportunities.

There will also be a talk from the library support team about PURE,  the University’s Current Research Information System (CRIS), which helps research staff to share and capture their publications, projects and activities information. The event closes with a talk from a senior academic giving insights into establishing an academic career.

With the option to also get a free profile picture taken on the day –  a professional photographer in attendance at the event – the event has been set up to allow new researchers to become more knowledgeable, informed and visible in their new roles. If you are a new researcher (or haven’t been able to attend a previous event), come along!

Date: Monday 4th June, 2018

Time: 08:45 – 13:00 (brunch is included)

Venue:  Outreach Centre – 9c Holyrood Road


Take the plunge and join the ingenious women

On November 24th applications will close for our 4th Ingenious Women programme. It was conceived in 2012 following the great experiences that Janet Wilkinson and I had running a weekend workshop for Girl Geeks Scotland which aimed to equip women in IT with confidence, skills and a powerful network. We saw so much potential in the model that we developed it into a programme for early career researchers. Interestingly, a similar programme runs at the Judge Business School in Cambridge University where, like here, they found that women tended not to engage with similar workshops.

Our programme runs at over three weekends and you must commit to attending all of them. The community that we’ve built on (and across) previous cohorts has been one of the biggest outcomes for people, so it’s a key criterion for selection. The programme is open to researchers, research technicians, academics and for the first time, professional services staff who have a focus on research.

We’ve deliberately chosen this approach for women (including those with family commitments) but realize that it might be useful provide a little additional information which might help you to decide if this programme is something that you can be part of.

The residential weekend model has been very popular and effective with over 90 women from the University including those with children. The weekend model was chosen because many of the women we have worked with struggle to commit to a two day programme within the working week, particularly if they work part-time. Some of the women who have attended the programme in previous years particularly commented on the number of times they had to drop out of training commitments because of the pressure at work. By choosing a weekend model, this pressure is greatly reduced. Another thing we have noticed is that the “psychological” effect of a weekend programme is that it makes it easier to prioritise your own career as you are undertaking the development in your own time.  Rather than being something that was decided without consideration of the caring commitments of women, it was chosen specifically because of these. We don’t claim that this will work for all women, so a non-residential programme covering similar themes is available (we’ll be publicising this soon.)

Peebles Hydro is one of the most child friendly hotels in Scotland so that anyone who cannot arrange weekend child care can bring their children with them. The hotel offers a fantastic range of activities for children over 2 years old, which we will cover the costs of. Most of our previous attendees have chosen to come alone, but for single parents, breast-feeding mothers or those who’s caring responsibilities aren’t flexible, we do everything we can to make Ingenious Women inclusive and we’ll work with our selected attendees to make the programme work for them.

Having said that, the programme for the three weekends is busy and we work into the evenings to maximise the time we have together. The value comes from the immersive nature of IW and it’s amazing how quickly the network forms and people start to feel the benefits of thinking about themselves and their career.

If you’ve seen details of the programme but hesitated, get in touch with either myself or Nicola. Most compelling though, may be some of the comments from the last cohort.

Ingenious women has led me to greater clarity and inspired practices that are motivating me to increased, better outputs from my work. It has sparked ideas for projects and papers and collaborations that would not have happened otherwise. Watch this space.

I am a new member of staff at the University and consider this a unique opportunity which has allowed me to meet some incredibly talented women and has given to confidence that I’m working at a University that values its staff and their development. I think this investment reflects well on the University. I feel inspired to reach for possibilities within the University that I didn’t know existed or which I previously felt powerless to reach.

Meeting with peers to discuss common challenges has provided valuable confidence in how I approach my daily work, interact with colleagues and generate and execute ideas for future projects.

A UNIQUE opportunity to discover, and learn from an otherwise INVISIBLE cross-section of our institution.

This course definitely increased my self awareness and confidence. Now I know lots of researchers that I can collaborate with to be more successful and productive. My performance at the institution has also improved dramatically following the encouraging conversations and transfer of ideas with other ingenious women.

So, if you are interested in spending three weekends with a group of like-minded colleagues who want to develop their ideas, their career and themselves, don’t hesitate – apply before November 24th!

Boring but important

I subscribe to a magazine which digests the week’s news and always includes a column called “boring but important” which I make myself read (although obviously after I read the “it’s must be true, I saw it in the tabloids” column which is far more entertaining). I planned this blog as I sat in a meeting this afternoon discussing the Concordat for the Career Management of Researchers. As a group of researcher developers we were all very engaged in the discussion and we’ve put a lot of energy over the last couple of years into supporting the idea of a review and now into putting forward our thoughts.

At Edinburgh, the Concordat influenced the development of our own Code of Practice – a document which I’ve blogged about before and again encourage you to look at.

One key feature of the consultation process for the review is that it is open to anyone and we agreed that it’s critical that researchers engage. We then shared our suspicion that although institutions and organisations such as Universities Scotland will be putting forward responses, that individual researchers may not be as aware as we are of the opportunity to contribute and the importance of feeding in your experiences.

This blog is a call to action to our research staff to take a look at the consultation process and let the review panel know what you think. You are the MOST IMPORTANT voice in this process. The Concordat is ten years old. Has it made any difference? Are the guidelines set out in it recognisable and familiar? When you look at the environment and culture in our university, do you think it supports your career management?

Here are the consultation questions:

And you can enter the survey here. Consultation closes on December 1st.

I’ll be honest –  responding to the Concordat Review may not be the most fun you have this week, but it could be the most important thing you do. Your opinions will be given real weight by the review committee (more weight than my thoughts, I hope), so please take this opportunity to influence a document which will in turn influence funders and institutions. Make yourself comfortable, set aside an hour and have your say.

From idea to project

Although the Newton Bhabha Fund workshop on Clean Energy Research for Rural India is now over there are still a few outstanding posts I want to complete. Our plan is to turn these into a guide for others running these kinds of workshops once we’ve given the participants a few weeks to settle back into their usual routines. Today’s post looks at the theme we covered on day 4 of the workshop when we looked out the resources which facilitating turning ideas into projects.

Clearly a significant factor here is the availability of funding, but we also heard from Stuart Govan, from the Royal Society of Chemistry which co-funded the workshops with the British Council. I’m going to comeback to some of the points that Stuart made in a future post, but to be efficient, here is a link to his slides from the workshop which make it clear how many benefits there are to being an engaged and active member of a professional learned society.

Again, we recognised that the expertise on this topic lay in the group rather than solely with the organisers, so we gave a brief introduction to the general  funding and opportunity map  as we know it in the UK (with a healthy warning that this is currently in a state of flux). This presentation was based on others I’ve previously given in funding workshops but didn’t focus on international development research opportunities. For this we handed over to the group, first creating 5 headings for them to cluster their knowledge of funding schemes :

  • visits and exchanges
  • proof of concept/initial studies/seed funding
  • workshops and networks
  • project funding
  • programme funding

The group produced a wealth of information from both the UK and India. Finding links for all the schemes is going to take some time, but here are a few key funders.

UKIERI – the UK India Education Research Initiative

The Universities themselves  – almost all of those represented at the workshop from both UK and Indian institutions had internal funds which were available for visits.

RCUK – the UK’s cluster of research funding councils have a range of schemes. Coincidentally, the BBSRC launched its India Partnering calls today.

Indian Council of Social Science Research

Although currently closed, the SAGES/PECRE funds from the Scottish Funding Council were mentioned.

Participants were also encouraged to use the “Pathways to Impact” section of RCUK proposals to cost visits and exchanges if international development was a relevant impact area.

Another Indian funder mentioned was the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research.

I’m just scratching the surface here of the schemes and funders that the group were aware of – the point is that there is a significant and flexible funding landscape but it is complex – for many schemes you will need partners, so a good starting place is to attend workshops (such as ours) and to ask these questions of your fellow attendees.

For our group the next steps will be a mix of student exchanges, visits and proof of concept funding. If you are interested in engaging with this kind of research, Newton Bhabha (and other Newton Fund iteration) workshop are a great starting point. In the next blog I’ll look at how our attendees became aware of the workshop and why they chose to attend.