You are the next World Class Supervisor

This is our first guest post on iad4researchers and I’m delighted that Dr Kay Guccione (@kayguccione) at the University of Sheffield took the time to share her perspectives on the valuable role postdocs play in supervision. Unless there are factual errors I won’t be making any edits to our guest posts, so their views are their own.

Postdocs view experience in supervision, teaching and learning as core to scoring that academic career (Akerlind 2005). And post-doctoral research staff are actually very active in teaching and learning*. I believe that post-docs are a really important but often under-recognised group of teachers in research intensive universities. Development of an academic sense of self is in part a result of having the right formal institutional responsibilities and resources (McAlpine et al., 2013) yet, post-docs aren’t often included directly in university Learning & Teaching strategies, or seen as key assets with specific skills, position, and the right experience to teach. So, the work they do tends to be under the radar, informal, ad hoc, and without formal permissions or structures in place that recruit, recognise or reward post-doc teaching. It’s not always included in the post-doc job description for example, or during the annual appraisal systems. Yet, the sector en masse believes it’s a function that post-docs, if they want to progress their careers, should be engaging with — it’s right there on the Researcher Development Framework. And it comes up at interviews for lectureships too, to a greater or lesser extent depending who’s interviewing.

Often I speak to post-docs who complain they can’t get ‘supervision experience for their CV’ — but any opportunities we create for post-docs to be supervisors have to be about much more than a line on a CV. If we want to promote the concept of ‘World Class Supervision’ (which DOES get a mention in Learning & Teaching strategies), departments need to stop employing academic staff who are just great at research.

So, where do early career researchers learn not just how to ‘do supervision but also what it’s like to ‘be a supervisor in a university setting. Not just enough to ‘get the job’, but to actually ‘do a good job’? Not by the solo act of attending a workshop (which is a good start) but by actually putting in the hours of supervision practice that embeds real understanding. By doing academic work for real, on the job. Look at the list below again, the top five on the list are real supervision experiences.

Supervision is a form of 1:1 teaching, and like all teaching, in order to become good at it we need to practice at it, in a self-aware way. The best way I know of becoming aware of what you know, what you’ve done, why, and how, is to apply for nationally recognised accreditation as Fellow or Associate Fellow through the Higher Education Academy. At Edinburgh the link to find out more is here (SS note – and we welcome the chance to support postdocs through our teaching programmes.)

So how can early career researchers learn not just how to ‘do supervision’ but actually how to ‘be a supervisor’. 

At the University of Sheffield, I designed a Thesis Mentoring programme where the mentors are post-docs, trained in mentoring. They meet fortnightly with their mentee over 16 weeks and they discuss everything to do with the practices of academic writing — from how to overcome negative thinking, to how to integrate data with the literature, to how to create a writing plan you can stick to, to how to get the feedback you need from your supervisor in a timely way. They help PhD writers chunk the task down, focus on what they can achieve, and figure out what works for them.

Mentors tell me that after participating they feel more confident helping PhD writers in their own groups and departments. They also tell me that they feel way more informed about what support PhD students need, how to motivate them, and how to deal with difficult issues. Sounds like World Class Supervision to me.

Perhaps you as a post-doc don’t have a similar programme to belong to? How you can emulate this without the institutional structures in place? Below are guidelines for setting yourself up as a thesis mentor:

  1. Read your university’s PGR Code of Practice on thesis writing so you know what the rules are.
  2. Research ‘what do mentors do’ (and see the video below) — often mentoring is equated with advice giving, but also think about a more sophisticated repertoire beyond just giving advice. Read here for some ideas about what Sheffield mentors do.
  3. Decide how much time can you give to this — how many 1h sessions per person, how often, how many mentees?
  4. Decide what you won’t cover as part of your mentoring — be ready to signpost to other places at your university that cover the things you can’t (see image below).
  5. Create yourself a template ‘agreement form’ so you can set out with each mentee with a clear set of expectations (one is shared with you here).
  6. Email PhD writers in your dept. and see who’s interested, arrange to meet on campus.
  7. Don’t forget to ask them how they’re finding it and get their feedback before your next session.



For universities to do this properly we have to look around at the value that research staff offer to our teaching & learning, and supervision strategies, and put structures in place to enable our future visions of excellent supervision. Rather than viewing post-docs as unqualified amateurs, having a play at teaching to get the experience, recognise there are teaching jobs in universities that ONLY POST-DOCS can do. Thesis support is one of those things.

But until we change our institutional approaches to recognising the value of post-docs, it’s up to you to navigate and familiarise yourselves with the work you will be doing every day as an academic member of staff.

*teaching is way more than standing a lecture room spouting off.

  • In the lab teaching new people techniques, making sure they’re competent and safe
  • looking over the data students generate and helping them interpret
  • tutoring informally e.g. supporting people who are new/feeling pressure/struggling with writing etc
  • managing project students
  • giving feedback to peers and students on their ‘practice’ presentations
  • running a journal club, especially if you facilitated a discussion, wrote guidance etc
  • facilitating on undergrad/masters/doctoral modules e.g. research methods or research ethics
  • second marking, or substitute marking, or unofficial ‘please help me’ marking
  • peer mentoring of colleagues
  • writing for a research-communication blog
  • doing outreach or public engagement — teaching different audiences
  • running an event where you have thought about how people will learn something e.g. inviting a career talk and providing guidance to the speaker
  • designing an evaluation that feeds back into design of the next event or opportunity
  • contributing to learning & development agendas, e.g. being active on a post-doc committee that steers the work of researcher developers
  • Contributing to a network designed to share learning or knowledge e.g. a software users group.

McAlpine, L., Amundsen, C., & Turner, G. (2013). Identity-trajectory: Reframing early career academic experience. British Educational Research Journal.

Åkerlind, G. S. (2005). Postdoctoral researchers: Roles, functions and career prospects. Higher Education Research & Development.

SS note: If you know of good practice or ideas in Edinburgh or other institutions that we could feature here, please let me know. If you want to suggest a topic or author for a post, I’d be delighted to hear from you and I’m happy to reciprocate if of mutual benefit. 

Resilience – everyone’s responsibility

This week the Institute of Physics have begun to promote their new guide to resilience* and around the University there have been a range of wellbeing themed events tied in with mental health and wellbeing week (as well as the one I’m running on April 21st). After spending far more of the week than usual delivering training workshops, I’ve had many conversations with researchers from PhDs in their first month, to senior professors and resilience kept emerging as a theme. The training programmes were on diverse subjects – supervision, collaboration, international networking and developing research leadership, but there was a common thread of people discussing how they cope with challenges and demands.

Why is resilience/wellbeing such a hot topic? In positive terms, I would like to think it is because we’ve become a more tolerant and understanding society (yeah, I know. It doesn’t always feel like this.); we feel more comfortable talking about the things that grind us down and less judgmental about people with issues. We should also acknowledge that being a researcher has become more challenging– more competition for funding, more rejected papers, more demands on time, the beginning of momentum towards REF, the corrosive uncertainty around BREXIT and … actually, I’m going to stop there. Times are tough.

An article in the Guardian last summer raised concerns about the overuse of the term resilience and it encroaching into discussions about mental health. Having run resilience workshops for a few years I’d echo this concern – I have no clinical or professional expertise in mental health and am careful to promote the work of our excellent Counselling Services for students and staff if I feel conversations are moving in this direction.

Although mental health issues need to be addressed by trained staff, when we look at resilience, there’s a role we can all play in making our university a more supportive and understanding place. Some of these are our responsibilities to ourselves, others things that we can do for others. (I feel I should add that as I’ve developed my thinking about resilience I’ve spoken to people with the expertise mentioned above and am grateful for their guidance.) Here are a few ideas for researchers to help develop their own resilience and support others around them.

Remember, it’s not just you. I deliberately mentioned early in the blog the range of people, some at senior levels, who used the “group therapy” aspect of a workshop to share their perspectives, frustrations and advice. Research, by its nature, is about uncertainty and working at times on things that will fail. The failure is piled on by the process of funding and publishing research, so don’t take this personally. Finding strategies to manage setbacks and keep going will give you a set of behaviours that will serve you well in academia.

For others… talk about setbacks and frustrations when they happen and also the way in which you pick yourself up. If you are a more established academic, remind early career researchers that your successes are part of a hidden CV of failures  – a term coined by Dr Melanie Stefan, a colleague at Edinburgh.

Be clear about what you are aiming for. Having an eye on the longer-term prize (the joy of being able to study and investigate a topic that inspires you) might help you get over day to day frustrations. Seeing individual hurdles as a “means to an end” can help maintain momentum when your motivation flags. Having a longer-term vision can also help you to make better decisions – this is one of the strategies we work with on the Research Leader programme.

For others… talk to people who seem to be struggling with short-term difficulties about their career goals. This might help them see how they are progressing or gain some perspective on how important the thing causing stress in that moment actually is.

Don’t isolate yourself. One of the consistent messages from mental health charities and organisations is that of the importance of networks and relationships to improve mental health. If things are going badly, don’t draw away from other people.

For others… keep an eye out for colleagues and if they are absent from meetings, coffee breaks and generally keeping a low profile, take a moment to check and ask if everything is OK. Like many universities we suffer from a lack of shared, social space in schools, so this needs to be on your radar.

Balance your time and your energy. Time management is a major resilience issue, particularly because of the fragmentation of time which seems to be a modern curse. Try to look at your work flow and see if it’s possible to move tasks and meetings around so you are writing, reading, thinking at times of the day when you feel more energised and perhaps doing other things in the short spaces between meetings and lectures. Time management will be a theme of a future blog post. You also need to accept that you can only do so much and that habitually working longer hours doesn’t generate high quality outputs. Short bursts for important deadlines may be necessary, but don’t give into a presenteeism culture. Take breaks and enjoy our beautiful city!

For others… encourage people to take breaks, but also respect their need for peace and quiet in shared spaces, for unbroken periods to write rather than interrupting them and to work from home if your work environment is busy.

Step back from difficult situations. If things are starting to get too much for you, don’t keep pushing yourself. It’s probably more effective to give yourself some space to work out better solutions. This might involve asking for help, getting some training or just developing some coping strategies.

For others… offer help if you see someone struggling or let a manager or supervisor know that they may need some support. If they stop engaging in social activities or hobbies remind them of how important it is to have a life outside the university.

If you are concerned about your own resilience or that of a colleague, get in touch with the Student and Staff  Counselling Services.


*Available to IOP members, I’m working with SUPA and the IOP on an event to promote the guide and resilience for researchers  – Friday April 21st – Being a Resilient Researcher.

Lessons learnt

Today I was speaking at an event run by our School of Health in Social Sciences aimed at developing the careers of research students and staff. I was invited to talk about my career alongside four other speakers – we held a mix of academic and non-academic roles but we all had a PhD. I was the last person to speak which gave me the opportunity to listen to the themes and advice offered by the others and spot the consistent themes that emerged. I came up with my own set of messages but because of time constraints (mostly self-inflicted) I didn’t get to share them at the event, so I’m putting them here.

  1. You can make your own luck.
  2. Shy bairns get nowt.
  3. Don’t be the person who says no.
  4. Relationships are everything.
  5. Develop a resilience strategy.

Luck. When you hear people talk about their careers, they often use this word at some point. The trouble for the audiences at this type of event is that it minimises the learning that they can extract. I suspect that many people talk about luck because they feel a bit arrogant talking about being given opportunities because they were so great, but many of the breaks I’ve got in my career have come because I’ve been trusted by someone and I’ve always earnt that trust. I’ve also learnt to be upfront with people about my plans and ambitions so they know which opportunities I need.

Shy bairns. Which brings me onto my second point – you need to ask for these opportuntities or at least talk to people about where you want your career to go and what you need to progress. You need to put yourself forward for things even (especially?) when you don’t feel fully ready. You need to celebrate your successes (or let your network know about them, so they can celebrate them for you) and take credit where it is due.

No. I got this advice from Professor Eugene Kennedy when he spoke at an event about research funding. (You can see his slides here) His message was that in life there are always people lining up to say no to you – reviewers, employers, colleagues etc. We don’t need to take it on ourselves to say no before them, so apply for that grant or job, write that paper, approach that important person for advice. If they say no, you’re exactly where you were anyway, but there’s always a chance that they won’t.

Relationships. Research is an increasingly collaborative venture and only likely to become more so during the careers of the attendees of this event. You need to have a good network of people who make you excited about your work and their work. You need good colleagues to help you manage the challenges of academic life. You need to know people in all kinds of roles and organisations to help build your career intelligence. Most of my career success comes down to the people I know and the chances they’ve given me. (See 1. above)

Resilience. This is fast becoming my word of the year (check back in December to see whether it was replaced by something else.) I hear it everywhere and there’s a real sense of commitment here at Edinburgh to help our students and staff build their wellbeing and resilience. Everyone on the panel mentioned this as being a factor in their careers – needing to become more resilient and urging the audience to do the same. We were asked about our resilience strategies and mentioned exercise and fresh air; support networks, becoming skilled for new roles, recognising when your work-life balance is off and putting it right; putting things into perspective and (the mightiest of all resilience strategies) knitting. We also all acknowledged that resilience is a very personal thing and everyone in the room needed to find the best solutions for them. I mentioned the guide to Workplace Resiliency which I’ve used in resilience sessions for the last few years.

A big thanks to Emily and Fiona in Health in Social Sciences for putting together such a great day. As well as hearing five career stories, the researchers spent time thinking about their career values, the skills they have developed through research and doing some future planning. The final message from all of the speakers was that we all had very satisfying careers – although things often feel very uncertain at the PhD/early career researcher stage, if you have faith and work hard your futures can be bright in all kinds of ways that you can’t see at the moment.

I saw it on Twitter

Today’s post is a small celebration of my favourite social media site (apart from Ravelry, but that doesn’t have quite the same relevance to researcher development). Other SM sites are available and it would be great to feature these in future – let me know if you want to write your own celebration.

Twitter works for me because of the way other people use it – they post material that I find useful, in a way I find engaging. This is something that you should bear in mind as you develop your own social media strategy (and if you need help with this, look at the Social Media Strategy Template from Mark Reed at Fact Track Impact).

I’m still fairly new in my IAD role, but for many years in consultancy, twitter had a huge impact in four areas of my life and work. I’m going to talk through these and try to give some examples.

Neighbourhood. In a university you have a neighbourhood, a physical environment which I live in and interact with. I bump into people, I see notices on boards, I get emails about events – suddenly I’m part of something. Being based in Edinburgh, a fantastic city gives me another environment – theatres, shops, museums. There’s a constant flow of ideas and possibilities which come from the spaces around me. Much as I love the Scottish Borders where I live, it is a different kind of neighbourhood (although you should still visit). But even in The University of Edinburgh there are limits so Twitter helps me to inhabit a virtual space where I have news and interactions with the people and organisations that interest and inspire me.

Conversations. This leads me into the second thing that I love about twitter, which is the conversations that I have there. The 140 character limit facilitates rather than limits this as people get to the point and focus on key information. You can quickly contribute ideas and there’s a very open and democratic culture. As long as you have something interesting to say, just say it. The hierarchy is less obvious which can increase the richness of conversations as lots of different persepctives come in. Another great feature is being able to listen to conversations if you follow both/all of the people having them. I particularly enjoy these moments which remind me of my time as a young researcher sitting in our departmental tea room (yes kids, we used to have tea rooms in departments…) listening to the academics talking about research, funding, teaching and all kinds of other things. Eavesdropping aside, the conversations I’ve had on twitter have been great for strengthening my network and helped me to network more easily face to face…

Network …so it’s no surprise that networking features in this list. The connections made on twitter have led to collaborations, joint workshops, offers to write, interviews and friendships. It’s also a great “shop window” for your ideas and approach to life, so I try to be authentic when I post things. It’s a personal feed and I hope when people  meet me face to face, that I’ve represented myself accurately. If you find face to face networking challenging, you can lay really great foundations online and that initial approach when you are finally in the room becomes much, much easier.

Information flow As an enthusiastic advocate of social media I am used to hearing “but I don’t have time!” (or the delightfully passive aggressive “I don’t know where you find the time”). Twitter saves me LOADS of time. It’s where I hear about most developments from funders and key organisations; it points me to interesting ideas at conferences that I don’t have the time or money to attend; it gives me a sense of how researchers, academic leaders and people who work in roles like mine are reacting to big issues like REF, impact, funding and HE policy. It took time for me to build up the community that I follow, but now that is in place (and constantly evolving) it is an efficiency tool. There’s more here on the time wasting myth and other preconceptions that might be stopping you from getting started.

In short, twitter filled in the gaps for me and I’ve written in a previous existence about starting points for researchers wanting to build up a useful feed. As a researcher your gaps are likely to be different, but think about the role that social media – and there are many platforms available – could play in filling these.