Acknowledge, Facilitate, Intervene


A slide from my talk at the learned society conference on researcher mental health

My final blog post of mental health awareness week is a showcase of some of the work being done at The University of Edinburgh to support researchers, particularly those who are struggling with mental health problems. One of the great joys of working here is having great colleagues so I’m pleased to have the chance to share some of their work. However, there’s a tiny cautionary note. I’m not claiming that Edinburgh is the kindest university – I don’t think any institution could make that claim (although now I think about it I’d be a lot more interested in a KEF if the K stood for kindness…).

I know from my personal experiences working in four UK universities (and a much greater experience as a consultant for a few dozen), that every university is probably the most supportive, more understanding and simultaneously the most callous and damaging. The experiences of researchers are very influenced by the individuals around them, especially their supervisors and bosses, so please don’t read into this a sense that we’ve cracked it here. It’s a work in progress and it always will be, but here are some of our efforts.

This post will feature three school case studies from Chemistry, Biology and Physics.  (As the final case study is from our Chaplaincy, I was going to describe them as the holy trinity of science, but apparently that’s Reason, Observation and Experience!) Each school has taken a different approach, prompted by different issues, but together they provide some great starting points, If you are reading this for inspiration about how to develop some initiatives in your own academic community. (BTW if you’re reading this in England or Wales, we call our academic department up here “schools”)

Chemunity launched in March and is a staff/student collaborative project involving undergraduate and postgraduate research students. One of their aims is to promote good mental health and wellbeing among all students. In time this will lead to the creation of an online collection of desirable resources, as defined and designed by students. As mentioned earlier this week, the School of Chemistry here has an enviable communal space which will be used to host events (e.g. board game evenings) that encourage discussion and build the sense of academic community.

The Chemunity Facebook page explains:

As the title suggests, we aim to bring the collective School of Chemistry community together for an evening of entertainment (did someone say board games?), celebrating the launch of our website & a whole host of special guests.

*What’s our mission I hear you ask?*

It’s actually quite simple. We are absolutely passionate about improving the quality of academic support for both UG & PG students, opening up more conversations about our mental/health wellbeing & bridging the gap between students & lecturers.

SolidariTEA is a new initiative being piloted in our School of Biological Sciences and led by Dr Louise Horsfall. This informal, fortnightly coffee/tea session for PhD students, starts with a student or staff member opening  with a very short story about when they may have encountered and overcome a difficulty in their research or career.


Leading on from this,  people can bring any non-technical queries to discuss but the focus should be on mental health and wellbeing. Like Chemunity it’s funded through our Student Partnership Agreement Grants. SolidariTEA is new but the School plans to develop more resources on supporting students with mental health problems for supervisors whilst recognising that the whole school community needs to be part of this as students will often approach other staff, notably technicians when things start to get too much for them.

The final example from the School Of Physics and Astronomy demonstrates how straightforward it is to embed wellbeing into the doctoral process. The first year pastoral meeting happens about 4 months in the PhD, when the students are likely to have established a working relationship with their supervisor and to have tuned in sufficiently to the PhD for them to be aware of potential problems. It also establishes early that the School is interested in their wellbeing and makes clear how future problems can be raised and are likely to be tackled.

Pastoral Physics
A screenshot from the SOPA wiki

The School’s wiki also makes it clear that needing pastoral support is NORMAL and EXPECTED, trying to dispel any sense that feeling overwhelmed is a sign of failure. It clearly points students to sources of help and talks about interruptions as part of the support available, minimising stigma.

Picture3 School of Physics and Astronomy wiki

Our final little gem is our Chaplaincy . It offers support in many forms – there’s a wellbeing and mindfulness programme, a listening service and has a wonderful calming atmosphere even though it sits in the heart of our Central campus. Staff and students are welcome at all times and it proudly proclaims itself to be – a place of all faiths and none.

We’re a large university so I’m sure this only scratches the surface of wellbeing support here. If you are from The University of Edinburgh and have more examples, I’d love to share them here. If you are from elsewhere I hope it gives you to confidence to look for similar initiatives in your own institution. At the Universities Scotland Researcher Mental Health event on June 14th there will be many more examples from our colleagues in other Scottish institutions – book your place here.  If you can’t find anything, please take these ideas – as someone summed up at the event last week, science should have space for everyone.

Particular thanks to Caroline Proctor, Louise Horsfall, Chris Mowat and Will Hossack for their help and suggestions, and to our Chaplaincy for being a sanctuary on campus.

The road to misconduct

Do Not Cross
Photo by DodgertonSkillhause at

We are making preparations to launch a new online resource for research integrity which should be available later in the summer. Aimed at our research students and their supervisors, this will complement the extensive support and guidance researchers receive in their schools. During the consultation process I’ve spoken to a range of university staff about integrity and added to my understanding of regulations, policies and systems across the University and disciplines.

One of the most interesting of these conversations happened last week when I met Dr Willem Halffman from the University of Nijmegen who was on a brief research visit to Edinburgh. We talked about a wide range of topics in our short meeting, with particular focus on the circumstances which lead to misconduct. My interest in integrity is both old and new. Old, in that I’ve spent close to twenty years training and developing research students and staff, and fostering good practice has been part of this. New, in that it was only last year that I attended the UK Research Integrity Office conference and became fascinated by wider discussions which went far beyond policies and looked at the behaviours and tendencies which lead to misconduct.

One speaker, Dr Maura Hiney spoke about these and referenced  David Kornfeld’s paper on the categories of people who violated the rules of research. Kornfeld’s paper is an interesting read, so I won’t give away the headlines, but he summarises that

These acts of research misconduct seemed to be the result of the interaction of psychological traits and/or states and the circumstances in which these individuals found themselves.

This prompted Willem to point me to a model from financial misconduct – the fraud triangle. This originated from the work of Donald Cressey (Donald R. Cressey, Other People’s Money (Montclair: Patterson Smith, 1973) p. 30.), who tried to explain the circumstances under which people commit fraud. The three factors which make up the triangle  – opportunity, pressure and rationalistion – are described with a simple animation by the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners. Although the examples used relate to financial fraud, it isn’t difficult to extend the model to research.


Image from ALGA – Association of Local Government Auditors


I find this model useful as it points to the role that pressure plays in misconduct and is something that cannot be ignored by any institution wishing to develop a high integrity culture. It isn’t enough to play lip service to the regulations and training whilst the pressures on researchers continue to build.

This connection between integrity and resilience is something that I hope to explore and has been a significant driving force in the initial focus I’ve had at Edinburgh on wellbeing and resilience for researchers. As we tailor and embed the integrity module I’ll be looking at how we ensure that our training plays a part in minimising the pressure in the environment as well as being clear about good practice and honest cultures.

Willem’s research has resulted in a number of pubications on scientific  integrity, (Whilst you are looking at his publications, The Academic Manifesto [Halffman, W. & Radder, H. (3 April 2015), The Academic Manifesto, Minerva, Vol. 53, no.3, p. 165-187. doi: 10.1007/s11024-015-9270-9.] makes a number of other suggestions to release the pressure in the system!)


Reduce Confusion, Manage Expectations

Photo by amann at

Last week I was involved in two events which on the surface looked different, but actually covered some very similar themes. The first was the launch of a new PhD supervisors’ network here at Edinburgh. This is part of the Supervision workstream of the Excellence in Doctoral Education and Career Development Programme and was a chance for us (principally my colleague Dr Fiona Philippi, Head of Doctoral Education who leads the project) to share some initial ideas and ask the supervisors present how they would like the network to operate.

As part of the discussion, Fiona illustrated an example of the resources available to support supervision by sharing a version of the Griffith University Expectations in Supervision questionnaire. I’ve used this for many years in PhD induction and “getting started” events so it was interesting to see the reaction of supervisors to the tool which is a series of paired statements which demonstrate the dichotomies possible in PhD supervision. The response was very positive, with all those present seeing the value in having a tool to prompt discussion but also clarify the details of their supervisory approach. No one wants to impose a single, cookie-cutter model on doctoral supervision as the questionnaire demonstrates. People talked about the value the discussions would have to students coming to the UK for their PhDs as it might uncover any assumptions they might have. Most importantly, used well, the discussion will reduce uncertainty and the resulting anxiety for students.

During more detailed discussions, the topic of co-supervision emerged as a key area which needed more scrutiny so we are planning to develop the questionnaire further to help students and supervisory teams work together with more transparency and clearer responsibilities.

Co-supervision is now pretty universal at Edinburgh, both as a means of quality assurance but also often reflecting the multi- and inter-disciplinary nature of many PhD projects. This links us to the second event of the week – the Digital Economy Crucible. I was a speaker at the second Crucible “lab” in Edinburgh last week and decided to speak on the topic of Confusion in Collaboration. This is a interesting idea to explore but I can’t take the credit for the idea which came from Professor Barry Smith at Welsh Crucible when he spoke about the steps to really effective collaboration as being Contact, Communication, Confusion and Conflict.

Barry was one of three “heroes” of collaboration I mentioned in my talk, the others being Professor Catherine Lyall from Edinburgh who’s established a deep understanding of models of collaboration as well as producing a series of incredibly useful practical guides to help people in the interdisciplinary space work more effectively.

Catherine was the “critical friend” for a guide to collaboration I wrote for the Institute of Physics in 2015 which featured my last hero, Professor Tom McLeish. Tom is a physicist so has had a career collaborating with with other scientists in academia and industry, but in recent years has worked within the Durham Institute for Medieval and Renaissance Studies (IMRS) reexamining scientific thinking in the 12th-14th centuries on The Ordered Universe project. A collaborative close reading of works by teams of medieval scholars and scientists is generating new insights into the vital but overlooked foundations of modern science.

The slides from my talk are below, but the key activity in my slot was to get the Cruciblists to talk to someone from another discipline about the assumptions that people made about their discipline or area. Some fascinating conversations followed but I moved them promptly on to try to come up with some new questions to reduce confusion. Their list complements one that was produced by a Stirling Crucible group a few years ago which I blogged about in a former life (Confusion in Collaboration).

Confusion in Collaboration <- The Slides

The questions generated by the group:

DE Crucible Confusion June 2017
DE Crucible 2017 Confusion in Collaboration

My final act was to share the Griffith questionnaire with this group as a final test of their understanding of each other’s research models.

What questions could help you avoid future conflict and bring confusion to the surface?



Cracking the Code

This week I’ve been discussing the “lifecycle” of research staff in a variety of meetings and conversations. We are looking at how we make the wealth of information and support we can offer at IAD more accessible and how to become more visible in the researcher community. We’re just starting to review and plan our programme for the next academic year (so it’s a good time to let us know what you want). A number of projects starting to gain momentum which I’ll update on as they begin to deliver results.

The slight frustration I’ve felt at times is that many of the things that people want from us, are already in place. One of the most important of these, and the thing I’m going to focus on in this post, is our Code of Practice for the Management and Career Development of Research Staff. I suspect that this title puts people off – it sounds like a bureacratic document which sets out HR policies and regulations, but it’s not and I’d encourage you to take a look.

Written with clarity and straightforward checklists, our Code of Practice sets out the responsibilities of the researcher, their manager and the University in ensuring that both the researcher’s project and personal development receives appropriate support and attention. If you are uncertain about the types of conversations you could be having with your PI, the Code suggests that in the early stages of your contract they should be available to:

  • Discover the researcher’s interests and career aspirations and help them to explore relevant opportunities
  • Discuss and identify training and development needs and priorities for the researcher
  • Highlight university-wide and local mentoring schemes

As the project gains momentum, your PI should ensure your development is on track as they

  • Give feedback on strengths and weaknesses of the researcher’s contribution to the project and the group
  • Discuss whether the research is on target or if goals/timescales need to be adjusted
  • Encourage the take-up and review the outcomes of training and development where relevant
  • Highlight and create opportunities for professional academic activities such as supervision, teaching, writing grant applications, knowledge exchange and demonstrating research impact

Although I’ve chosen to extract sections relating to the PI’s responsibilities, the focus of the Code is on ensuring that our researchers are taking responsibilities for their own careers. It sets out the various career paths that are open to you at the end of your contract and urges you to prepare for the transition into either further research, an academic position or a role beyond the University. The message is to take control – and we’ll help you.

My postdoc years were in the 1990s (yes, before most of you were born…meh) and I was hugely fortunate in having two postdoc supervisors who were happy to talk to me about what I was going to do next, and then supported my transition away from the bench. At that point there was no information available about the career options and paths ahead which at times made me feel like I was the first postdoc to leave the research path. I wasn’t – the information we now have shows that I was in the majority!

So, please take advantage of these far better insights. Read the reports on the destinations of research staff and take the tailored advice available through our Careers Service. Become familiar with the Code of Practice and use it to help you plan a conversation with your PI about what will come next. Take control of your career and start looking at what is around to help you. I think you’ll be surprised – and if there’s something missing, let us know:  survey season approaches!


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. 

Questions from new Research Leaders

Alongside the suite of training that we provide for PhD students and research staff, we work with Colleges and Schools around the University to support academic staff in a range of ways. One of these is our Research Leader programme which is aimed at academic staff who have begun to secure external funding and therefore are supervising students and managing research staff. The programme is flexible but typical runs over three or four days, usually within a College.

The first programme of 2017 began last week and as usual we started by looking at the role of research leaders at Edinburgh, helped by getting a personal and institutional view of leadership and future opportunities from a senior academic. We then discussed how to effectively manage and motivate people through understanding different approaches to communication, feedback and planning.

The programme is also a great place for people to ask questions of our guest experts, me and each other. I suspect that the questions raised at last week’s course are common concerns or areas of confusion for academics, so rather than email the group with the resources I’ve found to answer these, I thought I’d share them. Perhaps if you are reading this at Edinburgh, this might help you understand the breadth of topics we talk about.

How do I develop an effective impact strategy?

With the REF consultation currently doing the rounds here and in all other HEIs, it’s not surprising that researchers are aware of their responsibilities to produce research with impact although they were reminded that the researchers responsibility is to create a “pathway” to impact by ensuring they identify potential partners and dissemination approaches rather than realising the impact themselves. There is a wealth of information about impact now, so these links are the tip of the iceberg, but carefully chosen:

  • An initial review – I’ve chosen PATHWAYS TO IMPACT AND THE STRATEGIC ROLE OF
    UNIVERSITIES by Hughes and Kitson, University of Cambridge which was referenced in the Dowling Review. It analyses the early examples of pathways to impact statements and gives new principal investigators a view of what other researchers identified as impact when it was first embedded in the funding system.
  • A recent analysis – partly for the title of “Slightly Dirty Maths” which “explored how research can generate impacts by investigating different sorts of impacts from one academic field—mathematics—and the diverse mechanisms generating them.
  • A broad exploration – HEFCE funded to LSE to explore impact in the social sciences but the Impact of Social Sciences blog which was the principal platform for discussion and dissemination has a much greater breadth. A huge resource for all things impact related and all disciplines.
  • A handbook – based on personal experience, research, workshops and interviews, The Research Impact Handbook by Professor Mark Reed of Fast Track Impact is an accessible guide to impact for academics. The website includes many useful resources to help you get a sense of the approach in the book.

How do I promote myself and opportunities in my group more effectively?

After enjoying the glow of being awarded your first substantial grant or fellowship comes the realisation that you now need to recruit students or research staff. We cover the HR side of recruitment in the programme, but the questions on day one were about how to be visible to the best potential researchers. We discussed the value of teaching in engaging local undergraduates, but for those further afield there are a range of approaches. Clearly, publishing good work and making sure this is actively disseminated is key, so we will look at strategies for this later in the programme (some thoughts from previous sessions are collated here), but we also talked about producing short videos to explain research.

At Edinburgh the “Research in a Nutshell” project from a few years ago helped hundreds of researchers produce short videos (most of which currently seem to be unavailable – I’m looking into this) and many academics also have an active online presence. We also discussed the value of visiting other departments to give seminars, noting that staff who have responsibility for organising these programmes will usually be pleased (often grateful) to hear from an engaging researcher with interesting work to present.

What are the best strategies for protecting time to be creative, to write and to have a life outside the university?

The fragmentation of time is a problem for most of us and can be devastating to productivity in areas like writing and thinking, which are critical for research. We can often learn from the good habits and personal approaches of others, so we spent time on the course sharing advice and experiences. One of the resources mentioned was the “One Hour Workday” which appeared in Science last year in which Jeffrey McDonnell of the Universities of Saskatchewan and Aberdeen explains how he manages to protect time for writing.

I’m looking into online resources to help our researchers manage their time, but until I decide on which are best, I’ll be pointing to a time management guide based on previous workshops run at Edinburgh and other places from my previous role. With regard to creativity, there is a free ebook available co-authored by Professor Judy Robertson from Edinburgh – BITE, which captures “the research, learning and experiences of an international network of scholars studying effective and creative research environments” in the form of short “recipes”. (Another BITE guide looking at equality and diversity will be published later in the year.)

Are there examples of well written funding applications to help me improve my approach?

Like most universities, we have a wealth of internal expertise on funding both in our Research Support Office and throughout the academic community. These come together in our database of successful applications (internal access only) and colleagues will often share perspectives and examples to support applicants with less experience. It can be particularly valuable to see reviewer comments and the proposal writer’s response to these.

One funding stream that was mentioned in the session was the Global Challenges Research Fund. A recent blog by a panel member gives some insights into the features of succesful applicants to GCRF from a recent call. Given our high ranking in the recent THE Most International Universities ranking (is there a ranking of THE rankings?), it’s not surprising that this fund is seen as strategically important here. (Particularly given that our new Principal is quoted in the THE article in his current guise.)


Finally, one of the participants gave an enthusiastic endorsement of the Making the Right Moves guide for new faculty produced by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. I’ve been recommending this online guide for many years and it is a great resource albeit one written for the US system, for life sciences and based on workshops run around 15 years ago. Whilst still very valuable, I now tend to point people towards the more recent and UK focused “How to Succeed as a Scientist” by Professors Barbara Gabrys and Jane Langdale from Oxford University (also based on a series of professional development workshops). Each chapter (contents listed here) looks at a different facet of academic life, presents both theories and good practice and and points back to the workshop origins of the book in a recurring “How We Did It” section which support the reader to plan similar events.

For a more general view of current academic policy and external influencing factors, the WONKHE website provides digestable summaries and opinion.

If you are interested in learning more about Research Leader and attending a progamme in your College, there are more details on the IAD website.