Rethinking training and development in an online context #Vitaecon2020

Photo by Julia M Cameron on

At the Vitae International Researcher Development Conference in 2017, I gave a presentation about the Future Challenges of Doctoral Training. Fast forward three years and I am hosting a session at the Vitae Connections Week 2020 with colleagues from Bristol, Cardiff and Exeter Universities to explore where we are now. Back in 2017, I used multiple references to the Back to the Future movies and, whilst I don’t actually have a DeLorean Time Machine, I think I was close to the reality we face now.

It’s about three Cs – Curation, Community and Camera

Paul Spencer, September 2017
The Three Cs describing the future of doctoral training

We can now add a further C – Covid 19! This has brought about an accelerated change in practice amongst researcher development colleagues. Although it is quite a challenge to reorient to a new digital first approach, colleagues have noted positive outcomes from this also. As part of preparing for this session, my esteemed colleagues pre recorded their experiences in the following video.

Researcher developers share their experience on online training and development

Outcomes from the session

During the session on Thursday 17 September, we collated those perspectives in a padlet (one of the many tools that folks are now using to support learning!).

Click on this link to view the padlet or click on the image below

The good folks on twitter continued the conversation and shared examples of resources they find useful. Some examples below.

As ever I’m always happy to continue to share and bounce ideas around, why not leave a comment?

Developing the future postgraduate researcher

A neon sign spelling out the words The Future

image credit: future neon by Flickr user Russell Davies [CC BY-NC 2.0]

I’ve been asked to come along to a Research Supervisors’ Symposium being held at the University of Gloucestershire to talk about some of the challenges facing supervisors in developing the contemporary researcher. I’ve entitled my presentation “developing the postgraduate researcher of the future” and the slide deck I will be using is included here.

In this presentation I will be covering a few things, some of which I have been talking about most recently at the Vitae conference.

  1. How the focus has changed from being solely about developing the research to a balance of developing the individual.
  2. I’ve included some facts about the variety of career destinations for doctoral graduates, the majority of whom do not remain in academia which brings us back to the question of “What is a doctorate for?”
  3. Also included is some work from Rachael Pitt and Inger Mewburn about the competences (as mapped to the Vitae RDF) that are being sought in job descriptions for junior academic staff. This highlights the wider skill set that augments research specialism as being important for careers in the academy.
  4. There has been a lot of interest and research into the postgraduate research study space and Stan Taylor from Durham has curated a bibliography for doctoral supervisors via the UKCGE
  5. I’ll talk about the conceptual framework for doctoral supervision by Anne Lee which demonstrates the complex nature of that relationship and how many different roles are inherent to the development of a successful researcher.
  6. I think important to add to the framework is the idea that navigating the boundaries of those roles as the researcher progresses is neither easy nor comfortable for some because the identity formation that is occurring.
  7. I’ll delve into the practicalities of the identity formation because a lot of it happens as the researcher learns to write in their particular academic context. I really think that supporting postgraduate researchers as they develop their writing skills is a high impact activity.
  8. Then I’m going to look to how the environment is changing and how that is affecting the skills around developing the research – we are in a brave new open world and it does often expose the contrast between the old and new.
  9. I’ll finish up with a look into how I think the researcher development community are adapting and evolving to support postgraduate researchers for the future.

That’s it.

When you think all hope is gone during your PhD

It was January 22 and a little before 4.30am when the phone call came. It was my step mother ringing to tell me that my dad had died suddenly of a heart attack. At that moment my whole world collapsed.

This is a personal post that has surfaced some painful emotions for me (see below for how I’m dealing with that right now) but one that I want to write about because it’s an opportunity to highlight a couple of things about sticking at something when all seems lost. That tenacity and persistence are crucially important qualities in succeeding during a doctorate, moreso than being super smart. It also brings home how pivotal the people around you are who offer support so I think it a story worth telling.

It is forefront in my mind now because I have been spending a lot of time in the last two weeks standing in front of hundreds of postgraduate researchers who are about to embark on their own doctoral journeys.

Why do a PhD?

As part of these welcome events I’ve been asking the question “why have you signed up to study for a doctorate?” I believe that connecting with the motivation for doing so is profoundly important when things aren’t going so well. I’ve also been reflecting on what was driving me on, how key people around me helped in me at my lowest point and how all this has shaped my identity. What I have been totally unprepared for is how raw, painful and very real that the emotion of grief and loss feels to me right now as I recall that cold January night 17 years ago…

My motivation

It was the year 2000, the millennium celebrations were slowly ebbing away and I was in my third year as a PhD student studying how oral microorganisms contribute to bad breath. I hadn’t planned it this way, I’d always wanted to emulate my dad and become a pathologist. He was my hero and I thought medicine was going to be my true calling. Rather unfortunately though I found it difficult as a teenager to work hard in school and, almost inevitably, I flunked my three science ‘A’ levels which all but ended any ambition to apply to medical school. So I had to find a different path.

Many teachers reckoned it was a shame because they thought I was bright and gifted in natural sciences but just unable to apply myself. I just wanted to prove to them that I could do it and most of all wanted my dad to see me graduate with a Doctor of Philosophy to my name.

I was truly devastated, my dad was 63 years old, had not long retired from being a pathologist and was using all of his experience in helping the bereaved by volunteering with The Samaritans at the time of his death. He would never get to see me in my floppy cap and gown at a PhD graduation. I was consumed with grief, a relationship I was in ended soon after and I had serious thoughts about quitting the PhD. In an instant, my main motivation and purpose was gone.

Key people

My supervisor was brilliant with me; he was understanding, listened with kindness and tried not to put too much pressure on me whilst the fog of grief slowly lifted. Close friends rallied round too to keep me company and just to be there. And then a few months later I met someone who quickly became my rock [let’s call her Jessica to save any embarrassment]. Jessica was my soul mate, my best friend and a true love. She helped me see that I was doing this PhD for myself, that I could succeed, that she was walking beside me all the way. I don’t think I would have gotten through the incredibly tough last 18 months of the PhD without her. She featured heavily in the acknowledgements of my doctoral dissertation. I will be eternally grateful for her support, love, companionship and emotional connection in the time we were together.

Moving on

My PhD graduation was a bitter/sweet day, I was overwhelmed by the sense of achievement and pride yet dominated by the sense of mourning and loss. Sadly Jessica and I had parted ways; she was/is ten years my junior and we found ourselves at very different life stages post study. Letting go of someone so special so they could pursue their life dreams was really hard to accept.

But life moves on and we adapt, grow and find new purpose. I am in a very different place now, I have a young family of my own and a job that gives me the opportunity to do something I am truly passionate about. I guess this is why I feel uneasy at how much I am being affected by events in my distant past.

Making sense

At the top of this post I said that I had been unprepared for the intensity of the emotions, thoughts and feelings I have surfaced and this has unsettled me a great deal. My natural tendency is to internalise, to try and logically examine what is going on before finding some resolution to my conflict. However, this is really hard because these are things that I had thought were resolved and accepted long ago. So I have been taking a different approach and I want to share it in case it helps you too.

Changing the perspective when it all becomes too much

Many people have told me about the Headspace app, a way of learning about simple meditation techniques that helps to change our perspective to those thoughts and feelings that can make us feel anxious and upset. I think the analogy that has struck me most is the idea that these are like traffic whizzing by, blaring their horns and dominating our focus. But it doesn’t have to be this way… I have been trying to learn to sit back and just notice these thoughts, acknowledging them but then just letting them pass and returning to the present, the here and now. Andy Puddicombe explains that much better in this animation.

What I think is important to mention, is this meditation technique is good preventative practice at keeping our thoughts and feelings from dominating our present focus and not a solution in an acute crisis.

Advice to those who feel that all hope is gone?

  1. Realise that you are not the only person to experience this, talk to your peers, friends, loved ones. It really makes a difference.
  2. Keep pushing! Persistence can and really does pay off.
  3. If you have encountered a significant life event and you don’t know how to deal with it, seek help from your local wellbeing service [this is the Bristol one but there will be similar set-ups in your own institution]
  4. Try not to be too hard on yourself, self-doubt and imposter syndrome affects pretty much everyone
  5. At some point with the writing, you will probably loathe the thesis. This is okay. The mindset you have to adopt is not when will it be finished, or perfect, no you have to get to the point of “That will do”.
  6. Take a look around you, see who else has got their doctorate and tell yourself, “if they can do it, then so can I”


My Dad, my hero. Dr. David Spencer, (1936 – 2000) R.I.P.

Future challenges of doctoral training #vitae17

The future

A few months ago I agreed to give a presentation at the Vitae Researcher Development International Conference in September. It is scheduled for the half plenary session on the first afternoon and the title for my contribution is Future challenges in doctoral training. I have only 7 minutes to cover this topic so I am thinking about what I want to cover and what will have to be edited out!

In this blog post are is a work in progress as I sketch out some key ideas that I talked about. The slide deck used for the Vitae conference is embedded below:


A bit of context in terms of the programme is probably good; there will be other presentations before mine covering the following things:-

  • A history of the modern PhD
  • Understanding the [PGR] student journey
  • Academic Apprenticeships

Future of doctoral training

It’s quite a big topic to talk about so here are my initial stumbling musings

  1. Back to the future – Any talk about the future probably ought to start with some recognition of the past – I talked about being like Marty McFly and drop in on the 2004 version of myself who was beginning to get to grips with the question of “how do we support PGRs for their future employability (even if that is outside of academia)? The first two presentations gave an overall history of doctoral education so I focussed instead on what’s changed between when I graduated and now. I think the important question that we asked ourselves as researcher developers then was “What is a doctorate for?”.  This is still a valid question now.
  2. The contemporary research environment. I talked a bit about how the environment that researchers operate in now is different to how it used to be. The drivers, the strategies, the tactics, the reward system that many supervisors navigated in their careers are not the same any more. The pace of change toward open research, the transparency in how research is thought about, designed, implemented and disseminated are a world apart. Preparing doctoral researchers to succeed in that environment is challenging because it exposes the gulf between old and new.
  3. Professionalising doctoral researchers – We have slowly been inching toward a more professionalised system of support for doctoral researchers, e.g. parental leave for PGRs, annual leave entitlement, development support. However, PGRs are still in that middle ground, treated like staff when it suits institutions and students when it doesn’t. I think a good example of this is around PGRs who teach. We could and should do much better when it comes to getting the balance right there. Are we then going to grasp the nettle and turn the whole recruitment of PGR students on it’s head and move to employ postgraduate researchers to purposefully invest in that support?
  4. Cohort based doctoral training entities (DTEs) – an important element in the doctoral training landscape and there are some really interesting things coming about because of them, particularly the diversity of people, subjects and networks. But are DTEs the future for all doctoral training? Are there better ways as we move to the future?
  5. Innovation in researcher development. There is a golden rule in researcher development around not reinventing the wheel if you don’t have to. My call to action was to talk to people and find out what you can reuse, repurpose to support PGRs.
  6. Supporting academic writing. This for me is a high impact activity that should be on everyone’s agenda. Lots of practice out there from the likes of Peta Freestone, Inger Mewburn, Pat Thomson, Katherine Firth to name just a few.
  7. I think the future can be summarised in three Cs.

Curation, Community and Camera

Programmes, workshops, action learning sets, e-learning modules. More choice, more workshops, more opportunities – this is good? Or is it? I think researcher developers have the expertise and experience to curate support resources from diverse sources and make these things as easy to engage with as possible. Video is king as the saying goes. It is becoming easier and easier to live stream video from all sorts of devices – this offers a wealth of opportunity to bring PGRs into a discussion, to build community, to help them with their development needs.

That’s all folks!

What do you think about the future? If you hopped into the time machine made from a DeLorean and dropped into 2027, what will you see?

Open Access, or: The internet is not going away #openaccess

I’ve been thinking about the Open Research agenda again recently; it would be fair to describe me as an advocate and I’ve written about this topic before on this blog here and here. This post though is more about the research culture that is often at odds with openess and why I think that needs to change.

I read an article on the Guardian Higher Education Network recently by Professor Stephen Curry entitled “It’s time for academics to take back control of research journals“. He writes about how the “Publish or Perish” culture of academic research has led academia to quite a difficult place in its relationship with the business of scholarly publishing. His article is a useful reminder of the history of scholarly communications and their purpose in disseminating and growing our collective knowledge.

I think there is an uncomfortable truth in that many researchers do not really understand the economics of journals and book publishers and their relationship with the academy. Back in January, Professor Martin Eve came along to a session organised by the UWE Library Research team to talk about open access and how the economics behind it operate in a talk he entitled “Open Access, or: The Internet is not going away“.

Martin is a professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London. He is also the co-founder of the Open Library of Humanities (OLH) and his talk was a really good explanation of how academic publishing could and should work – even in the humanities and social sciences. I think it important to highlight that the model of open research is not the exclusive domain of science, it affects us across the disciplines although there are some particular challenges in humanities.

He started out by outlining the contradictory nature of scholarly publishing as it is now, on the one hand we publish to be read but on the other we publish to expose our work to assessment.

He framed this as researchers operating in a symbolic economy whereby they hand over their academic findings to publishers to package up and disseminate.  This content is given away and, in exchange, researchers hope that these outputs will translate, through assessment and ranking, into a pecuniary advantage in terms of promotion and progression (and therefore salary). There is a delayed benefit in this academic activity which exacerbates the precarious nature of academic research careers, especially those who are just starting out. Martin showed us how this symbolic economy maps onto a real economy of publishing.

We captured all of this on video that you can see below:

Click on thumbnail above to play video of talk – Open access, or: The internet is not going away


The challenge for early career researchers is to look past the rhetoric of “publish or perish” and understand the actual economics of scholarly publishing. It is for researchers themselves to push back – the status quo cannot be maintained because it is simply not sustainable and, worse, is undermining the most important aspect of publishing academic work in the first place – the need for it to be read.

The challenge for people like me who support the development of researchers is to keep pushing for the open research agenda to be embraced in institutional support for researchers, for example making it as easy as possible for postgraduate researchers to deposit their doctoral outputs in open repositories and reduce the barriers that are sometimes put in the way.

Find out more

1. Vitae Researcher Development Website on publishing your research (login required)

2. Why Open Research – new website for open researchers

3. JISC resources to help researchers with open access

4. Facilitate Open Science Training for European Researchers (FOSTER) – European-wide project supporting open research across Europe


New beginnings

I haven’t written much on the blog lately not, I hasten to add, because I’ve had nothing to say but more that I’ve not really had time to stop and put my thoughts down in this medium. At the turn of the new year into 2017, I made a decision about my career. This came about partly as a result of a twitter exchange with Inger Mewburn (thesiswhisperer) who asked rather than making a new year resolution, what single phrase would sum up folk’s aspiration for 2017.

Mine was “focus”.

I want to focus on doing more to support postgraduate researchers to be equipped for what they do in the contemporary research environment, to change the support they receive for the better to make this happen. Now, this is what I’ve been doing for the last 13 years but as my role has grown it has drifted in scope to include improving things for staff employed to do research, supervisors of researchers and driving policy initiatives through operationally. I wanted to reboot and hone in on the postgraduate researcher demographic.

So it was a little bit of serendipity that at the same time I was looking to focus on PGR development I spotted an advertisement for a new job opening at University of Bristol in the Bristol Doctoral College, PGR Environment Development Manager. An interesting opportunity to help a relatively new organisational entity in the next stage of growth in supporting postgraduate researchers there. So I applied and was offered the position. I started a month ago and have adjusted to my new working environment pretty quickly.

However, before I left the UWE Graduate School, there were quite a few things to finish, handover and tidy up! It’s amazing how much tacit knowledge one builds up over 13 years which I hadn’t really appreciated until I had to really think about how to convey that knowledge to my colleagues.

I hope I achieved that in the best way I could and wish former colleagues well. They were very good to me as I departed – look at this caricature that they commissioned for me!

Dom Peroni…

So here it is, a new chapter in my career, new challenges, new successes to celebrate.

I do like the view from my office too…

Office with a view

Overcoming blogging anxiety

This post was inspired by a comment on the UWE DocSoc Facebook group that spoke of anxiety when it comes to writing blogs or online diaries. It’s a topic I am familiar with both as someone who writes this blog but also through my interaction with researchers on workshops about using digital tools.

I suppose a good deal of the anxiety can be associated with imposter syndrome that is common in academia or with fears that someone might steal your ideas or, that your reputation/employment might be jeopardised if you write about contentious things or that blogs will take up all your time.

Cost benefit analysis

Overall I believe that using social media tools will bring more benefit than harm to researchers who are early in their career. I think this because getting your work, your expertise and interests out there helps to establish you as a researcher known in the field. It can lead, sometimes serendipitously, to opportunities to do interesting things that might not have come around. It has certainly been this way for me – people can see what I do professionally, they can see examples of my work and this sometimes leads to mini projects that I wouldn’t have initiated myself all of which adds to the rich and varied nature of my work!

Having said that though it is also important to understand that the internet and the digital social world is not always innocuous; things said and written about online can be misconstrued and lead to unintended consequences. There are those in the academy who think that you shouldn’t make time for social media because it is perceived to be frivolous or, worse feeding our addiction to distraction and diminishing our ability to focus on cognitively difficult things.

Writing practice

I think that the main benefit of writing some kind of blog or research diary is of use to early career researchers to help with writing practice. The more you write, the more it becomes normal to do so. I am currently sitting in a writing group space specifically for late stage doctoral students in a Thesis Boot Camp who are battling away at writing their dissertations. The more you practice, the easier it becomes..

Some thoughts that helped me get going

  1. I started blogging for purely selfish reasons – I needed a space to write down my thoughts about workshops I had facilitated in terms of the context of the topic, what materials I used and where I might make it different in the future. It is a reflective space for my own work.
  2. I am able to use an informal way of writing about these things because it is “just about workshop materials”
  3. I can go back and edit spelling mistakes and clunky sentences if I want to
  4. People who ask for the resources I use can be given a hyperlink instead of a paper handout
  5. I don’t feel pressured to write to any timetable – just write up some thoughts after an event

Things that still challenge me

It’s been about 5 years since I started a blog, firstly on Posterous (now gone) and latterly on wordpress and have now written an entry on pretty much everything I have done. I do go back and edit posts to update materials, text but therein lies a challenge. Should I re-post as a new entry and have it listed at the top of the blog timeline? The downside is that this creates a new hyperlink for that post and breaks any that have been linked to elsewhere.

On a purely technical side note, (not has some limitations on what you can embed in a blog post. I use Prezi for some of my resources and you cannot embed a prezi directly into because it uses iframes as the embed code so I have to think of ways to work around this (using images with hyperlinks to the resource on prezi in case you were wondering!).

I have been wanting to write reviews of things I have read around researchers, development, finding success but find myself putting it off – I’m not sure why. So I’m not immune to blogging anxiety!

What about you?  Do you have any tips/tricks for those wanting to write but feel anxious about doing so?

Researchers’ Forum – Me, my career and the REF

An old Leyland bus in orange and black livery promoting the University of the West of England

Get on at UWE! A photo by Nick Rice (CC BY-ND 2.0)

At a recent Researchers’ Forum at UWE Bristol we explored the topic of researcher career development within the context of the Research Excellence Framework (REF). As the dust settles from the REF 2014 it appears to still be at the centre of many discussions in the university research environment. There is still a bit of uncertainty about exactly when the next REF will take place and exactly how this will be measured. Indeed, HEFCE have announced they will be consulting on proposals on the finer details in November 2016.

However, reading between the lines the next cycle will not be vastly different from REF 2014.

The question was asked, how do up and coming researchers prepare for the next REF and what things should they focus on from a career development point of view?

We brought in Sara Shinton who has been involved in the career development of researchers up and down the country for many years to act as our facilitator of the day. Sara captured many of the salient points from the days discussion (see the further resources below).

The voices of experience

A large part of the day was devoted to hearing from academic colleagues at UWE who have already experienced the previous assessment cycles and navigated their way through. The intention was to provide a number of different perspectives on the broad question.

The presentations were captured on video and are made available here using Panopto which requires viewers to sign in with a UWE username and password. Simply click on the thumbnail image to be directed to the presentation.

A combination of the UWE Bristol Logo, Panopto Logo and the Clifton suspension bridge overlaid with the words Porf. Glenn Lyons

Presentation via Panopto [UWE sign-in required]

Professor Glenn Lyons (Associate Dean for Research and Researchers’ Forum Convenor) introduces the REF in terms of its broader context in university strategic thinking and encourages the idea the it is an exercise that rewards good research rather than being an end in itself.




A combined picture with the UWE logo, Panopto logo and an image of the Clifton suspension bridge

Presentation via Panopto [UWE sign-in required]

Dr Kieran McCartan (Associate Professor in Criminology) shares his experience as a researcher building his reputation and profile through the last three research assessment periods.





Combined picture featuring UWE logo, the Panopto logo and an image of the Clifton suspension bridge

Presentaton via Panopto [UWE sign in required]

Dr Lauren Devine (Associate Professor in Law) gave her viewpoint on balancing the demands of teaching workload, finishing a doctorate and aiming high at applying for research funding.





Combined picture with UWE logo, Panopto logo and an image of the Clifton suspension bridge overlaid with Dr Shawn Sobers

Presentation via Panopto [UWE sign in required]

Dr Shawn Sobers (Associate Professor in Lens Media) related how his experience of the REF enabled him to construct a coherent narrative that described his diverse research project work with an emphasis on how the impact of that work could be clearly articulated.




Combined picture with UWE logo, Panopto logo and an image of the Clifton suspension bridge overlaid with the words Q and A

Presentation via Panopto [UWE sign in required]


The Q&A session that wrapped it all up







Summary and further resources

Key points (captured by Sara Shinton)

  • REF is a transparent means of distributing £2 billion of public money for research.
  • REF research outputs come from individuals.
  • REF impact and environment come from institutions.
  • HEFCE has published the impact case studies from REF2014 online.
  • REF should be constantly on your radar even when it is 5 or 6 years away.
  • The institution will decide on how to submit evidence to the greatest benefit to the institution. You cannot take it personally if this means you are not submitted and it is not a negative judgment on your research.
  • Aiming for REF submission will help you to aim high with your research
  • Impact case studies require evidence so think far in advance about the narrative you would like to create and what information you need to collect.
  • There are a number of internal funds which will help you to develop your research.
  • Talk to people internally with experience and ask for advice.
  • It’s all about your research – focus on doing good work and being able to explain why it is important.
  • Learn to react positively to constructive criticism (even when very negative).
  • Impact is about research that meets a need rather than terribly complicated ideas.
  • Funders can reduce risk by supporting people with a track record of success – internal funding can help to demonstrate this.
  • Take a long term view of your work – what do you want to ultimately achieve?
  • You must be able to connect all the dots in your profile and make sense of your work.
  • You need to talk to people about what impact means – especially non-academic partners as their perspectives are critical.

Questions to help connect your career and the REF

  1. What do you want to be known for in 10 years?
  2. What do you need to start (and stop) doing to achieve this?
  3. What are the personal challenges facing you?
  4. What will you do to address these?
  5. What challenges come from the University and external sources?
  6. What do you want to be different to help you succeed as a researcher?

Supporting links

Ten REF tips based on personal experience from Professor Glenn Lyons:

Research Power is explained here

4* papers, notes and video clips from an earlier Researchers’ Forum event here

A guide developed through workshops with academics on their strategies for building an engaged audience for their publications.

Impact case studies The case studies which were submitted in the last REF are all available online and can be searched by institution or unit of assessment.

Funding opportunities and how decisions are made: see for a range of presentations on research funding (Physics focused by largely transferable); see for resources on fellowship funding

Time management

Paul mentioned Deep Work by Cal Newport for strategies to manage fragmented time and distractions

See a blog post based on advice from other academics:

Download a guide to improving time management:

Difficult conversations (a guide to challenging conversations if your time management problem is someone else!)

Research profile – see , Professor Alex Marsh (Bristol) talking about online profiles: and the section on profile building in (a guide for researchers developing academic careers), with more links here

Imposter syndrome


Practical housekeeping for your data


We are moving inexorably toward an open research environment where the outputs of research, the data that it was produced from and, to a degree, the design of the research itself, is becoming open, transparent and collaborative.

Part of the challenge of adjusting to this openess is balancing preservation of data collected in terms of privacy and/or anonymity of those involved and being transparent about the basis on which claims are made. From a practical point of view, there are logistical challenges around the collection, handling, storage, transmission and future preservation of data that require some planning.

This session was based around some of these practicalities – some provocation perhaps about the needs of researchers and support offered by research organisations. It was facilitated by Jenni Crossley of the UWE Bristol Library and Jen Quah from the UWE Research Administration team

The slides used to support this session are embedded below.

Further resources and links

Advice on file name conventions from the Jisc Digital Media Guide

Choosing file formats for long term digital preservation from the UK Data Archive

Considerations on version control from the LSE academic support unit

Advice on research data management from UWE Bristol

Advice on how to encrypt your data from UWE Bristol



Social Media and the Science Communication Unit #digitalresearcher

Social media on electronic displayA few weeks back I gave a lunchtime presentation in a forum for those using/running social media channels at UWE. I was presenting the point of view of someone who supports the development of researchers and how social media is both part of my professional practice and something I think researchers should think about utilising to support their own career development.

Fast forward to today, when one of the research centres at UWE, the Science Communication Unit, invited me to attend one of their lunchtime meetings to discuss some of the opportunities and challenges for researchers.

In some ways, I thought it a bit daunting as I’d imagined that I wouldn’t be able to add a great deal to the existing knowledge base in the SCU. So I focussed discussion on what I think are the challenges and opportunities more widely. The slides I used to frame the discussion are embedded below.


Main points then from me:

  1. Some folks get bamboozled by the enormous number of tools available and often ask which one they should use. I reframed this by saying one has to remember the underlying process in all of this is people sharing things in a community so the question should be what do I want to share and with which community – then the right tool is the one that does that.
  2. I think there is a difference in the willingness to ‘have a go’ depending on experience, and as some evidence suggests, what age range you are in. Confidence in digital literacy I think is the best way to sum this up. I believe that some early career researchers are risk averse when it comes to using digital tools for a number of reasons.
  3. I can usually categorise these into three themes– concerns about information overload (or time to engage), concerns over digital identity (the blurring of professional vs private) and concerns of the misappropriation of ideas. Most of these can be mitigated against by making a point of using social media for the right purpose and perhaps displacing other activities.
  4. I don’t think everything to do with social media is wonderful, there are downsides. I read with some trepidation, Cal Newport‘s recent book on Deep Work where he argues that we have become addicted to distraction lowering our boredom thresholds to a point that it becomes very difficult to focus on cognitively difficult things for any length of time. Indeed, one of the chapters is entitled “Quit Social Media” although he is really advocating a proper consideration of the Return on Investment (ROI) of some digital tools– interesting stuff!
  5. I offered a few tips on making life easier by using short cuts to getting things done – aggregator tools, compartmentalisation and blogging to name a few.
  6. The main point is that researchers often associate social media with the dissemination of work but increasingly social media is playing its part in all of the research cycle.

Further Resources

Social Media – A Guide for Researchers

Vitae/Open University Handbook of Social Media

Vitae Digital Literacies survey report (2012)

The Ed Techie – Martin Weller blog on digital scholarship/open ed

Mark Carrigan – Social Media for Academics (2016)

The Thesis Whisperer blog

Patter – Prof. Pat Thomson’s blog