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.

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?

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

HR Excellence in Research – Does it work for you?

The logo for the European Commission HR Excellence in Research Award

HR Excellence in Research

HR Excellence in Research

In November, the UWE Researchers’ Forum tackled the subject of whether or not the HR Excellence in Research Award has improved things for the researchers employed at UWE, Bristol. At its heart are a number of policies that have been agreed by a number of stakeholders in higher education to improve the working conditions and attractiveness of research careers.

The purpose of the event was quite simple, to have a look at the confusing array of policies in this area and to pose the question “Does this change things for researchers themselves?”

To start things off we need to explore the policy landscape and recap recent history to illustrate how the different policies/agreements interact and shape things. Here is the presentation that we used to do that.

Key Documents

The key message is that there are lots of initiatives that overlap to impact on researchers and their career development. It’s perhaps not surprising that a good proportion of researchers are not aware of all of them.

I think that there are two key documents that are central to this.

  1. The European Charter and Code for Researchers
  2. The Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers

The latter is the UK agreement to implement the former by setting out 7 key principles. These were also explored in the above presentation. This also has helped inform what UWE, Bristol should be doing in trying to ensure that researchers are supported appropriately.

It’s also worth noting that the UWE Researchers’ Forum has been following the Concordat since its introduction in 2008 and explored relevant topics along the way.

What do UWE Researchers say about their experience?

Having policies and making commitments to change and improve things is one thing but the real question is, “Has it made any difference?”. Asides the Researchers’ Forum, the other main instrument for answering this is to look at the results of the Careers in Research Online Survey (CROS) – a biennial survey conducted to gather the anonymous views of research staff in UK higher education institutions about their experiences, career aspirations and career development opportunities.

UWE, Bristol have participated in this survey since 2009. The following presentation highlights some of the key areas that give insight on the experience of UWE researchers.


There has been a lot going on with respect to factors affecting how researchers are supported in their career development – many policies have been launched in the past 15 years. At UWE, we have a relatively modest population of staff who are employed on research only contracts with a little over a quarter of them employed on an open ended type of contract.

One of the challenges as someone who supports the development of researchers is to connect them as a community, whether that be virtually or in a face to face meeting. The UWE Researchers’ Forum is one of those opportunities to meet with and engage in development opportunities with peers. It is now in its 11th year and one of the next steps is to review how it operates to see if we can do it better.

Another challenge is to provide appropriate development opportunities that meet the needs of an incredibly diverse research staff demographic in a way that is coherent and simple to engage with. This is something we are wrestling with all the time as resources (time, people and budget) are limited.

Despite the limitations faced, there is much to be positive about and the hope is that we can always improve things.

Digital Researcher for RTSD #druwe Nov 2015

On Tuesday the 17th November, I ran a workshop at UWE on the use of social media in the context of research. This was aimed at PGRs who are engaging in the Research Training and Support Day (RTSD) at the Glenside campus. I’ve run this sort of thing before; a similar workshop that we ran in February 2015 for researchers and a workshop last December for researcher skills developers from across the country.

The presentation was prepared using Prezi, and is linked behind the cover slide below.

digital researcher RTSD

After a brief introduction, I gathered views about what fears folks have about using social media. Broadly they fall into three categories:- Digital Identity, Information overload and Intellectual Property/data management concerns, all of which are explored below.

Digital Identity

We spent some time discussing online identity, how to balance the “personal me” vs the “professional me”, how different tools lend themselves to different purposes and how actively managing information about yourself is a good thing to do.

“We don’t have a choice on whether we do social media, the question is how well we do it”.Erik Qualman

I offered the main reason for using social media tools is to broaden and enhance your network which is beneficial for researchers looking to establish themselves. I also argued that this is a change in the contemporary research environment compared to just a few years ago – there is more competition and so it is in the individual’s interest to augment their profiles.

Power of networks

We discussed a little bit of network theory, illustrated by this video for a TEDx talk by Zella King

Managing information overload

We had a look at portals and aggregators to help manage information streams. I talked very briefly about a couple of examples:- Tweetdeck is useful for managing multiple streams of information.

Using social media tools in research

Using digital tools in academia should also be considered against the backdrop of the era of increasingly open research – being able to promote the research you are working on as well as the associated outputs is extremely important to building researcher reputations.

As ever, PHD comics have a good overview of this changing environment.

We discussed how research is social & iterative, the benefits of engaging with folks far and wide about your research outputs and how to use tools to make the finding out about knowledge a little easier. We had a play around with some social citation tools, e.g. CiteULike, Zotero & Mendeley


We discussed why folks blog – a variety of reasons including:- organising thoughts, mind dump, getting feedback at an early stage etc.

This blog is a just one such example!


Summed up with “Common sense!”

Other sources of information

Here’s a list of things that I have come across recently on the topic of social media in research (clearly not exhaustive!)

Companion website to the book Studying and Researching with Social Media – Megan Poore

A blog about blogging in an academic research context from Imperial College – some really interesting advice and guidance here.

The Networked Researcher blog site which promotes the use of social media tools for researchers – “Digital Professionalism – what not to share”

The British Library – Help for Researchers – “Web 2.0 as a social science research tool”

The Guardian Higher Education site – discussing benefits of blogging as a researcher – “How blogging helped me find my research voice”

The Research Information Network site – “Social Media: A Guide for Researchers”


Copyright and the e-thesis

Photo of a pile of reference books, a laptop and a daunted woman.

How to get your thesis online?

Copyright and the e-thesis

This week the UWE Graduate School put on a workshop on the topic of using third party copyrighted material in a thesis. I enlisted the help of Bennet Jones, one of the research support librarians at UWE who has the responsibility for the UWE Research Repository to explore the issue.

Disclaimer: Neither myself or Bennet are experts in legal matters relating to intellectual property or copyright so the advice given here is our interpretation of how to comply with restrictions

The reason this workshop has come about is because UWE introduced a requirement for all postgraduate researchers to place a digital copy of their thesis on the UWE Research Repository and there have been lots of queries relating to the inclusion of third party copyrighted material. This isn’t an issue isolated to UWE, many other higher education institutions are publishing research outputs on repositories – University College London published results of a survey on this issue in 2010.

All submitted UK theses are in the public domain (except for those that have all or part of the thesis embargoed) and available to anyone who requests a copy via the British Library Ethos service. The proliferation of institutional repositories has made it easier than ever to access these materials. Data from UWE’s own repository illustrates this with doctoral theses being the most frequently accessed items.

This is a good thing for the exposure of the researcher and their work, especially in an era of open access research. The downside is that it is also easier for copyright owners to identify where breaches have occurred.

The slides that Bennet used are included here.

The key points are these:

  1. If you plan to use material that was not created by yourself in your thesis you should check the copyright status of the work
  2. Establish whether the work is available in the public domain, whether it is copyrighted, and is there a license for reuse
  3. It is better to ascertain these things as you go along rather than trying to retrospectively get permissions
  4. Where copyright is owned by a third party, consider whether using alternative materials would be suitable e.g. under a creative commons license
  5. If it is integral to your thesis then seek permission to use (usually a fairly straight forward process)
  6. Keep records of permissions granted
  7. Ensure that the material is appropriately attributed
  8. Seek help if unsure




Organising and searching the literatures

What a lot of books!

What a lot of books!

This week the Graduate School hosted a workshop on “organising and searching the literatures” for new doctoral students. In the past few years I have included this topic, albeit briefly, within the longer workshop “The beginner’s guide to the doctorate”. However, I was reminded not long ago that it can be hard for those of us who are experienced researchers to remember quite how daunting it can be to navigate the literatures.  Pat Thomson’s blog has a number of entries that doctoral researcher should really read about literature reviews.

The initial stages of a research degree are all about becoming familiar with your field, to understand where your proposed research project will fit, to see where the gaps are, to ultimately be able satisfy the claim for originality that you’ll make.

So where to begin? A strategy for searching out references is quite a good place, it can be easy to fall into a trap of aimlessly searching the internet for anything that might be relevant to what you’re doing so our first topic was to take stock and think about how to search effectively for things. This might sound a little bit basic but it’s important to realise that there are different strategies depending on what you are searching. We have become used to using google to find answers to questions but we need to keep in mind how databases operate to search them effectively. Jane Belger, the research and knowledge librarian, gave the following advice to boost our “finding out skills”.

Some key resources that might be helpful in the search of the literatures

Working with literatures #phdknowhow from Professor Pat Thomson

Literature reviews – beware The List from Professor Pat Thomson

Reference Management

We then moved onto how to organise stuff, it is one thing being able to find reference material, to skim read and to feel you’ve achieved something but it is quite another to be able to organise your references in a meaningful way replete with notes about why that reference is relevant, what you thought about etc.

At UWE we have an institutional subscription to a reference management system called Refworks. This is an online reference management system that integrates well with with a number of databases that the UWE Library subscribe to, it has a neat plug in for Microsoft Word called write ‘n’ cite and has loads of different bibliographic referencing styles that can be used.

Here’s the support document form UWE about using Refworks.

On the other hand there are other solutions available to manage your references that are better in other ways, for example for storing and/or annotating PDF files. Here’s a useful comparison of the most popular tools. This is by no means an exhaustive list of what solutions are out there and I think it fair to say that there isn’t a perfect solution for everybody so…

My advice is to use a tool that suits you, to learn how to use it properly earlier rather than later, and then stick to it. Trust me when I say that it will save you time if you develop an efficient system before you get into the depths of writing.

Going for gold: all or nothing on open access?

This week is Global Open Access week and is now in its eighth year. Here at the UWE Graduate School we have run a number of events in that past 3 years on the topic of open access publishing. In October 2012 we explored the topic of Open Access by introducing what was happening in terms of the policy direction of the main UK funders of research.

I think that most scholars agree that open access, in an ideal world should be the default, that the end product should be freely available to anyone that wants to access it.

Despite this agreement, there is still a lot of debate and misinformation about the direction of scholarly publishing. I think some context is required…


If you would like a background to open access publishing, the Piled Higher and Deeper comic strip have a good overview video that explains why there has been a shift in scholarly publishing.

Another excellent summary was written by Phil Ward on his blog, Research Fundermentals, in a post entitled “an introduction to open access”.

Perhaps a simplistic (some may argue hyperbolic) illustration of the current state of affairs was set out by Dr Michael P Taylor writing in The Guardian newspaper, “The parable of the farmers and the Teleporting Duplicator”. It is easy to see the logic but perhaps also easy to forget that this is much more easily applied to scientific disciplines than to the rest of the academy.

UK Policy Landscape

In the UK there have been a lot of policy changes that impact on Open Access. The debates lie in how to make research outputs more accessible to everyone without damaging the sustainability of a peer reviewed system and not derailing researchers ability to publish. This was the task set by the UK Government that Dame Janet Finch undertook and the outcomes and recommendations were released in mid 2012.

There was a good piece on a BBC Radio 3 programme, “Night Waves” featuring David Willetts & Dame Janet Finch that aired on 2nd October 2012 summarises the debate well. Here’s the link to that programme:- the segment on open access begins at about 6 min 35 seconds in from the start.

The UK Research Councils (and the Government in general) have accepted these recommendations and have made quite a bold policy decision about how the outputs from research that is funded by the Research Councils should be published

The extra funding that David Willetts talks about to assist the transition has just been announced although this funding will be directed toward those who publish the most outputs from Research Council funded projects.

Not everyone is happy with the “Gold OA” preference, some see it as a victory for the publishers to have their cake and eat it whilst others have different concerns, e.g. how will universities ensure that there is funding available to researchers to facilitate the publishing of articles without prejudice? The transition to open access necessitates a period whereby two models (subscription and open access) will be running alongside each other adding to the financial burden. How do we ensure that in the rush to change things we don’t undermine researchers who produce the outputs?

More recently, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) have made it clear that research outputs submitted into the next Research Excellence Framework (REF) will have to be open access from April 2016.

At UWE, Bristol

Here are some of the presentations/documents we’ve used with Early Career Researchers to introduce Open Access

Jenni Crossley (UWE Research & Knowledge Exchange Librarian) along with Alex Clarke (UWE Research Repository Manager) slides.

In 2013, the founder and editor-in-chief of Social Sciences Directory, Dan Scott, presented his view on Open Access in scholarly publishing. His presentation can be found below:


I am beginning to worry that there aren’t enough researchers who have grasped the seismic shift that is unfolding, moreso that experienced academics have yet to understand the ramifications for the next generation of researchers who will be operating in a different climate in terms of disseminating their findings. My experience is that researchers, especially those who are early on in their career, are risk averse when it comes to publishing open access. The mood appears to be to just stick to tried and tested methods from yesteryear – an approach that seems to be readily endorsed by a significant minority of supervisors/Principal Investigators.

We are in a time of change with respect to scholarly publishing, there is no doubt about that. The shift is seismic and researchers need to be ready to adapt to this new environment.

What do you think?

The Beginner’s Guide to the Doctorate

So this is the way forward!

So this is the way forward!

This week I ran a workshop for newly registered research degree students entitled “The Beginner’s Guide to the Doctorate”. What I set out to do was to lay bare the road ahead when it comes to a research degree, to get the participants to consider aspects of the journey that, perhaps, they had not yet thought about.

I always enjoy this kind of workshop because I am always enthralled by the enthusiasm and diversity of the new researchers who are embarking on their journey of discovery in research; the topics sound fascinating.

I started by introducing the concept of the journey from a skills development point of view, although I offer many workshops to researchers, very few of them are about upskilling researchers, more about changing the perspective of the researchers themselves toward their own development. It’s about helping them to understand what they have as a consequence of following a research degree path.

It also gave me the chance to talk about the Researcher Development Framework (RDF) which is a relatively new way of being able to describe the incredibly rich skills set that researchers have (I have written a separate blog post about the RDF as there is a lot to talk about).

Vitae have recently released an online tool to help researchers navigate the RDF, to encourage them to plan their development. The full details about that tool can be found here:

I asked the participants to talk about motivations to undertake a PhD, I think it’s important to understand what drives you so that you can remind yourself when the road becomes a bit more difficult to negotiate – that’s the infuriating thing about a research degree, it rarely if ever goes smoothly. The words of Einstein ring true here, “If we knew what we were doing, it wouldn’t be called research”.

The day was loosely structured around the sharing of hints and tips for new researchers and I used the following powerpoint slides to give the day a format although we explored lots of different areas of the RDF.

I tried to cover a lot of ground over the course of the day but I hope that the new researchers had plenty of food for thought, along with a generous helping of hints/tips to see them off to a good start.

Here’s a few more resources that I think are useful:-

UWE Graduate School webpages – Everything you need to know about the support available to doctoral students from UWE.

The Thesis Whisperer blog – A fantastic resource for all doctoral students from Dr. Inger Mewburn (Director of research training, Australian National University). A comprehensive coverage topics relevant to doctoral students covered in this blog site.

Patter; Pat Thomson blog – A blog from Professor Pat Thomson, Professor of Education at the University of Nottingham, focussing mainly on the topic of academic writing. This blog is a goldmine for advice on finding your academic voice.

The Graduate School development events diary – The online events diary for all events relating to researchers – a chronological list of events with booking forms. Any of the events I talked about today, you’ll be able to find them here.

Vitae – The Researcher Development Organisation A first port of call for a wide range of useful materials relating to postgraduate research study especially on assessing how you are developing your skills throughout the process.

Researcher Development Framework The collation of the skills, knowledge, behaviours and attributes that make up a successful researcher.

The RDF Planner An online application to better enable researchers to self-audit their competencies against the RDF and help direct them to resources for professional development. e-mail if you are interested in taking advantage of a trial subscription to this. Light relief following grad students through their journey in the form of a comic strip. – A discussion and support group for people who cannot seem to finish their dissertations or theses.