It’s about three Cs – Curation, Community and Camera
Paul Spencer, September 2017
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.
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!).
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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?
Realise that you are not the only person to experience this, talk to your peers, friends, loved ones. It really makes a difference.
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]
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”.
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.
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:
It’s quite a big topic to talk about so here are my initial stumbling musings
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.
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?
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
2017 keyword: “less” Less stress, less spending, less wasted effort. Anyone else have a keyword for this year? Writing a post… #phdchat
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!
So here it is, a new chapter in my career, new challenges, new successes to celebrate.
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!
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
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.
I am able to use an informal way of writing about these things because it is “just about workshop materials”
I can go back and edit spelling mistakes and clunky sentences if I want to
People who ask for the resources I use can be given a hyperlink instead of a paper handout
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, wordpress.com (not wordpress.org) 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 wordpress.com 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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
What do you want to be known for in 10 years?
What do you need to start (and stop) doing to achieve this?
What are the personal challenges facing you?
What will you do to address these?
What challenges come from the University and external sources?
What do you want to be different to help you succeed as a researcher?
Ten REF tips based on personal experience from Professor Glenn Lyons:
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.
A 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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
We used the Students’ Union at UWE building as the venue and 28 late stage PhDers came along to get some writing done. It is a tough time in the PhD student journey, trying to push on to get the thesis written and submitted and I already know from experience that peer support at this point is a really important thing. Disillusionment is a prominent theme and it would be fair to say that some PhDers would prefer just to walk away from the whole thing rather than continue to battle on.
The whole idea behind TBC is to get late stage PhDers into a generative writing phase and keep them there for an extended period in order to push on toward getting a full first draft of the thesis. This is done in a supportive peer based environment which really helps with the productivity as anyone who has engaged in a Shut up and Write session will testify.
Dr Katherine Firth has a brilliant explanation of what happens when you don’t write enough toward a full draft before you start the editing process. It is something I am well familiar with, there are lots of barriers to writing– that inner voice that criticises your words as you write, the feelings of inadequacy (or imposter syndrome) that drive you to trying to ‘get it right first time’, the scrambled mess of thoughts you have about your work that are anything but linear and also the ol’ “I haven’t got the time to get into writing so it’s not worth sitting down to start” type of crippling procrastination.
So, this TBC is all about breaking some of that impasse. Participants get a little pre-work to do – meeting up with supervisors to clarify the thesis structures typical in the discipline, referring back to and updating a thesis outline and drilling down into the target chapters to create a road map to follow during the weekend.
During the TBC weekend, the “squad” of writers had input around how to approach writing – explaining the Perfect Sentence/paragraph vortex, how to visualise success, how to view the thesis writing process at this juncture, reminders that it’ll never be a perfect thing — it just needs to be good enough. There was also explanation of how to manage writing sprints using the Pomodoro technique and building in scheduled breaks for food and activity.
It sounds daft, but there was also a bit of a reward system recognising when milestones had been reached through the awarding of squidgy building blocks, green for 5k words, blue for 10k words, red for 15k words and gold (okay yellow) for the coveted 20k words.
Another brick in the wall
Also, really important, was the opportunity to talk things through with Peta and with others when it all seemed a bit off track. The squad came together and succeeded in reaching their personal goals and hopefully set up some habits that will work in the future as they push on toward submission.
I was glad to be part of it because what i witnessed was a revelation– folks who were on the point of quitting morphed into a state of rejuvenation and belief that this can be done, that finishing isn’t an impossible dream.
The final collective word tally for the weekend was an incredible