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.

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.

Welcoming new doctoral students #uwegradschool

The word welcome created from 3 dimensional letteringThis week the UWE Graduate School put on a welcome event for new doctoral students. The turnout was really good and it was great to see so many enthusiastic and excited doctoral students (or “PhDers” as they have affectionately become known!) eager to understand what lay before them.

In a tried and tested format we put on a number of short sessions interspersed with free food to settle the new arrivals into the world of doctoral study.

We began with a brief introduction and tour of the UWE Library and the support that researchers can expect from Jenni Crossley.

Following lunch I asked the Director of the Graduate School to give a brief overview and welcome to the new starters, here’s what he had to say:

We then moved on to what is probably the most useful section, I’d invited some current PhDers to talk about their experiences and to offer their advice to new starters; I only provided the title “What I know now that I wish I’d known when I started”. 

Graeme Whitehall

Graeme’s presentation was followed by talks from Milena Popova (Twitter; blog) and Jackie Barker who gave frank and sometimes humorous accounts of what it is like to do a PhD. Milena has written her talk as a blog entry “I accidentally a PhD – one year on”

We moved on from there to present a picture of the overall support available to doctoral students across the institution beginning with a short presentation from Dr Tilly Line, a researcher and careers adviser (@UWECareers) about what Student Services can offer.

Next up was Lauren Conen (@vpeducation) , the Vice President for Education at the Students’ Union at UWE who gave an overview of the services and support offered by the Students’ Union.

Then it was the turn of Dr Paul Spencer (@paulspencer42) to give an overview of the UWE Graduate School skills development programme

I finished up sharing the thoughts of Matt Might using his excellent Illustrated Guide to the PhD

Let us know your thoughts, comments, questions about what we are doing at UWE with the graduate school. Why not follow @uwegradschool on twitter to keep up to date with all the things we are doing?

Further links that might be useful!

The UWE Graduate School website

UWE Researcher Skills Events Diary

UWE Graduate School Facebook Group

UWE Graduate School Twitter

Piled Higher and Deeper (PHD) Comic Strips

The Cook, the Chef and the Thesis

Cooking to a recipe

Following the recipe

In my office there has been a lot of discussion relating to The Great British Bake Off (GBBO for short) – for those who haven’t been exposed to this programme, it features a number of amateur bakers battling it out week by week to impress the judges with their creations.

All this talk of cooking reminds me of an issue that is bugging me in the world of doctoral research that I have been meaning to write about for some time. It’s around the  purpose of a thesis in demonstrating that a candidate has progressed from being an amateur to a competent researcher. This blog post is a work in progress…

In early 2015 the UK Council for Graduate Education (UKCGE) published the results of a survey The Role of Publications and Other Artefacts in Submissions for the UK PhD – which looked at the diversity of doctoral theses and what elements go into the assessment of whether the candidate has demonstrated “doctorateness“.

I think this is a fascinating debate because the Arts and Humanities disciplines have long been grappling with how to demonstrate doctoral achievement in practice-based and practice-led research in the submission for examination.

But there are also worrying noises in this debate pertaining to the sciences questioning the need to write a thesis in the traditional sense that was summed up in this article from the Times Higher, PhD: is the doctoral thesis obsolete?

The debate is about inclusion of published papers as part of the thesis. Some scholars want the submission of published papers to constitute the entire thesis – dispensing with “the filler” that is viewed as wasted effort.

Why do I worry?

I think it’s a little too convenient for some supervisors to have doctoral researchers churn out papers rather than focussing on writing a thesis – it does no harm to the volume of research outputs attributable to them. I fear it reduces the researchers’ work to a formulaic approach of reportage of results without any real contextualisation of their work.

I am noticing that more doctoral researchers are being asked to resubmit at viva, and often this because of a lack of breadth in the thesis – the candidates cannot express how their work fits into the bigger picture because they don’t have enough knowledge of the foundations that their work is built upon.

It pushes researchers in the direction of being technically competent but lacking in wider understanding of their work.

I fear it pushes researchers to be like a cook – able to accurately reproduce a recipe as written – instead of a being like a chef who has the foundational knowledge to create recipes from first principles.

I’m still working on the analogy but let me know what you think.

Getting Published – strategies for successful researchers

Research journals on a shelf

Research journals on a shelf

This week UWE put on a workshop aimed at research students and staff on the topic of getting research published.

Setting the scene

We’ve run this particular workshop for the past 10 years in which time the landscape of scholarly publishing has changed (and is still). This time we invited a number of contributors to offer different perspectives on getting published. Richard Goodman, Leila Moore and Jo Billings from Taylor & Francis publishing group came along to give their perspectives as Managing Editors of a number of journal titles. Professor Andy Adamatzky and Professor Richard McClatchey, two experienced academics and journal editors gave their insights as academic researchers.

Challenging the publish or perish rhetoric

I also gave my perspective on this, being a former researcher who now supports the development of early career researchers and an advocate of open research.

Much of my presentation (below) was drawn from what Professor Pat Thomson has to say on writing for peer reviewed journals and the differences between that and writing a doctoral thesis. In particular I found elements of her book, co-authored with Barbara Kamler, Writing for Peer Reviewed Journals: Strategies for getting published really useful in framing this session.

Part of the research landscape is the obsession with metrics which many fear are driving the wrong sorts of behaviour in higher education. There are many people who share my unease about advice given to early career researchers – it goes along the lines of ‘find the highest status journal with the biggest impact factor in your field and publish there at all costs’. I think this doesn’t take into account of the changing face of scholarly publishing and makes it more difficult for researchers to start the process of getting their reputation out there. I believe that researchers need to disenthrall themselves with the idea that journal impact factors are a good indicator of research quality.

It can’t be ignored that a publication record is important in academia but I think the focus should come back to the purpose of scholarly writing and understanding who it is you are writing for. I talked about how difficult it can be to write for peer reviewed journals, it is hard because it requires a different approach to that of writing a thesis or writing an application for funding because the reader is different in all those cases. The context is the key thing here.


Here’s the slides I used on the day.

A publishers’ point of view

Richard Goodman then gave a publishers’ point of view on the publishing process giving an useful overview of the mechanics. There was recognition that the open access agenda is changing things and that publishers will have to adapt their practices to accommodate the shift. The slides he and his colleagues used are included here:

Many researchers fall at the first hurdle when submitting a manuscript to a journal simply by not understanding the scope and format that the journal accepts – reading and understanding the journal’s guidelines/instructions for authors is an essential step.

The changing landscape of scholarly publishing

Probably the easiest way (and my preferred way) of explaining the changing nature of research is through the medium of Piled Higher and Deeper Comics

It’s important to place scholarly publishing in the wider context of the drive to be more open and transparent with research – not just with removing barriers to the outputs of research but opening up the whole research process.

Funders of research in the UK have applied some pressure for this change by incorporating the requirements to be open into the conditions of funding but I think it is also worth pointing out that open research is good for the researcher themselves.

Using digital tools to boost your reputation

A key factor in the changing landscape is to use the tools at your disposal to promote your research, the outputs and indeed your interests as a researcher. There was some discussion about how you can do this (see the Taylor and Francis presentation) and I also run a further workshop on this entitled The Digital Researcher. The next one is in February.

Jorge Cham of PHDcomics helps explain the issue of communication.


Academics’ point of view on publishing

Richard McClatchey and Andy Adamatzky gave a short and valuable insight to how experienced academics approach publshing and indeed academic writing as part of their daily work. Their tips are summarised here.


Further resources and advice

1. Help and resources for authors from Taylor & Francis

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

3. Why Open Research – new website for open researchers

4. JISC resources to help researchers with open access

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

First Steps to Small Group Teaching

Today teaching in front of classI ran a session for researchers entitled “First Steps to Small Group Teaching”. This is a workshop that hopes to serve as an introduction to the role of teaching assistant/demonstrator/seminar leader/stand-in lecturer. My first disclaimer is that I am not an expert in educational research and/or the politics of learning & teaching. What I do have though is 12 years experience of teaching in various guises, demonstrating, lecturing, training and facilitating – the latter have been my life for the last 10 years.

I set out to introduce some basic principles that I think are important to know. Mostly the participants in the session were either research students or early career research (only) staff who had some experience of teaching undergraduate and/or taught postgraduate students in one way or another. Some were keen to learn more about how to be a ‘better’ teacher with a view to securing an academic position.

I started out the session by gathering the experience of the folks attending and talking about the challenges that teaching presents. We also talked about what the opportunities might be from teaching, some clearly had an idea that it might be seen favourably if applying to be a member of academic staff with a mix of teaching and research – I did forewarn that the balance of teaching is heavy when more junior as more experienced academics seem to only want to offload their teaching to focus more on their research interests.

As it happens there was a relevant live chat about this topic on the Guardian Higher website . I believe there is an inherent problem in universities – academics are not generally rewarded with promotion for their success or otherwise in teaching – it is their research outputs that determine many things:- the papers, the grants won, the research students supervised etc etc that really count. Yet, there are those who continually perpetuate the idea that the more research intensive an institution, the better the quality of the teaching… something doesn’t quite add up there!

We also took a bit of a diversion into discussing Myers-Briggs Type Indicators (MBTI) and how awareness of ones own preferences might give us some food for thought about the relationship between student and teacher/lecturer and/or (perhaps more importantly) the relationship to ones own supervisors. UWE students and staff can access an MBTI test called “Profiling for Success” through the UWE Careers InfoHub.

There have been a few interesting articles about Introverts which (I personally have found) are somewhat controversial in their suggestion. This about Introverts in the academy is a case in point!

The main concern, I think, of many a researcher remains how to teach without looking the fool.

Here are the main themes of the day in the slides I used:

A couple of other resources to look at:-

I suppose the main points are these:

  • We all prefer to learn in different ways
  • There are lots of “theories” or models out there that try to describe that
  • Most of them are paper thin in terms of evidence
  • Students (especially undergraduates) tend to adopt strategies to learning
  • These strategies tend to override preferred styles (driven by motivation)
  • There is nothing inherently wrong with these strategies – perhaps we (as teachers) dislike “surface” learners the most though!

I’m a scientist by training so I don’t recognise the phrase “theory” as applied to the scenarios above, I found this site that explains my reticence and challenges the assumptions made in these models.

Learning Styles Don’t Matter

We talked a while about the use of visual aids, powerpoint as a tool that can be used and misused came up more than once and prompted me to show this video clip:

We also looked at a TED talk by Sir Ken Robinson, partly because of the perspectives he brings about education and partly it was a chance to see an engaging presentation style that uses humour, anecdote, poetry, insight yet no powerpoint….

His earlier TED talk from 2006 is just as engaging and personally relevant to me as a parent but as he says, aren’t we all interested in education?

I then moved on to talk more about the difference between teaching and being a trainer, facilitator and coach. The main difference for me is the latter require less telling but more asking and listening to the group. We spent a lot of time talking about “crowd control”, i.e. how do you manage a group of people in a learning environment. It brought back memories I had of the NUS run program “Training the Trainer” that was part of the National Student Learning Programme (NSLP) on which I both learned how to be a trainer and subsequently contributed to as a tutor. Within that program was a session entitled “Dealing with nightmare trainees” – somes tips to deal with disruptive/disengaged folks that we all come across from time to time.

We ended up by having just one more look at a TED talk, this time by Benjamin Zander. This is one of my favourite talks because it represents why enthusiasm and passion for what you do is so important to being able to enthrall others or to get them to think, do or feel something different as a result of your input as a teacher/trainer/facilitator. That, I think, is what we should be aiming for…