Experimental blogging at #druwe

In the afternoon session of the “Becoming a digital researcher” course at UWE, we have just talked about using blogs. There was lots of discussion around why folks use them. For me, I wanted a place to put my “work” thoughts, stuff on my bread and butter existence, that of researcher skills development.

Dr Tristram Hooley talking about blogs

Dr Tristram Hooley talking about blogs

It’s been interesting to hear others talk about using it to balance out parts of their lives, somehow organising it, compartmentalising so to speak.

Recently, I followed the writing a blog session that Vitae ran for PGR research students entitled “what’s up doc” and I saw (on twitter) many hints and tips about writing a blog. You can find some of that here.

I do suffer from “performance anxiety” a bit so work hard to suspend my quality control feature in my brain before writing, just to tell it like it is really.

I now need to work on being a bit more regular with my posting because I have things I want to put up just find excuses not to make the time.

Becoming a Digital Researcher – #druwe

Social media is booming. You can now find user generated content in just about all spheres of life; politics, music, history, you name it and it can be found. What about the field of academic research? Are the critics right to sneer at social media as being trivial time-wasting activities or could there be a real benefit to the researchers who do engage using more of the tools at their disposal? As with most things it would appear that there are pros and cons but with the right tools in the right context, it can be an effective way for researchers to raise their profile, swap ideas, get feedback and, possibly, find that all important next job.

This is why that next week, I’m glad that we are running a workshop at UWE entitled “Becoming a Digital Researcher”. This is going to be a hands on demonstration of some of the social media tools that are being used in academic research. I’m especially pleased that Tristram Hooley will be leading the day, he was one of the authors of a Research Information Network publication on this topic: Social Media: A Guide for Researchers who also has his own (very good) blog called Adventures in Career Development.

I’m also interested in how these social media tools have evolved and become part of the toolkit that researchers can access, I can recall clearly how the web based tools moved on at pace throughout my own research degree journey and I like to think that I keep up with some of them!

In thinking about this post, I came across the infographic below from Fred Cavazza which shows the current landscape with respect to social media, an attempt to classify what is out there. Just by looking back at his similar diagrams over the past four years demonstrates how quickly things progress!


The social media landscape 2011, a mapping of the types of social media tools in use


If you are interested in following the goings on via twitter we will be using the hashtag #druwe 

If you are interested in coming along in person, drop me an e-mail paul.spencer@uwe.ac.uk

Show me the money!

Last week UWE held one of its bi-annual Researchers’ Forums. This is an event that we have been running for a few years now with the intention of sharing information with and seeking feedback from research staff in the university about issues and/or initiatives that affect what they do. At the last forum in September of last year, we had a very interesting day facilitated by Kate Tapper (Bud Development) that saw both researchers and their managers/principal investigators in the same room at the same time (anyone in the field of researcher development will know this is not easy to achieve!) discussing how best to support the career development of researchers. Probably the most important thing that came out of that day was that researchers wanted their managers and/or leaders to give all the facts about the environment in which they work.

When it came to putting together the programme for the Researchers’ forum this time around, it was decided to honour that request so the senior management in research were asked to come and explain where the money for research comes from and, more importantly, how was it spread around the various activities that UWE undertakes.

Thinking back to when I was a research student and then subsequently a post doctoral researcher, I had no real clue as to how the funding of research really worked, I had some idea but was never really sure of how it was decided who gets what. All I could be sure of from my perspective was that one had to put a lot of effort into writing many applications for funding and seeing very few of them being rewarded as successful. As the years have rolled on and I’ve been immersed in the wider world surrounding research, I’ve a much clearer idea of how it works yet it is still fairly complicated.

I was cheered then when I came across a guide published by the Research Information Network (RIN) that sets out the how the funding of research works on a national level making it that little bit easier to “Show me the money”.

This source for this file is here

The majority of funding for research comes via two routes from Government which is why it is called the “Dual Support” system.

On one side, the Treasury hands over a sum of money to the Government department Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS) which is then distributed to the UK Research Councils (there are seven of these that cover the broad discipline base). Universities then make applications to the Research Councils for a number of different schemes.

On the other side, again the Government hand over money to the national funding councils (HEFCE, HEFCW & SFC) which distribute money to universities based on what is called a Quality Related (QR) funding allocation. This is decided by a peer review assessment on a range of subject areas that takes place every 6 years or so. The next exercise is two years away and is called the Research Excellence Framework (REF).

There are a few other avenues of research funding for example, charities and other government departments that support fairly specific areas of endeavour as well as the private sector who, usually, have a vested interest in the outcomes of the research. Increasingly important is the research funding that is available from the EU.

Why does any of this matter? The distribution of research funding has become something of a game, rather like playing in the football league where the top premiership teams have access to a disproportionate amount of the funding available where as the lower league teams have to work hard at ‘staying up’ and much of the success to be had depends on team tactics.

The best advice that I can give to aspiring researchers is to learn a little bit more about the rules of the game and how to play them to your advantage.

All about ASH

On Friday last (15th April) I attended a “Policy & Practice Think Tank” day hosted at the University of Oxford, part of a project called ASHPIT (Arts, Social Sciences & Humanities Policy & practice Implementation Think Tank). The theme of this gathering was enterprise, considering how to engage researchers from the Arts, Social Sciences & Humanities disciplines in the development of skills relating to entrepreneurship & enterprise.

I was asked to contribute because of my involvement in a project to develop resources on Social Enterprise which has now been released through the national Vitae networks and so I gave a short presentation of why we set about developing those resources in the first place. The presentation I gave can be found below.

 There are many links to video resources contained within the presentation, click on the images to find out more!

There were two main things that came out of the day for me, one that I was happy with and the other left me feeling perplexed.

Firstly, there was a lot of interest in using social enterprise as a way to engage researchers, my basic argument is that many researchers are not inspired by attempts to improve their skills in enterprise, not because they don’t understand business and the commercial environment (I’m pretty sure that most researchers have a pretty good grasp of profit maximising business models) but are not driven or inspired by that culture. The difference with social enterprises is that whilst they are businesses that trade for profit, it is what happens to the profit that is inspiring. It is good to know that researchers feel inspired by solving problems in society.

The second thing for me was the underlying assumption that the discussions of the day seemed to propagate and it is this that has left me feeling uncomfortable. There were a few discussions around the need to create generic skills development resources and materials that are ‘specifically targeted towards the Arts, Social Sciences & Humanities disciplines’. I couldn’t help but question why. Why is there a perception that all skills development resources are only suited for researchers in STEM subjects (Science Technology, Engineering & Mathematics)? I’m not convinced that skills developers in ASH subjects need to reinvent their development programmes to accommodate discipline specific sensitivities. After all, a good generic development resource that is well facilitated will de facto span all disciplines…

But then I am a trained scientist so maybe I just don’t understand where the ASH researchers are coming from?

Finding time to write – snacking instead of feasting

At the end of January we ran a workshop here at UWE for researchers entitled “Writing for Publication”. Dr Rowena Murray from the University of Strathclyde, a veritable expert on the topic, came to facilitate the event for us.

Rowena has published a number of books on the subject aimed PhD students and academic research staff, it was a fascinating day. She outlined a number of approaches to achieving some writing goals (having actually established some in the first instance!) that can be utilised by almost anybody.

I have to confess that I find writing extremely hard, it is not an activity I like doing particularly. This is especially so when it comes to writing about research. I’m aware that this has a lot to do with my personality, how I prefer to approach things. However you would describe it or quantify it, I am an extreme example of “Mr Last Minute”, a deadline has to be looming above me like a boiling, tumultuous storm cloud in order for me to find the clarity of thought, energy and enthusiasm to commit the contents of my head to paper. Indeed, my PhD thesis was largely written in a period of six weeks (having procrastinated for the previous six months) only because I had no other choice but to finish it before an externally imposed deadline.

One of the approaches that Rowena described on that day was that if one waits to feel “comfortable” or “good” about writing before you commence, then most of us would be waiting forever. There is value in adjusting the mindset to realise that thinking about writing is never going to feel good. Another practical consideration, which I have come across in other spheres, is the idea about having to have a large enough block of time to actually achieve anything, therefore fooling oneself into thinking that it is not worth starting anything that you can’t ‘get your teeth into’.

The reality is that if one has a clear goal, a results oriented approach, then plenty can be achieved in really small chunks of time. The idea of free writing has never really sat well with me but it can be amazing to see how much one can write when you suspend the “quality control” feature!

This approach is then to realise that one has to make the best of increasingly small chunks of time in order to achieve things including writing, learning how to “snack write” rather than waiting for sufficient time to “binge” or “feast” on writing.

One of the outcomes of the workshop was to establish a writers’ group, something I duly did. In fact that is exactly where I am sitting now, in a room free of distractions with some other researchers who are furiously scribbling away and making progress on their latest research paper.

I, on the other hand, am merely writing this blog entry. Still, that’s something I have achieved today…

Postgraduate Research Summer Connections

The summer of 2011 seems to be shaping up nicely in the researcher development world despite the upheaval in terms of reorganisation that generally pervades right now. I am currently working with colleagues to put on a few events through May and June to give research students at UWE the opportunity to share their interests.

We are aiming to provide some institution-wide development events to complement the round of departmental seminars and conferences that are already planned. The theme of these overarching events is connections; gettting ones research out to where it matters.

To help with this I am putting together a workshop on the topic of “Preparing Research Posters”, an exploration of how to communicate your research in a visual way on one sheet of paper, not easy to do effectively. 

I’m also hoping to firm up arrangements for a friend and colleague, Dr Tristram Hooley from the University of Derby, to come to UWE and facilitate a workshop on how to use social media tools to augment your research efforts. Just knowing that he is coming has given me impetus to set up this very blog! He has his own blog right here. Preparing for and advertising this event will force me to widen my use of social media tools although I’m a prolific (and proficient?) user of both Twitter and facebook.

The final event that we are trying to organise (if we can get some rooms booked whilst the summer school season kicks into top gear!) will aim to showcase the research posters (and offer a prize for the posters judged to be the most effective at communicating the message).

So this is my inaugural post on a blog. Time now to get organising and make some connections happen!