Getting Your Research Noticed

At the end of September we ran another Researchers’ Forum at UWE, the theme of which was “getting your research noticed”. What we were trying to do was to provide researchers with the opportunity and space to consider how they could go about building up a reputation as a researcher.

We spent the morning in the company of Kate Tapper from Bud Development who facilitated a great session on how to answer the question that most researchers dread:- “So what do you do?”. Kate had four main messages to get across on that day:-

1) Start with why

2) Don’t throw jelly at people

3) Tell stories

4) You are wonderful

The slides she used on the day are here:-

I have written about “Authenticity & finding your why” elsewhere on the blog which explains the idea behind Simon Sinek’s concept of “start with why”; the basis of having impactful conversations with people.

I really like the analogy of not throwing jelly at people when trying to explain research; it conjures up images of researchers desperately churning out more and more data in the hope that some of it will stick in the minds of the recipient. The phrase comes from a book by Andy Bounds called “The Jelly Effect” and is well worth a read.

Much better then to have a story to tell about your research, why are you excited, enthusiastic, passionate about what you do as a prelude to trying to tell anyone how or what you do. We are humans after all and humans like stories.

Kate also touched on a number of issues around courage and vulnerability which are qualities that make us wonderful. It reminded me of a TED talk I watched recently by Brene Brown on that very topic and sums up everything that Kate was trying to say on this.

The afternoon session of the Researchers’ Forum was spent focussing on strategies that researchers from across UWE had adopted to build their reputations in two broad categories:-

1) Building a reputation through publications

2) Building a reputation through communicating to a wider audience

What was fascinating that there were many of the themes that were explored in the morning session that also came up and centred around telling stories, having something interesting to say, to take risks by publishing in more than one area of specialism and making connections.

We were grateful to the panel members, Dr Emma Dures, Professor Jonathan Dovey, Professor Robin Means and Professor Katie Wiliams for giving their thoughts on publication strategies.

Katie Williams shared these top 10 tips for academic writing:


We were also grateful to Professor Alan Tapp, Dr Carinna Parraman and Dr Clare Wilkinson who shared their knowledge and expertise of interacting with a wider audience.

Carinna Parraman used a Prezi to showcase the work of the Centre for Fine Print Research.

Clare shared thise presentation with us about the work of the Science Communication Unit with advice on how to engage wider audiences.

A final note is to say a big thanks to professor Robin Means who has been the academic lead for the Researchers’ Forum for the past 5 years and will be passing on the baton to Professor Glenn Lyons.

The convenors and Kate

The convenors and Kate

Robin Means, Kate Tapper & Glenn Lyons at the UWE Researchers’ Forum, September 2011

Never the Twain Shall Meet

I recently attended the Vitae Researcher Development International Conference in Manchester. This is a gathering of folks who are involved in the skills development of postgraduate research students and research staff where updates on policy and strategic initiatives are discussed. It also serves as a way for all of us skills development types to share practice, find out what’s going on etc.

I was leading a workshop at the conference entitled “Never the Twain Shall Meet: Bringing Research Leaders and Early Career Researchers Together to Discuss Career Development” together with an independent facilitator, Kate Tapper from Bud Development. What we set out to do was to share the experience we had of organising an event for the UWE Researchers’ Forum designed to bring research staff and their managers (Principal Investigators or PIs for short) together to have some discussions about the best way to support the career development of research staff. The main way we did this was to use metaphors to critically examine the issues around career development of researchers yet remaing objective and impersonal.

We thought this worthy of sharing because of the difference in perspectives between the research staff and their PIs was really interesting. The Prezi I used in the workshop is shown below.


Authenticity & finding your why

“Why?” is a question I’m faced with a lot recently, partly because I have small children who tend to utter this word an awful lot, but mostly because explaining the “why” of research has never been more important. I’ve been meaning to write this post for some time now spurred on by recent events like the “Focus on Resilience” course I attended recently, the social enterprise workshops that I have been running and the numerous communication of research activities that I deliver either directly or with talented people like Piero Vitelli.

A couple of years ago I stumbled across a TED* talk from Simon Sinek entitled “How great leaders inspire action” and it really got me thinking about how the concepts he described relate to the world of research. Let me explain.

(* TED talks are addictive, you have been warned…)

In his talk Simon recounts how he noticed a pattern among inspirational leaders and/or organisations in the way they communicate; he cites Martin Luther King, the Wright brothers and Apple Inc. as examples of being very successful at inspiring action in others. What Simon Sinek did in a nice simple way was to reflect that communication process as a model which he calls the “Golden Circle” 


The idea is really simple to explain; most people communicate in the following order, by talking about what they do, sometimes they will also be able to explain how they do what they do that is different from others but very few people can clearly articulate why they do what they do.

In the case of inspiring people, that order is reversed. They can clearly convey why they are doing something, is oozes from them in terms of passion, enthusiasm, conviction & belief. It’s their cause, the raison d’etre for doing what they do. The difference is that inspiring people understand what motivates them and are clear about the need to communicate that to others.

If we put aside the fact that Simon Sinek is a marketing expert and much of his work is around how organisations (corporate, charitable & military) should communicate to their patrons, the basic message can be easily translated into the world of academe. Let’s take the example of a typical presentation that you can think of at an academic convention or conference. They are usually pretty poor in terms of their presentation. Most will labour the what they do in minuscule detail and some will spend lots of time explaining the how, the methodology, the line of investigation that makes their findings more relevant or better than their peers. Yet the most interesting part usually comes in the last slide or two, the wider context, why this work is a valuable contribution to the field of study.

Imagine a world of academia where scholars spend the first few minutes of a presentation inspiring their audiences by demonstrating their passion and enthusiasm for the subject and, more importantly, attempting to make an audience understand why they should give a damn?

The lesson is simple, find your why and let others see it. That is what makes you authentic as a person, to have that clarity of direction and you know what? As a presenter it is what makes an audience care about what you say.

If you want to see a demonstration of an inspiring presentation from someone who is passionate about what they do and really works to make an audience understand why they should care then look no further than TED again (see I told you it’s addictive!) and watch Benjamin Zander. He is the epitome of authenticity.


Touching the Void & becoming more resilient

Last week I attended a course commissioned by the South West & Wales Vitae hub entitled “Focus on…Resilience”. This was a course aimed at people who support the development of researchers with an enticing topic that seems to be high on everyone’s priority list, even if the attribute of “resilience” might at first appear a little vague.

So it was with a little trepidation that I fumbled with the cellophane wrapped DVD entitled “Touching the Void” that we were given to watch as a prelude to the workshop. What did a documentary film about a couple of adrenaline junkied, risk averse, young alpine mountain climbers got to do with being a resilient leader? Being a typical last minute kinda person, I watched this film the day prior to the workshop. Basic plot; two young climbers (Simon Yates & Joe Simpson) with experience of climbing alpine inclines make a successful attempt to ascend to the summit of Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes via the extremely difficult West face.

They of course do this and, with almost bare faced cheek, climb it in the Alpine style of making the ascent in one long push with a minimal amount of equipment. The problems begin on the descent via the North ridge. First, Joe Simpson slips and badly breaks his leg. This leaves his partner with the nigh impossible task of getting him off the mountain by belaying him down using two ropes tied together with the difficulty of having to negotiate the knot through the belay plate by slackening the rope.

A critical point is reached where Simon lowers Joe over a ridge and unbeknownst to him, Joe is unable to climb up or get a secure hold on the ice to provide the slack on the rope. He is left hanging with his weight slowly destabilising Simon’s own footholds. Finally Simon makes a decision to cut the rope holding his partner who falls some distance into a crevasse but survives. Fearing that Joe is already dead, Simon looks for but fails to find Joe so descends the rest of the mountain alone until he reaches basecamp.

The remainder of the film then focuses on Joe’s struggle to get out of the crevasse and then painstakingly crawl, hop, hobble, scrabble and fight his way, inch by inch, down the mountain until he reaches the basecamp, exhausted, broken and on the verge of death.

The story was undoubtedly moving and it evoked a lot of conflicting emotions in me and still left me with many questions as to the relevance of this story to learning about being more resilient in the workplace. Yes, I was sure that there were some lessons to be learned but couldn’t reconcile the life or death situations faced with my own experiences.

On the day of the workshop I was determined to remain open to what I would face and not be clouded by my emotions, to try and keep objectivity front and centre. I was relieved then when I met the facilitator, Rachel McGill for the first time. It was clear that she had much credibility in this field of development and demonstrated an empathy for the concerns I’d had.

So what was it all about? Let’s start with resilience as a term and put some sort of definition around it :-


“Having confidence in who you are and what you do, so that you create, build and take opportunities; ‘bouncing back’, knowing you will find a way through uncertainty, change and even crisis .”


Much of the first part of the workshop was then used to break down the concept of resilience in relation to leadership qualities, a process that Rachel descibes as the “Resilient Leader’s Elements”


The four elements are described as “Clarity of Direction”, “Resilient Decision Making” [grouped together as “What I do”] and “Awareness”, “Leadership Presence” [grouped together as “Who I am”]. Rachel’s company, Sunray 7, has developed an online assessment/questionnaire that probes these four areas giving respondents a snapshot of areas that they might want to develop to improve their overall leadership style (and by this we mean leadership in every day working scenarios not as “boss” or “CEO” of many people).

All of the participants of the workshop had completed the questionnaire and we collectively found hints/tips on improving things from people who do it well. It was an eye opening experience and provided much food for thought about the different attributes required to be a resilient leader.

So, what did I get from the day? I learned a lot from others in the room who clearly performed well in other areas of the Resilient Leader’s Elements than I. It was clear to me that there were things/lessons/ideas that were discussed as a result of watching the “touching the void” documentary. Personally the things that will stay with me for a long time are about the techniques that could help me be more aware of others and a line from the film about decision making in a crisis. 

“Keep making decisions, even if they are bad ones and act on them”

This approach will always throw up new options as a result, provide the basis to rescue a situation. This is not afforded by taking no action or decision, the likelihood is guaranteed failure.

Of course, I still have my reservations about the film itself, I question why the director/producer put both Joe Simpson and Simon Yates back on that mountain when it wasn’t clear as to what value it added and was clearly traumatic for the pair of them. Maybe one would be better reading the book that it was based on?

Paradigm wars and perspectivism

You wanna touch me?

You wanna touch me?

On Monday (11th July) myself and Dr Sharron Whitecross from Research, Business & Innovation contributed to one of the UWE Research Centre away days by facilitating a discussion about the challenges of working in an area of research that involves many disciplines. The researchers were concerned that the different perspectives from disciplines might get in the way of making progress on research projects, possibly as a result of lack of awareness or appreciation of the validity of different approaches or paradigms.

I come from a science background which almost exclusively features a quantitative approach to data and I know from personal experience that the scientific method is robustly defended as being valid in the world of research yet even among its proponents there is often a misinterpretation of the limitations.

So the challenge for me was to think of a way of engaging researchers in a discussion about research methodologies in a way that would be constructive. It was also a challenge to be able to facilitate the discussion without extensive knowledge of the variety of research methodologies used in the social sciences. I decided to tackle it in three ways, 1) to raise awareness of what is happening with research right now, 2) to explore the differences in paradigms using metaphors and 3) to ask for suggestions on how development might help in improving cohesion, understanding and the like.

We started by clarifying some of the language involved and setting the scene in terms of where things are going using the following slides:-

The main points here are that different folks tend to use terminology that doesn’t always translate exactly into other disciplines which can confuse things. It’s also true that the contribution of different disciplines looking at issues from a varying perspectives gives a better overall picture or outcome than single discipline approaches.

On to the metaphors, I (a quick nod to Jamie McDonald who suggested this to me) introduced this by retelling the parable about the blind men and the elephant whereby they are asked to describe the form of an elephant by touch. The blind men describe a part of the elephant that they are touching yet none of them have felt the whole of the animal. Variations of this story have been spread widely over the generations and the English verse is quite interesting, John Godfey Saxe wrote in the 19th Century:-

It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind

The poem continues with each of the men describing their part of the elephant and concludes with:- 

And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!

You wanna touch me?

You wanna touch me?

I thought this was quite a neat way to introduce the idea of “perspectivism”  as a prelude to getting the researchers to look at some different viewpoints on research methodologies and paradigms.

The researchers were then set the challenge of coming up with a metaphor to describe their perspective on multi disciplinary working. I separated them according to relative experience creating a group of research students, a group of research staff and a group of experienced researchers/leaders. The results were fascinating, the research students came up with a bakery theme centred around the recipe of a cake and the research leaders came up with a restaurant theme around the creation of dishes that would be appropriate for the diner. Both these examples appreciated that things could go wrong and the final product might not be as tasty or satisfy but also pointed out that the results could be well executed, a culinary masterpiece so to speak.

Interestingly the research staff group came up with a metaphor about a dysfunctional vehicle that was designed with disjointed input from all concerned and clearly was not a vehicle that was working well. I wondered if that had any significance? I think it created some food for thought.

The final part of the session was to collate some suggestions for development. Since the workshop, one of the researchers sent me the document, a toolkit entitled Practical considerations for leading and working on a mixed methods project”

As more and more collaborative research is being funded I am convinced that researchers need to broaden their perspectives on the different approaches that can be adopted to tackle the problems posed. As ever, I’m always on the lookout for any hints/tips on how this is best achieved.

PhD – The Movie. Coming soon to a university near you?

A few weeks ago I spied an announcement from the makers of the “Piled Higher and Deeper” comic strip that they had gone and made a film. Now this has me quite excited because, although the protagonists of this comic strip are set in the U.S., the shenanigans portrayed translate very well to the UK experience of being a doctoral student. The trailer is enticing…

So here’s the deal. I would very much like to be able to screen the PhD movie when it comes out (from 15 September 2011) at UWE, Bristol. We’ve got a cinema after all! I have tentatively signed up as being an interested party and now have been told an approximate cost to screen it (about US$500). But now I need to build a case for spending that amount.

So to you dear research students, how can I convince the budget holders that holding a film night is a good use of our development funds? How can I make it a worthwhile event? Tie in with a ‘welcome to UWE’ event? 

Thoughts, suggestions & comments welcome. I’m on a mission…

UWE Postgraduate Research Summer Connections

Connections is the theme for the UWE summer conference for postgraduate research students on Friday 1st July.



This event has been in the making for a little while now, most of the faculties and/or departments at UWE have recognised and provide the opportunity for their research students to present aspects of their research at internal symposia or conferences. It allows researchers to practice communicating their research to their close peers in a friendly, supportive environment. Last year I worked closely with the (then) Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities to put on an event that would be useful & interesting to all research students in that Faculty regardless of their discipline areas. So we brought in an experienced facilitator, Malcolm Love, to talk to the research students about communicating their research to a wider audience. This was followed by an inspirational talk by Professor Len Barton on the topic of getting your research published, he shared many tips for early career researchers.

Fast forward a year and we are trying to make this an event for research students from across the whole of UWE, an event that would be useful or interesting regardless of ones subject area, something that I hope will become a regular fixture in the skills development calendar.

Postgraduate Research Student Summer Connections Programme

So what’s lined up?

1) Janet Wilkinson from Three Times Three will be opening the day with a session on how to ‘make connections with purpose’. She has a really intuitive take on how to get the best out of situations where engaging and ‘networking’ (some people find this term a bit…corporate?) with people is required. Inspirational facilitator she definitely is & I have worked with her for nearly ten years now.

2) The Poster Session. We’ve invited all research students to submit a poster for this event, it will hopefully showcase the diversity of the research that goes on across the university. All the posters will be entered into a competition to win the prizes we have up for grabs!

3) A key note address from Professor Paul Gough, the deputy Vice Chancellor of UWE and the most senior bod who oversees research activity. He came to the South West Universities GRAD School at Buckland Hall last year and gave a fascinating insight into how he used his networks to advance in his career. 

4) The Judges! I’ve called in a few favours to gather a select panel of learned folks to decide who will get the prize. We have Paul Gough to chair, Janet WilkinsonKaren Bultitude from the Science Communication Unit, Dee Smart who oversees community & public engagement at UWE and Neil Willey who is a reader in environmental plant physiology. And the prizes? 1) An Amazon Kindle, 2) £75 of Amazon Vouchers, 3) £25 iTunes voucher

5) The free food & drink! Key to any good research student gathering is the unwritten rule that the catering needs to fulfil the needs of your most impoverished of researchers so we have put on a free buffet lunch and the event will close with a drinks reception + canapes (we are talking UWE wine though which is high in alcohol, high in tannin, low in palatability…)

And that’s not all folks…. Some of the postgraduate research student representatives are organising an informal trip to the Canteen at Co Exist in Stokes Croft after the drink reception, surely a good way to start ones weekend.

How do you get in on the act? You can find out more here (and register if you are a UWE research student) at the Research Student Summer Connections Page 


I’ll look forward to seeing you there and I’ll post up highlights and pictures in due course.

The Digital Researcher Evaluation – blog style

On Tuesday 14th June, we ran a course at UWE entitled “Becoming a digital researcher” (#druwe) which was facilitated by Dr Tristram Hooley from the University of Derby with a little help from me. Throughout the day we covered:-

  • Personal Learning Environment – How and where do we get our information from
  • Social Media Tools – The technical bit of using tools is less important that the wider principle of exploiting networks to enhance your personal learning environment
  • Networks – It really is all about your networks, the strength of them. It is that that pays dividends when using social media in your research area

I am reposting the slides that Tristram used on the day below: 


Download this file

What Tristram and I would like is for participants of the day is to give us some feedback on how it went, the content, the delivery with a view to understanding what it is that we can do to make it better. Neither of us are “gurus” of social media but we both have experience of being researchers and using some of the tools available. Did we get it right?

I noticed that Ann Grand has written a reflective blog entry about the day and I would encourage you to either do something similar (it will give an excuse to write another blog entry!) or use the comments section below this post to add your thoughts. 

Thanks for taking the time to attend.