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.

Getting to grips with your research career

Getting to grips with career

Getting to grips with career

Recently we held our twice-yearly UWE research staff development event, this time on the theme of “getting to grips with your research career.” As the title suggests the event was a space for researchers from across UWE to get together and reflect on where they’re at in their career, where they might want to go, and how to get there.

Since the University is about to review the researcher role grading process, it seemed opportune to get some’ feedback via a short questionnaire, about how researchers themselves perceive the step up from Associate to Fellow – both the difference between these roles, and the application process itself. Pam has kindly collated the feedback (see separate document) for you to look at.

We then heard from three senior researchers, who had been asked to offer advice as if to their younger, less experienced researcher selves. Richard, Glenn and Darren were all very generous and honest with their insights, and you can see their presentations via the UWE Research Support webpages.

After “Dear Less Experienced Self”, it was time for “Dear Future Me”: for this, the group used prompt cards articulated to the Vitae Researcher Development Framework, to identify a skill or attribute they could do to work on in order to help their career progression – and, because we like to keep things positive, two things they’re already good at and would like do even better.

To help make the RDF feel a bit more concrete and ‘lived’ (and get us up and moving a bit!), each small group stood in a circle and threw a ball to one another: the idea being that when you get the ball, you have to say what card/skill you chose, why, and how good you are at it already – with examples if possible!

While one usually goes away from these events with genuinely good intentions, life – in fact, just the sort of the things w talked about in part 1 – does have a habit of getting in the way. So, to try and keep the good intentions alive, everyone was invited to complete a ‘postcard to self’ listing up to 3 small, practical things to do in the next couple of months to help them move forward on the skills identified in part 2.

Many thanks to all – the presenters, Glenn and the rest of the Planning Group and, most of all, to everyone who came along on the day, for joining in with such enthusiasm – I do hope you found it a worthwhile and fun morning, and we look forward to seeing you again at the next (whole day) event on 1 December 2014.

Project Management in a Nutshell

PM in a nutshell

It's a nutshell

It’s a nutshell

Recently we ran our regular half-day workshop for researchers on “Project Management in a Nutshell”. The purpose of this workshop is to de-mystify some of the jargon which surrounds project management, and to consider some practical ideas for managing your project, be it a PhD or other research project. The discussion was very wide-ranging, so I’ll just summarise what I think were the key points:

Know who your stakeholders (the people and organisations who have some kind of interest in your project) are, and be aware of their expectations. We talked a lot about what happens when there’s conflict between the interests of different stakeholders, and between stakeholders’ expectations and how the project is actually developing. While there are no easy answers here, early recognition and honest communication are invariably key to resolving any issues.

The importance of planning. The earlier the better, but it’s never too late to start.

Project constraints. In an ideal world, we’d all have unlimited money, time, academic freedom etc. But realistically there will be some constraints, so be aware of them and plan your project accordingly

Breaking it down into manageable, measureable chunks.

Risk awareness. What might stop you from completing your project? What’s your Plan B?

Project planning tools. Most of us are (too?) familiar with the ubiquitous GANTT chart, but there are lots of other planning tools out there. We particularly talked about PERT charts, which factor in time and allow you to identify your critical task pathways. It really doesn’t matter how high or low-tech your planning tool is – a simple list on a piece of paper can be just as effective – whatever works for you.

Review progress as you go along, keep your plan updated and your stakeholders in the loop as things develop.

Most of all, be honest with yourself and your stakeholders about how the project is going.

On this final point, we talked about the fact that ‘honesty’ is socially and culturally constructed, which can be a particular challenge for international colleagues who find themselves baffled by the nuances of British work-culture. In particular, the fact that direct challenges are generally taboo and that weasel word “nice” which can mean pretty much anything. I can recommend no better reading on this subject than Kate Fox’s funny, astute book Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2005).

Here are the slides:

Research in Contemporary Context #vitae13

Research in definition

Research in definition

Using ‘Research-Based Learning’ to Enhance Doctoral Skills Development

At the recent Vitae Researcher Development International Conference myself and Neil Willey presented a workshop outlining our approach to a new module aimed at doctoral students. The Prezi we used can be found here:

Research in Contemporary Context module prezi.

In October 2012 in the Graduate School at UWE we started running a new module for doctoral students that we hoped might enhance their experience of personal and professional skills development. Perhaps a bit ambitiously, we hoped it might help solve a number of commonly perceived challenges including; the separation of research and skills development activity, the provision of credit for the full range of skills development activities and the delivery of skills development for students who spend most of their time away from the university. The module is called ‘Research in Contemporary Context (RCC)’ and we used ‘Work-Based Learning’ modules at UWE to inspire its design as a ‘Research-Based Learning’ module. The module booklet with details and an introductory ppt are embedded below – what follows are some thoughts of how we designed it and how we run it.

Work-based learning embeds learning in a workplace. It usually involves an interaction between work activity and university-based sessions that results in the development of professional competencies. It’s widely used to deliver professional practice qualifications. We reasoned that there was an analogy with doctoral students developing skills – their research was their work and skills development their university-based sessions, which should interact to develop professional competencies expected in researchers. A potential catch was that we needed a set of professional competencies to provide a framework – which we quickly realized could be Vitae’s Researcher Development Framework.

The Vitae Researcher Development Framework

The Vitae Researcher Development Framework

So, here’s what we do. We have six 3 hour Professional Practice workshops dedicated to RCC on topics we have chosen to match some of the descriptors on the RDF. We also ask that students identify 6 workshops from the UWE Skills Development series. The default module run for students on the module is 2 years and 10 months, i.e. from when they register they have this long to do all the workshops. This is so that students can do workshops when they coincide with relevant phases of their research. Before each Professional Practice workshop we use Blackboard to make material available to students. We then run the workshop with both actual and remote attendance, after which students return to their ‘workplace’, i.e. research. Before the end of their run, students must submit a Reflective Portfolio of evidence for each workshop topic in action in their research or research discipline, and an in depth case study of one of them. If these are satisfactory they are then awarded 30 M level professional practice credits. We chose a Reflective Portfolio because we felt that reflection would not only encourage topics to seem alive in student research but also because most of them were best engaged with by doing them or seeing them in action, reflecting on them, and doing again, i.e. they were based in practice. The advice we give is below.

How does this help with skills development? First, we hope that it embeds thinking about professional practice and skills development in student research, breaking down the feeling that students take time out to do these as separate activities. It also involves supervisors in skills development because students talk to them about it and they help with assessment at the end. Second, students get credits for activities that map directly onto the RDF. We think this not only helps with engagement but also provides a concrete, professional development outcome from the time spent. Third, by providing fully interactive remote access to workshops that support research-based learning, and having students submit their Portfolio electronically via Blackboard, a student can complete the module without having to travel to the university. At UWE more than 50% of our students are PT, and FT students are located on a number of campuses and frequently research off campus, so this has met a real need. In addition, we record workshops so that students can watch them at any time, reminding them of topics as they see them in action.

And finally, we have students from across all disciplines taking the module. This has made for very interesting discussions on many topics and enabled students to meet a wider variety of researchers than they do in, for example, their research group or centre. It’s still early days but we feel that our ‘Research In Contemporary Context’ module is an interesting attempt to overcome some of the challenges of delivering skills development to busy, and often disperse, doctoral students.

Social innovation and researchers at Southampton Solent #SSURE13

social innovation

Key words and phrase around social innovation

On Tuesday of this week I attended the Research and Enterprise Conference held at Southampton Solent University (#SSURE13). I had been invited to speak on social innovation, enterprise and researchers based on some of my previous work in this area. It was nice to be asked to contribute my thoughts on the topic, recognition I suppose for the enthusiasm I have for social innovation and how researchers can contribute to that agenda.

This was the programme for the day.

I had a mixed audience comprising of doctoral students, academics and professional support staff and so I tried to cover what I believe to be important to the success of researchers. The slides I used to support my talk are embedded below.

I started out by introducing a few of the phrases that I was going to cover – about half of the audience had heard of the term “social enterprise” and only a minority had an understanding of the term “social innovation“. I also talked a bit about what I think is important both personally (what I stand for) and professionally (who I am). I then highlighted the important outcome of a doctoral degree, that of a skilled researcher. I argued that most of the skills acquired by researchers occur as a natural consequence of working on a research project and that the role of skills developers like myself was to help researchers to understand what is happening to them, to encourage them to recognise the importance of this development and to find a vocabulary to communicate this to others. The Vitae Researcher Development Framework (RDF) is a useful tool to help researchers contextualise this development journey.

I then focussed on the development of enterprise skills with doctoral researchers – how the typical stereotype of a researcher is one of a lack of commercial awareness, a naivety with respect to how private sector organisations operate. I suggested that this is an unfair representation of the state of play, more that researchers do understand profit maximising business models but are just not inspired by that approach and are motivated by other factors.

I believe that most researchers are motivated by their research endeavours, to make a contribution to the body of knowledge, to generate new ideas that make some sort of difference to the world in which we live. Rarely are researchers motivated by being rich and famous! This led me to talk about why I believe that social enterprise is a pretty good vehicle to engage researchers with the idea that generation of profit is not necessarily a bad thing, that different models of business can generate social value and make that all important difference to society. I used this video, “Society Profits”, produced by Social Enterprise UK to illustrate my point.

I talked about a number of social enterprises, briefly explaining the business model behind each one: Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen Restaurant, The Eden Project, Divine Chocolate, The Big Issue, Give Me Tap and a social enterprise in Southampton Who Made Your Pants.

It has been said that the key criteria for success in social enterprise are Resources, Expertise, Passion, and Contribution. My experience of talking to many social entrepreneurs is that the Passion and the motivation to make the Contribution are the key drivers to making the “social” bit of the social enterprise work and that the skills, expertise and general nous about how to run a business are things that can be learned if not already known. It is for this reason that I think researchers would be well placed to start a social enterprise should they choose to.

I then moved on to explain that social enterprise is just one way of tackling some of the social/environmental problems we face and that it is one strand of a much larger concept, social innovation. I started by talking about Professor Muhammad Yunus and the journey he started in the 1970s that began the microfinance movement. I used the following video to support that…

Social innovation isn’t new, it is a concept that has been around for quite some time although I believe that the term and the challenges we face as a society have brought about a renewed interest and explosion of activity. I used one (of many) definitions of social innovation to make a point about the place that researchers and universities have in this endeavour.

innovative activities and services that are motivated by the goal of meeting a social need and that are predominantly developed and diffused through organisations whose primary purposes are social. [Social Innovation: What it is, why it matters and how it can be accelerated]

Therefore, I posit that universities are indeed organisations whose primary purposes are social and that the research undertaken within is inherently motivated by the goal of meeting a social need. Research is a key strand of social innovation and, more importantly, researchers have a valuable set of skills, knowledge, attributes to bring to the table in collaboration with others in order to tackle the grand challenges.

I talked a little about how the common features of contemporary social innovation are important to understand:- (full source paper here)

  • Cross-sectoral
  • Open and collaborative
  • Grassroots and bottom-up
  • Pro-sumption and co-production
  • Mutualism
  • Creates new roles and relationships
  • Better use of assets and resources
  • Develops assets and capabilities

This ties in neatly with the approaches that universities and researchers need to adopt to tackle the grand challenges – I used the cross council priorities from the UK Research Councils to illustrate with a particular nod to the Lifelong health and wellbeing priority.

I ended my talk by referring back to the quote from Peter Drucker …

The problem in my life and other people’s lives is not the absence of knowing what to do, but the absence of doing it.

Researchers are often not short of great ideas, they are fantastic problem solvers. Though sometimes, just sometimes, we need to be reminded that we have to implement the ideas to make that difference in society.

Further links/resources

Vitae – National organisation supporting the skills development of researchers

Social Enterprise UK – National organisation promoting social enterprise

Development resources for researchers on social enterprise UWE, Bristol/Vitae

HEFCE/UNLTD Support for Social Enterprise Start up in Universities

Guardian Social Enterprise Network

Pioneers Post – A web magazine for social innovation/enterprise
Social Innovation Europe – Europe wide resource for social innovation
Social Innovation Exchange – A global network for those interest in social innovation

What makes a good researcher?

One of the things that is central to the world of researcher development is the question of “what makes a good researcher?” In other words, what are the skills and/or competences that researchers should aspire to or seek to acquire to become good at what they do?

Around 10 years ago a bunch of folks from the UK Research Councils and the UK GRAD programme (the predecessor to Vitae) set about describing what skills a doctoral candidate should have developed by the time they complete a PhD and it was published as a Joint Statement on Skills.

This statement included the transferable skills that Sir Gareth Roberts espoused in his report to HM Government, “SET for Success” (2002). It was the catalyst for many of the researcher skills development programmes that are now on offer and provided a useful framework for researchers themselves to reflect on their own progress as a researcher.

Fast forward a few years, there were people in the Higher Education sector who felt that the Joint Skills Statement was limited by the fact that it stopped at the end of a doctoral degree and that it didn’t reflect the changing emphasis on engagement and impact of research with society. This in turn led to a project to design a comprehensive framework that would describe the researcher development journey beyond the PhD.

In 2010, the successor to the Joint Statement on Skills was launched, the Researcher Development Framework (RDF).

The RDF sets out the knowledge, behaviours and attributes of successful researchers and are grouped into four major domains, 12 sub-domains which are then further divided into 63 descriptors which are designed to aid researchers to understand what areas they should focus on to become a “good researcher”.

It was also conceived to provide skills developers like me with a comprehensive framework with which to design activities and workshops to help researchers to understand where they are in their own development.

The RDF can appear a little daunting to the uninitiated, so my advice is to try and view it at the broadest level until it feels more familiar.

I’ve started to introduce the RDF into the skills development programme I offer by colour coding the workshops listings to correspond (broadly speaking) to the major domains.

I’m interested (as ever) in the views of researchers and/or colleagues on how to improve the integration of the RDF into the programmes we run.

Vitae have produced an online planning tool designed to help individuals to self-audit against the descriptors of the RDF, have a look…


If you are interested in using the RDF Planner and are a UWE researcher then please use the form below to get in touch.