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.

Residential Gradschool at Buckland Hall 2013

Buckland Hall, July 2013

Buckland Hall, July 2013

At the beginning of July, Plymouth University in collaboration with UWE, Bristol put on a four day residential course for doctoral researchers at the fabulous Buckland Hall in the Brecon Beacons. This course is designed to give researchers the time and space to reflect on their development to date and to spend time in the company of other researchers thinking about where their research might take them. The overall theme of the course was “Building a reputation as a researcher”. Running through the programme were several topics that underpin this; communication of research, collaboration with others and understanding what drives you as a researcher.

Here is an outline programme that gives a flavour of what we were doing.

A big part of the success of this event is the venue itself, it really does make a difference to how the participants react. An interesting venue historically, Buckland Hall is now operated as a retreat/wedding venue. What’s great about it is that with groups the size that we have (36 researchers and a team of around 8 staff) you get exclusive use. The staff are brilliant achieving the seemingly impossible balance between being terribly efficient, catering for all your needs yet being almost out of sight the entire stay. As a course organiser I can’t tell you how valuable that is! The other feature of this venue is the ethos, the place runs on trust – trust bar, no room keys, treat the place as your own etc. and the organic vegetarian cuisine.

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Having the right venue is one thing but you have to come up with a programme that is right for your participants. We’ve a lot of experience running these type of courses (since 2003 in fact) and many of them have been based on the renowned Vitae GRADSchool model.

Over the past few years we have been hacking the format in part because of the diverse nature of our participants who on average tend to be older, international and from a wide range of disciplines. A further success factor in a course like this is a good balance of facilitators who understand doctoral researchers and their research.


Course team L-R Julia Crocker, Chris Russell, Helen Frisby, Mandy Burns, Neil Willey and Sarah Kearns


The majority of the participants on this course arrived on the coach that we laid on (from Plymouth via Bristol). No sooner than they had arrived then they were faced with me introducing them to the next four days. Here’s that slideshow.

Day 1. Getting to know you.

Like most courses you go on, the majority of your fellow participants are not known to you so inevitably there is a need to spend some time ingratiating yourself with others. We achieved this by doing three basic things; 1) running an icebreaker (building a giraffe), 2) establishing ‘home’ groups and 3) running an interview workshop.

The idea behind the interview workshop, given the demographic of the participants, was to run it as a familiarisation of each others research exercise rather than a full on “this is how you perform at interviews”. I think that this worked, some folks certainly appreciated the chance to practice talking about their research and others found it fascinating to observe others being interviewed.

Day 2. Connecting with others

There were three main things covered on the second day, some grounding principles in communicating research (start with why), establishing buddy pairs and the collaboration challenge.

I started out the day by showing a short TED talk by Steven Addis. The take home message from this wasn’t about photography but rather to become aware of how our perspectives on things change over time and that we should be proactive in thinking about where it takes us.

I then spoke about communicating research and the need to be clear about the “why” of your research, that it is important to be able to make your work accessible and that the easiest way to do that was to use stories. Simon Sinek featured heavily in my presentation because I think his model of communication works just as well for academic researchers. Here’s the slides I used to support this session:

Along with focussing on the why I also made the assertion that “Storytelling is everything“. A video that helps convey that is by Scott Berkun who is talking about a fast paced presentation format called “Ignite” (a derivative of Pecha Kucha).

We followed this session by borrowing an idea from the Vitae Leadership in Action course, to use each other as sources of feedback in mentoring or “buddy” pairs. Chris Russell facilitated this session using, among other things, the GROW coaching model.

The afternoon session was facilitated by Neil Willey who is an experienced researcher who has and is working on a number of large collaborative research projects. Participants used the statements they generated in the morning to propose a research project involving multiple discplines.

Day 3. Motivations and communicating in an accessible way

There was a change of pace on the third day of the course to something more introspective. It was known that tackling the subject of motivations and values is risky which presents a difficulty in how to pitch it to a diverse audience. For me it was important to explore for the following reasons; reconnecting with your motivation to follow a research path is beneficial during a doctorate when things aren’t going so well, it is also good to understand “what feeds your soul” when thinking about future career choices. I also believe that it is good to recognise why you do what you do (helps the communication thing!).

I talked about a model from Stephen R. Covey’s book The seven habits of highly effective people which is taken from the first habit “be proactive”.

The model is illustrated was the Circle of Concern vs the Circle of Influence.

We spent some time introducing the concept of Social Enterprise to set up the session on the final day.  This dovetails neatly with the exploration of motivations and values and also opens up a horizon for researchers that they may not have considered before. Here’s a few resources that cover what I had to say.

Facts and figures about social enterprise in the UK

The concept of social entrepreneurship – tackling challenges across the globe

Why social enterprise makes sense.

The 2 minute thesis

In the afternoon we changed gear and Sarah Kearns handed the groups a video camera with only one instruction: Go away and draft, rehearse and record your thesis in a 2 minute presentation.

Day 4. Looking to the future

The final day was all about how you could use your skills developed as a researcher in the future maybe outside of academic research.

The day started with a little bit of motivation courtesy of the Do Lectures – The Path of a doer

The common good

This session is aimed at raising awareness of social enterprise, a different way of doing business, for researchers. It is a case study that I, with the help of two colleagues Paul Toombs and Janet Wilkinson, authored back in 2010 and made available nationally through Vitae. The thinking behind this is that there are many attributes shared by social entrepreneurs and researchers; both are passionate problem solvers, both are motivated by making a difference, both are extremely resilient to challenges and hurdles. I used the following slides to introduce the session.

Some hints and tips about running a social enterprise…

As ever, the participants on the course generated some fantastic ideas and developed them into some serious proposals.

Final thoughts and further resources



Simon Sinek – Start with why: How great leaders inspire everyone to take action

Robert Ashton – How to be a social entrepreneur, make money and change the world

Robert Dunn & Chris Durkin – Social entrepreneurship: A skills approach

Muhammed Yunus – Creating a world without poverty: Social business and the future of capitalism

Jorgen Wolff – Creativity now: Get inspired, create ideas and make them happen!

John Elkington and Pamela Hartigan – The Power of Unreasonable People: How Social Entrepreneurs Create Markets That Change the World

Bobette Buster – Do Story: How to tell your story so the world listens

Robert Poynton – Do Improvise: Less push. More pause. Better results. A new approach to work (and life)

Mark Shayler – Do Disrupt: Change the status quo or become it

UWE Graduate School – One year on

From: Neil Willey, Director of the UWE Graduate School

Party Cake

It’s just over a year ago now that UWE set up its university-wide Graduate School and then celebrated the launch, so I thought it might be a good time to reflect on how things are going. Personally, I think we’ve now got a pretty sturdy one year old and that we’ve already mostly done teething and walking! I’m pretty acutely aware, however, that walking is just the start and that, let alone running, we probably need to be triple jumping or something fairly soon. There are two things that particularly struck me during the year and which make me think triple jumping might be possible…….

The first is the great team of people that were assembled into the UWE Graduate School. I’ve realised how many people at UWE already appreciate this, and really do wish that all the research students and supervisors at UWE have the opportunity that I do to engage with Graduate School staff – because I think they would then realise the interest and expertise available to them. I believe that the Graduate School can be really helpful to PGR students and supervisors across the university but that we all have to, somehow, be in sufficient contact with each other for this to really happen. During the first year this was exemplified to me in skills development events for students and supervisors. The development events that I was part of seemed to be of great benefit to everyone, which is making me think a great deal about how we can extend the experience to more students and supervisors.

The second thing that spurred me on to believe that the Graduate School at UWE can really go places is the real importance of PGR, both generally and to UWE. Contact with lots of students and supervisors from across the university over the course of a year really emphasises what fantastic things PGR students and their supervisors do. I’ve learned about so many things from across all the Faculties that could really make a difference to the world. To me it seems crucial that UWE has signalled its intent to have a healthy PGR community, but I do wonder if we all realise how central it can be to all that UWE wishes to be.

So, after a year I’m confident that we’ve made a good start and that the UWE Graduate School can really be helpful to PGR students and supervisors. Contact across the Faculties has given me quite a clear picture of the UWE PGR community and how the Graduate School can help. It has, however, started me thinking that perhaps the more channels of communication are available, the more difficult it is to communicate.  It’s also been a reminder of the committee work necessary in a large institution! Overall, I’m happy that we’ve now got an overall focus for PGR at UWE that we can build on to respond to the needs of our research students and supervisors.


Focus on… The Digital Researcher #drsww

This week Tristram Hooley and I ran a workshop on behalf of the SW & Wales Vitae Hub entitled “Focus on… The Digital researcher and you“. This is one of a series of workshops aimed at those staff in universities who support the devlopment of researchers.

The aim of the day was to take a closer look at the use of social media in the context of research not just from the perspective of the researchers we support but also as a means by which we can improve our own professional practice.

In recent times there have been discussions in the researcher development community about how to improve on what we do; to find different ways of engaging with research students, staff and their supervisors.

Tristram and I worked together on preparing for the day using Prezi, an online presentation platform that makes it easier to collaborate. Here is the presentation that we used:

dig researcherDigital Researcher #drsww on Prezi


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.