The Value of Networking for Researchers

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Your current research may be your all-consuming focus at the moment, but it is likely that you will move on in terms of both location and research remit before long.  Thinking beyond your immediate environment now will help you to plan your future in research.

Original research – the kind that gets funded – can be as a result of ‘individual creativity’, but it is also defined as a new combination or connection between ideas – the result of positive collaboration.  This idea is explored further in ‘The Creative Researcher’ booklet, part of the Vitae Researcher booklet series, which can be found at: https://www.vitae.ac.uk/vitae-publications/guides-briefings-and-information/vitae-researcher-booklets

When you reach a certain level of seniority the value of international collaborations is perhaps more obvious, but for early career researchers a regional network can be key to your next funding step.  A recent blog post from The Researcher Whisperer included a telling quote:

“I was listening to a wise old researcher the other day when she said:
International networks are lovely, but it is your national network that will get you funded … we don’t often talk about the importance of building a local network.”

Some practical reasons for networking to support future collaborations:

  • Funding opportunities are increasingly inter-disciplinary and across institutions. As just one example, RCUK has six priorities for funding which draw across the spectrum of academic disciplines and EXPECT collaboration to address the priorities.
  • REF and Impact. With ‘impact’ set to have an increasing place in the REF, wider networks can be invaluable in increasing your research profile in new areas.  Impact also looks increasingly at collaborative research with industry and the public sector.

Vitae’s training programme on ‘The Collaborative Researcher’ includes exercises focusing on how to approach planning for networking and collaboration.  In considering how ready you are to network effectively, how easily and succinctly could you answer the following questions to someone from outside your area of research?

  • What’s the focus of your current research/area of research interest?
  • What are your plans for developing/disseminating your work?
  • Do you have any ideas or opportunities for collaborating on future research?

Or, to what extent could you respond to these points positively about your research?

Provide clarity – could you or someone in your department (not your supervisor) describe your research in simple accurate terms?

How visible are you? – Does your name or work come up in a web search for your research topic?

Translate – Have you described your research in interesting and relevant terms to someone from a different faculty in the last 6 months?

Be interested – Do you make a habit of talking to other researchers about their work and do you find them interesting?

Create opportunities – Can you think of three possible applications for your expertise outside your current project … do you know where to start looking?

Tune in  – What do you think the main research questions will be in your field in five years time … how would you know?

The Midlands Research Staff Association (MidsRSA) is building on its mailing list of 100+ research staff to set up a self-sustaining forum for networking to discuss shared issues and explore future collaborations.  If you’d like to know more, or join the MidsRSA please contact midlandshub@vitae.ac.uk

If you’d like to find out more about the national Research Staff Association (UKRSA), visit: https://www.vitae.ac.uk/communities/uk-research-staff-association

The future of Doctoral Training

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Summary:

On 19th June 2014 Vitae held an ‘Open Space’ discussion event to explore the new challenges for universities and researcher development in the evolving landscape of doctoral education. Discussions centred on whether, with current recruitment practices, the best doctoral candidates are being selected and how we can support the professional career development of researchers.
In addition, it was interesting to note concerns about the potential for a two-tier system of support for students, the allocation of resources and different models for managing the rising number of doctoral training programmes.   The day concluded by raising possible directions for Vitae to work in support of this high profile area.

Perspective of a PhD student at the event.
A PhD student from the University of Warwick who took part was happy to share the following feedback:

“I am part of an interdisciplinary Doctoral Training Centre (DTC) at Warwick that aims to span the interface between the Physical and the Life Sciences. I attended an Open Space workshop run by Vitae, in which the changing structure of doctoral education was considered at length. Topics of discussion included the pros and cons of traditionally funded PhDs compared to PhDs studied within a DTC set-up, along with the role that Supervisors play in supporting both types of PhD student. 
For me as a research student, the event provided the opportunity to discuss my experiences as a PhD Student funded through a Doctoral Training Centre. When initially applying for PhDs, I found funding more accessible through DTCs rather than through traditional 3-year PhD projects, despite my initial efforts of PhD applications being targeted to 3-year pre-defined research projects. In DTCs, there is a more defined training element to the course, with a cohort-based approach – the advantages of these aspects of DTCs were discussed at the Vitae event and how all postgraduate research (PGR) students could benefit from the ethos that comes with DTCs. It was really interesting to hear these issues discussed from the viewpoint of the professionals working to support PGR students and what they do to continually aid the development of researchers.”  Amy O’Reilly, University of Warwick

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The theme of the event, which informed the initial speaker presentations and later discussions was:
“ How can we, together, support researchers, ensuring an equality of professional development provision for all, in light of the changing structures for doctoral education, such as doctoral training centres?”

Anna Price (Acting Assistant Director of KCL’s Graduate School and Vitae London Hub Manager), looking from the perspective of professional development and academia, Anna noted the key points in the theme as together, equality of opportunity and excellence.
Together: Collaborations within HEI’s are increasing, but also across and beyond HEI’s into the business world.
With the rise of doctoral training centre’s (DTC’s) and doctoral training programmes (DTP’s), seamless training provision with no gaps or duplication is the aim across academic and skills provision. This requires working together, but with different models available the challenge is to establish effective strategic communication.
Equality of opportunity: The current funding drivers and meritocracy can lead to the possibility of a two-tier system.
Excellence: Professional development should be preparing researchers for future careers in addition to academic research – understanding the job market and transferable skills needed across sectors.
The realities of a competitive academic career should be made clear at an early stage for researchers. But the question was raised, ‘is the extra support provided in a DTC potentially shielding them from some of the realities?’

Rebekah Smith McGloin (Doctoral Training Programmes Manager, University of Nottingham)
Rebekah raised some thought-provoking and pertinent points in considering some of the key questions about DTP’s in the face of huge RCUK (and other) investment, involving more recent and increasing cross-institutional consortia with ‘complex connectivity’ across industry, international networks, peers, academic community.

  • Complex administration can be involved in effective integration
  • A tension between T&L and research provision needs to be addressed.
  • Working across research organisations
  • What happens to the students who aren’t part of DTP’s? And for those involved, do they miss out on broader research community interaction?
  • Interdisciplinarity needs to be set up and supervised effectively to really work

Robin Mellors-Bourne (Deputy Chief Executive and Director, Research and Intelligence, CRAC)
Robin’s talk concentrated on understanding the recruitment and selection of PGR’s from an institutional perspective, using recent survey findings.
Why do HEI’s recruit PGR’s? Responses showed that research development and output was at the top of the list, with excellent researchers seen as ‘engines of innovation’. Income and teaching support were actually very low priorities.
Most universities are also seeking and expecting growth in the number of researchers in the next five years, whilst interestingly recognising that the total market is likely to shrink. Working towards growth is particularly true in post-92 institutions, plus an increasing international focus – therefore funding is key.
One of the most important factors in assessing applicant quality remains academic attainment with a big rise in the requirement for a Masters degree. HEI’s want to see existing expertise in research skills, showing that the researcher can hit the ground running.
Emerging issues:
What is the impact of DTP’s on everyone else? With some HEI’s diverting money to match fund research council awards, is there a danger of reduced provision available for following their own institutional research agenda.
There is an expectation of more professional doctorates and ‘blended’ models of PGR study.
Could recruitment come from a narrower base as a result?

Iain Cameron – (Head of Research Careers and Diversity, RCUK)
Shaping the future: expectations for doctoral training from research councils.
Supervisors should recognise doctoral study as broad training for a range of careers, with increasing numbers of postdoc’s now facing careers outside academic research. He encouraged HEI’s to collaborate and share resources.
HEI’s should continue to work with PI’s and supervisors to increase engagement in the broader researcher development agenda.
Current funding can be seen as ‘leverage’ but the expectation of match funding research council money is to ensure strategic consideration in HEI’s are given priority.
The impact of obtaining PhDs.
It was noted that a report due for publication in the autumn will include the following observations:
Employers value deep specialist skills and knowledge.
The importance of ongoing government funding
Doctoral graduates contribute to innovation.
As a result, skills and attitudes of graduates can spill over to other employers. Reference was made on the importance of embedding and sustaining training provision as renewed funding is never a guarantee.
With the development in doctoral training, where is the ‘value added’ for the broader PhD community? The value in DTP’s is often in cohort provision, inductions and some skills training. Should HEI’s consider reconfiguring their provision to include all research students to embed training and avoid a two tier system.

The Open Space discussions (the concept of sharing and openness, not hierarchical, to provoke honest discussion) covered a range of topics including:
How do we/should we better manage PhDs expectations of training/careers during recruitment processes?

  • Many take the opportunity as a means to an end: the chance to do their research. At that stage their career plans are unknown or focused on academia, so being clear on the value of the training is important in the recruitment process and induction.
  • Ask alumni to give talks on their career outside academia and how their training and PhD led to this. The cohort approach which people positively invest and engage in is already showing the benefits of this networking approach.
  • The involvement of supervisors is important to reinforce the training message at recruitment, induction and later.
  • If PhD research is viewed as a job, not the continuation of being a student then there should be an expectation of training for professional development as there is in the commercial world.

How do we support supervisors to engage with the researcher development agenda and to identify their own training needs? How might the role of supervisors be better embedded in DTC’s?

  • How do we solve the divisive potential of provision for DTC students v traditional self-funded students (in the interests of equality in the over-arching theme)?
  • Have the research councils deliberately set this up to create a two tier system, to show the value in their funding?
  • Intentional or not, a two tier model is a potential outcome.
  • Doctoral training is a very diverse landscape with different expectations of resource and training, including different expectations of students and supervisors.
  • Would it be possible to have an equality of experience with limited or ring-fenced resource in some HEI’s?
  • On a positive note, can a HEI learn from DTC provision to provide some aspects more broadly and share good practice.
  • Concern that DTC’s have developed adhoc in some cases where central coordination in training, etc is not in place.

How best to include public engagement training for PGR’s and what is most useful to them?

  • Build it into the idea of researcher personal development.
  • Seed funding for events
  • Disseminate examples of good practice in training etc. (possible involvement from Vitae?)
  • It is important to understand what funding bodies want from public engagement and impact.

These and other discussions will continue online at: https://vitaeworkspaces.basecamphq.com/projects/12192758-vitae-open-space-19-June-2014/log

Conclusions from the event and the message coming out of each theme for Vitae? 

  • What does a PhD mean today? More of a job than a continuation of study/being a student.
  • Case studies for models of excellence could be helpful.
  • Mapping the researcher developer role and context in doctoral training to raise awareness.
  • Explore the idea of excellence, reflecting on what this may mean for students and HEI’s.
  • Transferable skills training
  • What is CDT/DTP cohort good practice? Case studies on different models
  • Define public engagement in this context: models/case studies on what it is and the importance for researchers
  • Training for supervisors on the value of the researcher development/training agenda.

Researchers taking control of their own development

I’d like to introduce myself to start this month’s blog post.  I’m Lisa Lavender, based at the University of Warwick and I’ll be Vitae Midlands Hub Manager until October, covering for Kate whilst she is on maternity leave.  One of my first activities in post was to attend the Vitae South West and Wales Hub Annual Good Practice Conference, which was held in the wonderful Wales Millenium Centre in Cardiff Bay on 12 March 2014.  I hope to draw out some of the highlights and useful links in this article.

This long-standing conference has been running for over a decade now, offering an interesting mix of talks and workshops reflecting on key issues in UK researcher development.  This year the Concordat theme of ‘researchers taking control of their own development’ ran through many of the sessions.

Presentations from the day can now be found at: https://www.vitae.ac.uk/events/vitae-sww-hub-annual-good-practice-conference-2014/presentations

The keynote talk was given by Professor Michelle Ryan, University of Exeter, on ‘Uncovering the Glass Cliff’ Michelle examined the precariousness of women’s leadership positions – what do they face when they’ve broken through the glass ceiling?  The discussion centred on women in FTSE 100 companies, where it has been suggested that women in high positions on a board leads to a reduction in the company’s performance.  Michelle’s research found that women are often put on boards when performance is bad – the glass cliff – with almost an expectation of ‘challenge’ at best, failure at worst.  Women may be preferentially selected for challenging rather than maintenance, established roles because they are seen to be good in a crisis or because they and their careers are more expendable.  Whilst Michelle’s research suggests the former, the important thing to note is that it is not just the quantity of women given senior positions that is low, but also the quality of those positions is low.

Later in the day Karen Cooke from Cardiff’s ENFYS was inspiring and enthusiastic in her talk about the role of staff networks and how they can benefit both the members of the network and the HEI.  Linking your network to aspects of the university strategy and securing buy in from senior leadership is the key to success.  The resulting funding and exposure can facilitate the outputs that benefit the network … success, awards and publicity are excellent payback for the institution’s leadership.

ENFYS (Welsh for rainbow) is the LGBT+ Staff and Postgraduate Student Network at Cardiff University.  Take a look at their huge range of activities at: http://www.cardiff.ac.uk/govrn/cocom/equalityanddiversity/sexualorientation/lgbtstaffnetwork/lgbt-staff-network.html

Speak Up, Speak Clearly – how Research Staff Associations can make a difference. 

Using the RSA’s at Bristol and Exeter as case studies, this workshop started with the important, but often ignored point that active involvement in a staff association is NOT about being a researcher who doesn’t want to do research!   An active RSA can provide useful career development training and opportunities for long term benefit of the researcher beyond their pure research practice AND be a focal point for key institutional stakeholders to engage with researchers.  The message is – get yourself noticed.

The Midlands RSA is now a sizeable community and we are currently putting together an event for later in the summer around career development and networking.  If you’d like to get involved or find out more please email:  midlandshub@vitae.ac.uk .  UKRSA have produced three useful guides about RSA’s which can all be found at https://www.vitae.ac.uk/communities/uk-research-staff-association/ukrsa-projects-and-publications :

  • A Guide to Research Staff Associations
  • Understanding Research Staff Associations and their impact
  • How will getting involved with a research staff association benefit you?

Supporting Researchers with Equality and Diversity Issues was an interactive session led by Tracy Stead.  Vitae’s ‘Every Researcher Counts’ material was designed to help PI’s recognise and support E&D needs amongst the researchers they manage.  Tracy’s current project aims to offer institutions more possible uses of the existing resources and widen the perspective to all research staff.  The package will be more clearly modularised, making it easy to pull out specific resources and case studies.  We look forward to more resources coming online later in the year, but take a look at what Vitae currently offers on Every Researcher Counts at: https://www.vitae.ac.uk/doing-research/every-researcher-counts-equality-and-diversity-in-researcher-careers

Going it alone…

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I was encouraged to hear that, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), the UK economy grew by 0.7% in the last quarter of 2013 – the fastest rate since 2007. 

So if the state of the UK economy has been the reason stopping you starting your own business perhaps now is the time to seriously consider taking the plunge.

As the wife of an ‘inventor’ who quit his job in 2007 to follow his dream of setting up his own company, I can assure you, life is not always a bed of roses, especially when you launch your new company on the eve of a financial downturn. But, for every day that we have wondered was this a good idea? How will we pay the bills this month? There have been some pretty impressive benefits. I have never seen Rod more happy and it means he is able to spend time with us as a family, collect our son from school and attend all the school performances and open days that just wouldn’t be possible if he had continued with his 7am – 5.30pm Monday to Saturday job. Suddenly, we have our weekends to do things we want and weekday flexibility to avoid all the stress of Saturday morning supermarket shopping.

Self employment for me came in 2010.  After the birth our first son I took the decision to go part time in my ‘day job’ to help with childcare. A happy up-shot was that I was able to develop my own business in my ‘spare time’. This halfway house between working as the Midlands Hub Manager part-time and also running my own training company has meant I haven’t taken the ultimate plunge – yet! For me I enjoy the Vitae side of my job and the variety it provides but also love the freedom my ‘self-employed’ 2 days per week gives me. With both my husband and me having elements of self-employment in our career we can be flexible with our holidays, we are no-longer limited to 2 days at Christmas to fit in with other members of staff. If we want an ad hoc weekend away we can. Normal working patterns are out of the window. Need to take the morning off…? no problem, just work later in the evening instead! Need an excuse not to visit family – Oh you are busy working!

This flexibility is something that comes up again and again when you ask people what the best bits about self-employment are.

It’s the FREEDOM!! The fact that if I want to have a long lunch or take a day off and go to the beach because the sun is shining, I can do it if I want to (even though I know I have to make the time up later…might as well do it when it’s raining outside)…” Tracey Stead, Independent training consultant, facilitator and coach

Variety also features highly on the list. As you are now head of finance, HR, marketing, operations, strategic planning, catering, estates and staff development, you can be sure there will be something different that needs doing everyday. There is also variety in the opportunities that you can get involved with. No more asking your line manager if you can attend a seminar or business lunch that is not quite related to you role. As Tracey says “you never know what opportunities are round the corner, and if you don’t like some of the things you end up doing, you don’t have to do them again

Jo Gilman of JoG Ltd  adds “I also enjoy working on a range of different contracts because then you start to get paid more than once a month  which is all rather nice.”

The variety associated with being your own boss can mean you are no-longer at the beck and call of those colleagues / bosses that can cause you ‘stress’ –  you don’t have some of the cumulative annoyances that build up when you work in an organisation for a long time, the lack of meetings and bureaucracy features highly on the benefits of working for yourself. “When you work in lots of different places, you know that you probably won’t have to deal with the same issue again (at least not very often), so I have found that I am much calmer and more buoyant, as I can now shrug off some of the things that used to irritate me as I know the next day I will be somewhere else

For Rod, he is his own boss. He decides the mark up of his products, who he wants to do business with and who can and can’t tell him what to do. His creativity is no longer stifled. If he sees a better more efficient way of working he can implement it – no need to take his idea to the board for consultation.     

With the exception of  HM revenue and Customs, there is no-one telling you when you have to do things by. Tracey gives the advice of  being disciplined about putting your money away for your tax bill. “When I get an invoice paid, I don’t see the tax proportion as ‘my money’, I see it as belonging to someone else, so it feels like stealing if I dip in to the tax savings!” You are freed from the unending cycle of “things to do” which comes with a 9-5 – normally imposed upon you by someone else, and instead get to choose what you do, when you do it, and also where you do it which is far more exciting. “There is also that tingle of anticipation when a new opportunity appears and you start to  consider how you might do the work – along with that really affirming high when you either win work or are asked to do work” says Jo.

Of course there are downsides to self employment. The flip side to the flexibility can mean at times you might feel a lot pressure to accept work, even if the timing isn’t great, or it isn’t quite your thing, because you never know when there might not be any. But be honest and say no if you really can’t do something or if you don’t have time.  It is so tempting to say yes to everything you are offered – but in the long run your credibility will suffer if you start to over-commit and can’t deliver. If your new found freedom and flexibility now involves frequent travel and over stays you may find the novelty soon wears off. One self employed consultant commented: “I have no idea why people would ever say they enjoy travelling. They clearly never travel on Cross Country trains, via Birmingham New Street, nor on budget airlines. And they never stay in Ibis hotels…

There will be times when working for yourself means you require more self motivation and discipline than when you are working for someone else, after all, if you don’t do the work who else will? However, as PhD graduates you know the pitfalls of being your own master but have successfully navigated your way through at least one project where you have decided outcomes, managed budgets and managed a vast workforce of one.

Looking at the Researcher Development Framework and the skills and attributes developed as a result of working as a researcher it is not surprising that many PhD Graduates find their way in to self employment or entrepreneurship. If you want to know what these skills and attributes are then take a look at the RDF Enterprise Lens

If you want to know more about starting your own business have a look at:

 Good luck.