Questions from new Research Leaders

Alongside the suite of training that we provide for PhD students and research staff, we work with Colleges and Schools around the University to support academic staff in a range of ways. One of these is our Research Leader programme which is aimed at academic staff who have begun to secure external funding and therefore are supervising students and managing research staff. The programme is flexible but typical runs over three or four days, usually within a College.

The first programme of 2017 began last week and as usual we started by looking at the role of research leaders at Edinburgh, helped by getting a personal and institutional view of leadership and future opportunities from a senior academic. We then discussed how to effectively manage and motivate people through understanding different approaches to communication, feedback and planning.

The programme is also a great place for people to ask questions of our guest experts, me and each other. I suspect that the questions raised at last week’s course are common concerns or areas of confusion for academics, so rather than email the group with the resources I’ve found to answer these, I thought I’d share them. Perhaps if you are reading this at Edinburgh, this might help you understand the breadth of topics we talk about.

How do I develop an effective impact strategy?

With the REF consultation currently doing the rounds here and in all other HEIs, it’s not surprising that researchers are aware of their responsibilities to produce research with impact although they were reminded that the researchers responsibility is to create a “pathway” to impact by ensuring they identify potential partners and dissemination approaches rather than realising the impact themselves. There is a wealth of information about impact now, so these links are the tip of the iceberg, but carefully chosen:

  • An initial review – I’ve chosen PATHWAYS TO IMPACT AND THE STRATEGIC ROLE OF
    UNIVERSITIES by Hughes and Kitson, University of Cambridge which was referenced in the Dowling Review. It analyses the early examples of pathways to impact statements and gives new principal investigators a view of what other researchers identified as impact when it was first embedded in the funding system.
  • A recent analysis – partly for the title of “Slightly Dirty Maths” which “explored how research can generate impacts by investigating different sorts of impacts from one academic field—mathematics—and the diverse mechanisms generating them.
  • A broad exploration – HEFCE funded to LSE to explore impact in the social sciences but the Impact of Social Sciences blog which was the principal platform for discussion and dissemination has a much greater breadth. A huge resource for all things impact related and all disciplines.
  • A handbook – based on personal experience, research, workshops and interviews, The Research Impact Handbook by Professor Mark Reed of Fast Track Impact is an accessible guide to impact for academics. The website includes many useful resources to help you get a sense of the approach in the book.

How do I promote myself and opportunities in my group more effectively?

After enjoying the glow of being awarded your first substantial grant or fellowship comes the realisation that you now need to recruit students or research staff. We cover the HR side of recruitment in the programme, but the questions on day one were about how to be visible to the best potential researchers. We discussed the value of teaching in engaging local undergraduates, but for those further afield there are a range of approaches. Clearly, publishing good work and making sure this is actively disseminated is key, so we will look at strategies for this later in the programme (some thoughts from previous sessions are collated here), but we also talked about producing short videos to explain research.

At Edinburgh the “Research in a Nutshell” project from a few years ago helped hundreds of researchers produce short videos (most of which currently seem to be unavailable – I’m looking into this) and many academics also have an active online presence. We also discussed the value of visiting other departments to give seminars, noting that staff who have responsibility for organising these programmes will usually be pleased (often grateful) to hear from an engaging researcher with interesting work to present.

What are the best strategies for protecting time to be creative, to write and to have a life outside the university?

The fragmentation of time is a problem for most of us and can be devastating to productivity in areas like writing and thinking, which are critical for research. We can often learn from the good habits and personal approaches of others, so we spent time on the course sharing advice and experiences. One of the resources mentioned was the “One Hour Workday” which appeared in Science last year in which Jeffrey McDonnell of the Universities of Saskatchewan and Aberdeen explains how he manages to protect time for writing.

I’m looking into online resources to help our researchers manage their time, but until I decide on which are best, I’ll be pointing to a time management guide based on previous workshops run at Edinburgh and other places from my previous role. With regard to creativity, there is a free ebook available co-authored by Professor Judy Robertson from Edinburgh – BITE, which captures “the research, learning and experiences of an international network of scholars studying effective and creative research environments” in the form of short “recipes”. (Another BITE guide looking at equality and diversity will be published later in the year.)

Are there examples of well written funding applications to help me improve my approach?

Like most universities, we have a wealth of internal expertise on funding both in our Research Support Office and throughout the academic community. These come together in our database of successful applications (internal access only) and colleagues will often share perspectives and examples to support applicants with less experience. It can be particularly valuable to see reviewer comments and the proposal writer’s response to these.

One funding stream that was mentioned in the session was the Global Challenges Research Fund. A recent blog by a panel member gives some insights into the features of succesful applicants to GCRF from a recent call. Given our high ranking in the recent THE Most International Universities ranking (is there a ranking of THE rankings?), it’s not surprising that this fund is seen as strategically important here. (Particularly given that our new Principal is quoted in the THE article in his current guise.)


Finally, one of the participants gave an enthusiastic endorsement of the Making the Right Moves guide for new faculty produced by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. I’ve been recommending this online guide for many years and it is a great resource albeit one written for the US system, for life sciences and based on workshops run around 15 years ago. Whilst still very valuable, I now tend to point people towards the more recent and UK focused “How to Succeed as a Scientist” by Professors Barbara Gabrys and Jane Langdale from Oxford University (also based on a series of professional development workshops). Each chapter (contents listed here) looks at a different facet of academic life, presents both theories and good practice and and points back to the workshop origins of the book in a recurring “How We Did It” section which support the reader to plan similar events.

For a more general view of current academic policy and external influencing factors, the WONKHE website provides digestable summaries and opinion.

If you are interested in learning more about Research Leader and attending a progamme in your College, there are more details on the IAD website.

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