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.
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.
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 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