This blog comes to you from the interdisciplinary Researcher Professional Development team at the University of Sheffield. We’ll be updating on researcher issues, national news and trends, key achievements for the team, and other things that research staff, and staff development professionals will find of interest.

As many of you will know, the Researcher Professional Development Team has a Twitter handle @thinkaheadsheff.  Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been looking after the account and as a result, I came across what I found to be a really interesting article. This isn’t always easy as the speed of traffic and new information that comes across the home feed is staggering to a luddite like me.

Anyway, on Friday 2nd September, The Guardian newspaper published an article entitled, “My dirty little secret: I’ve been writing erotic novels to fund my PhD.”  The article is a perspective piece from an academic who, as the title suggests, has written erotic fiction and found it well received by consumers.

It wasn’t so much the article itself that I reacted to, it was more that I felt my own reaction was out of kilter with the implied response.  All I could think was, ‘this person is both creative and entrepreneurial’.  I wondered, is the awkwardness and ‘shame’ the writer describes rooted in the fact the books focus on erotica rather than say science or crime fiction or is it just a pure case of, ‘one person’s weed is another person’s wildflower’.

I decided to go back to Twitter and see what the masses had said.  There were a few replies to the tweet but none of them seemed to take a position of shock or derision, in fact many were very complimentary:

“I don’t see why this would make the news?? People do this sort of stuff it’s normal; it’s not controversial in the slightest:/.”

“This person is my new academic hero – bravo!”

I also recall a couple of others that stuck with me, one about someone confessing their ‘secret shame’ being that they read this genre of books and another being doff of cap impressed that someone completed a PhD and three novels in such a short time period!

As often happens, song lyrics popped in to my head to illustrate my point

A man’s called a traitor or liberator. A rich man’s a thief or philanthropist.
Is one a crusader or ruthless invader? It’s all in which label is able to persist.”
(‘Wonderful’ from Wicked, A New Musical)

I am left considering the nature of perspective and how we can potentially limit ourselves by accepting a viewpoint without challenging it or considering whether there might be another way to look at it.

Old or young?


I think it is critical to our individual progress to be bold, take chances and to always ask questions.  Being entrepreneurial or creative should be something we embrace because while we all do have different viewpoints and varying skills, what we definitely share is a common potential for growth.

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I must admit that I ummed and ahhed about posting this entry. For a start, I’m still in pretty deep denial about it already being September, and the fact that the new academic year is about to begin; and, for another thing, I’ve touched on my approach to resolutions and goal-setting before in this blog, and I was conscious that I could be about to repeat or, maybe, entirely contradict that post. But, actually, I’ve been thinking quite a lot about my New (academic) Year’s resolutions, and, from talking to other colleagues and researchers, I’m not alone.

A lot of us across HE have had our annual development review/appraisal in the last month or so and, while I’m certainly not going to perpetuate the whole academia “halcyon days of summer” myth, it’s true to say that, for a lot of us, the summer gives us some time for planning and reflection, so as well as focusing on our articulated annual objectives and work goals, I think it’s worth asking a couple of extra questions – one relatively simple (to lull us all into a false sense of security) and one much trickier… Read the rest of this entry »

IMG_1137.jpgThrough my thesis mentoring work, PhD supervisors write to me most weeks and ask — with varying tones of enthusiasm and frustration  —

“how can I support/encourage/motivate/force my student to get their thesis written?”

I tailor my reply to the cues I pick up from the emails, the context, timing, relational aspects. I ask for more detail about what’s been happening. Sometimes I coach the supervisor, sometimes I coach the student.

It would be a bit cheap and simplistic to suggest that every individual’s circumstances and relationships can be boiled down to the same couple of pieces of advice, but commonly I find myself discussing a variation of the two points below. I share it openly in the spirit of coaching — use it if it’s useful to you. I can’t give you 2 golden tips that will always work (because, doh), but here are some things to think about and be aware of.

In my and others’ experience, the biggest block to thesis writing is fear.

(1) Fear of the new, uncomfortable and unknown;

(2) Fear of being vulnerable (see here for more from me on vulnerability) being wrong, being embarrassed, or being found wanting.

On (1). Does your student know what they are supposed to achieve, how and by when? Do they know what ‘good’ looks like? Do they know how long writing takes? Do they know what processes we follow to get academic writing done?

You could: ask them to find and read/skim/compare some recent ‘good’ theses, and come back to you to discuss what they though of the tone/content and style. How similar or different will their thesis be to those they looked at. In short help them to go and get a clear sense of the product they are aiming for and how their thesis outline fits into this format.

You could: Show them the hidden work of writing. Students starting out with writing tend to be really unaware of the processes of development we go through to make our writing good. They assume (because its all they see) that we can just free-flow perfectly finished prose on to the page. So when their own first drafts are not perfect, they panic and delete it as ‘not good enough’, or they have difficulty showing it to you to get feedback. You could try reminding them how many drafts your last grant or paper went thorough, and perhaps show them your draft work. Making the drafting process explicit and normal helps to demystify the process of how writing is produced.

You could: as a very rough and ready guide, ask them to calculate how many working days to their deadline and show them that if they write in small bursts each day they can complete it fairly painlessly. e.g. 80,000 words/260 days = 307 words of new writing each day over a year. Make it explicit that if they leave it all to the last few months, this is going to get significantly harder and more stressful (they won’t believe you). Please do encourage/expect them to be writing as early as possible and not leaving it all to do in a ‘writing up’ phase. Ask them to note how long it takes them to write a 100 words, 500 words, 1000 words,. Show them that they can factor writing into their weekly schedule, and weave small bursts of writing into and around their other work, 30min here, an hour there.

On (2). Does your student know you are on their side? Data collection/analysis work is familiar and comforting, whereas writing is new territory and therefore involves some insecurity and discomfort. For harder tasks, those that are less familiar to us, require more effort or that we are more insecure with — we all have to manage our avoidance instincts and tendency to do something more immediately gratifying. The fear and avoidance is increased when the work we are producing will be used by others to judge us. Providing a safe environment for your student to get it wrong, miss things out, need to redraft is a good way of building up confidence with writing. Having a buddy/champion/cheerleader is more likely to motivate anxious writers to have a go, than having a critic/antagonist/prison warden.

You could: Make it explicit that you both want them to succeed. Make it clear that you are there to help them by giving them feedback to shape what they draft up, and that together you will make sure it’s a good thesis, worthy of being submitted for examination. Perhaps define what each of your roles is, what they do, and what you do, but make it clear that even through they are the one who needs to write it, it’s a partnership and they are not standing on their own against the wrath of scientific community.

You could: Keep the faith. In wanting to help students prepare a defendable thesis don’t get hung up on making it watertight in the first instance by picking up every last little issue. Yes, others will criticise the document, but only after it’s been worked on more. Perhaps ask the student to self-mark their work before meeting you to discuss it. Then compare your marking, did you both identify the same issues with the text? Their red pen will be more palatable to them than yours. And hopefully as they learn to self-correct, you will have less to do.

You could: Encourage ‘just getting started’ by adapting/improving the process below — this is not a failsafe, it’s the process I myself follow when I’m panicking about what my data show and how to communicate it. Perhaps encouraging your students too to scratch out something that’s relatively easy, to start with the descriptives and build up the criticality in their writing, might help them figure out what they want to say too.

  1. Make a figure/table/point
  2. Write the legend/expand the point
  3. Describe the data = the ‘what’
  4. Describe why it’s important novel or interesting and what they can conclude = the ‘so what’
  5. Describe what literature agrees/disagrees and why this might be = the critical voice
  6. Describe the still unknowns, the caveats and the obvious next steps = the ‘what next’

You’ll note that all of the above relies on open channels of communication and as much listening and patience, as directed guiding and advising. This is why I wouldn’t like to say it will work for every supervisor-student relationship.  As always, your questioning, countering, discussion, and expansion of these thoughts are welcomed in the comments.

And if you’re looking for a deep read on supervising doctoral writing — please look here at Pat Thompson and Barbara Kamler’s work.

As the build up increases to the Paralympics, Channel 4 have launched a trailer called, ‘We’re the Superhumans’ which is receiving a lot of positive press and has even been described as the “best TV trailer ever”. It is great in so many ways; uplifting, insightful, educational and inspiring, it really shows what people can achieve. But one aspect of it left me feeling very frustrated. Throughout the trailer people are singing, saying or signing the words “yes I can” but at 2 minutes 15 seconds the shot goes to an office with a ‘careers’ sign on the door and a man is his 50s, wearing a grey suit, is talking to a schoolboy who is a wheelchair user and saying, “no you can’t”. It only lasts a couple of seconds and then returns to the previous, positivity but the message is very clear. Careers advisers will tell you what to do, or more likely, what you can’t do, they’ll judge you and will ultimately trample all over your dreams and aspirations. Don’t take my word for it, have a look yourself. But do come back and read the rest of this post!

It isn’t the first time careers advisers have been portrayed in this way and it won’t be the last. We’re often subject to the same level of scorn as estate agents, investment bankers, second-hand car salesmen and tabloid journalists. But to be portrayed so negatively in amongst such inspiring messages was a bit much, especially when you know it is so inaccurate. Having said that, careers advisers do have to take some responsibility for improving their image and re-educating people about their role. Read the rest of this entry »

olympics imageI thought it was particularly apt with the current fantastic success for team GB at the Rio Olympics that I talk about ‘Going for gold’. Only I’m not talking really about how we can win Olympic gold medals, but actually awards for improving the research environment for our early career researchers at the University.

All this talk of ‘winning gold’ at the moment had me wondering how many of our researchers actually realise the huge amount of time and effort some of their colleagues are giving to improve the research and career environment for them both at department and university level.

When I say the words ‘research environment’ many people often think about the Research Excellence Framework (REF) in 2014 which contained an assessment of the research environment via a narrative containing information on a unit’s research strategy, people (staff and students), income, infrastructure, facilities and collaboration. But this isn’t the only process a University is involved in to recognise and encourage development of the research environment… Read the rest of this entry »

My usual thesis banter is all about how to start writing. But in order to get it submitted at some point you have to stop.

thesis.pngLots of you will have hard deadlines to meet and be beavering away towards them. I hear sometimes though a variation on “…but I want to be finished way before that.” There can be flexibility in any self-imposed deadline that allows you to slide it back if you want to. Beware this tendency to drag the process on longer and longer and if you can, force an end by planning a ‘full stop’ point. Maybe plan a holiday, or agree a job start date that requires you to have finished your thesis. It’s hard to write and fully commit to your work in a new role, as many people who are juggling a full time job and thesis writing will echo.

As you come towards the end, keep your mind on being done, and remind yourself: Read the rest of this entry »

trip-birthday-quotesAs another birthday looms (tomorrow! eek) , I again take the opportunity to reflect on the last year and make plans for the next.

It’s a bit like News Year’s Eve except that I have to do it alone, as it’s my birthday and no one else’s! (well, maybe a few million others but no family or friends) No one will be asking me what my new resolutions are, just wishing me ‘Happy Birthday’ with smiles on their faces. Read the rest of this entry »

Below, and here, are two stories of PhD study from researchers who combined work and a PhD. While both are positive accounts, there are some differences, for example, working as a practitioner in the same field as you study, or working on multiple research projects including the PhD. What both have spoken of though is:

  • Perspective: the PT PhD as one aspect, albeit important, of who they are and their career portfolio. This helps to maintain momentum, and enthusiasm, and avoids becoming entrenched in the idea of the perfect PhD.
  • Complementary: Working and studying within the same topic areas, or having insight into the research culture and university workings, all useful things in navigating PhD progression.
  • Process not product: seeing the PhD as a learning and growth opportunity, and slowly building skills and experiences towards the next step.

I hope you enjoy them both, there are some good ideas here for full time PhD students too.

This piece is from Samuel Dent (@SRDent89), a researcher in Higher Education, at Sheffield Hallam University.

My PhD topic area is based in my experiences of working on the front line of University Student Support. Each March I’d brace for impact as swathes of 20/21-year-olds about to graduate would come to see me; exhausted/tempted to withdraw, and questioning the purpose of their entire education. At this point in the year most graduate recruitment schemes had announced their new recruits, and inevitably some students didn’t make the cut. For many of these students this was the first time they had realized that beginning their career would not be straightforward, and that being successful had not come easy this time.

Read the rest of this entry »

This post is from Melanie Lovatt (@melanie_lovatt), who has just completed a PhD in Sociological Studies. For a sister-post on part-time PhDs, please see here.

Dr Melanie Lovatt.jpgBack in 2010 I excitedly told friends and family that I had decided to do a part-time PhD. “Part-time?” repeated a relative sceptically. “Well, how long’s that going to take you?” “Around six years!” I replied, with an enthusiasm that I suspected might desert me long before completion. But five years and nine months on, having passed my viva with minor corrections last month and about to start a lectureship, I can honestly say that doing my PhD part-time was the right decision for me. Here are some reflections on the process: Read the rest of this entry »

This post is a follow up to one I wrote in April, which (sad face) didn’t generate any comments or debate.  As I mentioned then, the University is a signatory  the UK ‘Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers‘.  Blank face? I hope not but just in case, here is how RCUK sum it up on their website:

“The Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers sets out the expectations and responsibilities of researchers, their managers, employers and funders. It aims to increase the attractiveness and sustainability of research careers in the UK and to improve the quantity, quality and impact of research for the benefit of UK society and the economy.”

The Concordat underpins the work so many of us do and has had a massive effect on the way in which the University of Sheffield considers and improves the environment for researchers. Read the rest of this entry »