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 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.

I thought I’d start here by making sure that you as researchers are aware you have access to specialist researcher careers advisers and understand the range of ways that we can work with you to achieve what you want to achieve. I thought I’d do this by busting a few myths.

I don’t know what I want to do so you won’t be able to advise me.

Our role is not to tell you what the ideal career is for you. But we can work with you to better understand yourself and identify what skills, experience, knowledge and interests you have and how you could (not should) use them. Perhaps more importantly, we can assist you to recognise what motivates you, what your values are and how these relate to the life you want to lead. Career choice isn’t about coming up with a specific job title, especially when you have so many options. It is more about identifying priorities and opportunities and looking at what works best for you. You may know more about what your future career looks like than you think you do.

I know what I want to do so I don’t need your help.

It’s great that you know what you want to do but there is still so much that we can offer. Once you have a direction in mind, we can support you to develop a strategy to achieve it.  Whether it be how to find vacancies, develop contacts, target a speculative approach, role-play a networking conversation, provide feedback on your CV, cover letter, application statement or offer interview coaching we can work with you to get to where you want to be. Once you’ve got an offer (or two) the support could extend to how to negotiate salary and benefits or choose between offers!

I want an academic career so my supervisor or PI is the best person to talk to.

Getting advice and support from both those around you and those who work in the area that interests you is very wise. They will have experience, knowledge, contacts and professional expertise to share. But that expertise is based on their own experiences and career path and while that is useful and highly valuable, an effective researcher will always want to explore a variety of sources. We are experts in supporting researchers to  develop an academic career too!

I’ve got a job lined up already so I don’t need any support.

Our goal is to equip you with the skills, confidence, self-awareness and decision-making ability to manage your career for the rest of your life. We can work with you to make the most of the opportunities that come along both now and in the future. Despite the negative portrayal, professional careers guidance and coaching is expensive if you are paying for it, so we’d encourage you to make the most of it while you can!

You won’t know anything about the career I am interested in.

That could be true! Our job title doesn’t help our cause. Our role encompasses advice, guidance, counselling, information giving, teaching, training, strategising, research, writing and lots of other things. It isn’t about swotting up on every job there is and knowing everything about it. Having said that, we have spent many years working with researchers so we have picked up a bit of knowledge about the career paths that researchers go into! What we will be able to do is enable you to find the right resources, people or professional associations to explore and research a career, however obscure it may be.

Aren’t careers advisers just well-meaning women in cardigans?

True, there are more women in careers guidance than there are men and we have been known to wear cardigans. But we are also professionals, with degrees and postgraduate qualifications in careers guidance and a commitment to developing and enhancing our professional practice. We undertake peer review, evaluation and quality assessment of our competence. We have made a very specific career choice to work in HE with the researcher community and enable you to manage every aspect of your career decision making effectively and successfully. We do so with respect, objectivity and confidentiality alongside a good sense humour and some fun thrown in. That doesn’t mean we won’t challenge what you say – this is an academic institution after all!

I won’t say that poor careers guidance doesn’t exist; unfortunately, there is bad practice in every profession. But don’t let a negative experience or an image in the media put you off. Make the most of the support, advice, guidance and coaching on offer throughout your time as a researcher!


Image credits: Channel 4



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…..

A few months ago the Medical School applied for a gold Athena Swan award and being part New-Athena-SWAN-logo-220x107of the self-assessment team (made up of a mix of academics, professional services staff and research staff and students) I witnessed the hard work and dedication many of my colleagues showed, striving to ensure recognition for the fantastic work that has been carried out over the past few years to enhance the departments. Some of these activities include;

  • Baby changing and breast feeding facilities
  • ‘The Whyte Payment’ initiative designed to encourage and support our female colleagues to keep in touch with the University whilst on maternity leave, via payment for childcare
  • SWIM – Sheffield Women in Medicine network; promoting culture change within the NHS
  • Enhancing SRDS (appraisal process) for researchers

At the same time as we were applying for gold in the medical school, the University of Sheffield was awarded its first silver award (one of only 9 Universities to hold a silver institution award) which just goes to show our ongoing commitment to gender equality in research.

Equality Challenge Unit’s (ECU) Athena SWAN Charter was established in 2005 to encourage and recognise commitment to advancing the careers of women in science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine (STEMM) employment in higher education and research. In 2015 the charter was expanded to recognise work undertaken in arts, humanities, social sciences, business and law (AHSSBL), and in professional and support roles, and for trans staff and students. The charter now recognises work undertaken to address gender equality more broadly, and not just barriers to progression that affect women.


Medical School Athena Swan Self-Assessment Team 2013

The Medical School was successful in achieving a silver award in 2013 for its achievement and hard work promoting gender equality. In order to achieve a silver award, we worked with colleagues to identify particular challenges, and took action to respond to these, which had a demonstrable impact on the Medical School. As a result of the process, action is being taken to promote truly innovative working environments that allow both men and women to thrive.

Sheila Francis, Head of the Department of Infection, Immunity & Cardiovascular Disease and leader of the successful Medical School application said: “Our silver award celebrates all the good work that has gone in to improving the career paths of women in clinical and non-clinical academic medicine over the past several years through mentoring, better support and crucially, through improving the visibility of role models. There is still more work to do and I look forward to a time when such efforts will not be required.”

The Athena SWAN Charter is based on ten key principles. By being part of Athena SWAN, institutions are committing to a progressive charter; adopting these principles within their policies, practices, action plans and culture.

  1. We acknowledge that academia cannot reach its full potential unless it can benefit from the talents of all.
  2. We commit to advancing gender equality in academia, in particular, addressing the loss of women across the career pipeline and the absence of women from senior academic, professional and support roles.
  3. We commit to addressing unequal gender representation across academic disciplines and professional and support functions. In this we recognise disciplinary differences including:
  • the relative underrepresentation of women in senior roles in arts, humanities, social sciences, business and law (AHSSBL)
  • the particularly high loss rate of women in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine (STEMM)
  1. We commit to tackling the gender pay gap.
  2. We commit to removing the obstacles faced by women, in particular, at major points of career development and progression including the transition from PhD into a sustainable academic career.
  3. We commit to addressing the negative consequences of using short-term contracts for the retention and progression of staff in academia, particularly women.
  4. We commit to tackling the discriminatory treatment often experienced by trans people.
  5. We acknowledge that advancing gender equality demands commitment and action from all levels of the organisation and in particular active leadership from those in senior roles.
  6. We commit to making and mainstreaming sustainable structural and cultural changes to advance gender equality, recognising that initiatives and actions that support individuals alone will not sufficiently advance equality.
  7. All individuals have identities shaped by several different factors. We commit to considering the intersection of gender and other factors wherever possible.

So not all gold medals require sporting prowess, but I think it’s safe to say they do take an awful lot of hard work, time and dedication on the teams involved in ‘going for gold’. I also resisted the urge to fill this blog post with a load of sporting metaphors or idioms, but for those who wished I had and would like further reading, Wikipedia has plenty🙂

Image credits:

Olympic picture

Athena Swan logo

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:

You are submitting a work in progress. Your thesis is a status update on where you are at with the research. You do not have to ‘complete’ the research, you just have to be able to explain why you made the decisions you did. Are the gaps you feel inclined to fill, actually gaps – holes in your argument that render it unconvincing? Or are they additional work that follows up new lines of investigation?

Feeling insecure is normal. Remember that you very familiar an involved in what you are writing. If it’s not a surprise to you, or exciting anymore it’s understandable that you have become sick of the sight of it, and started to lose confidence in its value. Remember that your opinion is now skewed and you can’t objectively evaluate your work.

 Literature will keep coming! Repeated last minute searching and checking for new literature won’t help you. It can feel that each time you collate an article it into your growing work, another two interesting articles appear and get on the to do list. Don’t be tempted to keep monitoring new outputs in order to add it, this will cycle, and delay you.

The doctorate is a pass or fail qualification. There’s no A+ grade available. A complete document that demonstrates what’s been done, why, and that you did it, is what’s needed. Think about what is required for a thesis, and fulfil those requirements. You can’t ‘win’ at thesis.

The end isn’t the end yet. How ever long you spend checking, proofreading, polishing, and rechecking, you will always find some small mistakes after you have submitted it. Not to worry! You can be doing these self-identified corrections in the time gap before your viva.

Remember the getting your thesis submitted on time is your responsibility and you are the person to make the decision on when to stop. It’s your call, do listen to the advice from supervisors, do compare your work to other theses that passed, but the final decision is yours.



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 »

This is a gust post from Saima Eman, a PhD Commonwealth Scholar in the Psychology Department and UREC student representative at University of Sheffield. She is also a Lecturer in Psychology at the Lahore College for Women University in Pakistan.


No relationship is perfect, and a student and supervisor are very lucky if they can build a trusting and respectful supervisory relationship. In this post, I share some precautions and practical tips to get the best match for you, and maintain good student-supervisor relations throughout the PhD, drawn from my own 17 years of experience in research.

Finding out about the academic and ethical reputation, working styles, and idiosyncrasies, of the potential supervisor will be significant to your whole future career. Do not rush into making commitments, take your time. Delve deeper into institutional and group rules and procedures before formally agreeing to work on the project. Try out a pilot study at the beginning if you can, take summer projects, research assistant posts, be choosy.

Read the rest of this entry »

I was inspired during a Twitter conversation a couple of weeks ago to consider concepts and perceptions of professionalism. The opinions offered online and the research literature on professionalism, professional trust, and professional development, are vast and sprawling, and each profession has its own definitions and competencies that make up what it means to be professional. You can imagine that professionalism in Paediatric Physiotherapists is defined in a different way to professionalism in Chartered Accountants or professionalism in Theatre Stage Managers. I’ve not done a comparative analysis of all this, because lists of similar and different ‘in theory’ skills and competencies aren’t too useful in shaping how we help others develop professionalism. I’m more interested in examples of how this plays out in practice. Read the rest of this entry »

researchwell jpgThis blog is run by the Think Ahead team, at the University of Sheffield. We work with postdoctoral and postgraduate researchers, supporting them to develop careers inside or outside of academia. We’re very privileged to be able to  work with researchers as they progress through their PhD, start a new research contract or take the next step in their career. We see their successes and their achievements – and it’s brilliant!

Inevitably, though, we also see the other side: researchers who are struggling or stressed-out.  Because – spoiler alert – academia is hard! It’s enough of a challenge when everything’s plain-sailing in the rest of your life but, when a perfect storm of work and other life stresses come at once, it can feel overwhelming. Read the rest of this entry »


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