Becoming a competent researcher and progressing in academia requires commitment, dedication, time and much more. Developing the many skills and competencies of researchers to be competitive for jobs within an international research market could be a daunting prospect. During some of the workshops we run for PhD students and Postdoctoral Research Associates, we often discuss about the many opportunities that young researchers should take to make the best of their research period at the University, and we encourage our young researchers to take on additional responsibilities in order to build their CVs.
In order words we tell them “well, just doing your research won’t be enough, you need to develop your leadership skills, gain some teaching experience, practice reviewing papers, develop your network, become commercially aware”, and the list goes on. Not to mention, writing skills, the ability to publish well in good journals and the added bonus of demonstrating a track record in gaining research funding.
There isn’t one way or a ‘right’ way to become an academic or a research-trained professional. With our best intentions as researcher developers we help young researchers take charge of their career and become pro-active and engaged in their professional development so that they have the best chances to transit into the jobs they want, we must also and somehow safeguard them from a culture of excess in academia.
By encouraging early career researchers to make the most of all these opportunities, are we not increasing the burden of what young researchers may feel is required to become a successful researcher? How can we encourage engagement without overwhelming researchers about what lies ahead?
A recent survey undertaken by the Guardian about the state of mental health in academic communities and an earlier survey by UCU about stress and well-being in higher higher education staff make for cautionary tales. Respondents to the recent Guardian survey were from the whole spectrum of academic positions: from PhD students to senior academics. For this set of respondents, “Heavy workloads, lack of support and isolation are the key factors contributing to mental illness”.
So as researcher developers, supervisors and research line managers, I would suggest that our responsibility is not only to get young researchers to develop the many skills and competencies (see the Researcher Development Framework, Vitae) of excellent researchers, our duty is also to allow researchers to gain skills and strategies to maintain a healthy and balanced mental state.
Life in academic circles can be filled with extreme feelings during the course of research projects. In coaching sessions with early career researchers, I often come across researchers with negative thoughts about themselves, their abilities or about managing their careers
- I can’t finish my thesis on time
- I lack confidence in talking in meetings
- I don’t know whether I can have an academic career as I am not sure I am good enough
- I am not sure I can continue in research because if I do, I won’t be able to have a normal life
- I feel a wreck every time I get negative feedback on a research manuscript
- I can’t hold feelings of happiness and satisfaction even when I am successful as I keep my mind on the next challenge or hurdle
Many of us will have either experienced these thoughts or seeing others crippled by them. The gremlins and monsters in our heads (see my Halloween metaphor in the picture with my son in disguise) are the real threats to our academic and professional progressions.
So how do we support researchers in gaining skills, tools and strategies to maintain a healthy mindset? Over my next few blog posts, I will focus on some of these strategies.
Today, I would like you to consider as a tool the concept of a problem-solving group, support-group, coaching group or even sometimes called mastermind group. Whatever you want to call it, the concept of such group has been brilliantly illustrated in the book by Ellen Daniell “Every Other Thursday: stories and strategies from successful women scientists”.
I was made aware of this book by one of the Springboard for women participants and have found it truly inspiring. Although this books talks about a group of women, the principles of such group apply to all. This particular book tells the story of a group of scientists who have been meeting twice a month for over 25 years to discuss not their science but their professional lives. Ellen Daniell describes the objective of such group as ‘cooperation in the competitive world’.
Group members seek both practical solutions for specific problems (such as dealing with a difficult boss or employee) and broader perspective on our lives. Groups helps counter the all-too-common experience of professional life as a combat zone in which nobody seems to be on your side.(The phrase ‘swimming with sharks’ is often used to describe life in the business, legal and academic worlds). P. xii
Although the Think Ahead programme offers a diversity of activities with mentoring and coaching opportunities, the principle of setting up your own Group could allow you to benefit from support beyond the course of any programme. Anyone can set this type of Group. It does not need any specific structure, just a group of individual prepared to listen to each other, provide honest feedback and a confidential space to articulate and think aloud about professional challenges. For Daniell, the essence of such Group is about “the power of not trying to go it alone”. Such Groups allow us to break the isolation that researchers may experience, it allows sharing of common experiences and concerns and brings an awareness of not being the only one to feel this way.
To know more about the principles of Group, see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P5dyl31UnSU
So what’s stops you from setting up your own Group? In my next post, I will describe some of the key principles that will hone the success of such groups. I will also describe tools borrowed from cognitive behavior therapists that may help researchers consider how changing the way they think may influence how they feel.