A Mentor – Next Year’s Must Have!

Written by Prof Cathy Shanahan, Department of Cardiology

To be or not to be Mentored 

It is now well established that good mentors are key to the success of any career.  Mentoring of research staff is particularly important as this is the time that critical career and life  choices have to be made and it is also the time of the greatest drop out of women from Academia.

Below, I have set out a whistle stop tour of how to get the most out of mentoring  – not only to leverage your career but more importantly to make informed decisions to ensure life satisfaction!

So, What is Mentoring?

It’s a process whereby an experienced, empathic individual guides you (the mentee) in the development and examination of your own ideas, learning and personal and professional development.  It is completely confidential so it is important that you are open and honest during the process.   

It is not Therapy, Lecturing/Teaching or a cosy chat –  it has a purpose and you, the mentee, need to be the one driving the process!

When is Mentoring Useful?

Mentoring is probably most useful when you are about to enter into a period of change.  This could be anything from an academic decision, such as applying for an Independent Fellowship or moving on from a post-doc to a new career in industry or anything else. Mentoring can also be used to guide you through more personal decisions such as taking a career break or dealing with difficult conversations with the boss!   It can help you gain confidence in establishing relationships and working with more senior staff and will help you gain a broader perspective.  It is best to find a mentor at least a year before important decisions need to be finalized – so there is time to consider and put plans into action.

Choosing a Mentor – Horses for Courses!

Some people are lucky enough to have a great boss who has their best interests at heart and will spend the time to help develop their career.  But not every boss is so altruistic – if you are good your boss might just want to keep you to boost their own productivity (and ego!). But even if you have a great boss a broader perspective is always useful.

You can get a mentor in two ways; either informally, by asking someone you think might be good, or as part of a formal scheme – and there are many of these across King’s.  Of course, asking someone is not for the faint hearted – but you would be surprised at how many people are willing to say yes!  Just as there are horses for courses not all Mentors are alike – so you need to choose a mentor or a scheme that suits your purpose.

The Mentee Does most of the work!  The more you put in the more you get out!

Perhaps the most important rule is that mentoring is not a passive process – it requires a lot of work on the part of the Mentee.  The Mentor is just a conduit to enable the mentee to make their own choices.  If you join a formal scheme you will almost certainly receive training on how to get the most out of the process – but if you find your own mentor then here are the key things you need to know:

  • You need to be the proactive one arranging meetings with your mentor.  But remember they have agreed to the relationship so don’t feel bad that you are taking their time – you are in it together!
  • The first meeting should be about getting to know one another. Send your CV so that can form the basis for some of the first discussions and make sure your mentor understands what you would like to achieve.
  • Once you have started the process your mentor might give you ‘homework’ to help you make the right choice. Sometimes this might seem daunting and take you out of your comfort zone – but ultimately that is the only way to orchestrate change – and let’s face it life would be boring if you didn’t get the occasional adrenaline rush!

Finally, if you find you can’t establish a rapport with your mentor – or they spend the whole time talking about themselves, then change – it’s your prerogative and it’s meant to help you.  And don’t be shy in asking for help – we all need it!

Collaborating with Policymakers

Written by Emma Kinloch, Impact and Engagement Manager, The Policy Institute

At the Policy Institute collaboration is at the heart of our work. We seek to provide the answers to the most pressing challenges faced by policymakers. Recently, we have been working on projects in partnership with organisations such as the London Ambulance Service on improving ambulance response times, the U.S. Department of Defense on maritime security, and Westminster City Council on air quality. It is mutually beneficial to collaborate on such projects. Working with partners who have first-hand experience of policy and practice challenges allows us to understand the real day-to-day constraints and obstacles they face and allows our research to be responsive. In addition, drawing on your partners’ networks can open new avenues which would previously have been difficult to reach without that connection. Conversely, collaboration allows partners to draw on academic evidence and the expert insights of research staff at King’s. Working with partners gives your work the greatest opportunity to have impact beyond academia. When academia and practice convene they create a piece of work that is more than the sum of its parts.

One way the Policy Institute can help you to think about partnerships in your research is through our online ‘Impact by Design’ training modules. Part I, ‘Understanding impact and embedding it into research’, will take you through the fundamentals of research impact. Additionally, it will provide you with practical tools such as an influence/interest matrix to assist you in mapping the key stakeholders who you will want to influence and possibly collaborate with. Part II, ‘Translating research into practice’, will help you think about how to best communicate your ideas and which channels will be the most appropriate to have the maximum impact with your work. The modules are available for self-enrolment now via Keats.

The Benefits of Collaboration

Written by Donald Lush, Careers Consultant 

Let’s tip this one on its head! Collaboration can too easily be seen as an obligation and a distraction, something that stops you working instead of making your research richer, more exciting and more rewarding.

So, start by thinking of yourself as valuable. Why? Because you are. As a research staff member you probably know more about your subject and research methods than anyone else.  Think about what it is you have to offer – be specific and try to create a short and simple statement to summarise it.  A book such as ‘What Colour Is Your Parachute?’ can really help here. Additionally, engaging in collaborations can be an excellent opportunity to enhance your career development and the scope of the impact of your research. Whether you are collaborating with academic colleagues or stakeholders in industry, collaboration can help you develop new knowledge and transferable skills and can promote your academic profile nationally and internationally. Academic collaborations can broaden the reach of your research to other disciplines and industry collaborations can lead to the application of your research in wider society, in turn strengthening its impact.

Successful collaboration is also a key ingredient in building strong teams. If you know what you’re about and can communicate it effectively you are much more likely to benefit from help from colleagues and much more likely to be able to help them. This facilitates teamwork in which everyone is able to play to their strengths and therefore makes the team more effective.

Fully collaborative teams achieve far more than one person can on their own. Collaboration across teams is also much more likely to lead to innovation, as fresh ideas from fresh perspectives are encouraged and developed.

Finally, a truly collaborative project is characterised by mutual respect, honesty and integrity. This means that team members are open to new ideas and tolerant of risk and even failure. Paradoxically, where risk and failure are permitted, the chances of it happening are reduced as honest and positive criticism strengthens the team’s thinking. The consequence is that new ideas blossom and energy is not wasted on blame or power struggles.

There is one potential downside – groupthink. This is where the group falls under the sway of one way of thinking and refuses all criticism. It can be very damaging to the team because it can’t absorb and act on information contrary to its established view. If you’re setting up a new collaboration make sure there is a structure that insists on giving dissent a voice and ensure that the devils advocates in the team are given space to share their thoughts but are not allowed to dominate.

For more on collaboration this is an excellent TED talk.

Networking for Collaborations

Written by Kate Murray, Careers Consultant

Finding the right person or people to collaborate with, whether in academia or industry, can be a challenging task. Networking with people you don’t know well or who have different backgrounds and strengths from yourself can often be an invaluable method of coming across potential collaborators who you might not have otherwise considered. Being able to network effectively is consequently a vital skill to have to identify potential collaborators, and to succeed in various other areas of your professional and personal life.

Daniel Glaser, Director of Science Gallery London at King’s College London, recently gave a sparkling talk helping researchers confront their fears about networking whether for academic or other purposes:

  • You have to talk to people in terms that they will understand and make sense of! Can you get them to be thinking about what you want them to say, before you even meet them?
  • Be proud of your specialism! By the time you’ve got to the end of your PhD or other research, perhaps only 100 people in the world will understand the real niche that you have created for yourself.  In effect, you are ‘being trained to be incomprehensible’, and that is something to be proud of!  Own your narrowness.  You have to learn the language of your research, to be a good researcher.
  • Try this exercise: work with another researcher, and get them to explain their research to you. Now, find someone else to explain your colleague’s research to.  Examine the language that you used in that description.  It is probably a whole lot simpler than your colleague would use themselves to describe their work.  Apply the same technique to yourself when you are trying to describe your research.
  • When you start networking, imagine the positive outcome that you are trying to get to. Then break down the process it will take to get there.  If you need help understanding this point, read Getting Things Done by David Allen which provides solutions for people to manage their time more effectively.
  • One way to start networking is to share your work online. Use publicly available images (eg slides) that are professionally produced, to help you look good; crucially, what you’re trying to do is to seek feedback from people.  If you’ve got something interesting to say, pop it onto YouTube!  Creating content is in effect sharing.
  • Find a talk in a domain you’re interested in (use KCL CareerConnect, or the Londonist, EventBrite or Meetup): go, and then talk to the people there. They must have something in common with you or they wouldn’t also be going to the talk.
  • Come up with an opening line (‘What brings you here?’; ‘What are you working on at the moment?’) and use it for everyone at the event that you can talk to. An achievable goal might be just talking to three people you didn’t know before you arrived.  Tag team with a friend and leave the event when you’ve achieved your goal.
  • Networking could, in fact, make your boss look good. If you go and talk sensibly with another academic, they will automatically be impressed that your research group (and by extension, your group leader) produces such good researchers.  Hence, PIs or supervisors should be pleased that you are finding opportunities to go and talk about your work.
  • Daniel will have coffee with anyone: including you! The Science Gallery will open summer 2018 and will be looking for ‘mediators’ to collaborate and engage with.  Get in touch.

Crowdhelix: Your Gateway to Industry Collaborations

Written by Dr Riam Kanso; co-Founder of Crowdhelix, a cross-border collaboration platform

As an early career researcher at Oxford and UCL, I had very little knowledge of the different ways in which academia and industry work together. The ‘publish or perish’ mentality put a considerable amount of pressure on academics like myself to focus on their specific projects for career advancement. Some of my colleagues eventually ended up taking positions with pharmaceutical or consultancy firms, but the impression was that they abandoned academia altogether, with diminishing chances of returning the longer they stayed without publishing. Many of my peers and I mistakenly assumed that you either had to be in one camp or the other.

Over the years it became clear that the landscape of cutting-edge collaborative research was complex, involving multiple players, and changing every day. Researchers from both academia and industry are joining forces to deliver pioneering research programmes, paving the way for innovative services and products. This is evidenced by the updated requirements of funding programmes such as the €80 billion European Union “Horizon 2020” programme; which actively encourages collaborative consortia that include universities, SMEs, and corporates.

To add to this, universities and academics are increasingly encouraged by government to collaborate with industry partners; which is reflected in research excellence and impact ratings, and subsequent funding decisions.

Similarly, companies are actively reaching out to universities in the spirit of open innovation; relying on the nuanced skillsets of academics to help develop their products and services. They are reaping the benefits of departing from a ‘closed innovation’ mindset, where the ‘secrets of the trade’ are kept confidential. One such company is HP, which leverages the expertise of leading academic labs to improve its technology. These cross-border collaborations can take the shape of consultancies, short projects, placements, and long collaborations; to name a few.

Given that there is a pressing need from both academics and industry to share skills, it is sometimes difficult to resolve the problem of “information asymmetry”.  For example, academics do not always know what projects are going on within companies, while companies do not have a clear picture of the skillsets available in a certain university research department. This is why my colleagues and I created Crowdhelix, a cross-border platform that connects industry and academia for collaborations on grant proposals and other projects.

So far, our members have been successful in obtaining 7% of the €80 billion Horizon 2020 budget, a number that continues to increase every day. One such example is Professor Rajiv Jalan and his team from University College London.  He now leads a €7.8 million project called ALIVER,  funded by the EU Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme.

The ALIVER consortium has developed a novel and innovative liver dialysis machine that will help the liver to naturally regenerate or, where that does not prove possible, to keep patients alive and healthy until a donated liver becomes available. Two universities, four hospitals, two foundations, and four industrial partners will work together to deliver this project. One of the industry partners is IBM; who were matched to this consortium via Crowdhelix.

In projects such is Professor Jalan’s above; relationships between researchers from academia and industry deepen and strengthen, paving the way for further collaborations. In some cases, academics can end up taking employment opportunities with industry, or engage on other collaborative projects with an R&D component.

As the chasm between academia and industry begins to close, an increasing number of opportunities will arise for researchers everywhere. It will be exciting to see what the future holds.

For researchers in King’s College London, please feel free to sign up to our platform for free, and potentially meet a future collaborator! Sign up for CrowdHelix here

Writing a Strong Application for the Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship

Written by Dr Elizabeth Morrow, Leverhulme Early Career Fellow, Department of Political Economy

Like any written assignment, it is essential to start work early on your Leverhulme ECF application to put your best foot forward.  Applying for the ECF is a multi-stage process.  At first instance, you need to identify a mentor within the department who can support your application.  I was lucky enough for my mentor – John Meadowcroft – to be someone who I had co-authored with and who was therefore familiar with my work.  My mentor and I met over a month before the KCL internal sort deadline to discuss ideas for my research proposal which helped to refine my thinking, and he provided me with invaluable advice throughout the application process.

Once I had crafted a preliminary proposal I met with Camilla Darling and David Newsome from the Arts and Science Research Office and cannot speak highly enough about the support I received from them: Camilla and David provided me with examples of previous successful ECF applications, suggested other people within the university who I should meet with to discuss my application and shared insights into how my research proposal would fit within the department and university.

Because your proposal will not necessarily be read by experts within your field, it is important that it be interesting and accessible to a lay audience.  After running some of my ideas past my friends and family (both within and outside of academia) I was concerned that the way I had framed my initial proposal was too narrow and academic.  For me, getting the balance right between academic rigor and accessibility was the most difficult part of the application and required multiple iterations.

Once I found out that my proposal had been put forward after the KCL internal sort I had further meetings with the Arts and Science Research Office and my mentor to discuss the preparation of my ECF budget.  Like many early career academics, I had limited experience in designing budgets so the advice I received was very helpful.  I also identified and contacted the referees who would comment on my proposal as part of the application process.  Because academics tend to receive a lot of these requests and are busy, it is important to make the request well in advance of deadline.

I have made a previous unsuccessful application for the Leverhulme ECF and when reflecting about what I did differently this time around I began my application earlier and made greater use of the wonderful resources that we have at KCL.  I was also lucky enough to have a mentor who provided me with excellent advice and a supportive Head of Department.  While the application process is time consuming and with an uncertain outcome, being awarded a Leverhulme ECF is a great opportunity that I feel lucky to have.

Finding the Right Fit: How to Write a Strong Journal Paper

Written by Dr Naho Mirumachi, Senior Lecturer, Department of Geography, King’s College London

As an academic, a good portion of my working hours (and then some) is on writing journal articles, books and book chapters on my research.  At the same time, I also deal with a lot of papers in my role as an associate editor of Water International, an interdisciplinary journal in the subfield of water resources management.  In this blog, I’ll share some of my tips on writing a strong journal article gleaned from experiences on both sides of the academic publishing process, as an author of journal articles as well as editor.

In our journal, the average acceptance rate of the last three years is about 11%.  This might seem like a very low number but it’s because a good number of papers were rejected outright due to fit.  Many of the submissions were considered to be outside of the scope of the journal even before it got sent out for review.  So, as obvious as it may seem, make sure you target the right journal for your paper.  Don’t despair if you get a rejection straight way.  It doesn’t necessarily mean the quality of the paper is not up to scratch.  However, it may mean that you have not done your homework well enough in figuring out (or even simply, reading on the website) the scope and fit of journal.

When writing a strong paper, it’s important to think about the audience or readership.  Your paper should show how it speaks to the aims and themes of the journal.  In particular, when writing the paper think about how your arguments build on or contradict debates that have gone on in the particular journal.  You might consider speaking to a colleague who may have already published in that journal you are targeting.  Try and get some initial feedback before your submit.

Finding the right home for your paper also means to read widely.  Read different journals, current and past issues to get a sense of the field. Ultimately, a strong publication engages with and importantly, advances scholarship.  There isn’t much magic or short cuts for this: it’s hard graft with the basics of reading, thinking, writing and revising.

Make your Blog Stand Out

Written by Rachel Hall, Guardian Higher Education Network Editor

Imagine going to a party, full of strangers, where everybody is talking over each other. The guests are the best presented versions of themselves: some of them are using their style and flair to win attention, some are full of incredible insight and expertise, and others are telling brazen lies to manipulate their audience.

This is the internet, every day. It’s a multitude of unknown voices, all of which are clamouring for clicks.

If you want your content to stand out, you’re going to have to give people a reason to click. And if you want them to stay, you’re going to have to make it worth their while. If you want them to return, you need to convince them why it’s your voice – not anybody else’s – they should be listening to.

When you’re writing a blogpost to communicate your research or to reflect your views on a topic related to your discipline or even higher education more generally, you’re the expert. So compared to a lot of voices online, you already have something worthwhile to offer.

But imagine you’re at that party, and you’re standing in a dark corner, monologuing about the minutiae of your latest project. Would anybody listen?

Instead, you need to find the angle that grabs people. What concept will people identify with? What appeals to their emotions? What provides them with a fresh way of looking at something they already have some awareness of? What problem are you trying to solve, and how are you going about it?

Once you have this neatly packaged in a title that clearly and succinctly expresses why people should read your blog post, it’s time to think about how to write it.

A blog post isn’t the ideal space to explain something complicated. It’s not great for exploring multiple points, either. Instead, you want a tight angle of focus, and all the arguments in the piece should support that central point. If you want to say something tangential, then write another post.

Because that’s your third goal: to get people returning to you. Make it clear why you’re the authority on this topic, and feel free to draw on any relevant personal experience, whether it comes from your research or everyday life. That’s the human element that helps keep people coming back for more.

After all, when you go back to the same party, you’ll always make a beeline for the familiar face, not the strangers, right?

Interested in reading blog posts from the university community? Join the Guardian’s higher education network for comment, analysis and job opportunities, by and for university professionals. Follow us on Twitter @gdnhighered.

And want to try your hand at writing a blog post to be published on the Guardian website? Feel free to email your pitch to rachel.hall@theguardian.com.

Unblock your Writing

Written by Nudrat Siddiqui, Research Staff Development Officer, Centre for Research Staff Development 

Have you ever had those days when you sit down at your computer to write a journal article or book chapter only to spend the next few hours transfixed by the glow of a blank Word document, willing the words to come without success? With the advent of the REF and the  importance of a steady publication record in securing a lectureship position, it’s no wonder that writing is often seen as an onerous and daunting rite that can make or break our future in academia. This pressure to produce high quality research outputs makes it tempting to shelve our writing plans for another day and to face the paralysis of writer’s block on the occasions when we do sit down to write.

Studying for a writing-intensive Arts & Humanities PhD, I’ve experienced the blank Word document scenario many times, but have picked up a few strategies along the way that unclog my thoughts and get those words and sentences flowing. Whether you are a seasoned writer who already has a list of publications to your name or are preparing to write your first journal article, considering the tips below can help overcome writer’s block:

Brainstorm in Advance

Doing the thinking about the broad ideas and points that you want to get across in your piece before you sit down to write can kick-start the writing process. Take notes to capture your ideas using arrows, flow charts, stick figure cartoons, holding off using complete sentences until you actually sit down to write.

Who says you Need to Start at the Beginning?

Starting at the beginning of an article or chapter may seem like a logical approach, but it can often be the most challenging. This is especially true if you are a writing perfectionist who inflicts pressure on yourself to produce a faultless article. What sections are you most interested and enthusiastic about? Is it the results, the methods, the recommendations? Start there instead. Once you’ve eased into the flow of writing with the paragraphs that come to you more fluidly, revisit the trickier beginning.

Don’t get Stuck on the Wrong Word

Is there a word or sentence you have written that doesn’t look right? Don’t spend lots of time lingering on it trying to come up with alternative ways of rephrasing it. Highlight it so you can easily identify it later, move on, and return to it in your second draft to make alterations.

Free Write

Set an alarm for five minutes and during this time write anything and everything that comes to mind. If what you’re writing is relevant to the topic you need to write about, great, but even if it is far removed from it, that’s fine too. Getting those unrelated, preoccupying thoughts out on paper can free up the mental space you need to concentrate on writing about your research. This strategy is an excellent warm up and once the five minutes are up it’s often easier to write more freely without inhibition.

Plan When you Write – And Where

Schedule fixed days and times of the week to write and stick to them. If you struggle with concentrating for extended periods of times, make them short, easily surmountable fifteen-twenty minute slots. Try writing at different times of the day until you find a time that’s optimal for you.

When you need to spend more time on your writing, think about where you are most likely to succeed. The sight of my desk at home is often enough to send ripples of anxiety and procrastination through me. If like me, writing from home or your office is counter-productive, check if you can arrange a weekly working-from-home morning or day and venture out into one of the many inspiring spaces around London. Some of my favourite spots to write include the Barbican and the Hoxton Hotel lobby café which are relatively quiet, have free, fast Wi-Fi and lots of laptop sockets. The British Library Reading Rooms are also a fool-proof venue in which to write without noise or interruption.

Try Social Writing

Writing can often feel solitary, but it doesn’t have to be. There are various ‘Write Together’ and ‘Shut-up and Write’ groups on Meetup.com that encourage people to get together and write for an allocated period of time. Being surrounded by other people busily tapping away on their laptops can be a motivating factor to spur on your own writing. The writing is often followed by pub/café socials where you will have the opportunity to share your writing challenges and hear other people’s experiences. The Centre for Research Staff Development will also be running Shup up and Write sessions in the near future so look out for these in our weekly newsletter or email amy.birch@kcl.ac.uk for more details.

I hope these tips boost your writing practice. While it certainly can be challenging at times, writing can also be rewarding and enjoyable and is a fantastic activity to reflect on your research and organise your ideas about it. So settle down and get writing!

An Introduction to the Research Staff Representative Committee

Written by Dr Martin Eichmann, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Department of Immunobiology & Chair of the Research Staff Representative Committee

Some of us “research staff” will be aware that in early 2017 we relaunched the College wide Research Staff Representative Committee (RSRC) but not too many will know what it is here for. In my role as Chair of the RSRC I would like to give you a quick introduction to the RSRC, its members, goals and how you can interact with it.

Important things first: The RSRC is a “by us for us” initiative for research staff – by that I mean staff members on fixed-term contracts whose primary role is doing research, of which there are close to 2,000 at King’s. The main purpose of the RSRC is to be the collective “voice” of research staff, to speak up and represent their opinions on King’s committees to engage in new policies affecting research staff and facilitate agendas promoting career development for research staff. The RSRC is inclusive. It consists of representatives from most faculties (themselves being research staff and members of the respective faculty research staff network) and one member representing Technicians, Research Assistants and Teaching Fellows.

We promote our views on policies affecting research staff at the highest level of the university at the College Research Committee and on career development activities at the Centre for Research Staff Development Oversight Group. The RSRC will facilitate sharing of best practices between research staff networks at faculty level and guarantee effective two-way communication between research staff networks and the university to promote more equality throughout King’s. We have set out our aims to promote research staff career development, increase the visibility of research staff and clarify the roles of research staff, all of which are set out in more detail on our new webpage.

So far our views have already been heard through providing feedback to the College’s response to Higher Education Funding Council for England’s (HEFCE) consultation on the second Research Excellence Framework (REF) and to the College-wide teaching policy for research staff as well as promoting and providing feedback to the King’s Behaviours policy.

The RSRC reps are here for you so please get in touch with them or email the RSRC. if you want to contribute or share your opinions with us. I would also like to encourage research staff to actively participate in their local departmental of faculty research staff network which ultimately feed into the RSRC.

I hope that the RSRC will evolve so that all research staff see it as their means to voice their opinions and actively influence policy at College level to lead to a more inclusive decision making process.