Highlights from the National Postdoc Meeting

Written by Dr Kennedy Nkhoma, Research Fellow, Cicely Saunders Institute of Palliative Care, Policy & Rehabilitation

I attended a two day National Postdoc meeting organised by the Postdocs of Cambridge Society at the University of Cambridge. The main objectives were to:

  • Input into the review of the Concordat document
  • Discuss the impact of postdoc researcher’s contribution to the REF
  • Discuss with employers, funders and policy makers on postdoc experiences related to the concordat and REF.

Day 1

On the first day a presentation was delivered by Dr Katie Wheat, the Higher Education Senior Manager at Vitae. The purpose of this workshop was to provide a cross-sector input into the review of the Concordat, a central policy document for higher education in the UK, currently undergoing a review process coordinated by Research Councils UK from the perspective of postdocs. She outlined the seven principles in the Concordat: (1) recruitment, selection and retention (2) recognition and value (3) equipping and supporting researchers in a diverse mobile, global research environment, (4) personal and career development (5) researchers responsibility (6) diversity and equality (7) implementation and review.  We were then divided into seven groups and each group discussed one principle. Each group discussed their experiences, ideas for development, adaptation and revision, and ideas for evaluation.

The following themes came out of group discussions and presentations:

  • The Concordat is not visible to researchers, most participants felt they only heard about the document when this meeting was called for.
  • There is a problem with the structure of the principles, for instance Principles 3 and 4 are similar, they can be combined to be one principle, however representation of researchers under principle 4 is very important and should be its own principle.
  • Mentorship: it is important for researchers to find a mentor who is not their line manager and they should also mentor others.
  • Career development for Principal Investigator (PI): The need for PIs to attend training on how to manage postdoc researchers.
  • Research staff associations to be encouraged and involved in decision making.
  • Financial commitment of funders and employers on career development: for instance principle 5 does not address funders and employers, it only addresses researchers who are not signatories of the Concordat.

Day 2

On day two we discussed the impact of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) on Postdocs. Three main areas were discussed:

  • Eligibility: There are plans to change the eligibility criteria to include any researchers with ‘a measure of independence’. There is little understanding of if postdocs are part of the eligibility process and who is included. Postdocs are not fully involved in the process of REF development. There is a need for a course/funded training to have a better understanding of the REF and how they may be affected.
  • Collaborate – Collaboration needs an experienced researcher such as a PI since postdoc researchers have limited experience. However PIs have to provide an environment for postdocs to be involved in the process in order to gain experience.
  • Portability vs non-portability: The current policy recommends non-portability which would mean that papers published by an individual in one institution stay with that institution when research staff leave in an effort to prevent the gaming previously seen by institutions buying up outputs. The main take home message is perhaps double weighting of inputs, so that previously unreferenced individuals can take their outputs with them and the hosting institution also keep ownership. However institutions should try to provide incentives to research staff to retain them in their role.


The last session was a panel discussion with funders from the Wellcome Trust and MRC, employers from Imperial College London, University of Cambridge and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, and policy makers from the Royal Society. Issues in relation to the Concordat and REF were presented to the panel for their views.

The panel agreed with the issues raised, in particular emphasising that it is both the researchers’ and employers’ responsibility to make choices and important decisions about their career. Funders strongly recommended participants to demonstrate capacity to manage funding, resources, and staff to be able to win a grant or fellowship.

The next concordat review takes place next year, therefore issues raised by the postdocs will be taken into consideration during the review. Participants agreed that meetings should be held annually and rotated.

It was exciting and rewarding to be involved in reviewing the Concordat which influences my working environment at King’s. It was interesting to learn from other postdocs who share similar experiences and challenges about the uncertainty of career paths, especially in relation to fixed-term contracts. This showed me that we are all in this together.

King’s Behaviours Green Paper: Research Staff Town Hall

Written by Sarah-Jane Johnson, Strategic Project Manager (High Performance Culture), Strategy, Planning & Analytics

On 7 and 8 September the Research Staff Representatives Committee hosted Town Hall meetings for research staff to discuss King’s Behaviours with Evelyn Welch and Robert Lechler and the King’s Behaviours project team.

We heard some great examples of behaviours that research staff find helpful, such as a department that meets regularly over tea and cake to get to know each other; team meetings where PIs share insights into their current work; and academics who invest time and energy in research staff development. There were also examples of when things go wrong – often unintentionally – which result, for example, in people feeling isolated, or in decisions being made in a way that does not feel transparent and fair to all staff.

We were asked who King’s Behaviours are for and whether they would be mandatory

King’s is made up of its people; our behaviour has an impact on our own and our colleagues’ experience of work, as well as the experience of our students.

King’s Behaviours is a framework to support the success of all individuals at King’s, whether they are research staff, academic staff, professional services or students. It is intended to empower people to reflect on their strengths and to think about how they can be even more successful their work and interactions with others.

The framework is not intended to be a top-down code of conduct to which people need to conform. Identifying the behaviours that we already do well and those that we aspire to will help to facilitate robust yet collegiate debate, and help us develop ourselves and support the development of others. It is intended to be a shared language which encourages individuality, creativity, debate and freedom of expression, but also provides a basis to constructively challenge unhelpful approaches.

We were asked how people could engage with the evolution of King’s Behaviours

We have approached identifying King’s Behaviours as a discussion across the King’s community including academics, researchers, professional services and students. The behaviours you see in the green paper emerged from real examples of behaviours identified by nearly 100 members of the King’s community which have been anonymised and made more broadly applicable. For more information on how this was achieved, please see the green paper.

At the time of writing, over 350 staff and students have responded to the survey on the green paper. This feedback will be reflected in the next iteration of the behaviours and a summary will be published on the intranet. We will continue to work collaboratively with the King’s community on the evolution of the behaviours through the autumn term and beyond.

We were asked how the behaviours would be embedded into our day-to-day lives at King’s

King’s Behaviours will be incorporated into processes to help us develop ourselves and our teams, recruit new staff, and other people processes. We are asking where we should prioritise implementing King’s Behaviours in the survey.

The green paper is a detailed document, because we would like feedback on the full framework. However, when King’s Behaviours is introduced into processes, the tools will be based on the framework but will be more easily digestible. We are exploring a range of training and self-assessment approaches to help people get the most out of King’s Behaviours.

The survey on King’s Behaviours closes today, 22 September. You can keep up with developments by visiting our intranet page. You can also contact us directly on kingsbehaviours@kcl.ac.uk

Experiences of LGBTQ+ Doctoral Researchers

Written by Dr Ross English, University Lead for Doctoral Student Development, Centre for Doctoral Studies

Earlier this year I was one-half of a research collaboration which set out to investigate the experiences of LGBTQ+ doctoral researchers in the UK. This project came out of last year’s Vitae International Researcher Development Conference where a small group of delegates shared their personal experiences. It was clear that there were issues to be addressed but little evidence had been gathered from which to start a conversation on a sector-wide basis.Though this project was aimed at doctoral researchers, it’s emerging findings may also resonate with research staff.

Studies of LGBTQ+ students and staff have been undertaken but doctoral students are either absent from these reports or lumped in with ‘students’ or ‘postgraduates’; the latter including a much larger Masters cohort. The question we had was whether there was anything in the PhD experience which created or exacerbated challenges for LGBTQ+ students. So I and my co-investigator, Kieran Fenby-Hulse of Coventry University, launched a survey which gathered responses from 224 current PhD students from 47 UK Institutions.

The stories the responses told were rich and varied, heartening and disheartening, and too numerous to do justice to here. Collating and summarising the responses has not been straight-forward as we attempt to balance identifying common issues while respecting the unique nature of each person’s experience. We did not, for instance, want to artificially categorise respondents’ identities for the purposes of running correlations. We also did not want to dismiss experiences via statistics; e.g. that only 1.3% of our respondents said that they know for certain that their primary supervisor is not LGBTQ+ friendly could be presented as a positive finding for the sector, losing the fact that, just in our relatively small sample, there are three people currently going through that experience.

As for our findings, they are still taking their final shape but some common themes are emerging: There are issues of awareness within many people’s research environment; that heteronormative, cisnormative and binary gender assumptions (unless corrected) can lead to issues faced by LGBTQ+ doctoral students remaining side-lined. Many respondents commented on the invisibility of LGBTQ+ role models in their field and the subsequent question of whether one needed to fit-in to progress. The challenges of operating in an international environment came out clearly; where students are expected to research, attend conferences, collaborate with or look for jobs in areas of the world that are culturally and/or legally LGBTQ+ hostile. Explicit homo- and trans-phobia still raises its head and the role of senior staff in either enabling or challenging such behaviour was clear. Where the supervisory team fits in to this picture (indeed, for some, the question of whether it does at all) was the issue that divided our respondents most.

We are aware that the majority of the issues raised are not PhD specific and hope that our findings will have wider relevance. We also are conscious of not just seeking the problems people face and are keen to recognise those LGBTQ+ students whose experience of doctoral study has been an open and positive one.

The results of the study will be submitted for publication in the next couple of months and a full report will be released in early 2018.

If you are interested in carrying out a similar study about the experiences of LGBTQ+ research staff, please contact ross.english@kcl.ac.uk.

Supporting BME Research Staff

Written by Dr Bernadine Idowu, Diversity & Inclusion Champion, Dental Institute

As a Black Minority & Ethnic (BME) female scientific Early Career Researcher (ECR), I had always wondered why BME staff are under-represented in academic posts at lecturer grades and above in both STEM and non-STEM subjects. Prior to working in Diversity & Inclusion I had not seen any data, but heard people talking about it, I however, did not fully appreciate the magnitude of it. When the opportunity arose to begin to understand the challenges of under representation under the then Manager Ms Debbie Epstein (Diversity & Inclusion Team), I jumped at the opportunity and began to quickly realise, that one reason could be since there are not many role models, many BME ECR staff would not apply and some that did apply and were unsuccessful gave up, after the first attempt.

Looking back, I have been extremely fortunate as a researcher within the different institutions I have worked at, I put that down to having supervisors and mentors, that have always supported me. I feel it is my duty to give back and that is why I have become a mentor. I love being a mentor as it is so rewarding. Being an award winning scientist, encourages my mentees, both PhD scientists and undergraduates wishing to pursue a career in science.

King’s as an institution sees under-representation of BME staff as one the key priorities to tackle, in order that we can enrich our academic community and provide role models for future generations of academics and researchers. We have initiatives such as the Athena Swan and Race Equality Charter Marks which focuses on gender and race equality respectively. We also have a new King’s Diversity Mentoring Scheme which is open to academic and professional services staff from diverse groups, prioritising those with at two protected characteristics.

With the support of the Principal and senior Leaders such as Chris Mottershead (Diversity & Inclusion Champion) we aimed to address this by delivering the first ever conference of its kind, i.e. ‘BME ECR how to stay in academia’, providing key tools to help us stay in academia. Tools such as applying for fellowships, the power of mentoring, the importance of networking and finally, prioritising caring for health and well-being! The theme of the day was to be Positive, Practical and Pragmatic (3P’S) to empower the delegates to be bold and take the next steps.

Briefly, there were two sessions, the morning session started with an opening address from the Principal, followed by BME academics from King’s and various Universities within London and UK, all invited to talk about their experiences and to give the delegates some advice. The afternoon session was more interactive with workshops which covered the above tools required to stay in academia. Networking was encouraged throughout the day.

It was a well-attended conference consisting of undergraduate students, PhD students, ECR, academic BME and non-BME staff, also invited guests and some members of staff that heard about the program and wanted to be inspired by seeing and hearing BME academics come together in one space, the Great Hall, the space really did live up to its name.

There were so many positive feedbacks, one which really stood out is as follows “It was a relief to have what felt like a private, personal ‘failing’ identified, named and reframed. The description of the speaker’s successes was very inspirational. We came away feeling validated, with important tips and ideas for personal development and certainly empowered. The quality, format of the day, choice of speakers and food were all excellent”.

My only hope is that this is the beginning of things to come, such gathering provides a powerful & inspirational message to ECR. This model needs to be embedded in various University cultures, only then will we begin to witness a steady increase in BME staff in academia.

Beyond Athena SWAN – A Faculty Perspective

Written by Sabina Khanom, IoPPN, Culture, Diversity and Inclusion Project Manager

Mention of the Athena SWAN Charter is likely to provoke an array of responses from university staff and students, which can range from subdued pride in the hard work of a Self-Assessment Team (SAT) that leads to awards (bronze, silver or gold), or a thinly veiled rolling of the eyes as in ‘oh not that again’. Despite the various individual opinions, Athena SWAN has undoubtedly become a renowned vehicle for change within universities in the UK.

Our Athena SWAN journey at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience started in 2012 and as we looked at a number of different types of data from across the faculty, a pattern emerged of gender inequalities. For example, at the IoPPN around 65% of our postdocs were women, yet the numbers more than halved at professor level. Why was this? Initial arguments we faced were that women were ‘off having babies’ and ‘were less ambitious’ and when we raised the issue of implicit bias potentially playing a role we were told ‘scientists have no biases’. As we delved deeper, it was clear that biases and other systematic barriers meant that at a number of critical stages across academic careers, we were not retaining women.

Over the last five years our SAT, Postdoc Network and Research Innovation Committee have been addressing some of these issues in a number of ways:

  • Representation of research staff on departmental and IoPPN committees
  • Providing career development and support such as Junior THRIVE and proposal writing workshops
  • Better representation of women in decision making committees
  • Increasing awareness and access to HR policies (shared parental leave) and workplace flexibility
  • Rewarding and recognising the contribution research staff are making using initiatives such as Independent Researcher Awards and the Honorary Lecturer Scheme
  • Raising profile of role models through Inspiring Women portraits and Women in Mind interview series
  • Diversity and inclusion training on various topics such as Implicit Bias, Dealing with Microagressions (subtle bullying tactics), Intercultural Communications and Imposter Syndrome

Although the Athena SWAN charter previously focused on removing inequities women faced in STEMM careers, it has evolved to include broader gender identities and also to consider how gender intersects with other protected characteristics (intersectionality). Along with King’s Race Equality Charter and Stonewall award, we too have broadened our remit and are working on diversity and inclusion using an intersectional lens, which should benefit a broader range of people.

With the launch of King’s 2029 strategy, our work on creating a diverse and inclusive environment has become imperative.

What can you do? Here are four things we can all do:

  1. Understand our biases and learn how they manifest in the working environment
  2. Use inclusive language – who are we excluding?
  3. Get involved in some of our activities, give us feedback so we can improve
  4. Be an active bystander – speak up if you notice bias or discrimination