Driving Positive Change with the CROS

Written by Alexandra Melaugh, Pre-Doctoral Fellow in Health Economics & Deputy Chair of the RSRC

Last year the Careers in Research Online Survey (CROS) was circulated to research staff at King’s College London to elicit feedback on their research experience. It must be said, there are a lot of surveys that we are asked to complete, and although it can be burdensome, and we can sometimes choose not to complete them, the CROS survey is one which works to highlight areas that require improvement and tries to make a change to better meet the needs of researcher staff.

The Research Staff Representative Committee (RSRC) is driving forward changes to improve the research staff experience across the university and is comprised of representatives from each Faculty of the university. As the research assistant representative sitting on the RSRC, I believe it is very important to improve the research environment of researchers (pre-PhD) and try to make sure that the opportunities they can access whilst working at King’s are fit-for-purpose. By sitting on the RSRC I have been able to feedback discussions I have had with colleagues and other research assistants to try make a positive change and let their voices be heard. As a result, this feedback along with the results that were brought to light from the CROS survey, have led to shaping the objectives of the RSRC for this year. Alongside these, we have created a set of working groups to achieve our objectives. Here is an insight in to what we are working towards:

  1. The Performance Development Reviews (PDR’s) have been found to not be uniform across Faculties. The RSRC have set an objective of improving research staff career development by working with colleagues in the Strategy, Planning & Analytics Directorate, as well as HR, to redesign the performance development review (PDR) and make it a better fit for research staff to plan their future career development. We intend for our changes to be implemented for the 2019 PDR period.
  2. Results from the CROS survey showed over 31% of research staff have observed or experienced disrespectful treatment. The RSRC plans to reduce the occurrence of disrespectful behaviour and increase the visibility of research staff. Collaborations have been formed with the Diversity & Inclusion teams at the university and faculty level along with the Centre for Research Staff Development (CRSD) to ultimately increase accountability and create a safer environment to report incidences of disrespectful behaviour when they occur.
  3. A lot of confusion exists around the expectations within a job role. The RSRC are working with Faculties of the university to establish a unified description of job roles for research staff and clarifying job titles is the first step towards this.

It must be acknowledged, there are many things that the RSRC wish to achieve in 2018 but due to time limitations we established these three objectives as our priority and the CROS survey has helped us to establish these. So, when you see the email enter your inbox asking to complete the CROS survey, make sure you complete it because it is an opportunity to anonymously express your thoughts about the research environment and the culture at King’s. It is one way to get your voice heard as research staff at King’s.

Making Strategic Choices to Raise your Visibility

Written by Prof Sue Brain, Professor of Pharmacology, School of Cardiovascular Medicine & Sciences 

King’s employs many postdoctoral staff on a range of defined-term contracts.  Whilst these workers will be already an expert in their own area of research or education; they will be at a relatively early stage of their career. Most will have ambition to progress to a greater independence and to become established within their specialist area. The success of this ambition will involve, to a greater extent developing a suitable c.v. for applying for the opportunities that are likely to occur.  The priority should always be to work within the specialist area that their senior academic has employed them for, to obtain high impact publications or contributions that are recognised within the sector.  This may relate to research, discovery, innovation, business, education, communications or a related academic field.  However, one of the aims of the postdoctoral staff member is to develop their c.v.  so that their potential is obvious.  Sometimes this can be achieved purely via their work with their supervisor; especially if the work involves working in a high impact field where there is an unmet need for the acquired skills. Usually though postdoctoral staff will benefit from adding to their c.v. via related activities. This may be in terms of teaching and providing some evidence of having learnt how to enhance education, if they want to be an academic. This may involve outreach or seeking out and agreeing to invitations to speak and contribute at meetings, if communication skills involving a wider audience may be important for future career choices. Future employers may also want to see evidence of being able to take responsibility for an area of work. This evidence may come from roles carried out externally to the university (possibly a management role within a part-time or temporary work position) or via involvement with many of the committees and working groups within the university. The latter can be very important in enhancing visibility within your School, Department or even via the university.

One major question is ‘how does a postdoctoral staff member manage to do this whilst working on their postdoctoral project’? The most important aspect is to ensure that the choice of any additional commitments is targeted, strategic and relevant to aspirations for future career possibilities.  It is not possible to take every opportunity, thus it is important to make the opportunities work for the postdoctoral worker. Also, decisions may have to be made where an activity is curtailed when it is not clear how continuing it will enhance career aspirations. These can be difficult choices to make and involve saying ‘no’ to senior staff who may have previously depended on you.  How does one get the balance right?  An important factor is to ensure these choices are fully discussed and agreed with your supervisor/line manager. The needs of your immediate academic supervisor and group need to be taken into account. All postdoctoral workers will already have some academic responsibilities alongside their employment role in making their research group work.  Opportunities such as getting involved in writing grant applications and writing review chapters that are related to the postdoctoral research can be invaluable and sometimes step changing in terms of the career of an individual postdoc.  Attendance and visibility at meetings is also important. However, it has to be remembered that meetings are associated with travel and time away from work, so these too have to be chosen in a strategic manner.

The discussions could take place at your annual professional development review (PDR), but are also appropriate to discuss during any of your meetings with your immediate supervisor.  Most supervisors have a background that is similar enough to that of their postdoctoral staff to be a source of good advice; whilst ensuring the career remains ongoing in a positive manner.  However, there are a range of schemes available within and outside of King’s where by postdoctoral staff can obtain mentors. Mentors will also be ideal sounding boards for discussions on how to enhance visibility of early career postdoctoral staff whilst building the c.v.

To conclude postdoctoral staff should always have a priority to enhance the research work to which they are attached first. However, they should also work strategically to take opportunities to enhance their profile, relevant to the careers that they hope to enter.

Research Technicians – the silent partners?

Maybe a few decades ago that was the case. Has it changed?

Written by Bill Luckhurst, Technical Services Manager, Physics Research Facility

Over my long career as a research technician in Kings, I have gradually seen a blurring of the dividing lines between the differing roles in Research. The distinct boundaries tended to discourage mutual respect and collaboration between the different roles; however, these boundaries have been naturally eroded by wholesale changes in the way that research is conducted.  We all know how the changes have affected us: collectively we are far more collaborative and our role is more inclusive though I believe we do more with less, have fewer support staff and work within a highly competitive environment. The global reach of research at Kings has naturally attracted a diverse and talented range of staff who over a period of time have contributed significantly to the highly collaborative environment we all now work in.

The above changes have helped my career as a research technician but I too have helped myself. I am not one to be silent; I’m a person who wants to be part of a team, valued and respected. I have found a variety of ways over many years to get myself heard, the consequences of which have been my ability to move around and work with diverse research groups within Physics throughout many decades and through periods of change.  How did I do this?

Research technicians possess many skills, can multitask, and are fast learners; we may just not be aware of it or be prepared to demonstrate it. Self-belief might not be evident, a result of defaulting into the silent partner, undervalued mode.

I was always looking to spread myself about the various research groups, whether existing groups who saw their technical support dwindling, or new arrivals keen to get their research started. What could I offer? Technical skills, enthusiasm and continuity. If what I was offering did not match expectations I would be sent on courses; Electron Microscopy and Atomic Force Microscopy spring to mind. I would look at the arrival of new instruments large or small as an opportunity not to be missed; I would become involved with the installation and user training, skills that are essential and can be passed on.

I have seen the ability of many technicians to adapt to new situations. We have existing skill sets and core work that is the bread and butter of our research groups but I believe research technicians can be willing participants in taking on new responsibilities in a variety of fields. We may have qualifications that we feel define exactly where we should be placed within a Faculty or research group, our comfort zone. We can also step outside the zone because as Research technicians we can adapt to new situations and experiences as I have done. I have scared myself witless on a few occasions as I thought I had taken on too much additional responsibility.

I also looked beyond my own Faculty and department. What can I offer others? I have found that networking has helped here. Research technicians can often be the first point of contact from other departments’ research groups. Here’s a chance to offer advice or skills you have or to recommend another go-to person. Raise your profile at every opportunity, which could be by gently pressing for co-authorship of papers where you have had a significant impact on the outcomes, or by looking to have acknowledgement on papers where technical input has been essential to the complete package. Why should we be left out if we have contributed to successful publications? Although, to be fair, more recently over the last decade or so I have seen far more inclusiveness in the authorship and acknowledgements in papers.

Over many years I have used line managers and Heads of Department (HODs) to good effect. Push your line manager to place you in another department or Faculty research group for a two-week period during the summer or quiet period, maybe just to shadow. Try suggesting a research technician swap for a week or so: it could be a completely different experience outside your comfort zone that helps with your work portfolio and networking. Touch base with your HOD – remind him or her that you are there. I have the impression that HODs just don’t expect research technicians to make an appointment for a chat, an update on department research trends or the arrival of new researchers or groups, or a chance to offer your services.

I have found that very little just falls into your lap. By and large I have had to go and find the extras that have allowed career progression – the bits that get added onto the end of your PDRs, that add value, build career progression  and make you indispensable.

Ask your line manager or HOD if you could have a go at shadow short listing candidates for new technical appointments or maybe having an input into a JD for a research technical post. Why not, if you believe you have something to offer? If new labs are in the pipeline ask if you can participate in design meetings; if you have worked for some time in Research labs you know the faults and things which could be done better. You can be surprised what can be overlooked on a design brief!

To summarise, the only way to avoid being the silent partner is by using your voice – not just what you say, but what you do and contribute to the successful outcomes of research groups.

Raising your Profile

Written by Dr Kathy Barrett, University Lead for Research Staff Development, CRSD

Why do we want to raise our profiles? There may be a variety of reasons, some obvious, some less so. Interestingly there may also be unexpected consequences of the actions we take in our day-to-day lives that contribute to raising our profiles, as I found out.

One obvious reason for engaging in profile-raising activities is to increase your chances of getting the job you really want, invitations to speak at conferences or other events, grants and the best collaborations. In this case you might aim to publish or exhibit your work in the places where they have the greatest impact, talk to the most influential people at places of work or funding bodies that interest you, or connect with others outside of your research field.

Other reasons for raising your profile also interest me. In a previous role I had a colleague, Paul, who seemed to have an endless supply of great postdocs and PhD students applying to work with him. He was a good researcher himself and that obviously would have helped, but he was still fairly junior in his field and consequently less likely to be known as those who had been around for a while. I had to admit to being slightly jealous of his success, having only just set up my own research group and finding it difficult to get any applications from people wanting to work with me, let alone those from good candidates. What was his secret, I asked him. Paul knew that by getting great people to join him at an early stage in his career his own research profile would rise too. He is an excellent speaker and it turned out he deliberately gave talks in places where he could influence fledgling researchers by showing them how exciting research in his team could be.  During those talks he also demonstrated how he would support them, which of course would be attractive to anyone who is aware of the ups and downs of research. Those who passed through his lab when we were neighbours have certainly gone on to successful careers of their own.

There are others who feel passionately about an issue and recognise that by raising their own profile they can promote the profiles of others. Over the last year I have witnessed the effectiveness of Bernadine Idowu as she promotes equality within academia by being an exemplary role model, encouraging others to succeed by her own actions. Her determination to improve the chances of BME would-be academics gives her the motivation and a solid reason to talk to those at the top levels of King’s and other universities where others at her career stage may feel inhibited. This has resulted in her being well known within the academic BME community and beyond.

In my own career I also wanted to support a cause and found unexpected consequences for my profile. When I set up my own research group in London there were about 8 labs here working on fruit flies, my chosen model organism. Those who know me are fully aware that I feel strongly about the power of collaboration and mutual support. What better way to demonstrate this than to set up a monthly meeting of those 8 labs to discuss our research and support each other with shared knowledge and technical expertise? Rather naively I hadn’t really thought about the consequences for my own profile and how much this meeting might be valued by others. About 2 years after we started I was at the annual Drosophila Research Conference in the USA, the premier international gathering of fruit fly researchers that attracts around 1,000 participants. At this conference a participant I had never met before who worked on an unrelated research question in a lab in the USA saw my name badge and asked, “Are you the Kathy Barrett who runs the London Fly Group?”.

There are many reasons for raising our profiles. There are also many ways in which our profiles rise because of the actions we take for other reasons. Either way, getting yourself noticed for positive actions can only help you navigate your way through the vicissitudes of life.