Realising the potential of researchers - Vitae Conference 2013

Are courses and workshops effective in teaching new skills?

This was one of the issues being discussed at the 2013 Vitae Researcher Development International Conference – Realising the potential of researchers – in Manchester last week. Whilst that might sound like a group of people talking themselves out of a job, thankfully I don’t think the irony was lost on the audience! So what did I learn and what am I going to do differently? Here are my three main reflections:

Know your skills – whatever you think about tools like Vitae’s Researcher Development Framework (RDF), they can be really useful for working out your strengths and weaknesses. As a former researcher myself, I know that scientists can sometimes do a bad job of communicating their abilities. An issue Athene Donald blogged about recently. How can the Academy help researchers develop and know their skills? Well, a very simple first step would be to make it even clearer, for the various events and workshops we run, which skills the attendees will learn!

Learn by doing – the workshops that interested me most were those which discussed training approaches that get researchers developing new skills through doing something practical. As I’ve already alluded to, some might argue that this conflicts with the long lists of training workshops that many university career and staff development units produce. Perhaps it does, and a rethink is needed in terms of how to deliver these skills to researchers. This might have a positive impact on both the engagement of researchers and staff with such opportunities as well as on the ‘success’ of such courses. Courses certainly still have a role. But it would be naive to assume that once someone has attended a course they then have the skill! If we don’t put new training into regular use, the new skills is quickly forgotten. Perhaps like me you know that from personal experience! So how might we use volunteering, peer support networks and public engagement projects to ensure learning is experiential and rapidly integrated into practice?

My favourite workshop, led by Paul Toombs, took this lesson to heart in describing a new leadership course. Some speakers flirted with sending us to sleep by describing their projects in great detail, rather than giving a brief summary and inviting discussion. Paul took a practical approach and delivered elements of his leadership course with his audience (us!) as the participants. I know I understand his approach much better now having done part of the course myself. Speaking of which, think of the highly effective people you know, who do a similar job to you. What tasks do they prioritise? Well get on and do those things then and stop checking Facebook, making cups of tea...

Join the conversation on Twitter – I’m a fairly recent Twitter convert. I opened an account when Twitter first appeared but couldn’t really work out how it would be useful to me, unless I wanted endless photos of cats! But I’ve come to appreciate the incredible power that Twitter offers. Through networks of shared interest (followers), you can access and discuss the latest news and views, a long time before conventional media pick them up. Moreover, hashtags allow users to search for all the tweets on a particular topic, e.g. #vitae13. My favourite conference talk was by Dr Katie Wheat, a postdoc in the Netherlands, who co-founded a regular Twitter chat called #ECRchat. Every fortnight, the early career researcher community (PhD students, postdocs, academics and researcher developers) take to the Twittersphere and, using the #ECRchat hashtag, discuss post-PhD career issues. The next one is on Thursday 26 September, 20:00-21:00 (BST). Maybe I’ll see you there!

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Nigel Eady, Programme Manager, Academy of Medical Sciences

 

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