Ideas worth sharing from TEDx Whitehall

A couple of weeks ago I had the privilege of attending TEDx Whitehall. True to TED form, it was a pretty inspiring day. I’ve collated the ideas that stood out most to me in the image below. Lots of food for thought around: experiences, values and priorities, failure, improvisation, mental health, growing older and the future. PDF here.

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10 pieces of advice to help you on your career path

This week I have the privilege of being a panelist at a careers session for social science students at the University of Gloucestershire. I’ve therefore been thinking a fair amount over the past few days about useful things to share. Here I’ve compiled a list of ten pieces of advice for students and those entering into the world of work or heading off in pursuit of a career. Below I’ve answered the question of ‘why’ for each of these tips, or given an example of where they’ve paid off for me. So:

  1. Work hard(er)
  2. Take risks and be brave
  3. Start doing the job you want to do
  4. Make the most of every opportunity
  5. Be helpful and network
  6. Be true to yourself
  7. Live abroad
  8. Learn another language
  9. Find out about jobs you never knew existed
  10. Find the gaps in your CV and fill them

1) Work harder
Working hard might not feel like fun, sometimes, but it does pay off. Good grades will open up more opportunities for you. Not just grades, though, if you work hard and do a great job at a certain project, for example, you can write about that in a CV. Why work harder? Because, alas, there are a lot of people out there looking for jobs, so working hard will help you achieve something to make you stand out.

2) Take risks and be brave
When I was doing my PhD there was a postgraduate poster competition at my university. I wanted to do something a bit different from the standard and get creative. So I made an academic poster with wool on it. I was a bit apprehensive on exhibition day because everyone’s looked the same except mine. But my risk taking paid off because there was a prize for most innovative poster and I won the prize. This gave me the confidence to get creative in preparation for the presentation in a previous job interview: rather than produce a generic handout, I used paper, scissors and glue to mock up a webpage, which the panel really liked.

3) Start doing the job you want to do
If there’s a job you want to do but you’re not already doing it, what better way to convince the interview panel that you’re passionate and ready for the job, than by being able to show them you’re sort of already doing it. How can you do this in practice? You can blog, you can do something as a volunteer, you can set up your own project…

4) Make the most of every opportunity
Be it good or bad, make the most of the opportunities that life presents you. I went to a training session a few years ago, which I found quite underwhelming. Frustrated, I wrote a blog post with the content I thought should have been in the session. The post got reposted on a well-read blog, and was widely read. Someone working in the publishing industry saw my post and, because of what I’d written, got in touch with me and asked me if I’d be on a panel at her event. That was really exciting, and gave me another new experience to draw on.

5) Be helpful and network
It’s easier to achieve things with the help of others. So invest in getting to know people and help them. Then, when you need help, or advice, or are looking to move into x career, or whatever, they will be there to help you.

6) Be true to yourself
This one will make the first point much easier (working hard). If you care about something and enjoy it, it’s so much easier to work hard at it, to put in the overtime if necessary, to go the extra mile, to do the boring bits. If you get so far with a job and realise it’s not for you, it’s okay to change. In fact, the norm these days is to do different jobs across your working life.

7) Live abroad
Living abroad is the thing I’m most glad I’ve done. You see how other people and cultures do life; how they work, what they value, how they think. It changes your perspective on your home country and on others – makes you realise just how differently we are all wired, and how diverse our experiences are.

8) Learn another language
Lots of jobs don’t require another language, but there are lots of cool jobs that do – or they consider a second language a bonus. Often it doesn’t even matter which one, it’s just the fact that you can speak another language. Another language also opens up the option to you of working abroad. Or, alternatively, when your office is looking for someone to go to that exciting international meeting, you’ll be able to put yourself forward.

9) Find out about jobs you never knew existed
I wish I had done this. I know about so many jobs now that I didn’t even know existed until a few years ago. That being said, 21 year old me would not necessarily have been particularly interested in the job I’m doing now. I, like many of my friends, have found the jobs we love by trying different jobs, each time getting closer and closer to doing what we are both good at and passionate about.

10) Find the gaps in your CV and fill them
Once you know the kind of job you’d like, look at a person specification for that job. Do you meet the requirements? If not, think about what you can do to change that. Find a voluntary post, put on an event at your university, give a talk at the WI, use the platform of the internet, use whatever you have around you to plug the gaps on your CV.

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Seven super useful professional skills a PhD gives you

It’s been a few months since I last blogged as I’ve been busy with my first post-PhD job in the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology. I’m really enjoying the work I’m doing, and I use my PhD skills everyday.

Since I heard it said during my PhD that it doesn’t prepare you for anything but an academic career, I thought I’d set the record straight here: it turns out lots of the things you have to do to get a PhD are really useful skills in the world of work.

So, for those of you who are worried that the PhD isn’t prepping you for life afterwards, let the next few hundred words reassure you as I talk about seven super useful skills that the PhD gives you, which will serve you well in the world of work – especially in the early days of your new job.

1) Being good at being a beginner
When you start a new job, you are a beginner. For some, that can be really intimidating; however, having done a PhD, you will have already survived being a beginner. Remembering this in the early days of your new job gives you strength and helps you when you have those inevitable wobbles.

Similarly, when you start a job, you will likely feel a bit of an imposter. However, you’ve had that feeling before, and you survived it back then. This too helps you in the early days to keep your calm and poise.

2) Being organised
This is not to be underestimated. When you start a new job, you will likely be responsible for looking after your files and a constantly refilling inbox. Having recently completed a PhD, you will be experienced in keeping tabs on a large number of documents. This will mean that you won’t feel too intimidated by all the new virtual papers and will just start organising as a reflex.

3) Meeting new people
Chances are that during your PhD you will have attended one or more conferences. This means that, on one or more occasions, you will have felt awkward about being in the presence of strangers. As uncomfortable as that may have been, I can promise you, it gets easier. And this means that, when it comes to the world of work, you will have already had practice of meeting new people. So you will have already started developing your coping mechanisms and will be well on your way to being an old hat.

4) Acquiring and filtering information
Come on now reader, surely this is an obvious one? If it’s not, then let me make it clear to you: you are absolutely awesome at this. You can’t get to the end of a PhD without being great at acquiring and filtering information. And this is a great skill in the work place – especially when you are starting out in a new job – because it means you learn the ropes quickly and can retain what you learn.

5) Managing your workload
When you enter the world of work, you might have to do what your line manager tells you, and have your time mapped out minute-by-minute, but it’s unlikely. Much more likely is that you will be responsible for your own time and workload and getting things done. Some might panic at this idea, but not you, for you have spent three plus years becoming a pro at managing your own workload, prioritising and juggling. You defo have the head start over the majority on this: feel smug if you wish – you deserve it!

6) Receiving feedback
No one likes getting criticism, however, as a former PhD-er you will have spent at least three years listening to one or more people telling you that what you have done is not quite good enough (although they hopefully packaged it up as “it’s good, but you could work on this bit”). This means that you are an expert at dealing with feedback from a senior person on your work. And this means that you will be able to engage positively with your line manager when he or she tells you that “what you have done is good, but maybe try this” (or words to that effect). 

7) Being open and trying new things
When you arrive in your new job, you will be joining a group of people who may have been there for some years (or maybe even decades). It’s quite possible that they will be following systems and procedures that have been in place for years. But maybe someone has identified that they could do things better or differently. Or maybe your organisation wants to do something new. If you’re in any of these situations, then you are on to a winner, because not only are you the new person (putting you in a good position to rock the boat – if you are brave enough (and I say go for it!)), but, having done a PhD, you are used to exploring new avenues not knowing where they will lead.

These aren’t the only skills you will be developing in your PhD. You’re also developing a few superhuman skills too (read my post about these here).

 

seven skills

Pdf here

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How to become an innovator

I’m following a training programme at the moment called ‘Researcher to Innovator’ (R2I). It’s run by the SETsquared partnership, which is none other than the global number one university business incubator!

There are forty PhDs and ECRs from five UK universities doing R2I. It’s shaping up to be a really enriching, awesome experience, which I would recommend to any junior researcher.

SETsquared have kindly given me permission to share some of the things I learn on the programme, so I’m going to kick off with tips I gathered at our first bootcamp on how to become an innovator.

Time is precious, so rather than share paaaaragraphs, I’ve put everything we need in infographic form.

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pdf here

How and why we can and should be more creative in academia

I spent the best part of a decade thinking there was no place in academia for paint, scissors and glitter glue. It turns out I was wrong.

Feeling my off the wall ideas were unwelcome, I’d been all set to walk away from academia after my PhD. That was until a couple of weeks ago, when I went to a university workshop on ‘creative journaling as a research method.’ Now I want to stay.

That day, enlightenment and salvation finally came, delivered by Dr Ian Cook, a tall man with thick-rimmed black glasses and stories of Lego and Guantanamo Bay. Ian talked about how he and colleagues in his department had used Lego to explore different news stories. The material nature of the activity had shaped both the process and the thinking. The team posted images of their creations on social media, and contacted some of those involved in the stories, many of whom responded; the use of Lego as a research tool sparked conversations that would otherwise not have taken place.

Not only did he illustrate that creative approaches do have a place in academia and are welcome, he also demonstrated why we should be more creative. And, unlike junior PhD student me, he’s a senior and respected academic. So, if he says it’s okay, then it’s okay! To pick out and paraphrase some of Ian’s points:

Why we should be more creative in academia

  • Processes of making and creating provide us with a different way of exploring the world
  • ‘Materiality and remembered physical experiences stimulate the imagination’ (Treadaway 2009: 236)
  • We need to make our research interesting for the people who are going to be reading it
  • What we are trying to convey might be better understood in different formats

In other words, creative approaches may give us greater insight, enable us to do better research and be better at communicating it.

Looking back over the past two and a half years of my PhD, I see my project has been peppered with creative moments which have been invaluable. These have helped me understand my research questions and talk about what I’m trying to find out with others. I’ve picked out six ideas that will hopefully inspire you.

 

1) Making sense of the literature

Reviewing the literature in the early stages of my research, I had information overload. I was trying to get my head around all of the factors that might have an impact on (Franco-)Belgian borderlanders’ speech and their beliefs about and attitudes towards language. I had compiled a long list, but it just wasn’t user friendly; I needed to see how they interacted. So I made them into a collage.

DSCN1215

(info here)

Not only did the collage help me to make sense of the literature, I have since gone back to it and used it to stimulate my own questions. Sharing it with non-experts, it has been a way for me to start conversations about my research.

 

2) Sharing a research experience with peers

I was asked to lead part of a discussion group at Cardiff University about my first experiences of fieldwork. I wanted my colleagues to feel what I had felt. So I drew a cartoon! Little bit risky!

FOXENLEDS12.11.2014 jpeg

(info here)

The storyboard format enabled my colleagues to relive my experience with me, but it was abstract enough to stimulate their own memories of fieldwork. What is more, it was so distinct from forms of presentation we are used to, it engaged and held their attention.

 

 

3) Developing a methodology

How do you get the measure of a person’s complex, composite, fluid identity? Thinking about this whilst planning my methodology, I felt a visual translation of identity might be more insightful that something gleaned from responses to a written questionnaire. I considered the dimensions of identity then thought how I could translate them into physical dimensions, for example:

Identity Cloud

  • Different traits become different colours
  • Importance becomes size
  • Interaction becomes spatial configuration
  • Fluidity becomes movement

What emerged from my reflections and discussions with peers was the idea of visualising identity through creating an Identity Cloud; a visual interpretation of the arguably intangible. Peers had a go at making their own identity clouds at a conference workshop. They described how the process of making and doing had stimulated thought and discussion.

(The image is of a made up Identity Cloud.)

(Check back for details of a forthcoming journal article about this.)

 

4) Processing and documenting the emotions tied to my own research experience

When I first moved to France for my year abroad, I started making postcards with chopped up free magazines and pens. I made them for no one but myself. When I looked back over them, I realised they were an articulation of my emotions – living abroad for the first time is pretty scary and challenging.

DSCN1212

I still make postcards whenever I’m abroad. I don’t really think about what I want to create; I just start chopping up magazines. Nevertheless, when I look back on my creations, I see that they are (sometimes cathartic) translations of emotions and experience. Looking at the postcards I created on my first trip to the field site reminds me how overwhelmed I was. I’m not sure I’d remember those emotions as clearly without the postcards, yet I think an awareness of the emotions we experience on our research journey is important in our understanding of our research and ourselves as researchers.

(info here)

 

5) Preparing to interpret my data

At the creative journaling workshop two weeks ago we were encouraged to explore part of our research. I’d brought along the questionnaire I gave my participants. One question asked participants the top five places they spend their time (it will contribute to an index for mobility). In the workshop I decided to try responding to this question visually.

DSCN1227

(info here)

Through creating this piece, I realised I couldn’t think about the places I spend my time without thinking about how I feel about them. The activity flagged up to me the fact that when I interpret my questionnaire data, I must remember that behind the quantitative responses are emotions and feelings and these may explain things better than numbers.

 

6) Sharing aspects of my research with non-specialists

Recently, I created a poster illustrating my research journey. Knowing the audience were not specialists, and that attention is precious, I wanted to do something engaging. Having decided to collect a ball of wool every place I stayed during my PhD, I made a poster telling the story of my research through swatches of wool.

DSCN1230

(info here)

The novelty, and the fact that viewers were encouraged to engage physically through touching the wool, appeared to engage viewers and passers by.

 

 

 

 

So why are creative approaches so marginal in academia?

The benefits of being creative are evident, and clearly people are being creative in the academy, but it’s definitely not the norm. I’ve been thinking about why this might be, and so far I’ve come up with five reasons (which I went into more detail about in a recent post):

  • The system has not been built for us to do it
  • We aren’t used to doing it
  • We don’t know what to do
  • We think we can’t do it
  • No one likes to fail

Nevertheless, there’s never been a better time to try something different!

Now is the time to go for it!

As I said in my previous post, ‘interdisciplinarity and impact might be unpleasant buzzwords in the minds of many, but, buzzwordiness aside, the do open up spaces in which creative approaches are more esteemed, if not encouraged. Technological advances, the move towards more collaborative work, and the rise of social media are also developments which work in creativity’s favour.’

What is more, beyond the academy others are getting on the bandwagon: in their document on ‘Digital Investigation and Intelligence: Policing capabilities for a digital age’ (April 2015), the College of Policing and partner agencies state ‘we need to engage with artists and innovators to help us think creatively and see things differently.’

If we don’t dare to try new things, how far will we get? Einstein was of the opinion that ‘doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results’ was tantamount to insanity. And Ed Catmull, the founder of Pixar, wrote a book about how creating an environment where people aren’t scared of failure is key for enabling creativity. 

Now, whilst I’m a fan of glitter glue and have A-level art to my name, I realise not everyone is in this position. But creativity is not limited to the art room – Lego, for example, requires no drawing implement. Everyone has the potential to be creative, and it’s something that must be practised and developed.

To finish I’m going to give you some ideas for ways to kick-start your academic creativity.

I’d also love to hear what you do to help you feel and be creative – do feel free to comment or tweet me. I’ll get our collected ideas together in another post!

20 ideas for kick-starting your academic creativity

Take little steps

1) If you’ve never done it before, submit a poster to a conference. It’s a well established format, so it’s not going to upset the academy; it’s just going to help you practise taking risks.

2) Physically chop up something you’re working on into sections and re-arrange it in different configurations; not just linearly. Keep rearranging and see what emerges when you change the connections in your research.

3) How much colour do you have in your work? Invest in a pack of felt tips or crayons and use them freely. Maybe get some stickers too.

4) Take a draft of a piece of your writing and illustrate it with stick people and images in the margins. Reflect on what emerges.

5) 1) Raid the recycling bag for magazines, then 2) think about any aspect of your research, then 3) start cutting and sticking without worrying about the outcome.

Seek out creative spaces

6) Find the space where your mind wanders and go there.

7) Seek out ‘interdisciplinary’ events or projects: discipline boundaries have already come down and there’s a sense of openness and exploration; an ideal space in which to take a risk.

8) Want to try delivering something in a new way? How about in a seminar in your institution? It’s not too formal, and you’re amongst familiar faces.

9) Want to try delivering something in a new way? How about in a seminar somewhere else? People have (maybe) got less of an idea of who you are. There are no preconceptions. What a way to make a splash!

10) Find public engagement opportunities. Engaging the public with our research requires us to bring them into the mix and that means we have to think differently.

Think differently

11) Play helps with innovation (Gross & Do 2009). Get out the Lego, plan a treasure hunt, turn your research into a Monopoly-esque game, make a costume and act out an aspect of your research.

12) Question why you’re not doing something differently. Is there a good reason why not? Would there be a good reason to do it differently?

13) Do you do any crafts (knitting, candlemaking…) or have any hobbies (baking, orienteering…)? Have you ever tried doing an aspect of your research with or through them? Try it.

14) Think about your research journey. Think about what’s happening and what you’re doing and feeling. How could this awareness shape what you’re doing and where you’re going?

15) Got a totally radical idea you love, but scared to go for it? Is what’s stopping you really a valid reason not to?

Learn from others

16) Seek wisdom and inspiration from people writing and speaking about creativity. Rod Judkins’ ‘The art of creative thinking’ is packed with ideas, and there’s a wealth of inspiration to be found in TED talks.

17) Go out and seek inspiration: visit a gallery, listen to a piece of music, go to a museum, go for a walk.

18) Have a conversation with someone about part of your research you’d never imagine having that conversation with. What comes out of it?

19) Talk to the people in your office, your institution, your network. And people who’ve got nothing to do with your area. What different things are they doing?

20) Look at how your or your friends’ children tackle a task. Try emulating their approach.

Kick-starting your academic creativity

(pdf here)

Don’t forget: I’d  love to hear what you do to help you feel and be creative – so feel free to comment or tweet me and I’ll get together a blogpost on our collected ideas.

References

Gross, M. & Do, E.Y-L. (2009) Educating the new makers: cross-disciplinary creativity. Leonardo 42(3), 210-215.

Judkins, R. (2015) The art of creative thinking. London: Sceptre.

Treadaway, C. (2009) Materiality, memory and imagination: using empathy to research creativity. Leonardo 42(3) 231-237.

 

What a five-year-old, seashells and formal semantics taught me about learning

Learning 2

What seashells taught me about learning

As a 17-year-old planning to pursue languages, my A-level biology coursework seemed interesting, but irrelevant. It involved comparing the apertures of seashells from two beach locations to see if there was a difference between the two datasets. To compare the datasets, we learned to use a statistical test called a t-test. Pointless, when you’re planning a career in languages.

I got my A-level, left school, pursued languages and then became a teacher. A decade later, I returned to uni and started a Masters in Linguistics.

There I took a module in accent variation. One of my assessments required analysing a person’s speech and comparing their vowel sounds. To do this, I was required to perform… you’ve guessed it…a t-test.

All this has taught me…

Sometimes things which seem irrelevant or pointless may turn out to be just the opposite. Since we can’t see into the future, we should never discount something on the grounds that it appears irrelevant.

What a five-year-old taught me about learning

A couple of weekends ago I had the total joy of helping my two small nieces with a craft activity. Earlier in the day their mum and I had discussed just how many arty things they produce, and how it was impossible to keep everything. I was thinking about that as I watched them decorating their boxes. I felt a tiny bit sad wondering whether these boxes were destined for ‘the great art gallery in the sky’.

But then I thought about what was actually happening.

There was an abundance of glitter glue and my five-year-old niece was, unsurprisingly, keen on using it. But rather than abstractly blobbing it on like her little sister, she wanted to use it like a pen to trace her drawings. As she started, it was pretty blobby and things were not going well. At that point her mum stepped in and guided her through it, showing her how to move the pen and get the glitter flowing at a better rate, then leaving her to try.

I watched my five year-old-niece go from a novice to competent glitter-gluer. The slight sadness was replaced with delight as I realised that it didn’t matter what happened to the boxes, because even if they didn’t make it, through doing the activity my niece had learned a new skill.

All this has taught me…

Often we focus on objects and outcomes, yet sometimes what is of greatest value is not the outcome, but the learning that happens in the process of creating it.

What formal semantics taught me about learning

I have never come closer to failing a module than when I took a compulsory Masters module in formal semantics. The utter agony and frustration of just not getting it. It’s all about using logic to represent language, and I just could not get my head around it. It is a small miracle that I passed that module and I was very happy to put it behind me in the spring of 2013.

A few weeks ago, I began developing a spreadsheet in which to analyse my doctoral data. Looking at my data, I knew I needed to reduce values to 1s and 0s. To do this, I worked out what I needed to do, then discovered on Google that the formulae I needed were logic formulae. As I wrote the formulae for my spreadsheet, I realised that not only did they make sense, but things I had been trying to grasp for months during my semantics course were finally making sense!

All this has taught me…

When things seem incomprehensible, sometimes it takes seeing them in a different context or a different application for them to make sense. And sometimes a bit of time and distance helps too.