Core Values

Core Values

When thinking about career development, core values really are something to take into consideration. If you’re not sure what yours are, or you’ve never heard of core values before – read on to understand a key tool in thinking about your next career steps.

What are core values?

Core values are a set of values or beliefs that are fundamentally important to you as a person. We all have them, and they will be different for each of us.

They could be things such as autonomy, security, creativity, wealth, expertise, equality, kindness… the list goes on. But what it comes down to is the fact that there will be a few on that list that you will want to uphold and live by above all others… They are at the very core of who you are and what you believe.

Why are core values important?

Your values will affect the way you behave and your decision making. In short, they affect how you live your life. They are still there working in the background, even if you don’t consciously know what they are.

You’ll know that they exist because when you are living a life that is consistent with your values you will feel content, satisfied and all will feel right with the world. However, when you are going against your values, making decisions or behaving in a way that does not uphold your values you are likely to feel discomfort, unease and like something is just wrong… that sinking feeling in your stomach – a kind of gut instinct.

Becoming aware of what those values are can help you to make decisions to live a life more aligned with what is important to you. For example, if you value security, how comfortable will you be knowing that to be in a research career you are likely to be on fixed-term contracts or constantly bidding for last-minute funding? On the flip side if you value freedom, it is worth considering if a core-funded position like a lectureship will give you the freedom you crave?

How to identify my values?

So how do you find out what your values are? One way is to look at a list of values and see what resonates with you. There are many online or you can use the one linked below.

You’re looking for just a few… the really important ones.

If you struggle, then see if you can create categories of ‘I really don’t care about this’, ‘I care about this, but I can compromise’, and ‘I absolutely will never compromise on this’.

That refusal to compromise gives you another way to explore your values. When was the last time you got really angry with a situation? What was it exactly that made you angry? Why did you care?

It’s likely that, if you dig deep enough, you’ll find that someone ‘stepped on’ one of your values (or worse, forced you into a position where you had to ‘betray’ your own values).

The hard bit – making changes

Many things can stop us from making the changes we need to make, to live in a way that is more aligned with our values; Habits, lifestyle, peer pressure, fear… all these things can keep us where we are even if we don’t feel great about where that is.

So how far might you want, or need, to redress the balance?

Be aware that there are no hard and fast rules about this. Each of us is different, and has different tolerances for misalignment, for different reasons, at different times.

And so there is no judgement either.

For that researcher who needs security, they might decide that they will embrace instability, for a period of time, in order to work towards a more permanent academic position.

Or… they might begin to look for a role that gives them more security.

And, for that researcher who revels in the autonomy of a research position, they might decide that they can build that freedom into a permanent academic post… or that the compromise of lost freedom is justified by having a stronger platform of influence for their work.

Or… they might decide that they value the freedom more, and – even though it’s potentially precarious – remain as a researcher.

The difference for both will, though, likely be that having identified their core values, and negotiated with themselves a solution that acknowledges and respects those core values, they will be at peace with the solution that they adopt.

 

Resources

Values sheet

What Are Your Values? From mindTools

Find your Why…

We all know that we’re researchers… and that researchers research stuff… But, if I asked you to tell me why you do what you do in one sentence, could you tell me?

If you can’t – then perhaps you need to find your why.

Find your Why’ is a concept created by Simon Sinek who believes that each of us has a ‘why’ at our core. Our ‘why’ affects the decisions we make and is the inner driver for why we do what we do. Our ‘why’ is the reason we get out of bed in the morning, the thing that makes our lives worth living.

Sinek believes that most of us know what we do…. “I’m a Research Associate”

He believes that we know how we do it … “I run tests in a lab / I create new technologies /I look at the worlds history/ I study the earth etc….”

But most of us never stop to think about why we do what we do.

Finding your ‘why’ is all about digging deep to explore who you are as a whole and find that unique ‘why’ that makes you tick.

Why is ‘why’ Important?

Why is important for you on a personal level because you’ll find energy a lot more sustainable if you act in harmony with your why. When you are faced with choices, if you are making a decision that aligns with your why, then that decision is likely to bring you greater fulfilment and contentment than a decision that goes against your ‘why’. Knowing your why can help you to show up as who you want to be in the world.

But why is also very important for us as researchers because the ‘why’ of research is what hooks people’s interest and gets them to back what we do.

Consider these examples:

“I analyse microbes. My research is ground-breaking. It could change the world.”

“I change the world. I do it by carrying out groundbreaking health research. I analyse microbes.”

Who would you rather listen to?

How to discover your why…

Whys are strange things – because they tend to float to the surface in everything that you do.

Simon Sinek’s why is “To inspire people to do the things that inspire them so that, together, we can change our world”, and this has come out in all the different areas of work that he’s been involved in.

So, sometimes it’s enough to just look back and see if there’s a common thread.

Mike – for example – has worked in education, in a bank, for a charity, with children, and now with researchers… but in all those situations, he’s found himself challenging people to recognise that the way things are isn’t the way that they have to be… and to see that change is possible.

Katie – for example – has worked in a museum, for a council, as a self-employed artist, and now as a researcher development advisor… but in all those situations, she’s gravitated towards supporting people to make the most of the opportunities that they have.

What if it’s not that simple?

If you can’t see a common thread, then you can start to ask yourself…

What do you do?

… Why?

… And why is that important?

… And why is that important? 

… And… (guess what?)… why?

Or start to ask yourself deep questions (!)

“If you knew you were about to die, what’s the one message you’d like to leave behind for people to think about?”

Or more superficial ones.

“If you went to work in a [insert completely different sector here], what’s the job that you’d really like to do there?”

Try and write a ‘Why statement.’

When you have some ideas, then try and write a ‘why statement’.

Mike: “I believe Higher Education could be radically different… so I try to model new forms of research environment at the UoB… I work in researcher development”.

Katie: “I believe that people are important… so, I set up opportunities for people to develop… I organise the Bristol Clear mentoring scheme”.

You: “I believe that… so I …. I do…  ”

Start living your why

Some people may find their ‘why’s’ quite quickly but for others it may not be so obvious or instant (Katie still struggles to find hers). It may be something you need to explore for weeks, months or years in order to clarify it, and that’s ok.  The closer we get to finding our ‘why’s’ then the more we can live in harmony with it.

Finding your why can potentially be quite alarming. You may find that you have strayed away from your why and that you are doing something that you don’t want to do or behaving in a way you don’t want to behave. It may require you to make a change in some area of your life which can be scary. However, by taking steps towards living our why it will always lead to a more purpose filled life.

So next time you have a big decision to make, an event where you’ll be networking with others or you’re thinking about how to start your grant application… consider starting with why.

Resources:

Simon Sinek webpage

Find your why Book – by Simon Sinek

Simon Sinek – Ted Talk

Bristol Clear – Year round up

And…. that’s a wrap! This week saw the last workshops that Bristol Clear will run for this academic year. Here is a round-up of what’s been on offer since our launch last October, and what we’ve learned for next year.

Before that, though, we have to say thank you… to you! If you didn’t attend the training, participate in writing retreats, book onto 1:1’s, sign up for mentoring, complete our surveys, or read any of our emails, we’d be finishing the year empty-handed. But because you get involved, we have masses to show for the last year.

Training

We’ve run 36 training sessions across the year and trained 530 people. (that’s over a third of the entire research staff community at Bristol!).

This year’s training was similar to last year’s, covering a range of topics that draws on the full scope of the Researcher Development Framework. Topics like careers, grants, writing & publishing, engagement, policy, communication & impact, research project management and personal effectiveness.

What we did differently this year was release the training schedule further in advance to allow you to sign up earlier. This has encouraged people to plan their training better… so we’ll be doing that again next year.

What we also need to do next year is let you know more about what’s coming up closer to the date. So that you can book on, and take advantage of any drop-outs, if you missed the original call.

Careers drop-in

Careers drop-ins were a new initiative this year, 19 were run across the latter half of the year. These sessions give you space to do your own careers research, check a CV, ask a question, or work on job or grant applications. We make laptops available so that you can explore online careers tools, a growing bank of our own online guidance, books and other resources aimed specifically at postdoctoral career level and a quiet space for you to focus.

These have been growing in popularity, but we think we can do more to advertise them… after all, you told us in CROS that you don’t have time to develop your career outside of your normal daily work – and these drop-ins provide just that opportunity.

Writers Retreats’

A day where you can step out of your norm and focus solely on writing – what a luxury! We saw how much you valued these sessions and so this year upped the number of writers retreats’ to one a month. We ran 9 in total at nearly full capacity each time!

Just think what you could achieve by taking out just one full day a month to write!

1:1’s

75 of you have taken advantage of a half-hour coaching session with one of our staff development officers. These are often about careers decisions. But we’ve also talked about things like prioritising writing, negotiating the authorship position you want on a paper, and planning a tricky conversation with a PI.

Mentoring

In September 2018 we launched the Bristol Clear Mentoring Scheme. We’ve run two cohorts so far (Sept 2018, and March 2019) and created 37 (you tell us ‘high quality’) mentor/mentee matches. The scheme will open to all faculties come September 2019 and we’d expect it to then grow considerably.

Alongside one to one matches, we’ve run Academic journeys events, where academics talk candidly about their own journeys through mentoring. We’ve also run several peer to peer events when staff could practice mentoring with each other and gain the benefits of being mentored by a peer.

Writefest

In November, we worked with the Bristol Doctoral College to run a month focused on academic writing. Throughout the month there were 3 video shorts containing 9 writing tips, 9 book reviews on how to write books, 5 weeks of activities, 4 drop-in writing days, 4 writing workshops, 3 thesis boot camp days, 3 writer’s retreats and 373,000 (approx) words written! Phew… roll on WriteFest2019!

The Post Doc Residential

In May 2019 we ran a 2-day residential for new postdocs. Those who attended spent two days, away from their everyday work, thinking about questions like: Where have you come from? Where are you heading? What are your values? Why do you do what you do? How can you be as productive as possible, and What do you need to do next?

Feedback was generally very positive, with some good ideas about how to improve the experience. One person found it truly transformative, saying

It was fantastic! I came away completely different, I’ve never had a professional development experience like this, it changed the way I feel about my career. I would like more early career staff to be able to experience this

More Communication:

In addition to these events, we’ve renewed and reshaped some of our communication. We’re now using Twitter (@UoB_Researchers), and have introduced this blog – which has run 35 blog posts through the year. We’ve also introduced the weekly Friday bulletins to keep you all up to date with what’s going on.

And other things:

And then there are lots of other things that we also do that are probably less visible: support the Reps network and the work of the Research Staff Working Party, meet with Heads of School, run the CROS survey, etc.

They are hugely important, though, as they support everything else that we aim to do.

This summer, particularly, we’ll be working on analysing the CROS data, and getting an action plan ready for next year.

And that will also detail our programme for next year, so look out on our webpages and blog for updates on what we’ll be doing for 2019/2020!

Academic Journeys – Personal Career Story: Richard Pancost

Dr Richard Pancost – Professor of Biogeochemistry, Head of School for the School of Earth Sciences and a speaker from a former Academic Journeys event talks on the Bristol Clear blog about his personal career story. Richard talks on what sparked his passion for his subject, the thrills vs the sacrifice of academic life and the decisions that have led him to where he is now.

What I do:

I study how the Earth works as a system, how all of the biological, climatic, geological and chemical components interact today and how they interacted in the past.  I was also Director of the Cabot Institute, which was a chance to not only work across disciplines and research environmental problems but to support a wide range of academics and partners studying solutions to those problems.  Currently, as Head of School, I have all sorts of new obligations but am particularly enjoying connecting to a new group of amazing students.

Why Academia?:

How I ended up in academia and even higher education is a complicated question.  Part of it was because I was good at it: I was smart, good at exams and course work and got good grades.  Part of it was because I loved it; I followed every Shuttle launch and was glued to the television as Voyager 1 and 2 whipped past Jupiter and Saturn. And part of it was because it could get me out of poverty.  I try not to overly mythologise growing up on a small dairy farm in Ohio, but I did love it.  I loved working outside and working with my family.  But I also hated the machinery, the brutality of it; the ceaselessness of farm life, no matter if you are sick or if there is a heat wave or a blizzard; the uncertainty, the worry, the continuous worry about the weather and the bills. It seemed like we were always talking about bills – for the farm equipment, the mortgage, the water and electricity, the dentist and the doctor…. 

 So university always seemed inevitable.  I could go. I wanted to go.  I needed to go.

College was fantastic.  I loved the intellectual freedom and the variety.  My god, especially the variety.  Then and now, that has to be one of the most amazing things about academia.  Every day is different.  Every hour is different.  I had come to college to study astrophysics.  Or political science. Or literature.  In the end, I studied geology. I loved it all.  [During the summer after my Freshman Year, with discussions of environmental crises beginning to trouble the news, with my family’s farm seen in a new light after being away for a year, and with my interest in both science and politics growing, I decided I would merge my interests.  I would study geology and then go on to Law School and become an environmental lawyer.

However, it also took a long and awkward time for me to fit in, this farm boy at a big university, first generation, working class, a bit of a country hick. I had support, but I wish that support had been more aware.  I wish that they could have seen past my good grades and enthusiasm for scholarship and seen the kid who was suffering from anger and anxiety. I wish they could have seen that my bravado was a lie and that my cuts and bruises were a sign of someone using sports and contests to inflict self-harm. I wish that I had been more self-aware.  I wish that I had realised that some of my actions were signs of self-doubt, fear of appearing foolish or uncool, and anger at being mocked and poor and unable to afford what others could.

But friends – even those who inadvertently made me feel that way – supported me. Lecturers championed me.  And helped me financially.  They paid me on internships and work study and once, when money was really tight, even to paint their house. And they taught me with passion and love for the subject. They gave me good grades; and when I was complacent, they gave me my first bad grades.  They were patient and then impatient and patient again.  And finally, they gave me advice, support and wisdom.  I graduated top in my class and won a PhD Fellowship to the Department of Geosciences at Penn State. 

There are two stories that explain why I went to graduate school rather than becoming an environmental lawyer, and they are both true in their own way.  In the first, Geology stole me from that path by showing me a stunning and beautiful world: I found my first fossil in the Cleveland Shale in Rocky River Park; I felt my first sense of wonder at geological time in an outcrop teeming with Ordovician brachiopods and trilobites in the Cincinatti Arch; I marvelled at the forces that had shaped the Appalachian Mountains. And then, in the summer of 1991, my field project in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming, one of the most beautiful parts of the world, revealed to me 500 million years of Earth history over the course of an exhausting, exhilarating, sweaty, blistering, eye-opening summer.  

And the second story? I would have had to go further into debt to attend Law School, whereas graduate school would pay me a stipend. That’s all. You don’t always get to make your own choices.

My career path / the big decisions:

 I loved graduate school, but the first two years were a battle.  A battle to flip from being a straight-A student who had excelled at learning and tests, who could solve problems and equations to a scientist who could conceive new ideas, new questions and design the experiments to test them.  I had a brilliant supervisor – Kate Freeman – but also a network of mentors and advisers across the department who tolerated my fumbling journey, pushed me at times, and let me make a few astonishingly poor decisions – but not too poor. I was allowed to learn and to fail and learn again.  And it was frustrating and it was amazing and always always always interesting.  

And thrilling.  Nothing is as thrilling as discovering something, whether it be something fundamentally new, like a new biogeochemical pathway or a new compound, or even just being the first person in the world to analyse a particular rock.  And related to that is the thrill of having an idea, nursing it, testing it, patiently, rigorously and then proving it right – bringing a new sense of understanding into the world.

 So clearly I was hooked.  I would finish my PhD.  Get a post-doc. And then get an academic job. And I am still hooked, almost like a drug, addicted to those thrills, those moments of discovery, those moments when you know something – even if it is just a small something – about the universe that no one else does. And then sharing that with the world. 

But addictions require sacrifice.  The post-doc opportunity was in the Netherlands.  I’d only been out of the country once before and no one else in my family even owned passports. You don’t travel when you have no money.  You don’t travel when you own a dairy farm. My parents always wanted the best for me, they wanted me to go to college, they wanted me to excel and to be successful; but at heart, we were still a farm family from Ohio and they never thought I would move that far away.  

But I did.  And then I made that permanent when I moved to Bristol.  I have no regrets about those moves; I love this University, my School, my discipline, this city and my academic career.  But it would be a lie to say that this career does not demand sacrifices from us.  It would be a lie to say that this move was not hard and painful, that it has not had consequences, that family connections are more fragile and that some have been lost.  My parents cannot fly, they still do not have passports; they have never seen my house or my home or my city.

My advice to my younger self:

 I’d tell him that he could ask for help. I’d tell this kid, who was proud of his working class background but who had also buried some anxiety and fear and anger,  that he could ask for help.  That it is not a sign of weakness.  

And I’d tell him that we always have choices. They can come with financial or emotional risk, but we do have them.  You can embrace the addiction of academic life or you can kick the habit if the thrill is not worth the sacrifice. I think he would have made all of the same decisions, but I wish he had known that the world is vast and full of options.  I would tell him that he will have an amazing life no matter what choices he makes as long as he remains true to himself and his values.  

And he’d probably have some advice for me as well.  

 

 

Academic Journeys – Personal Career Story: Alison Gregory.

Dr Alison Gregory, Research Fellow (Traumatised and Vulnerable Populations), a speaker from a former Academic Journeys event talks on the Bristol Clear blog about her personal career story, how she has navigated academia, the big decisions and what she wished she’d know from the start.

What I do:

‘It might be nothing, but it could mean everything’ – you’ve spotted something odd happening in the relationship of someone close to you. They may be a relative, a friend, a colleague, a neighbour, or a parent you see in the playground after school. It may be that you’ve never met their partner, or that their partner seems wonderful, but there’s a nagging feeling inside that something’s not quite right. You ask yourself, “Should I do something? Say something?” But your doubts tell you “It’s a private matter. What if I make it worse? Get it wrong? Offend the person?” This is the research area I’ve been studying for the past 8 years. I started with a PhD (On the outside looking in: the shared burden of domestic violence) exploring the impacts for people providing support in an informal capacity to women who had experienced domestic violence. With two subsequent fellowships (NIHR SPCR and EBI funded), I have been developing this work by: supporting related public health campaigns across the UK, conducting further research with informal supporters and specialist helpline staff, developing national and international collaborations, and producing training materials for professionals. Having carried out this crucial groundwork, I’m now at the point (with an AXA Research Fund fellowship) where I can begin developing and piloting an intervention, targeted specifically for informal supporters. My hope is to produce something tangible, which genuinely has dual-benefit; benefiting, supporting and improving safety for both informal supporters and consequently survivors.

Why Academia?:

As a former 9-year-old who aspired to be an air hostess, I regularly ask myself the question, “how on earth did I end up here?”. I took a rather meandering and perhaps less-usual route towards academia. Having completed an undergraduate degree in Maths and Psychology, I never saw myself working in a university. Instead, I spend many years in practitioner and managerial roles in the NHS and for the police. I retrained as a person-centred counsellor and sought additional employment that I could undertake alongside my practitioner role, and that’s when I spotted a part-time role in what is now the Centre for Academic Primary Care. Starting on a project to train GPs and nurses how to inquire, and response to disclosures, about domestic violence felt like a good fit – my first ever counselling client had been a healthcare professional, who was herself experiencing subtle but dangerous partner abuse. Once part of this field, my interest in friends and family members began to grow, not least because I found myself in exactly their position, with several people disclosing their own experiences to me or seeking my advice about how to help someone they knew. So, why have I remained in academia? Well, primarily because I believe that this research is needed and that it will genuinely make a difference in the world. There are days, particularly when I’ve been sat in front of a screen for too long, that this doesn’t feel the case. However, taking opportunities in the course of my work to spend time with people directly affected – whether survivors, informal supporters, front-line specialist staff or service commissioners reignites my sense of purpose and commitment. Now, as a Research Fellow, I feel I get the best of both worlds; I have enough independence to pursue the work I consider important, using the methods I feel most appropriate and respectful to participants, whilst still maintaining a very hands-on role, in which I regularly meet participants face-to-face.

My career path & the big decisions:

Making the decision to remain a pathway 2 researcher has been a mixed-blessing and certainly one I continually grapple with; it provides very little in the way of job security and stability, but it does mean that I remain a researcher first-and-foremost with greater flexibility to steer the direction of my proposals. And having great mentors, with whom I can be completely honest, has been invaluable to me, as I’ve navigated the highs and lows resulting both from that decision and from others regarding the mysterious and sometimes thorny academic world.

My advice to my younger self:

Each time that I’ve managed to secure funding, I’ve wished that I’d worried less about how I was going to keep myself financially afloat. There is certainly a degree of ‘luck’ and timing in this, rather bonkers, academic context, but resilience, persistence and endurance are also key; I wish I’d understood from the outset that this is definitely a marathon, not a sprint!


For a chance to hear from academic staff members, discussing their own personal career stories about their journeys in academic, and who has helped, influenced and inspired them along the way, book onto our next event:

Academic Journeys, Thursday 4th April, 14:00 – 16:00 – Book your place

 

Dealing with writing-related anxiety

Different writers enjoy diverse parts of the writing process but all writers experience writing-related anxiety at some point in their writing lives. Whether you are worried you haven’t found that one bit of evidence that disproves your theory, or you feel like you can’t communicate your ideas well, or that, today, you simply have no ideas to communicate, it is a normal part of the writing process. Some days, writing will be slow. Often, these are the days when you are creating something exciting and complicated – relax and remember that you are doing something difficult and that can take time. Other days, you will simply feel tired and disheartened. Either way, here are a couple of techniques that can help you feel calmer about your writing:

Planning your day

It can be difficult to start your writing day, to dirty that clean white page with your unformed thoughts. This can cause anxiety, making it feel impossible to start. Planning carefully and setting goals for a writing day can help with these feelings. Think about how much writing time you have today (remember to allow long breaks and a good lunch) and then divide your day up between your tasks. Look at the overall plan for the piece you are working on a select a few sections to work on today. Write them separately so you aren’t distracted by the big picture. Be realistic. For example:

9.15-9.30am                Set goals for the day. Do a quick writing warm up.

9.30-10.45 am             Finish overview on chicken’s eating habits

10.45-11.15am            Break

11.15-12.45pm            Write section on beaks

12.45-1.45pm              Lunch

1.45-3.15pm                Write section on grains

3.15-3.45pm                Break

3.45-5.00pm                Re-read today’s writing and do a quick edit then plan for your next writing session

Just having a structure to work to, and a plan for the day, can make the work seem more manageable. The more you plan like this, the more realistic you become, and the less you punish yourself for not achieving unrealistic goals.

Ask yourself some key questions using Who, What, Where, Why, When and What

Sometimes it can be useful to go back to basics. Anxiety can be caused by a fear of missing something important. Doing an exercise like this can help you marshal your thoughts. For example, this is one of mine for an article on drinking in Wuthering Heights:

Who is Hindley?

What is habitual drunkenness?

Where does the action take place?

Why is drinking important to this novel?

When is it set?

What does Emily’s attention to Domestic Medicine reveal about Hindley’s drinking?

It only took 10 minutes to write these questions and reflect on some possible answers but it helped me remember the key things I needed to include and helped me to remind myself why my research was important/useful/different.

If you aren’t sure how to do this, try using Brown’s 8 questions:

  1. Who are intended readers? (3-5 names)
  2. What did you do? (50 words)
  3. Why did you do it? (50 words)
  4. What happened? (50 words)
  5. What do results mean in theory? (50 words)
  6. What do results mean in practice? (50 words)
  7. What is the key benefit for readers (25 words)
  8. What remains unresolved? (no word limit)

Reflect positively on the work you have done so far by creating a reverse outline

This is particularly effective in the editing stages. Without editing your text (sit on your hands if necessary), read through your work so far and write a reverse outline.[1] This means writing a couple of words, or a couple of sentences, beside each paragraph summing up what that paragraph does.

As well as being a reassuring exercise to remind you how much work you have already done, this ‘reverse outline’ can be a useful tool to see whether each paragraph is working and whether your overall argument is scanning properly. For example, this is the introduction to a comparative piece on Dickens and Eliot:

Introduction

  1. Teaser
  2. Overview of Hard Times
  3. Overview of ‘Janet’s Rep’
  4. Divorce and publication dates
  5. Janet as new form of female alcoholic
  6. Add more signposting?
  7. Conclusion

At a glance, I can see which bits are working, whether the reader is getting the information in the right order, and flag up which bits still need significant editing (final signposting in this case).

Rest properly

Make sure you rest regularly through the writing day and find things that help you to relax after a day of writing. It doesn’t matter whether that is a walk in the park, some sweating at the gym, a long bath, or something cheesy on Netflix, take the time you need to re-boot and get ready for tomorrow. But remember to reflect after a rest – did your ‘go to’ relaxation actually help you to relax? If not, try something new. I recommend yoga with Adriene (its free, you can do it anywhere, and its great for body and mind).

Happy writing!

[1] My thanks to Louise Benson James for introducing me to this valuable technique.

 

What does success look like to you?

Last year I attended Bristol Clear’s first residential – ‘making the most of your first post doc.’ A topic that was explored was ‘What is success?’ and it’s been something that has been on my mind ever since.

Free Solo

I recently watched a film ‘Free Solo’, about a man, Alex Honnold, a mountain climber. He is no ordinary climber as he sometimes climbs ‘free solo’ or in other words – without any equipment. No ropes, no harnesses. Just him, his hands and the mountain.

The film followed Alex as he prepared to climb El Capitan, a 3,000ft high granite wall in Yosemite National park ‘free solo’. Some of the shots were enough to make my legs turn to jelly while I was just sitting in my cinema seat! He would be the first person in the world to do this and *Spoiler* he succeeds.

But I came out of the cinema asking myself – “Why would anyone do that!?”

What’s the driving force?

What stuck with me after the film was something Alex said “Nobody achieves anything great by being happy and cosy.” Alex was comparing his idea on the ‘point of life’ to his girlfriend’s who couldn’t for the life of her understand why anyone would put themselves in such danger… she wanted to live a long and happy life, spending her time with the people she loves.

It made me think – these are two people with very different definitions of what a successful life looks like, but really what it comes down to is their core values.

Core Values

At the Residential last year, I learnt that we all have core values. These are core beliefs which we each hold and they are fundamental to who we are. They are individual to each of us and they drive our behaviour and what decisions we make.

Values drive how you see success

When we are living in line with our values we are likely to feel a sense of things being ‘right’, however, if you’re behaving in a way that goes against your values, this is likely to cause you inner turmoil and you may feel like you’re swimming against the tide.

Taking Alex Honnald as an example, he dropped out of college and spent years living in a van as a self-proclaimed ‘dirtbag’, while he honed his climbing skills in the mountains. For some people – this could look like a life of failure (no job, no house, no relationship, no income – the traditional things our society expects of us). But for Alex, he was living the dream. He was living a life of success – or his definition of it.

For Alex, it is clear he is not driven by material objects, wealth or status. The values which drive him to climb with no ropes may be something like ‘performance’, ‘achievement’ or ‘challenge’. He probably also has values like ‘adventure’ which is why he feels most alive when climbing and being able to travel around the world in his van to climb ever-more-dangerous rock faces.

His girlfriend Sanni, on the other hand, didn’t need to be ‘the best’ at something. Instead, she only needed to spend time with those she loved, building those relationships, to feel content and happy and successful.

Live in line with your values

So if we want to live more successful lives, perhaps instead of asking ourselves what success “should” look like, we should be asking, what does success look like to ME personally?

  • Are you an Alex or are you a Sanni? Or are you somewhere in the middle?
  • If you’re in the middle, what are the things that you will/won’t compromise?
  • Are your values the same as they always were? Or have they changed?

Then, the interesting question is whether the success that we target really matches our values?

  • If not, then can success and values be brought back into line?
  • What are the consequences of doing that?
  • What are the consequences of not doing that?

I’m not saying that there’s a ‘right’ way to think about this. But there will be a balance that is right for you, to achieve success in the areas that you want to.

So have a think, discover your values, and then think about what changes you may need to make to find your very own version of success.

The importance of mentoring

About a year ago I took on a new role in the Bristol Clear Team. The team has been built around Claire and Mike’s vision for a mentoring scheme for our research staff. This was part of my new role, to help build, manage and grow the scheme. Now, mentoring was a new concept to me and I’ve not had much to do with it before, but a year into my new role, here is what I’ve come to learn about mentoring and why it is so important.

You have the power

What I’ve come to realise is that no one can tell you what to do, what path to take in life, how to achieve a goal or fix a problem. (No matter how much you may want someone to tell you those things! – that would be so much easier, right?) But sadly no one can do that for you. Only you have the answers about what is right for you. However, once you grasp that concept, that can make you powerful. Just think of that… you have the power to do whatever you want and make your life however you want it to be…

Face the fear

But along with this powerful realisation, comes the fear. The realisation that where you are now and where you want to be is totally down to you – that can be a pretty scary thought.

But that is why mentoring can be so vital.

A mentor’s importance

A mentor is someone impartial, a non-judgmental person who you can bounce your ideas off. Ask a question that you may not dare to voice to your colleagues. Perhaps speak out loud your ambition of that dream job that feels totally out of reach at the moment or that crazy idea that you’ve kept to yourself because it’s just too ‘out there’.

A mentor is someone who can act as a sounding board for those ideas.

They can help you to work out the answer to that question.

They could help you think about the steps you need to take to get that dream job and work out goals you may need to put in place to make it achievable.

They can challenge you about how to make that ‘crazy idea’ a reality, which may perhaps lead to a lightbulb moment.

No one does it alone

Mentoring is about taking responsibility for your choices. Being bold enough to face your dreams, ambitions and fear. Working out what you want, what your options are and taking action to bring what you want to fruition. But, most importantly, knowing that you don’t have to do it alone.

So, what I’m saying is – we all need a little help sometimes, whether that be in the form a supporting guide, a push outside our comfort zone, or someone to set you a challenge. A mentor can be all these things and more.

Come to think of it…. I think I need to find myself a mentor!

Get involved

Find out more about The Bristol Clear Mentoring Scheme.

If you are Research Staff, and in Science, Engineering, Arts or Social Sciences and Law (Life and Health… coming soon), you can sign up for the March-Sept mentoring cycle now.

Other mentoring events coming up:

Academic Journeys Event – Friday 22 February, 14:00 – 16:00

A complete change of perception…… Writing Science: How to write papers that get cited and proposals that get funded – by Joshua Schimel

(by Dr Emma L TurnerSenior Research Associate, Bristol Medical School – PHS)

I started reading this book as someone who dislikes the writing process, and to be honest I can be quite avoidant when undertaking writing.  It was therefore with some trepidation that I volunteered to do this review.  I fully committed, and decided I would carry out the practical exercises along the way in the hope of kick starting new habits and embracing this part of my academic career.

Joshua Schimel has a very clear conversational style of writing, and I found the book a pleasure to read.  It did however take me longer to read then I anticipated as I kept stopping to note down ideas and thoughts.  The change in perception I mention in the title of this review comes from the statement that “As a scientist you are a professional writer” – this concept is introduced in the first chapter of the book and certainly did give me pause.  Schimel also advocates that we study and develop writing as thoroughly as we develop our other research tools.  I decided it was time to stop my avoidant behaviour, I needed to develop and practice my writing.

The exercises spread throughout the book ask you to analyse published papers to consolidate the principles being described.  He also encourages getting together a writing group to allow you to review each other’s writing, as the second part of the exercises require you to write short articles.  I didn’t form a writing group but can see the benefits.

Throughout, the book focuses on the structure of writing: opening framing an interesting question; challenge presenting the research and results; action the discussion of what it means; and resolution the take home message.  Schimel wants us to embrace the story telling in scientific writing.  The best stories stick, and become papers that get cited or proposals that get funded.  We could even think of data as supporting actors in the story, with questions and the larger issues being addressed as the lead actors.

I suppose the highest praise I can give this book would be that I have decided to buy my own copy so I can refer to it again and again.  The final message from Schimel is to “learn to embrace the pain and enjoy the process” – I can’t say I am there yet, but it is still early days….and I do believe I am now on the road to becoming a scientist-writer.

On Writers and Writing – by Margaret Atwood

 

(by Dr Bradon SmithSenior Research Associate, School of Education)

Why write?

Why do writers write? And what is writing anyway? These are the central questions in Margaret Atwood’s volume of six essays On Writers and Writing, which mixes autobiographical musings with a wide-ranging scholarship on some of the universal themes taken up by writers.

Atwood considers the idea of the writer, and how writers perceive themselves; she discusses the many ways in which writer are interested in doubles, and are themselves somehow their own doppelgänger; she explores the relationship between art and money, and the social responsibility of the writer. She asks, ‘for whom does the writer write?’ and looks at the three-way relationship between the writer, the text, and the reader; and, finally, she delves into the Underworld, and the idea that all writing is, in some way, motivated by a fascination with mortality.

Atwood draws on a dazzling array of examples to illustrate her themes, and the bibliography would make a fascinating reading list. But her writing is eminently readable, quirky, even conversational: “You may find the subject a little peculiar. It is a little peculiar. Writing itself is a little peculiar”. Perhaps this is because these essays started life as lectures (given in Cambridge in 2000); but writing, as Atwood notes, has an apparent permanence – unlike a dance recital (or a lecture) it ‘survives its own performance’.

This erudite, but often light-hearted book won’t help you become a (better) writer, or not at least in any direct way.  But it does give rise to some interesting questions for academic writers. Atwood, for example, discusses the difference between a writer, and someone who merely writes. Since anyone can write, what makes a writer? Atwood replies with a macabre metaphor: everyone can dig a hole in a cemetery, but not everyone is a grave digger. For a start, the profession of grave-digger requires stamina and persistence. But the comparison also evokes the character in Hamlet: the grave-digger is a ‘deeply symbolic role’, carrying expectations, fears and superstition. So too with the public role of the writer.

In an amusing list spanning three pages of the Introduction, Atwood lists the reasons for writing given by writers, from the highfalutin (‘To serve Art’) to the bathetic (‘Because I hated the idea of having a job’). So, why do we as academics write? Hopefully, it is to shed light on something. Perhaps here is the common ground with the Writer (capital W). As Atwood says, “writing has to do with darkness, and a desire or perhaps a compulsion to enter it, and, with luck, to illuminate it, and to bring something back out to the light”.

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