Effective Researcher 1: Build Effective Foundations

Yesterday I attended the first of what is a three part training programme run by the Center for Professional Learning and Development.  The other sessions are intended for later in your PhD, while this first one is ideally suited to those of us a few months in but not yet a year into the research process.

The day did not start well – having forgotten to set an alarm, and forgotten that Mrs Llama wasn’t setting one either I woke up at 7.20am, and was out of the house five minutes later – as I had to catch the 7.32am train to Nottingham (for the third time in 6 days).  I made it, and actually remembered just about everything I needed (pen, phone, note pad) although I was horribly unshaven.  Before the session we had to prepare a 50 word plain English summary of our research, aimed at the non-specialist and make sure we were familiar with the national Vitae Researcher Development Framework (RDF).  The latter was easy as we’d had a session in the RPC about it.  I’d also produced the former a few months ago when I was originally booked on this workshop (one of the weeks that I had a hideous cold).  But running late meant that I left it at home (no time to boot the computer and print it), which meant I spent some time in the library before the workshop writing it.  Not a bad thing, given that the more I had to express what I’m doing in different ways, the more I think I’ll be able to explain what and why I’m doing it at the drop of  pin.

Introductions and Establishing Common Ground

The day started with the usual round robin of introductions and explanations of what our research was all about to the select grouping of 8 participants, most of whom I knew from the delights of the RPC.  After an ice breaker of finding common experiences (slagging of Skegness being a major one) the first task was to draw a pictorial representation of the effective researcher.  That’s the last time I let on I’ve had life drawing lessons as I ended up being the artist and presenter for this bit – despite my team’s mockery of my steam fat pig (it was a boiling kettle representing under pressure).  It was a good start to the day and got our brains going.

Problem Solving

Yes the classic problem solving session which involves building something.  I am notoriously great at problem solving and utterly crap at building things that move, so I made sure to take an advisory rather than hands on role in this Apprentice like task (building an air car).  Our team excelled at planning and sorting through effective requirements…and sucked at keeping an eye on the clock and spotting we’d overlooked a critical failure factor (our car as designed was TOO big).  As with all these kinds of tasks I was employing my gamer brain to spot the workarounds in the rules (Cheating? No! Bending the rules – certainly! Employing psychological warfare…maybe!).  From this session (which incidentally our disaster of a car somehow won) I took away the lesson that planning is important – but it must not come in the way of the doing.  Also time management is critical.

Tuning into Your PhD

The next session took the form of a group discussion where we dug into some of the fundamental questions behind our work – the what, how, why, who and when issues.  This was a good refresher, though it did slightly retread ground we’d gone over in one of the RPC sessions.  We also went over some project management tools like mind mapping, drilling down, risk analysis and everyone’s favourite Gantt charts.  The simulated Gantt chart was about robbing a bank…which for some reason (I’m blaming years of RPGing) I seemed to be able to plan exceedingly well.  Nice to know there’s a career for me in ARV if the PhD doesn’t work out!

Working Effectively with Others (1): Research Collaboration

The next group task was a biggie, we had to talk about our research (this is where those 50 words descriptions came in) so that our teams could understand them.  Then we had to identify commonalities and try to come up with a form of overlapping collaborative project, plan it, and then present it to some funders.  I wasn’t too happy with the direction my team took – it seemed a little less coherent than I might have hoped.  Though we were also a bit hamstrung by the requirement that everyone speak in the presentation and ideally we needed or should have spent some time to rehearsing.

Trying to write a marketing presentation pitch with 4 relative strangers in ten minutes is not ideal (but it is challenging!), and we certainly suffered a bit when we came to do it live, in that we weren’t as polished as I think we could have been.  I think, on reflection, I should have been a bit more strident about pushing for clarity of objective and purpose within our hypothetical project.  That might have helped us all out more.

A lesson for me to take away, be a bit more forthright when you don’t agree on something.  Clearly if the car incident earlier hadn’t highlighted it, I think this demonstrated once again I’m never going on the Apprentice.  I’d be fired in week one.  Okay, the fact that I’m not a money-grubbing self-deluded egotist probably counts against me too 😉

I think though our group might have gelled a bit more, if we’d had an extra hour to work on this together, as we were just about getting into a performative state of mind around the time we suddenly had to down tools and go present.

Working Effectively with Others (2): Managing Professional Relationships

If the earlier bank heist task hadn’t revealed my inner role-player, then this one did.  Split into the same two groups we took the role of a PhD Supervisor and candidate (my group being the student).  We had a brief and had to plan for a meeting with each other, where each of us had points to get across.  After hearing the professor outline what he needed us to do, I made a rather sarcastic comment about how nice it was to see that he did care; since the brief we had described him as very distant.  It was a useful exercise in seeing the other person’s point of view, and in terms of things to think of next time I meet my supervisors very useful indeed.

We also did a short exercise around this related to the Myers-Briggs type indicators, though we didn’t actually do anything along the lines of working our our exact types (I’ve known I’m ENTJ from past training).  The idea being here to situate ourselves along a single continuum ranging from exacting, meticulous feedback to big picture, visionary support.  I kinda naturally tend towards the latter, and perhaps fortunate though that my supervisors balance our between the two extremes.  The key lesson here was the kind of feedback we prefer and the kind we get will vary, and thus we need to take steps to manage that relationship so we can access that which we need.

Conclusion

The whole day was supported by an excellent reflection journal and supplementary notes, which highlighted which elements of the RDF each bit fitted into.  The course used to be a two day event, but the trainers commented that it was hard to get people to commit to two consecutive days.  The notes did touch on the elements we missed out on, such as learning cycles and stage and a team task where the rules are changed halfway through; which sounded fun and useful.  All the same by making it a single day with notes there probably wasn’t a lean second throughout the day, which made for a highly effective learning experience.

I can strongly recommend this session for any PhD student in their first year or so, even though some of the elements were familiar to me there wasn’t anything I would have skipped over.  The trainers were both engaged and engaging, and really engendered the kind of open, friendly but intensive atmosphere that makes for a really effective experience.

All in all it was a highly enjoyable, entertaining, thought-provoking and informative day – and probably the highlight of my week, going back to cracking the books today is going to seem a little dull in contrast.  However, it has certainly helped me relocate in my own mind and enthusiasms just why I am doing this doctorate and was time well spent.

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