new themes and a new teaching placement scheme
We, in the Liverpool Doctoral College Development team, have now launched our programme for the coming academic year, 2019-20. The workshops and webinars offered in Autumn are now open for registration and a full list of dates for our core programme for the year, organised by our programme themes, can be downloaded below.
Programme themes: A fuller introduction to all our programme themes can be found on our website together with a short video introduction to each theme. This year we have made a slight change to our themes, to separate out the topics of Writing, Presentation and Productivity, which we believe are important topics for the development of all postgraduate researchers.
We have several new workshops and webinars in our programme for
the coming year, which include:
Regional workshops – Liverpool are part of a regional group of researcher development partners, which have agreed to openly share selected programme sessions. There are two upcoming workshops offered by LJMU (registration not yet open) which University of Liverpool PGRs may attend.
to be Shy or introverted in academia’ – Thu 5 December, 2-3pm
to write well: some tips for PGRs’ – Wed 22 January, 2-3pm
Brilliant Club: For 2019- 2020, the LDC have an agreement with the Brilliant Club to provide five paid placements for PhD researchers. Under this scheme you would deliver lessons relating to their own research area in local schools, supporting pupils to develop the academic skills, knowledge and confidence needed to progress to highly-selective universities.
Here are some thoughts from Company of Mind on the next masterclass on 6th June “Getting Organised for Reserach (and Life)”:
Why trains of thought derail
Thinking isn’t something the brain is meant to do – at least not “rational thought”, a relatively recent invention. That observation might explain a lot about what goes on in our heads. What is the brain for then? What’s natural? How about sitting on the savannah feeling hungry so we look for food; feeling tired so we go to sleep; feeling scared so we run away…and a whole host of other behaviours so unthinkingly sophisticated that we have survived for untold millennia. That’s the sort of thing our brain is adapted for, at least according to Daniel Dennet in his work “Consciousness Explained”.
By that view, “Rational thought” – the sequential ‘train of thought’
we call ‘thinking’ – is an artificial activity taking place on ‘brain
hardware’ that was never intended to run that kind of program. It’s why
losing your ‘train of thought’ can happen so readily. It’s why you’re
thrown off by emotional currents. It’s why sometimes we don’t know what
we’re going to say until we start talking, and each word leads us onto
the next. Something like that.
How small creatures learn capabilities that dazzle us
Intriguing, but so what? Well it might help us understand why thinking
tasks that we think should be easy (like maintaining a train of thought) can be
artificially hard. And it might help us to help ourselves be more spectacular
in, say, academic life, with some simple tricks or learning. How so?
There’s a good analogy. It’s like a processor chip, which can only do
simple operations – arithmetic and moving numbers from one location to another
is all they can actually do. Over recent
decades we’ve taught such simple creatures to do the most astonishingly
sophisticated tasks, just by giving them rich sets of procedures to follow that
you could say aren’t ‘natural’ for them.
In the same way we can take our own minds and build up artificial
habits that yield astonishing benefits. How valuable was if for you to ‘program
yourself’ to learn the alphabet?…And on top of that foundation the habits of
reading and writing. Or to work with
numbers? Those things now seem effortless to you. These skills aren’t natural,
you had to put a lot of effort into learning the alphabet (if you remember
Similarly, there will be habits you could learn – with some effort –
that make you seem capable and clever, when in fact you’ve just learnt habits
that other people haven’t. Tony Buzan, of mind-map fame, believes
‘intelligence’ isn’t as varied as we’re led to believe, but rather that some
people chance across effective learning habit strategies early in life, and
others less so. It’s a provocative idea that opens up new vistas of
Ways to be more fabulous
One area we can examine this way is “organising ourselves” –
no-one teaches us how to do that, therefore big gains are likely to be had. The
problems I have in mind are where we feel quickly overwhelmed by the pile of
things we have to do, or seem somehow to be “tripping over ourselves”
mentally. Yet others appear better able
to cope. They seem able to have more
baggage loaded onto them before they throw a fit and kick it all off.
Why is that? Are there habits of mind we can learn that will transform that capacity for us as much as learning the alphabet did? There are other factors too. If you attended the “Working with Difficult People” workshop you’ll especially appreciate that there are fundamental differences for how people are, which bear on this. Some things are naturally easy for you, yet unnaturally difficult for other people. Surprisingly that doesn’t contradict what I’ve said so far. The question becomes “For the way I am, what methods can I learn that will be most effective for me?”. Sometimes that’s transformatively possible. As one researcher at Southampton put it regarding a particular learning:
“It is honestly the most useful thing I have learnt in the last
ten years of my life … (in the decade before that I learnt the
Which must have been exciting.
As with the alphabet, it’s usually a small amount of learning, followed
by small practice repeated frequently. Whilst we’re learning our technical
skills at University what an ideal opportunity to change ourselves too, so by
the time we graduate we’re “more”.
Footnote. This post is related to the workshop “Getting Organised for Research (and Life)“. It’s a provocative discussion of part of the topic, not an introduction to that workshop. For information about the workshop, see the event advertisement.
Coming up this spring is a series of four masterclasses on thinking, organising and collaborating facilitated by Adrian West and Sophie Brown from Company of Mind. We asked them to tell us a little bit about the background to these masterclasses and their motivation for developing them:
Too close to
Too deep to grasp
Too easy to believe
Too amazing to be understood intellectually
So here’s a question. What could you have put more effort into at school, which if you had, would be making the biggest difference for you today?
Maybe academic subjects, though you likely worked quite hard at those. But what less obvious capacities? Creative writing – articulating yourself more clearly and compellingly? Drama and Acting? Team sports? Would it have helped if you’d become a more confident speaker? Or got more practice in social situations with people? Become more ‘organised’ and able to focus? (or whatever you think that seems right for you). People who appear good at those things who you might admire, likely learnt them almost accidentally during earlier years. It’s a mistake to think you can’t build such capacities, and are ‘fixed’ as ‘who you are’ – though it takes time. Ok, well that’s the past
Back from the future
But what if you look back 5 or 10 years from now. What might you think you could really have been learning and developing now, which will help you most in that future? To be honest, it’s not usually academic skills people will cite when they look back, important foundation though those are. It’s easy to focus on technical abilities – they’re easier to talk about and nail down. But the other stuff that in truth can make the biggest difference to your future, is almost too vague and nebulous to talk about, too obvious yet hard to actually do anything about – too close to be recognised.
How can you get some answers to that, and in a world of marketing and mis-information, with an uncertain unpredictable future? How can you know what actually works? I suppose you could ask people who are 5-10 years further down the line and see what they say. That would be interesting, especially if you could get them to take the question seriously, rather than give you some flippant reply
For us the story is slightly different, spending a decade or two running a research group at Manchester University, in professional environments, and teams in a start-up company. In hindsight, academic learning was a crucial foundation, but we realised it had not equipped us to deal with the next level of challenges which plagued us, and seemed to make the biggest difference above technical skill.
These next-level issues were all the usual things that are so vague and nebulous: people, conflicts, communication, organising, planning, seeing the future, and how to do “thinking”, especially together. You could say we rely on having “high quality people” to address them, which is a very real thing that sets people apart when they have similar qualifications, though it’s vague and nebulous too. And it implies these ‘qualities’ cannot be learnt or developed as capabilities, like saying some people can read and others can’t, without appreciating that we can learn the alphabet. How valuable would it be if we were much better at such ‘vague’ things? It seems to be where the biggest gains are to be made. How to know what works and what doesn’t is a key question.
The four-fold root of sufficient reason
When Schopenhauer set out to understand ‘life’, wisely he first asked “What would be a sufficient reason to believe any answer?”. That was the title of his doctoral thesis. We don’t have so big a quest, but in the end we spent more time on these capacities, than the other work we were doing, and were able to test what works by using it to help people in other companies or universities. If we distil the central elements, there are four main areas. Two relate to how we ‘think’, one on ‘coping’ with all the information and tasks that have to be managed, and one on what we can do about ‘people’. Here’s a little more on each of those:
Thinking (1 & 2)
Strangely, we don’t get taught how to think (as evidence, listen to any discussion about politics). Yet surely how our minds think, and how to do ‘thinking’ is fundamental to us. If it isn’t taught then most other people don’t know it and there are likely huge gains to be made by studying this ourselves. There are two aspects.
One is the broad topic of thinking as a practical skill: understanding how thinking works, and finding what is effective at making a difference in practice.
Second, the specific focus on the task of “problem solving and decision making” which as the most common need deserves particular attention. There’s almost too much advice out there (too easy to believe) – but what is worth learning? and how do we develop actual capability in practice?
Organising ourselves (3)
It doesn’t matter what else we do, if we are overwhelmed by all the things calling on our attention, then progress is almost impossible – the clever ideas we have are of no value and get lost in a pile of scraps of paper. Again, easy to say ‘get organised’ but then what? Why doesn’t it usually work, and what can we actually do to change how we work? Like the artificial thing of learning the alphabet it may take some initial effort, but brings benefits almost too useful to be able to describe.
Everyone can seem nice when there’s nothing at stake, or goals are a long way off – the ‘selfie’ world. But when we have to work together over time (or work with ourselves), the problems with ‘people’ likely dominate. It’s little to do with reason which is hard to believe and one factor in misunderstanding. What can we learn that’s useful to know about ‘people’ which provides tools that we can reach for in difficult situations? Ultimately it’s how to make life smoother and more enjoyable for all concerned.
Those principal four work together. We need to organise ourselves to make progress but we need to make good decisions about what to do. If those decisions and activities involve people, as they will, then we need to understand that world to be able to think effectively about it.
So that’s the background to the four separate events we’ll run at the University in May and June. If that’s of interest to you, we’ll look forward to seeing you. Or if you have questions, feel free to get in touch.
Do you dream of emulating the keynote speaker at conferences?
– To be able to enter the stage confidently and with personality …
– To deliver an entertaining talk that both expounds new ideas and presents the research clearly and concisely …
– To deliver the talk that people talk about afterwards …
– To be recognised as a competent upcoming researcher and so to promote your career opportunities…
(Or are you just hoping to get through your next presentation?)
Practice is very
important, but how do you find new approaches to strengthen your
The Liverpool Doctoral College Development programme includes
workshops and webinars to help advance your presentation techniques, with new
ideas to enhance your delivery style and practice with delivery. Other sessions
will help you make best use of conferences and to overcome imposter syndrome.
For an overview, see the introduction provided for the Presentations
section within our Communications theme.
Upcoming events focussing on presentation skills
The programme includes two workshops to help create your presentation; the first focusses one standard academic presentation formats, while the second offers an alternative approach using creative techniques that will be particularly useful to those communicating to a multi-disciplinary audience.
If you are looking for further opportunities to present your work outside your own discipline, why not try a Research Cafe?
The next Research Café will be held on Thursday 14 February, 2-4pm in the Gilmour Room of the Liverpool Guild of Students. Research Cafes are an informal, safe space for PhD students to share their research and meet fellow early career researchers from across the University. Presenting at the University’s Research Cafes is a great opportunity to receive feedback about any aspect of your research and to practice talking about your research to an audience outside of your discipline – an invaluable skill for researchers who want their work to have impact.
Two speaking slots are available – please contact Sarah Roughley if you would like to take part on firstname.lastname@example.org
To book on to attend the Research Cafe, please click here.
How will you develop critical analysis, problem-solving and decision-making skills?
Successful research demands a wide range of skills, including skills in creative & critical thinking. During your PhD, you must be creative in order to develop new ideas in research, deliver engaging presentations and solve problems. Gaining confidence in creativity will also help you foster critical analysis, risk taking and decision making in order to better manage the uncertainties that surface in the research process.
Developing skills in these areas in the research environment isn’t always easy. Workshops offer an alternative space where you can learn and experiment with new ideas in a safe environment.
Coming up, we have a workshop on improvisation by Dr Ahmed Al Naher, which introduces the ‘Improv’ technique to help you in making decisions and be spontaneous and creative in your work, particularly when presenting.
Then there are two further workshops delivered by Dr Aimee Blackledge that will help you develop as a researcher by introducing creative approaches to support you in problem solving, building confidence and starting your professional development planning.
You can find out more on how the LDC Development programme can help with your creative & critical thinking through our theme: Creativity & Critical thinking, which also introduces the techniques of Design Thinking and Lego® SeriousPlay®, together with further online resources to stimulate your approach in this area.