We were never meant to think: Upgrading your autopilot

The LDC Development Team is running a series of four masterclasses on thinking, organising and collaborating facilitated by Dr Adrian West and Dr Sophie Brown from Company of Mind.
Register now for the following face-to-face workshops in this series:
Getting Organised for Research (and Life) – Thursday, 6th June 9:15 – 16:30
Problem Solving and Decision Making – Tuesday, 18th June 9:15 – 16:30

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 that).  

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 possibility.

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 alphabets!!!)”.

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.

How is your relationship with your Supervisor?

Webinar: Responding to challenges in the supervisory relationship 3rd June 12:30
Peers for PhDs – The Supervisory Relationship 12th June 12:30 – 2:30pm

We are offering a new webinar that will address some of the potential issues in the researcher-supervisor relationship, from the viewpoint of the PhD researcher and what you might do to improve the situation.  This will be followed by a Peers for PhDs session, where you can discuss your own situation in confidence with other students and make a plan to take things forward.

Webinar: Responding to challenges in the supervisory relationship 3rd June 12:30

The supervision process is a key part of the PhD, but what should you expect from this relationship and what should you do when it does not meet your expectations? This is a session for PhD researchers to reflect on the nature of supervision, the potential issues that might arise, and to explore potential solutions. By taking a discussion-based approach, we will aim to help you recognise any personal barriers and the range of approaches available to overcome these barriers.

During this session, we will also outline the University’s expectations of supervision and the formal steps for reporting issues with supervision.

Presented by Dr Shirley Cooper and Natasha Bradley, PhD student in IPHS

Peers for PhDs – The Supervisory Relationship 12th June 12:30 – 2:30pm

Peers for PhDs is a group ran by PhD students at the University of Liverpool. We aim to improve PGR wellbeing by hosting regular peer-led support sessions and social events for research students from across the university. It is a friendly, welcoming group and a good opportunity to meet other PhD students. Our June session will be on the theme of ‘The Supervisory Relationship’ – we will reflect on our working relationships with our supervisors and what we have done or might do to improve it. Issues with supervisors are a common source of stress and can make students feel isolated. Even if you have a great relationship with your supervisor, you might be able to help others gain perspective or strategies to respond to their current situation.

Further workshops

The LDC Development programme  includes several further upcoming workshops under our ‘Resilience’ theme that may also be of interest to those facing issues or difficult decisions with their research:

Working with Difficult People                            28-May          09:15 – 16:30

Problem Solving and Decision Making             18-Jun            09:15 – 16:30

Getting Unstuck as a Researcher                      19-Jun            10:00 – 15:00

Pushing Beyond Imposter Syndrome                04-Jul              09:15 – 12:30

Is your development record ready for the APR and progress panels?

The APR forms are released on Monday 3rd June!

Your PGR Portfolio of Activity and the Record of Supervisory meetings must be up to date before  the 3rd June for inclusion in the APRs.

This is a time for a review a review of your progress over the last year, through both the Annual Progress Reports (APR) and your assigned progress panels. Your panels are likely discuss your personal development over the last year, so this is a good time to review what you have achieved over the past year; including the training and development workshops/webinars that you have attended, conferences and research meetings that you have attended, work with industry or organisations outside academia, public engagement and public communication  and so on. In fact you can include  other activities that supplement your research and support your long-term development.

Any data added to the  Portfolio of Activity and the Record of Supervisory meetings after the 2nd June  will not be included in the APR forms.

Below, we provide further information to help you complete the PGR Portfolio of Activity and the Record of Supervisory meetings. Guidance to help you complete the APR forms can be found from the PGR Student Administration team web-site.

Preparing your Record of Supervisory meetings for the APR

The APR contains the complete list of the dates of all supervisory meeting records that have been signed off by your supervisor.  You may also want to remind your supervisor that they should sign off all records before the 3rd June.

Please ensure that your Record of Supervisory meetings is up to date before the end of May. You should check that you have recorded the correct number of required meetings:

  • At least one meeting per month if you are a full-time student
  • At least one meeting every two months if you are a part-time student

NB You can enter meetings retrospectively.
You are not expected to have recorded meetings during periods of suspension.

Preparing your PGR Portfolio of Activity for the APR

The APR will display data from the PGR Portfolio of Activity  in a non-editable format, i.e. any changes to the Portfolio of Activity after the 31st May will not be reproduced in the APR. We recommend that you revisit the Portfolio of Activity before the 31st May and check which data you want to be visible in the APR.

The APR will include data from the PGR Portfolio of Activity under the four headings in the Portfolio of Activity, which correspond to the four domains of the Researcher Development Framework. The data that is transferred to the APR will be limited to:

  • Records with dates in the period from the 1st June 2018 to the end of May 2019.
  • The type of activity, the title, and the date of the events that you have recorded in the Portfolio.
  • Records that you have kept marked as ‘selected’ in the Portfolio.

The APRs will not include further information such as the description or the ‘RDF descriptors’..

You may want to check the event titles carefully to ensure that this accurately represents the event, since the event description is not included in the APR.
For example, if this is a three day conference, you might include the dates in the title.

Example of how APR form appears

Example of Portfolio of Activity data as it will appear in the APR    – set for the year 2017-18. Only items added in the year 2018-19 will appear in the APR for this year.

If you have not entered data into the Portfolio of Activity, the APRs will include empty text boxes where you can add any additional information in relation to your professional development to record in the APR process. The choice of which box to use to record each training or development activity is only approximate and will be a personal choice.

If you have any problems with this process or you encounter system issues in relation to the Portfolio of Activity, please contact the LDC Development Team at pgro@liverpool.ac.uk.

Must you compete ruthlessly to succeed? What if you don’t want to be like that? A lateral take on working with difficult people*

The LDC Development Team is running a series of four masterclasses on thinking, organising and collaborating facilitated by Dr Adrian West and Sophie Brown from Company of Mind.

Register now for the following face-to-face workshops in this series:

Working with Difficult People – Tuesday, 28th May 9:15 – 16:30 hours

Getting Organised for Research (and Life) – Thursday, 6th June 9:15 – 16:30 hours

Problem Solving and Decision Making – Tuesday, 18th June 9:15 – 16:30 hours

Here’s some thoughts from Company of Mind on the next masterclass on 28th May “Working with Difficult People“. 

We don’t get career success by beating our rivals with clubs any more. In fact in most of the civilised world you’ll get locked up if you do. To the degree that is true (and it’s at least true-er than it was), it’s surely a remarkable achievement of civilisation. Even if it’s not entirely clear how we managed to progress.

Well, that’s in the physical realm anyway. But the attitude of aggressive individual winning to get to the top is the dominant image for career success.  It’s commonly viewed as good and inevitable, but you could also say it’s just another primitive way of doing things that we haven’t yet got beyond; like beating each other with clubs.

I say this because a lot of people don’t really enjoy the aggressively competitive career world, and are rather put off by it – and that’s nothing to do with their talent or commitment. Some people love it too. Those are just different ways that people are made up. Yet in our culture this common message for the ‘right’ and ‘only’ way to be ‘successful’, brings problems.  Understandably, given the selection pressure, research hints at CEOs tending to score high on clinical scales of psychopathology, which has some implications for what it’s like to work in modern institutions. And the very people who end up in charge of things, end up controlling the narrative of what the right way to be is, which is self-perpetuating, reinforcing the messages everyone ends up unquestioningly believing.

In adversity we might find opportunity too, if we look.

If (like the majority of people) you’re not motivated by the ruthlessly competitive image and that’s not the sort of person you want to become, then how do you “succeed?  What does “succeed” mean if the existing criterion may be badly distorted?  This is important because the further you progress in your careers, by the above reasoning, the more ‘difficult’ people you will encounter. One response is to find a niche and hide away to side-step all that. But a more interesting approach is to ask the question “How do we work creatively with the people who see, and behave in the world, quite differently?”.  There are two reasons for doing this.

Firstly, if you get good at dealing with difficult people, you’ll be hugely valuable anywhere you go – especially in ‘technical’ and academic environments!  Secondly , with practice and confidence, those situations become a rewarding challenge in your life. You might even look forward to opportunities for practice.

To end on another positive future note, the shift in evolutionary studies is that cooperation out-competes competition. Whilst aggressively ambitious individuals do well within a team, a team of creatively cooperative people, outperforms the team with the ambitious individual (and sounds like a better life experience too).  In images, the trend is from the satanic miils of the ‘industrial revolution’ to the creative workplaces of technology outfits; from the “struggle for survival” to the “snuggle for survival”;  more KPop than DeathMetal. The opportunity is to be ahead of that curve.

* This blog isn’t the content of the “Working with Difficult People” workshop. But it is a novel take on why that might be a good area in which to increase capacity and gain skills. See the advertisment for the workshop to see what that’s about.

Dr. Adrian West & Sophie Brown, Company of Mind, www.companyofmind.com contact adrian@companyofmind.com

Are you looking to use your research experience outside academia after the PhD?

logo for Making an impact week

How my PhD led me to become a Subject Matter Expert’, 23 May 2- 3pm
Dr Roy Grafton, PhD Liverpool

As a PhD researcher, you will develop a considerable knowledge in your area and learn how to use and apply this knowledge. These skills can be valuable  in the business world, particularly in areas of science, IT and healthcare and can help you move towards career in these areas of consultancy. To become a successful ‘subject matter’ expert, you will need to enhance the skills gained from your research with a variety of additional, business skills.

To learn more, come to hear the experience of Dr Roy Grafton, who will present  an outline of his own career, starting out from his PhD in Liverpool  to today working as a consultant for a leading IT management consultancy.  In this session,  he will   also offer an interactive look at different types of career opportunities, career aspirations and most importantly job satisfaction.

Register at: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/how-my-phd-led-me-to-become-a-subject-matter-expert-registration-58988874311

Part of ‘Making an Impact Week

PGR ‘Career Ready’ Bootcamp and 1:1 Coaching/Career Clinics

Following this talk, you may want to follow the session up with further preparation for your career. The LDC Development programme has two upcoming opportunities:

PGR ‘Career Ready’ Bootcamp  Thurs, 13 June 2019, 09:15 – 16:00  

1:1 Coaching/Career Clinics – For more details of this provision, see our earlier blog at https://pgrnews.liverpool.ac.uk/?p=3554

Full programme: LDC development programme

Too Close to be Recognised!

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:

Image of the head of a man trying to see the fly sat on the tip of his nose

Too close to be recognised,
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.

People (4)

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.

Dr. Adrian West & Sophie Brown, Company of Mind, www.companyofmind.com contact adrian@companyofmind.com

Register now for the first two workshops in this series:
Practical Thinking for Researchers Thursday 16th May 9:15 – 16:30
Working with Difficult People Tuesday 28 May 9:15 – 16:30

PGR ‘Career Ready’ Bootcamp 13 June and 1:1 Coaching/Career Clinics

Seeking extra support with your career planning?

To advance your career planning, as part of the Liverpool Doctoral College Development programme, we are offering  two opportunities for you to gain dedicated support as you consider your options after the PhD, a one day PGR ‘Career Ready’ Bootcamp and 1:1 Coaching/Career Clinics. All sessions will be delivered by Sally Beyer who has specialised career coaching experience. Sally will be familiar to many of you from our careers half day workshops and careers webinars.

PGR ‘Career Ready’ Bootcamp  Thurs, 13 June 2019, 09:15 – 16:00

This one-day interactive workshop is aimed for Post Graduate Researchers in the final year before completion. Wherever you are at in your career thinking and planning, you will find this intensive, fun workshop beneficial.

This workshop will help you meet the following objectives:

• Be equipped with new skills for managing your career
• Assess your current situation – your strengths and areas to focus on related to work opportunities
• Identify what you really want to get from your professional life
• Build a clear picture of what you want to be doing post PhD
• Explore the importance of personal effectiveness and impact on others when working towards your goals, i.e. your confidence, self-belief and proactivity
• Recognise how networking can help you get to where you want to be
• Discuss job searching in an ever-changing work environment
• Get feedback on your current CV
• Set goals and actions for your future

Be inspired to make your own luck, create exciting opportunities for yourself and set sail!

‘Great session for thinking about career goals and for putting in place a plan of action for career planning/preparation.’
‘An engaging workshop to get you thinking about your career options.  Very thorough and really helpful!’
Participants March 2019

1:1 Coaching/Career Clinics

The one hour face-to-face coaching sessions are designed to help you with your career preparation  and they are open to all PGRs at any stage in their degree. The session is completely confidential and may be followed with a further follow-up session by Skype, if required.

These sessions will provide focused and tailored support with issues such as:

  • Equipping you to create effective application forms, CVs, personal statements and cover letters for specific roles you are applying for
  • Preparing for interview (including carrying out mock interviews and providing feedback)
  • Making a positive impact within interviews/presentations – e.g. Influencing others and harnessing nerves and anxiety
  • Discussing career issues, e.g. expansion of your network for career success, choosing options
  • How to harness change as you move on from your PhD
  • Helping you think through self-employment, if this is a consideration.

Registration for the 1:1 Coaching/Career ClinicsPlease complete the short form on the above link to provide some initial information for registration and send this, using your University of Liverpool email address to Sally Beyer, sallywn@liverpool.ac.uk.
NB Your University of Liverpool email address will be used for identification.

The sessions are offered on a first-come-first-served basis  and are limited to the first 10 applicants.

Pre-session  coaching form-On receiving the form, Sally will  contact you and send a further pre-session coaching form provide her with information to help her best prepare for your coaching session. Your booking  will only be confirmed on completion of this pre-session form.

About your Coach:  Sally is a Careers and Learning & Development professional with over 23 years’ experience of training and coaching people from all walks of life. Along with working for two local Universities, Sally has worked with many private and public organisations delivering career management support to help staff at all levels to achieve their full potential.

To find out more about Sally please take a look at her LinkedIn profile:   https://www.linkedin.com/in/sally-beyer/.