Progressing our lives: Why is it hard? What can we do about that?

“Star Researcher”: Team Missions to Help You Make Progress Now”,
Workshop series: 25th May, 1st June and 8th June.

We are pleased to share the following article, written by Dr. Adrian West, Company of Mind

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What should be, or ought to be, is different from what is” (the error of ‘speculative thinking’ as defined by Robert Thouless).

What can we do to make sure the future we want happens?

Is that even possible, when so much is unpredictable and beyond our control? Especially if knowing what we “want” isn’t actually that straightforward.

Reality is Contingent

Much of what happens in our careers (and lives) is outside our control – however strong and single-minded our visionary belief. If you ask academics (or anyone) what chance events had a big positive impact on their careers, you always get interesting and surprising stories. Scientific laws define the boundaries of what is possible, but what actually happens is largely down to historical chance happenings: the “contingent” nature of reality as Stephen Jay Gould put it. If you apply for positions, fellowships and so on, the outcome will depend at least on who else happened to apply for the same positions – for example.

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Do Something!
Yet it’s also true that you can “make things happen”. This is easy to see if we consider the alternative: if you do nothing at all it’s far less likely that much will happen! You can be confident and make Herculean efforts…that come to nothing; and you can make a tiny nudge that topples an empire. But in both cases you learn a lot along the way and create new possibilities – if you’re not so blinded by self-belief that you are able to see them. “Doing something” has a power – “problems” of any significance require us to start solving them just to understand what the problem actually is.

Capacities for success?
Taken together, those points advocate a strategy for success that is a combination of energy, action, wisdom, playfulness, persistence, courage, and common sense – as you might expect. It doesn’t say “what” to do, but it does indicate why those obvious qualities are, in fact, important.

What to Actually “Do”? (and Why We Don’t).
The common problem is to have a rather fixed view of what we want ‘next’, which at the same time is (perplexingly) rather vague: “some sort of fellowship”; “some sort of intermediate academic position”, or “I don’t really want to think about it”. Which are hard things to execute on.

But, maddeningly, other concrete things do have to be done ‘now’ and within our immediate focus – an experiment; writing a chapter; teaching tomorrow; a meeting…so it’s very difficult to put serious energy into the more vague, further away, futures. The difficulty of a task isn’t so much the technical challenge, it’s more about emotional resistance to doing it, or a lack of clarity about what exactly to actually “do”. We’ll definitely need to master this “managing the present, while creating the future” if we end up responsible for other people.

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A Trick
The trick is to make the vague definite; the fixed flexible; and the not-doable long term, into short-term things we can easily “do” today. As a caricature, let’s use the ambition of becoming a “Star Researcher” for example. You can find out what you’ll need to have achieved by, say, five years from now. Then you can work backwards to identify steps you can actually execute on today. Time is shorter than we think; but you can achieve more than you imagine you can by making steady small steps of useful progress, from which we will at least learn, and perhaps therefore adapt our plans and goals as we progress. You will end up way ahead of people who never quite got around to it – which may include your ‘old’ self.

One Way to Get Going
Pushing and motivating ourselves can be lonely, hard and delusion prone. Many of us are more effective when working in a team towards a goal we all believe in. There’s an upcoming event taking place for people who enjoy collaboration and find the above relevant to their future. It is a team exercise, where each “research group” is in friendly competition with the other teams, to achieve the most progress for their individual members (much as a real research group functions). The series runs over a fortnight with 3 consecutive facilitated sessions “Ingenuity”, “Perseverance” and “Opportunity” online : If that’s for you, and you can commit to the time needed, then we’ll look forward to seeing you there.

Practise Skills; Build Capacities
If you attended our earlier series – Practical Thinking; Working with Difficult People; Getting Organised for Research (and Life) – you should be able to recognise where all of those tools apply to this. For example “Motivate the Elephant”? “Lateral Thinking”? “Horizons of Focus”? We won’t be re-doing that material, but it’s definitely an opportunity to apply what you have learnt for real. Why is that important?

Anthropologists tell us that the unique human capacity isn’t intelligence, but imitation. As a species we’re stunningly good at it, unknowingly. Think of language, civilisations, religions, cultures, skills, and professions. It is why humanity has made the unique kind of progress that is has. That being so, you’re perfectly adapted to transcend evolution because you can consciously make choices about what you ‘imitate’, and therefore what abilities you acquire, and hence what you become. We’re less ‘fixed’ than we think we are, which is reassuring really.

Dr. Adrian West, Company of Mind, March 2021

Register here for: “Star Researcher”: Team Missions to Help You Make Progress Now”, running 25th May, 1st June and 8th June.

Do you need to update the PGR Toolbox for the 2021 APR forms?

The APR forms will be released on Tuesday 1st June do you need to update the PGR Toolbox?

The PGR Portfolio of Activity and the Record of Supervisory meetings must be up to date by the 31st May for this data to be included in the 2021 APR form. Any data added to the  PGR Portfolio of Activity and the Record of Supervisory meetings after the 31st May will not be included in the 2021 APR form. You are recommended to review your progress over the last year to ensure that you have a full record for the last academic year.

Below, we provide further information to help you complete the PGR Portfolio of Activity and the Record of Supervisory meetings for the current academic year. Guidance to help you complete the APR forms will be available on the LDC Student Experience team web-site.

Preparing your Record of Supervisory meetings for the APR

Please ensure that your Record of Supervisory meetings is up to date before the end of May. The APR contains the complete list of the dates of all supervisory meeting records that have been signed off by your supervisor.  You may want to remind your supervisor that they should sign off all records before the 1st June.

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. The record should include relevant Zoom or Skype meetings.
You are not expected to record meetings for any periods of suspension.

Preparing your PGR Portfolio of Activity for the APR

The PGR Portfolio of Activity is your record of your activities and achievements over the last year, which supplements your research and support your long-term development. For example, the record can include the training and development workshops/webinars that you have attended, conferences and research meetings that you have participated in, work with industry or organisations outside academia, public engagement and public communication  and so on. This record can include any activities taken place online.

The APR form 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 form. We recommend that you revisit the Portfolio of Activity before the 31st May and check which of your records you want to be visible in the APR. All records for the past year are included by default, but you can de-select any activities that you want to be kept private.

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 2020 to the end of May 2021.
  • 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 longer record 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 you recorded attendance at 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 2020-21 will appear in the APR for this year.

If you have not entered data into the Portfolio of Activity, the APR 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 of the four boxes to use to record each training or development activity is a personal choice, but could help you ensure that you can demonstrate a wide range of development.

If you have any problems with this process or you encounter system issues in relation to the Portfolio of Activity before the APR forms are released, please contact the LDC Development Team at