the importance of creating a nurturing and creative research culture for you and your PhD students

This post is by Dr Rachel Cowen who is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Manchester. She specialises in creating and delivering researcher and academic development programmes nationally and internationally.

Researchers often liken their research experiences to the famous Thomas Edison quote about genius suggesting success is “one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration”. Particularly at an early career stage many researchers invest a great deal of sweat and emotion reading huge volumes of literature in their field, doggedly repeating experiments that ‘won’t work’, poorly planning research with an ever expanding scope and going off at a tangent from their original line of enquiry with little thought or discussion.

So what can we do as supervisors to enlighten and guide our early career researchers and improve the productivity of our research groups? The answer is to shine a spotlight on the research culture in our teams that promotes such an inefficient and stress inducing approach to research.

Recently a senior research leader told me an interesting story:

To help new PhD students settle in and hone their research skills they always asked them repeat an experiment carried out by a student 5 years previously and subsequently repeated each year by new arrivals to the group always giving the same ‘correct’ result. However, their most recent student could not get the experiment to give the desired result and after weeks had finally come to speak to the group lead in utter frustration and with a sinking feeling that they just weren’t cut out for research. A view which was re-enforced by the group leads disappointed body language. However, out of curiosity the group lead decided to repeat the experiment, and their data matched that of the new student! The reality was that the original student 5 years ago had analysed the data incorrectly and the other students either did not feel able to share this with the group lead, or worse had fabricated/massaged the data to match the original.

This story resonated with me and highlighted the pressure that researchers are under to generate data in line with current thinking in the field and consciously or unconsciously stray into the realms of research misconduct. Could this or something similar happen in your group? Anonymous data published by the Nuffield Council for Bioethics and Royal Society shows that 58% of scientists surveyed feel tempted or under pressure to compromise on research integrity and standards.

Discuss this story with your PhD students and share the following tips and ideas to promote a positive and nurturing research culture where there isn’t ‘correct data’ only interesting data, where the generation of ideas is promoted and welcomed from everyone at every career stage and good communication and transparency are paramount especially when things go unexpectedly.

Re-think research team meetings:

Don’t make team meetings an opportunity for you to catch up on the latest progress of each team member. Don’t request shiny PowerPoint slides with ‘publication quality’ figures and tables showing what’s going well. Ask students to share their raw data and to request help with troubleshooting and interpretation of data. Re-assure them that there is a ‘no blame’ culture where the collective brain power of the group is used to advance the research field.

You may also want to use team meetings to generate new research ideas. A colleague of mine uses ‘white board meetings’ (e.g. here) where they host a collective brain storm of solutions to the grand challenges in the field. They set some simple ground rules where all people’s ideas are equal and valid, egos are left at the door and students are asked to fully participate and challenge senior academic beliefs. In this way everyone in the group is encouraged to put forward ideas and you may find it is often the new PhD student who isn’t entrenched in the field that has the simplest yet inspired idea.

Even when ideas appear to be drying up let the process run on so that the group think more deeply and come up with richer ideas. Capture all ideas and suspend judgement and especially watch the negative body language (or even temptation to laugh out loud) as the ideas range from sublime to ridiculous. In the final phase of the meeting you can begin to critique and fully evaluate the ideas based on practicality, timeliness, and the extent of the advance they would make for the field.

Empower your students to believe in and progress their ideas and secure research funding at the earliest career stage:

Experiencing ‘Imposter’ feelings (feeling like a fraud sometimes) is rife in academia as has been well documented, and it is very hard for early career researchers to evaluate their ideas on their own, to have the confidence to share them widely and to feel credible as a PI or CoI to develop  their ideas into a fundable fellowship or grant application.

Many researchers are waiting to be tapped on the shoulder to apply for funding or believe that they need just one more paper and they will be ready. A senior Professorial Fellow and colleague of mine tells all of her students that if they think have an idea and the passion and drive to follow it up then she will support them to expand it into a pilot grant or full blown grant or fellowship. By doing this she feels free of the emotional baggage that many senior academics feel as they try to sustain their group and secure follow on funding for students and postdocs. She’s also proud of the many successful researchers she has championed and supported to become future research leaders.

From my experience very few early career researchers know where to look for funding beyond the usual large funding bodies. Promote global research funding search engines such as research professional and encourage them to build early relationships with funders by ringing them to discuss current calls and eligibility and to send preliminary funding proposals and abridged CVs for valuable external validation.

Promote the development of creative research spaces:

Research is a creative process and in an ideal world we would all have our own bright, cool stimulating office space. However, the reality of a desk in the lab, office space that is too cramped to fit a laptop or open a research book, or even worse no space at all to call your own can be a major barrier to creativity and productivity in research as well as eroding the self-worth and confidence of the researcher.

Negotiate desks or creative spaces for your PhD students and trust their self-drive and commitment if they choose to stay at home to think and write in their peak energy times. Share your own strategies to drive your creativity too. One colleague spends a fruitful first hour of each day in a well-known coffee shop preparing manuscripts and grants before he is interrupted verbally and electronically by other people’s demands on his time.

This is by no means a comprehensive list. So please add your strategies to create a nurturing and creative research environment within your group or any collective approaches that you have used across your institutions and disciplines.

Author: predoctorbility

I design researcher mentoring and coaching programmes, partnering researchers at all career stages with academic and non-academic mentors. I use research data to ensure programmes are aligned to the researcher voice, are situated in academic development, and fit with the current researcher career landscape.