Reflections on SDHI’s postgraduate retreat in Kindrogan

I have just returned from the postgraduate retreat that the Social Dimensions of Health Institute organised for our postgraduates and early career research scientists. The location was the wonderful Kindrogan Scottish Field Centre. ‘Beautiful’ doesn’t even begin to describe how lovely it was to be in the woods and see the stars in their naked beauty.

But this is not a blog piece about nature. I wanted to write about my reflections on the retreat before I forget. It was the first time I helped organise it and what a pleasure it was! We had 15 PhD students and early career scientists and 5 member of staff. True to form, expected of SDHI’s ethos, the attendees were coming from diverse backgrounds: health service researchers, biomedical scientists, psychologists, occupational therapists…. I’m sure I’m missing some of the disciplines represented there! Some were full-time PhD students and some were also juggling full-time employment.

What did I take from it?

1. Regardless of the discipline we work within, some of the issues we experience are very similar. Over and over again, attendees expressed their concern over ‘managing self’… It emerged that we all wondered how we maintain a healthy attitude toward work, something we are passionate about, while also not neglecting ourselves. The fact that this was expressed by junior and not so junior scientists shows how important it is that we try to figure this out.

Did we have answers to give to the PhD students? Yes, time management was important. Didn’t we hear that one before? But the inner discipline that time management requires is never so explicitly stated. Setting time aside for writing (whatever time frame that your brain works at its best) to not opening emails till a certain time in the day (and not returning emails immediately!), there were many tested and trusted tips shared. It turns out that we are all at the mercy of emails and only we can break its influence on us.

2. Finding a mentor. This was not about finding a supervisor and the distinction is an important one. No matter where we are in our career, there was a place for a mentoring relationship where you share your goals and clarify them AND be held accountable to them. We urged the attendees to be active in seeking mentors that will do this for them. So, readers of this blog piece: if you get an email from one of our attendees asking you about being a mentor, don’t be surprised!

2. Writing.. Message was clear: write THEN edit. Lose the inner critic. Set time aside every day (if not, most days) for writing. Think about your dissertation chapters as pieces that can be published and write with that in mind. Many many other tips…

3. Creating our own knowledge and support communities and social media. I attempted to get the attendees think outside the box in connecting to their academic communities. The last few years, since I started to tweet and in small ways write blog pieces, have been a revelation to me. I found an academic community out there that expanded my vision, my support network and that daily provides me with nourishment and insight I need. I wanted to get across to the PhD students and early career scientists to know that there are different ways of connecting academically than the traditional methods. Seeing my twitter timeline after the retreat, I feel that I was partially successful in my attempt!

3. And lastly, and for me the most importantly, the retreat made me reflect on, once again, what kind of an academic I want to be. As I was listening to others share their struggles, I was so struck by the kindness that the other organisers of the retreat have shown – namely Huw Davies, Thilo Kroll, Martyn Jones and Damien Williams. This was not a retreat where the motto was ‘publish or perish’, how ‘to get ahead’, the quickest route to academic success etc. This was a retreat providing space for the future researchers, whatever field they come from, to reflect and remember that that they are researchers but most importantly they are human beings. Training to be competent researchers and answering questions that will hopefully contribute to knowledge in our fields need to go hand in hand with being kind to ourselves and our peers. That was exemplified in the best possible way in the last two day. And that makes me feel so much better about being a part of our academic community.

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