Talk It Out: Ways of Communicating About the Research Experience

Mapping research with sweets and drawing on mirrors - two things I had never done prior to the second event in the ‘Tuning in to the Value of Research Staff’ series.

This session took the form of a series of short exercises, in which we were encouraged to explore our experience of research, and given an opportunity to discuss the various obstances and achievements we had encoutered.

The day began with the group responding to a series of quotes on the theme of creativity.

Next we were encouraged to get out all of our thoughts regarding research, and what it meant to us, which covered what it felt like, what inspired us, what we wanted to change, and so on. This was interesting, and very valuable, in that it demonstrated that negative sentiments — regarding pain, vulnerability and uncertainty — are common, and that to experience these does not mean that you are alone. This kind of activity is quite an important form of group support, in which we don’t need to go into specific details regarding our problems in order to be able to share them, and find reassurance.

Perhaps the highlight of the day came next, in the unexpected form of piles of sweets. We were asked to use the various pieces of liquorice, foam shrimps and marshmallows to build a representation of what research meant to us, how we had gotten to where we are, and what that had been like.

Looking past the attractions of the medium used, this task performed a similar function to the creation of willow sculptures in the previous session, in that it urged participants to consider their research journey, and then try to represent this for other people. This process of looking at research as experience, as well as knowledge gathering, was very welcome, as researchers can become so enmeshed in what they are looking at, that it sometimes becomes hard to step back from it, and take in a wider view.

The value of this kind of activity was apparent once it got to the point where we described to others what the various sculptures and shapes represented. Using this simple and accessible medium as a prompt, it became easier to describe some of our experiences up to this point. Some were quite detailed, in which we saw how research fitted into a much larger life narrative. Others focused on one single event or process, such as a drink outside in the sun after graduating, or a protracted struggle to negotiate the way forward on a project. Visualising was shown to be an important technique for gaining perspective, and selecting which stories—and how — to share with others.

Next, we were given Post-It notes and asked to describe some of the highs and lows of our research journey to date. The highs were stuck above our heads, and the lows were down near the floor.

Positive responses included “flexible working”, “early project excitement”, and “a team — the support of laughter”. Less postive experiences included “you don’t count because you’re not a proper member of staff”, “invisible” and “money — the bottom line”. These statements promped small discussions as we moved around the room, looking at what each other had written. This method enables confession of some quite raw experiences, but without the confronation of speaking in front of a whole group. Instead, statements remained anonymous, which made sharing and discussing much easier.

Following on from this, we looked more specifically at a theme of feeling lucky or unlucky in various aspects of our work. How do things outside of our control affect us? And how can we react to that? This was also a good point at which to discuss how our work made us feel fortunate — in terms of being given freedom to explore, and to focus on something we enjoy.

The next exercise also followed this format of looking at both the good and the bad, but instead focused on the various enablers and obstacles to our work. Responses for enablers included coffee, silence, a walk in nature and good conversation. Obstacles were the blank page, the Internet, and the general day-to-day demands of life and family.

Next we wrote postcards to our PIs (principal investigators). These contained messages of thanks, of uncertainty, sometimes of criticism, but all were written without too much hesitation. Clearly, we all have something to say to our bosses, and this exercise was one way of helping us to do that, albeit hypothetically, as the postcards were never intended to be actually ‘sent’!

The last exercise of the day saw us reflecting on our research in more than one way, as we were asked to write direct messages of encouragement and support to ourselves, onto mirrors. In contrast to the other tasks, this was a process of communicating to ourselves rather than to others, and provided a neat end point to a day of contemplation and sharing.

This was a valuable workshop for a number of reasons. Firstly, it enabled connections to be made between peers, who might otherwise never have met. Secondly, it gave an opportunity to look past our research in order to place it within a wider context of the various demands and trajectories of everyday life. Thirdly, it helped us develop new ways of communicating, using unusual materials and techniques that prompt different ways of thinking and showing. Lastly, it provided a chance for fixed term researchers to support one another, by sharing our highs and lows, and providing reassurance that we are not alone in them.

All photographs by Anne Burns.

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