Reflections of a PhD graduate (from the blissful embrace of gainful employment)

This week’s blog entry comes courtesy of Dr. Brian Surgenor, recently graduated from the School of Chemistry. Thanks Brian for the kind words, and good luck in Leipzig.

Picture1“If you have just completed your undergraduate, Master’s or PhD degree you will soon realise that was the easy part – the real challenge is finding a job!

I recently found myself in the situation where I had a PhD but had no particular career in mind, and this is where CAPOD, in the form of Dr. Ben Carter, came into play. I initially had no intention to continue into postdoctoral research (as the few groups that research my field of chemistry had nothing to offer), so instead began the iterative process of streamlining my CV and polishing my cover letter to suit chemistry jobs and consultancy firms, with guidance from Ben. 

Within a week or two I was armed with multiple versions of my CV and cover letter, in formats that could be easily tweaked to suit each specific role to which I applied. In addition, for every job I applied to I could tweak both CV and cover letter and have the tweaked version checked by Ben – normally hearing back within a few hours of emailing.

I strongly suggest doing this early. Before you finish your research, get in touch and start working on your CV. It can be a daunting experience but as I found out, sometimes positions appear suddenly and if they do you need to be ready to jump on them.

This is what happened to me. A research position in my field appeared in an email (at 10pm!) that was marked as ASAP and sent out to many other PhD candidates. As I now had many working versions of my CV and had learned what each kind of employer looks for, I was able to have my application in less than twelve hours after seeing the advert.

48 hours later I had secured the position and within a few weeks I moved abroad to start my postdoctoral fellowship.

If it hadn’t been for the help, advice and mentoring that Ben had provided me with then there is a chance I wouldn’t be where I am now.

Dr. Brian Surgenor

Postdoctoral research fellow – Universität Leipzig.”

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Awakening students to the value of feedback

Student feedback, particularly in relation to assessed work, is a hot topic. Various initiatives over the years have focused on ways to improve levels of student engagement and satisfaction with feedback but it continues to be both a challenging and key area for the institution and individual Schools.

In support of this, an LTC Open Forum workshop delivered by Anne MacNab from Edinburgh Napier University, was dedicated to the use of feedback for learning.  The workshop did not directly address the widely reported topic of what constitutes well designed and delivered feedback (well-trodden territory by many other academic institutions and staff), but instead considered the attitudinal perspectives of students who are receiving academic feedback, how it effects their associated actions and its impact upon their subsequent performance.

The workshop and its key concepts were extremely well-received by the Proctor, Directors of Teaching and other academic staff in attendance, and there was strong support for implementation within the University of St Andrews.

Further to this, preparations are now underway to pilot Edinburgh Napier’s approach in selected 1000 and 2000 level modules within the Schools of Computer Science and Classics during Semester 2 of AY 2013/14. Coordinated by Ros Campbell, Erwin Lai and Anne MacNab, the pilot aims to assess the viability, suitability and sustainability of the intervention for implementation across the wider University.

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SCRAN – Access to learning and teaching materials…plus more images

Following on from the previous post about using royalty free images in your learning and teaching materials. I was reminded of a very good online repository that contains a wealth of archived, Scottish-based, multimedia resources such as video clips, audio clips, images and photographs.

The website is SCRAN and can be found at .


SCRAN, a registered charity, was formed in 1996 and its founding partners were

  • The National Museums Scotland
  • The Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland
  • The Scottish Museums Council
  • The Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum

After talking about SCRAN at one of my recent workshops about using “Royalty Free Images in Higher Educations”, the participants agreed it could be very useful especially for accessing historical video clips, photographs and maps.

NOTE: If you intend on using materials from the SCRAN repository, please be aware of the licence and attribution conditions, for example:

“copy, display, store and make derivative works [eg documents] solely for licensed personal use at home or solely for licensed educational institution use by staff and students on a secure intranet.”

In this instance a “secure intranet” would include the University’s online learning environments such MMS and Moodle.

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Word to the wise

A family of related comments has become a regular feature of the response from participants to the IT Training courses they’ve elected to take.  It goes something like this (and generally in this sequence):

Before training: “Yes I’ve used xyz before and I’m here to get a refresher.”

After training: “Gosh, I didn’t know you could do that with xyz!!”

Swiftly followed by: “ If only I’d known this before I’d spent hours the way I usually use xyz!

And somewhat later: “Why doesn’t everyone do this??!”

The following is from historian Dawn Williams, yet another who has recently encountered that particular Damascus signpost:

Excerpted, with permission,  from her blog “The Historian’s Desk

“Today I attended an IT training session on ‘Advanced Document Management’ in MS Word.

Now, I’m sure I’m not alone when I say that MS Word, though obviously a vitally necessary programme (at least for those humanities students who have not upgraded to MacBooks…), has often left me banging my head on my desk in frustration. Without guidance or advice – and I don’t count the online help pages as very useful guidance! – it seemed to me to be a programme that did its level best to be overly complicated and unintuitive…. However, as I learnt this morning, Word has some very useful features, particularly for someone (such as a PhD student) who is anticipating composing a long and complex document (such as a thesis!)… Gone are the days of tearing your hair out producing a contents page manually and double- and triple-checking the page numbers!… I would very strongly recommend anyone preparing a long document in Word to read up on and try out using styles. It might seem like hassle to start with but I think it’s the sort of thing that would really help in the long run. I’m certainly a convert!”

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Reflections from SMRU Marine’s team awayday (August 2013)

As the new Operations Manager for SMRU Marine – a commercial spin off company of the University that investigates marine mammal monitoring issues, I was very keen to know more about my team and vice versa.

Luckily CAPOD, in the form of Erwin and Jos came to the fore. Between us we designed a team day which focused on the company priorities, gave space to raise and address any key issues and finished off with a personal MBTI profiling session.

This really set the scene for our new ways of working, a better understanding of the challenges we face and some good personal insights into the way we function and how we behave according to our personal preferences.

As a new manager in post it was really valuable – Erwin took the time to really help plan and co-ordinate the day in order to reach some specific goals. Jos led on the MBTI profiling session and explained to a group of very bright people the scientific validity of MBTI, its ethics, its past/present  use and how it might help us.

Overall it has been a great starting block for me to take forward and I’m in the middle of planning the next steps – especially taking advantage of CAPOD’s central function for mentoring and coaching as well as further team development.

Thoroughly recommended.

Dr Claire Eatock

SMRU Marine

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Does mentoring work?

Centrally coordinated and supported mentoring schemes are a relatively new addition to the professional and career development opportunities offered within Higher Education. The University of St Andrews has been one of the early adopters to such schemes, with the Early Career Academics’ Mentoring scheme first trialed in 2005 and still running (this is a cross-institutional collaboration with the University of Dundee) and a separate support staff scheme running for the last three years.

The potential for mentoring to provide valuable professional and career development support is generally accepted, but because mentoring programmes in higher education have only fairly recently taken hold there has been little discussion, or analysis, of the long term benefits of such schemes.

This provided us with an exciting opportunity to launch an early study into the long term results of mentoring schemes, which may perhaps lead to further research, expanding on our general conclusions.

Over the summer Daniel O’Hara, an Undergraduate in the School of Mathematics and Statistics, has been working at CAPOD as an intern. His project has been to carry out this study and through a combination of interviews and questionnaires Daniel was able to draw some general conclusions about the perceived value of mentoring, as well as identify some concrete outcomes cited by participants on our schemes gong back as far as the original pilot in 2005.

Based on the responses of participants in the study Daniel produced a revealing word cloud to reflect the strength of common themes.


During his study Daniel specifically asked participants about the quality of the match between themselves and their mentoring partners. 86% of respondents stated that the match was ‘Good’, ‘Very Good’ or ‘Excellent’. This indicates that the process that has been adopted has been highly effective in creating partnerships which have been productive and effective in achieving the aims of the scheme members.

When asked if they would recommend the scheme to a colleague the vast majority (85%) said that they would. This again is a strong indication that participants in mentoring schemes believe that that the process is worthwhile and beneficial, and that this belief persists long after the conclusion of the mentoring partnership.

When mentees were asked if they would consider mentoring in the future, again a significant amount indicated they would do so, which also supports the view that the perceived benefits of mentoring exist well beyond the period of active participation in mentoring.

The original pilot scheme in 2005 was based on female-female matching, and in the current schemes gender is one of the matching preferences which applicants are asked to state. It therefore seemed worth asking if gender-based matching works better. By analysing the results of the study by gender matches in partnerships we were able to conclude that same-gender matches are no more or less effective than mixed-gender matches. However, since matches are made with gender preferences being given the highest priority, it is probably more accurate to say that respecting participants’ stated preference for the gender of their mentoring partner results in a high level of satisfaction with the partnership. Further study and comparison with schemes where participants are unable to state a gender preference may be more revealing on this issue.

Overall, the results of the study showed that participation in a mentoring scheme has definitely had positive effects on:

• Career Development
• Professional Development
• Adjusting to University Life
• Setting and Achieving SMART Goals

Some participants were also able to say that their relationships had provided concrete outcomes that contributed to their career, including:

• Joint research projects
• New positions
• Joint PhD supervision
• Interdepartmental research collaboration
• Cross institutional research collaboration
• Changed career or research focus.

Qualitative statements about the short term benefits of mentoring are plentiful and are captured on a regular basis through informal monitoring and formal evaluations of annual cycles of mentoring schemes. This study has shown that very similar qualitative statements about the perceived value of mentoring are made by participants even years after their mentoring partnership has concluded.

Establishing clear quantitative evidence of the long term benefits of mentoring, in terms of measurable outcomes such as career progression, publication, funding, collaborations and so on, has been difficult to assess within the scope and scale of this study. Further data collection through follow-up studies of current and future membership will be required to build up a sufficiently large and reliable data set.

However, what we do have is anecdotal evidence strongly in favour of the benefits of the scheme lasting in the long term, particularly where participants feel that participation contributed to gaining a new post. In some cases however respondents from earlier cycles of schemes have said that they struggle to remember if identifiable aspects of career and professional development were as a result of their involvement of the scheme. This problem of attribution will always exist, where so many other factors play a part and this naturally increases as the time elapsed from participation increases.

However, in future, by more regular contact and monitoring of career and professional development of participants, it may be possible to make a clearer attribution and to ensure that participants themselves have a clearer sense of the contribution the mentoring experience has made.

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Evaluating impact

A working group in CAPOD have been devising a process whereby we can help to assess the impact of the services we offer.  This involves talking to managers and course/workshop participants prior to events to identify what their objectives are for attending training or development events and assessing what staff are doing differently following attendance.  We will be disseminating information to managers and participants as part of this new process so everyone knows what to expect.


In relation to this, we would also like to be able to demonstrate the benefits gained from any funding received from one our funding pots – whether the money was for an external training course or attendance at a conference to help development of staff in their teaching role or support engagement with enhancement theme events.  We would be happy to hear of any direct benefits demonstrated as a result of a successful CAPOD funding application.  Please email

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What I gained from the Professional Skills Curriculum

student passport front pageThe Professional Skills Curriculum (PSC) is a developmental programme run by CAPOD for students. It focuses on developing the kinds of graduate skills employers value. One of the students who took part last year, shares her experience:

The Professional Skills Curriculum (PSC) had helped me a lot this year. I have been a member of two different committees in the past year and as a result was able to use the knowledge obtained from the workshops. On one of these committees I also held an executive positions and the information obtained from the PSC had helped me to remain calm and always in control of the situation.

A very important point that I took from PSC was listening. This academic year I was a secretary in a student sports club, which has 20 committee members. An incredibly big size of the committee meant that quite often opinions of some would be spoken too loudly, though they would not represent the majority, so I did everything to make sure that all the opinions and all the pros and cons are delivered and the vote has been taken fairly to insure that club is running effectively and for the benefit of the club members. Even in my personal life I felt like I made more effort to listen to people and to be more attentive to the information my friends are giving me.

Also an online workshop, about taking minutes, was very useful for me. This is the first year that I had to write them and having a template and a really well put together explanation helped me to create the meeting’s minutes quickly, and they were always easy to follow and read.

I also enjoyed taking the “Assess Your English (AYE!)” test. Not having English as my native language, I am aware, that I occasionally make mistakes and at times it is difficult to identify where those mistakes are. The test helped me to highlight some of the words and structures that I have been using incorrectly and helped me improve my English, which is something that I always strive to do.

I also enjoyed completing the PSC’s quizzes as I was able to take, at times a well needed, break, yet I felt that I wasn’t wasting my time. As I also learned from PSC, that I shouldn’t be wasting time as it is precious and thus time management is a very important skill that I should improve. My life is very busy, I am studying towards a joint degree, compete on behalf of 2 clubs as well as being on 2 committees. At times managing all the activities I take part in and my deadlines could be challenging, but thanks to the time management online workshop, I reviewed my own efficiency and by keeping a very detailed diary I am able to manage and give 100 percent of my attention to everything I do, which always brings a reward.

I hope next year there will be more lectures and workshops available and I would be looking forward to attending them!”

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Administrative Excellence

As an administrator our daily roles are spread into many areas such as, working with university systems, liaising with internal staff/external people and money etc.

I will be starting CAPOD’s Passport to Administrative Excellence scheme which is a programme of many diverse training courses aimed specifically for all Administrative staff.

I thoroughly recommend this for Administrators to sign up to this scheme as not only will it be a great opportunity for your personal and professional development but also you get the chance to network with your fellow Administrators around the University!

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Supporting Student Academic Development

I would like to introduce myself: I am June Knowles and am the Academic Skills Consultant in the University. This role enables me to work with students in a variety of settings including: small and large groups, one-two-one meetings, class groups, short courses, drop-in sessions where students are assisted in the area of Academic Skills.
Students have the academic skills that are required to be at St Andrews; however; sometimes there is a need to have some up-skilling in areas such as:

  • Citing and referencing
  • Note taking
  • Study techniques
  • Study organisation
  • Reading skills
  • Essay writing
  • Report writing
  • Presentation skills
  • Research skills
  • Time/task management
  • Exam preparation

Students from all years and all disciplines can meet with me by requesting an appointment. This provision is confidential and free.

As well as meeting with students there are online resources available on the web and within Moodle (the University’s VLE).

Impact: it is not always immediately recognised that there has been an impact as the techniques may take some practice and time; however; the provision is highly regarded by both staff and students.

The following comments have been given by students:

  • I hadn’t written an essay for 2 years – this help certainly helped me with gathering my information and essay structure
  • Time-management – I never knew how to do this … what a difference organising and giving adequate time to my study has made to my stress levels (less  – of course!)
  • My grades have improved …
  • I am always stressed by exams, the session I had with … helped me to prepare for exams and I feel less stressed about them
  • I’d never given a presentation… I now know what I have to do and how to go about preparing my presentation
  • Citing and referencing … what is it? … how do I do it? I now know that if I don’t cite and reference I will be guilty of misconduct (aargh)

For further information see:

Look for this new development (in Moodle) available in the new academic year: Training in Good Academic Practice. This course is to be completed by all 1st year students (although available to all) and includes learning materials that complement the University’s Good Academic Practice Policy.

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