Kylie Ball on supporting early career researchers, virtual mentorship and wellbeing

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Kylie Ball is a Professor in the Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition, Faculty of Health at Deakin University in Australia. She is also Head of early- and mid-career researcher (EMCR) development and publishes a very impactful blog targeted to EMCRs called The Happy Academic. We have a wide-ranging discussion about the EMCR support initiatives she has put in place, including workshops, mentoring programs and virtual resources, as well as the blog which she talks about as a form of virtual mentorship that can have a wider reach. We explore her own strategies for physical and mental wellbeing and how to form good habits. Themes throughout are around how much there is that we can actually take control of and make choices about, and we get a good sense of how to create a kinder and more supportive culture within our faculties.

"Leadership can happen at every level. …Every researcher is leading something."

"We forget that we’re in a career where there is so much choice and flexibility. Seeing busyness as within our choice and there are things we can do about that really helps to give that sense of control."

"I’m a big advocate that we can all find opportunities to be kind and it’s never a wasted act."

She talks about (times approximate) …

1:50 Kylie discusses how she got into research, instead of being a clinical psychologist that she had thought she would end up doing, and still has drive to help people

04:20 Discusses research area around helping people have better health behaviours, translating research and having broad impact, and how long this can take

06:50 Examples of where her research has had impact; how the relationship was built; and the long time frame to impact

08:35 Recognises this as a privileged situation. More difficult for newer people coming in on short term contracts. And recognizes she might be able to help.

09:10 Her own experience of short term contract, moving interstate for a one year contract; fortunately a permanent position did arise; but not the case now. Mentors many people and sees many people concerned about the future, and raising the same sorts of problems.

10:10 Her role as head of early and mid-career researcher development. Keen to defines this inclusively, roughly as academic level A-C (entry level, associate, to lecturer, to senior lecturer). Wanted to know what the challenges were so spoke individually to all ECRs in the institute – 54 – and 15-16 senior people. One of the best things she could have done. Some based on another campus. Well set up between campuses for virtual meetings.

13:30 So met and got a good sense of needs, coming up repeatedly: how do I establish myself as an independent researcher; how do I get my first grant; how do I achieve work life balance. Universal issues in this field. Gave a good sense of what people were struggling with. Then set up a range of initiatives to address this. Included: workshops mentoring matches; other professional development; also virtual resources like the blog.

14:35 Workshops: looking at most pressing needs first, grants and fellowships, so first workshop with internal people to present eg strategy, lead times, planning, how to find sources, the process, compliance, internal funding scheme (great for pilot data, experience, confidence). Can see the trajectory of research funding from this first step. Most of workshops fully subscribed, tried to limit to around 17:25. Reasons for good buy-in? Culture very much around encouraging students and ECRs to get along to everything offered, can get something out of everything, fostering a vibrant research culture; also that this is what they had asked for.

18:30 Other workshops around how to be a strategic researcher. Great to have internal expertise but also good to bring in external experts for fresh ideas, also level of perceived credibility of external. About saying no to things strategically, time management, writing. Another workshop around leadership – broad and difficult to do in a one-day workshop but as exposure to some of the challenges of leadership in academia and tendencies that impede us becoming the best leaders we can. Type of leadership? Leadership can happen at every level. Everyone is leading something. Qualities of a good leader in an academic context? Learning to take the step back from being the drive in everything and putting others forward and supporting them. A challenge of mid-career stage. Being willing to hand over the reins to others. Not trained in that.

22:20 One of the other workshops from last year addressed that issue – mentoring for mentors. Idea is lots of use mentor others but have not had any formal training in that. Sometimes junior people come with issues and say struggling herself. But don’t have to have all the answers, can say “this is what I may do in this situation; have you thought about these different options”. Useful for getting some confidence around this.

23:46 Mentoring scheme – not a formal scheme as people didn’t want to commit to this but asked early career people if they wanted a mentor. Sometimes their supervisor might provide some of this but sometimes there is a risk that discussions with supervisor can be very operational. So have tried to match people up with someone more arms-length from within the institute. Have also facilitated external mentor when people asked for this. Set up general guidelines around this. Eg meet 3-4 times per year, mentee brings the agenda and drives meeting, and provides a few resources such as types of questions to get best out of mentor. Almost all now have at least one senior mentor. The ones who have chosen not to feel they are well supported already. Left loosely structured (no fixed time limit). Uni does have a structured program with contracts, outputs etc but a deterrent for some people. Depends on the situation. Just flagged that either mentor or mentee felt relationship not working well … sometimes relationship naturally progresses. It’s very natural for mentoring relationships to have a set period of time. Also think people can benefit from having a number of mentors.

28:25 Digital resources – three main aspects. Lots of senior staff had given presentations, lots of resources existing but sitting on people’s computer drives so wanted a repository to store these that are relevant to early career issues eg powerpoint presentations, resource sheets, templates, grant and funding related resources eg successful grants. Collated in a dedicated place. Used? Refers lots of people to them. Workshop resources also stored there too.

30:45 Been running 18 months now. Did an informal evaluation after 1 year. Had conducted a survey before starting, as baseline, asking people what they thought about support available to them and also about generic things like job satisfaction, morale, perceived academic competence, work-related distress, work life balance. A year after assessed again and found good results. Satisfaction with program very high. Perceived competence, academic capacity, morale increased and decrease in workplace distress. Subjective feedback that favourably received. Part of the happy academic. Can’t underestimate their impact on harder outcomes like retention rates, productivity and KPIs like publishing.

33:20 Connectedness from workshop. When asked about the needs, social element identified as critical, being connected to other ECRs, having a support network. So try things like put an hour at the end of the workshop for social get together. Also set up regular ‘shut up and write’ sessions. Part is to progress writing but part is the social situation and people talking to others they might not talk to. Do SUAW about every month. Limit to 12 people and they sign up. Part is pragmatic re room available but generally found haven’t had people wanting to come and can’t, also find people can’t attend at last minute, but people who have gone along have found benefits. Shared office with one other person.

36:10 Describes institutes and school structure at Deakin. How is wellbeing being promoted in policy? In Kylie’s role. Also fortunate in having a head of school who is committed to these issues of wellbeing so a number of initiatives. Eg: Have had a consultant come in to work with people one on one, a mindfulness expert run mindfulness workshops regularly (quite popular, running it again this year), also have a team that are focused on creating fun events throughout the year eg easter bbq, celebrations for events through the year. Keeping a focus on fun.

38:40 Role of KPIs in stress/reduction? Senior staff tried to convey a culture of delivering excellent teaching, research, yes there are KPIs and need to be agreed on in performance evaluation discussions, but the message is yes targets but they shouldn’t be the end driver so don’t e.g. have a strong focus on checking citations. Citations are out of our control. You can control submitting X papers per year but you can’t control how many citations you get. So while KPIs are there and they’re important, and we need aspirational goals for these things, we also try to balance that with a view to aiming for excellence in what we do and that’s not always easily captured in some of these metrics. Flexibility in performance reviews that all staff won’t be doing all things at all times … so might be some flexibility in workload allocation. Hate the word balance.. becomes another stress for people, “do I have balance?”. Going to be times we feel one particular part of our role takes over, so long as you can see that it’s a short term thing so in grant season (gives writing grants example). So long as you can see it is not forever and you have some strategies in place to cope with that. About perspective, insight, reflection, choice. Choice is critical. We forget that we’re in a career where there is so much choice and flexibility. Seeing busyness as within our choice and that there are things we can do about that really helps to give that sense of control.

43:56 Often our own worst enemies in this field. People have to be a little bit obsessive, perfectionistic to persist with the things we do but think stepping back and reminding ourselves that we do have more choice than we probably realise and rather than doing everything automatically, saying yes to everything automatically, … try to encourage ECR people to build in white space, thinking and planning time to step back. Can’t see it when you are on the treadmill.

45:05 Own strategies? Three main things: 1. Down time with family. Has 10 yr old daughter. Likes to switch off completely and spend time with her. Challenging to switch off. Mobile phones, blurring. Tries to get away eg to beach. Symbolic in a sense to get out of your normal environment, into nature.  Amazing how restorative that can be. 2. Exercise. A mad advocate that exercise can cure almost anything, and help with almost anything, a life line, Mental health strategy. For physical health. Time out. Tries running three times a week. Doesn’t need equipment. Can do anywhere. Doesn’t’ cost anything. Feels a million times better after 6-8 kms, mind much clearer. Feel much better. Evidence for that enormous. The ironic thing is that when you get busy it is often the first thing to go but it can be the best thing to help you think more clearly. Has tried to be consistent since high school. Doesn’t write it in the diary but has a regular time set up. Know from behavioural research, the value of regular habit.

48:50 Other non-negotiables? Not really. Being a single parent, more stressful trying to block non-negotiable things, being more flexible works for her. One thing is Friday night is non-work night. Switches everything off. Came up a few years back when was on brink of burn out and working with a coach who asked what was the one thing she could do. Friday night ‘switch off’ was it. Small changes but they do add up.

50:20 Third thing she swears by is meditation. A time to step back, reflect, and put down things carrying all day. Aim is to do it every day for 10 mins. Doesn’t happen every day. Training mental skills of attention and focus, skills we are at risk of losing because of social media, emails, interruptions, meditation a buffer against that short attention span. Lots we can be doing to improve our own mental/physical wellbeing but the challenge is lots of us know thus but how do we put it into place.

52:15 Tips as behavior change expert? Write it down, book it into your calendar, make it an appointment. The other is about trying to make some of these automatic. Setting up your environment so you need less conscious effort to do it, to make it a habit, things that cue us towards some of these behaviours. The other is social support, who hold you accountable.

54:00 The Happy Academic blog – started when she took on role as head of early and mid career research and development. Was hearing the same kinds of challenges again and again, not just in own institution but people internationally. Can’t reach all these people one on one, gets lots of requests for mentoring but can’t do it all. Thought a blog might be a good virtual way to help lots of people. Virtual mentorship. Feedback suggests it is achieving that aim. One of the most satisfying things she did last year. Always wanted a career where she was helping people. And loves writing. So this ticks a lot of boxes. Now takes a couple of hours to write a post, also jots down ideas in prep. Questions that people ask are a source of ideas. Schedule – tries to post once/month.  

58:25 Blog post on kindness – sparked by a PhD student who finished and wrote a lovely card, saying “thanks for all your support and in particular thank you for your kindness, a quality which I feel is often missing in academia”. That resonated. Also consistent with stories over the years. Academia can be such a cut-throat and ruthless environment. And dealing with critique, rejection, awards, promotion. Hear all the time how thick-skinned you need to be to survive in this field. So wanted to highlight that this doesn’t have to be the norm and there are small things we can do that might a spot of joy in someone’s day, a question about how your day is going, can I get you a cup of coffee. I’m a big advocate that we can all find opportunities to be kind and it’s never a wasted act. Came across some great resources on kindness.

1:01:25 Another of virtual resources is sending an email out highlighting some of the successes. Aim is that we don’t often celebrate these enough. Other thing that it can be good to share more is the rejection and failures side and how we have dealt with these. A hard thing to share. Another post on rejection showed some brave people who posted about their failures. Need to be careful, don’t want to focus on what doesn’t work, but recognizing we’ve all had rejections and your not alone and how we have dealt with it.

1:03:45 Last post around saying now – key messages that resonated? Post got a lot of responses. People seemed to like was thinking about saying no is thinking about saying yes. Saying no to one thing means you are being strategic about saying yes to the other things that are already on your plate or are more important. You can’t do it all. Doesn’t mean you are not a good person.

1:05: 40 Criteria for what to say yes to re mentorship – isn’t taking on more people now. Currently stretched, and referring people to the virtual mentorship through the blog. Advice from a coach previously was to consider yourself a free referral service, so she tries to find another link or mentor.

1:07:58 End

Related Links:

Kylie Ball - http://www.deakin.edu.au/about-deakin/people/kylie-ball

Happy Academic Blog – https://happyacademic.wordpress.com

Indago Academy - Inspiring Research Excellence. Kylie's newly launched  development consultancy business- https://www.indagoacademy.com

Blog post: “Let’s make kindness the next academic disruption” - https://happyacademic.wordpress.com/2017/12/06/lets-make-kindness-the-next-academic-disruption/#more-877  

Blog post: “the foolproof approach to saying no” - https://happyacademic.wordpress.com/2018/02/15/the-foolproof-approach-to-saying-no/