Letting go of my comfortable bioscience identity


It has been a while since posting, and this post has been brewing in the back of my mind for a while.

I have now entered the second year of my EdD at Anglia Ruskin University. I have passed two of four assessed papers, and have been lucky enough to have the first one published and the second one accepted for publication pending minor revisions. I’m still not quite sure how that happened.

I have now reached the stage where I have to “properly” start thinking about my research, the methodology and methods I plan to use, and offer some sort of justification for them. This is immensely daunting, and I am still on a very steep learning curve when it comes to social science research, paradigms, ontologies, axiologies and all the other “-ologies” associated with qualitative research. It is scary to think I am supposed to go into stage 2 at the end of September…

On the drive to work yesterday, and again today, I was mulling this position over. It is an odd realisation that I am experiencing feelings of accomplishment in my bioscience “day-job” while at the same time feel like a complete impostor when it comes to my EdD. Someone will soon find out I don’t know what I am talking about, right..? How do I reconcile these feelings, and how do I make sure they stay balanced?

I have been thinking about ways of conquering these feelings of inadequacy, and last night I woke up with a light-bulb moment: perhaps it is time to let go of the comfort-blanket offered by my professional identity as a bioscientist, and create a new blanket instead. I am supposed to transition to becoming this hybrid bioscience-education management practictioner-researcher with feet comfortably in two fields. There will probably always be tensions between the two identities, but they should be able to co-exist and each be called upon when required. Creating the new blanket is the process of doing the EdD, and the actual finished product will be the completion of this project in a few year time. I am ok with this.

This timeline also means it is ok to be insecure and uncomfortable for a while. I have been lucky enough that I have landed in a very supportive cohort of EdD students, and have met some great academic staff that are willing and able to advise where necessary. Last but not least, there is the brilliant Twitter EdD community for support. There are some excellent bloggers and tweeters out there doing EdDs who are struggling with similar issues to mine, and together we will get there! #EdD #ARUEdD to the rescue!

Upwards and onwards. Time to start writing about my research approach. Time to get my head around Grounded Theory. Time to keep up with #AcWriMo.

New paper

Today the second paper from my maths teaching and learning project got published:


It is a reflective methodology paper published in SAGE Research Methods Cases.

Some thoughts on reflective practice

Some new items on my reading list

I have been thinking a lot lately about reflective practice, and how reflection informs my practice as a lecturer and course manager. One of the reasons for this is that I recently survived a validation event for a new HE course I developed, wherein one of the modules focusses on evidence-based practice (EBP).

When I wrote the module a few months ago, I envisaged students not only learning about systematic reviews, meta-analysis and evidence-based veterinary medicine (EVBM), but also about critical reflection as a form of evidence. Although this might sound counter intuitive to many followers of the EBP/EBVM principles, I felt encouraged after reading up on autoethnography as a social science discipline. I came across a paper by Wall (2006) on learning about autoethnography, and followed this with papers by Lake (2015) on using autoethnograpgy as reflective practice and Hickson (2011) on learning to be reflective.

This led me to think about my own reflective practice. I hated it during my PgCert, as is was enforced and therefore did not result in genuine reflection. Enforced reflection is recognised by Lake (2014) as not being very useful, but the author goes on to explain that clinical teaching by GP trainers leads to reflection and is therefore an alternative route to authenticity. I am not a GP trainer, but I  am an HE lecturer, so I can’t help but draw parallels, and the more I ponder about my own practice, the more I find myself reflecting on it. Funny that…

Reflecting on my own practice will help me become a more authentic HE practitioner. The more I think about this, the more I want to take it to the next level. I was intrigued by a reflective paper by David (2006) on whether being a scientist-practictioner is possible. ALthough in a very different field, it struck a chord.  I’d like to give it a try, and I am actually looking forward to the process.


  • David, C. (2006) ‘Reflections on the research process as a trainee clinical psychologist: is it feasible to be a scientist–practitioner?’ Reflective Practice, 7(2) pp. 193–196.
  • Hickson, H. (2011) ‘Critical reflection: reflecting on learning to be reflective.’ Reflective Practice, 12(6) pp. 829–839.
  • Lake, J. (2014) ‘Clinical teaching can provide an alternative route to authenticity.’ BMJ, 348, May, p. g3050.
  • Lake, J. (2015) ‘Autoethnography and reflective practice: reconstructing the doctoral thesis experience.’ Reflective Practice, 16(5) pp. 677–687.
  • Wall, S. (2006) ‘An autoethnography on learning about autoethnography.’ International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 5(2) pp. 1–12.

Student entry profiles do not define their chance of success

During the Writtle College HE Open Day yesterday, one of the parents accompanying their daughter asked me why our UCAS Tariff for the new Integrated Master in Bioveterinary Science was so much lower than similar courses at other HEIs.

At the time, my answer was that  I don’t believe that the decisions young people make in their early education journey and/or circumstances in their life when they are 16-18 years old should define their chances of entering higher education and their chances of becoming a successful graduate.

When I got home later that day, I started thinking more about this, and suddenly I remembered a TED talk I was shown in one of the workshops I took for my PgCert in Higher Education Practice. The talk was by Angela Duckworth and describer her research into “grit”.

Grit, or in my words “sheer hard word and dedication”, is something that is really important in higher education, especially in the transition from secondary education. In her talk, Angela refers to work done on Mindset Theory by Carol Dweck, who has also given a TED talk on the subject:

I strongly identify with the idea of Growth Mindset in young people, especially when they just arrive at university. Some of my most successful students have come in with entry profiles which were not even close to being considered at various “elite” institutions and graduated with first class honours degrees, after which they obtained postgraduate studies places at the institutions where they were rejected a mere 3 years earlier. Similarly, I see students with stellar entry profiles who don’t make it through year 1, because for the first time in their education journey they are confronted with setbacks and they fail to deal with it.

I am of the opinion that, with hard work, dedication and an open mind (or in other words grit and a growth mindset), candidates with less than ideal entry profiles can become successful HE graduates. Perhaps not all of them graduate with a first class award, but a student who works as hard as they can, takes up all opportunities they are offered, and who is passionate about what they do and ends up achieving a 3rd class or 2:2 class award is a successful graduate in my book. Mainly because the grit and mindset they have shown during their higher education journey will serve them really well further on in their career. These students have a bright future…

I plan on showing this videos on grit and growth mindset to new first year students next academic year, in the hope that it inspires them to think about their future and how they are going to get there.

Procrastinators rejoice!

I’m reblogging this because today has been a day filled with procrastination, so it seemed appropriate.

Original blog by #Hull EdD

According to @BBCRadio4, if we procrastinate before starting a task, we’re 16% more likely to be creative. Academics everywhere rejoice. — Dr Joanne Paul (@Joanne_Paul_) March 7, 2016

Source: Procrastinators rejoice!

Reflecting on my professional development during PGCHEP

Since enrolling on the PgCert in Higher Education Practice (PGCHEP) at the University of Essex in 2010-2011 I feel that I have made significant progress in terms of my teaching ability and my knowledge and understanding of working in an academic institution. However, the journey has been a rather unconventional, if not odd one.

I started a full-time fully funded PhD as a graduate teaching assistant in September 2010, only to give that up in January 2012 after being offered a full-time lecturing position. For a while I tried to combine a full-time lectureship with a part-time PhD, but I quite quickly realised this was not feasible. The academic workload did not allow for sufficient time to be spent on my research, which meant I was not able to meet the deadlines for part-time PhD students. After giving up this project, it took me a while to find something else, but in 2013 I started a new research programme, with the idea of working towards a PhD by publication. Initially, this went very well: I managed to recruit undergraduate and postgraduate students on the programme and was successful in applying for various grants. However, in July 2014 I was asked to take on a course management role in return for a promotion to senior lecturer. I accepted the offer, and as a result have had to reduce the amount of time I spent on research. I simply did not have enough time in the lab to be developing research ideas into papers.

Simultaneously, my teaching role has undergone tremendous change in a short period of time too. As a GTA I started supporting and teaching practical sessions. I enjoyed doing this, so quite quickly I was given more responsibility and started lecturing undergraduate students. When I became a lecturer, I started in the middle of an academic year. I rather was dropped in at the deep end, which meant I did not have a lot of time to develop teaching material or prepare for lectures. This mean that initially, I taught my first semester using other colleagues’ material. This was a difficult process and in retrospect I am not sure the students really benefitted from those lectures. However, as time went on I found time to develop lectures further by making notes in my powerpoints at the end of a session with things I wanted to change. This meant that I could amend the lecture before it was due for the next cohort of students.

I also learned some useful tips and tricks at a two-day HEA seminar for new academic bioscience staff, and during various PGCHEP workshops. I developed my lectures, and in turn, I had much more engagement with my students at the start of the 2012-2013 academic year. I moved from “recycling” other peoples’ assessments to writing my own, and I become much more aware of constructive alignment theory from attending PGCHEP sessions and reading some good papers. My module feedback has generally been good, with students often commenting positively on how I organise modules. For example, I have the habit of routinely providing key papers on Moodle rather than relying on students to find them. I then support this by giving students the URLs of search strategies for certain topics, so that when they use the link it returns a useful collection of further papers. This means I can be sure my students know which papers I want them to read, and where to find further material. By doing this, I have agreed with students that the papers provided are discussed in the lectures, and in turn they become “fair game” for exam questions (especially at level 6). Students seem to appreciate this, and I have noticed that my level 6 students are happy to refer to key papers in context of newer findings in their exam answers.

My administrative roles have also evolved quickly over time. When I just started lecturing I became the year supervisor for first year students. This meant I was responsible for the academic (and to a degree pastoral) care for all first year students. I quite happily engaged with this and enjoyed the interaction. I strongly feel that investing time and energy in developing an academic relationship and engagement in the first year will benefit not only the students, but also me during year 2 and 3 of their case. It makes teaching more interesting and it becomes easier to get reliable feedback on my performance and the student experience.

Early on in my lectureship, I was asked to observe the Periodic Degree Scheme Review (PDSR) for the HE Professional Floristry scheme. I found it very challenging, as at the time I did not really know what I was doing. However, during the PDSR event I quickly learned the benefit of the process. This resulted in me volunteering to be on the Course Development Review (CDR) panel and the Course Validation panel for the then new BSc (Hons) Equine Behaviour programme, and I became a core member of the Veterinary Physiotherapy course development team. This meant I have had experience from both sides of the course (re)validation process, and I have had time to fully develop this. As a result, when I became course manager in 2014, I also became the coordinating author of the HE Animal scheme PDSR.

I found this a very challenging project for a number of reasons. Firstly, the HE Animal scheme is one of the largest in the College, and I was responsible for rationalising the scheme’s offer of 13 courses to 7. Secondly, it meant I had to coordinate and lead a team of very busy academics who have a varied level of engagement with course development, and who are at times rather adverse to change in both content and assessment methods because it affects their workload. Thirdly, I quickly realised that inventive course design and innovative assessment can easily be undone by institutional partnership politics which are out of my control. Especially this last reason has caused me to seriously doubt my interest in course development and course management and has even led to me applying for a job outside of academia.

So where does this leave me now? My research is not really going anywhere, I have an extremely busy teaching load and my interest and motivation for course management and course development have seriously been challenged. To start with, I have accepted that I have no interest in becoming a “research scientist”. Instead, I am comfortable with being a science (education) practitioner, which to me is distinctly different. Working at Writtle will always mean that research comes second to teaching, but this does not mean I can’t do research. I will have to be good at enabling students to do research, and mainly work on small industry-linked projects. In addition, my research interests have shifted from lab-based research to desk-based evidence-based animal health research. Finally, I have found that, through doing my maths support research project, I have developed a genuine interest in higher education practitioner research. As a result, I am in the process of applying for a place on the professional doctorate in education (EdD) programme at Anglia Ruskin University. My research area will be evidence-based decision making in course management, with the hope of making a difference to the College, as well as it’s students.

Teaching-wise, I still have a full teaching load. However, I have found that over time it becomes easier to update lectures, and preparation takes less time. I have had to write new modules, and have overhauled assessment strategies as part of the HE Animal PDSR. However, the new and updated modules now include a larger variety in assessment methods, and overassessment has been reduced. Finally I now regularly assist newer members of staff with queries regarding assessment and administrative duties. I found that, since becoming course manager, I am asked for advice more often, but I am now also responsible for problem-solving and overall course administration, which includes reflecting on course years in the Annual Review of Courses (ARC). Although I enjoy doing this and find it very useful, the fact that the ARC needs approval of the same person who frustrated me so much during the recent PDSR made this a challenging task.

Finally, I am happy to say I have not given up on course development. I have been tasked to write the new four-year integrated masters course in bioveterinary science. I agreed to do this since it is the very first Writtle-only award after the College obtained Taught Degree Awarding Powers, and I have been awarded 0.2 FTE remission from teaching duties for it. To date, my course outline plans have been approved by the College’s Senior Management Team and Academic Board, with colleagues I have successfully applied for a significant grant to support investment in resources for this course, and I am fully responsible for the development of the course. Because of my experience during the HE Animal PDSR, I am now more comfortable coordinating a team of academics, and in taking initiative and making course-level decisions when I feel it necessary. This has made the course development more enjoyable. I strongly feel I am writing a very innovative programme, with built in short courses and professional workshops, professional accreditation and benefits to students lasting long after their graduation. The fact that the Validation event for this course is not subject to partnership agreements has made me confident that there is no political bias and the course will be judged on its academic merit.

In summary, my main aims at the start of PGCHEP were to expand my teaching toolbox, to find more ways of varying my teaching style, move away from traditional lecture format and develop my research skills. I feel that I have come a long way in meeting these aims and have quite quickly gone beyond them and progressed to developing other areas of my career. Looking back at the initial reflective and planning exercises for this course I can firmly say that I am progressing well with meeting the short term and medium term goals, and have even made some great leaps in some of my long term goals. I am very happy with the opportunities that PGCHEP has afforded me in terms of opening the way to a more pedagogic way of thinking, as this has developed my career in many positive ways. I am looking forward to starting the EdD and the contribution it will make to my practice. Upwards and onwards!