“Crucible – A situation of severe trial, or in which different elements interact, leading to the creation of something new.”
Walking into a room with other research academics (either known to each other or complete strangers), one can never be sure if it’ll be a “severe trial” or a motivating and exciting experience “leading to the creation of something new”. In many situations it’s more a case of ‘and’ rather than ‘or’, with the typical academic social awkwardness (faces buried in phones) being mixed with work pressures (faces buried in phones) that make many of us go into our shells at the start of such events. When we are given time and support though, we can usually generate some exciting ideas.
So in April 2016, the Stirling Crucible kicked off with 19 research academics consisting of a mix of postdoctoral researchers, lecturers and senior lecturers. The key idea was for the Crucible to be a space for researchers from across the University to come together to talk, learn and share ideas.
What made this event different to most was the time investment required, with three two-day ‘labs’ spread over 3 months and it being residential, with people staying overnight at the venue and indulging in some organised evening entertainment [insert poor health behaviours here]. Each lab focused on a different topic hosted by three excellent facilitators: Saskia Walcott on impact; Sara Shinton on collaboration; and John Willshire on innovation and leadership.
While the details of what happens during the Crucible need to remain a closely guarded secret (what happens at the Crucible, stays at the Crucible – but check #StirlingCrucible for a few sneak peeks), I can reveal that it was a success, bringing together people from contrasting disciplines to begin thinking about how to collaborate and some people starting to initiate research ideas.
Research collaborations cannot be forced and it does not always work throwing people together in the hope that something sticks. However, the Crucible succeeded in setting up a safe, unhindered and honest environment for sharing ideas and letting people take the time and space to simply make friends first, before expecting anything concrete in terms of collaborations and the future research outputs and impact.
The pressures faced by many academics mean that having this kind of protected time to think and engage with other people, especially those from different disciplines, with no forced expectations, is severely limited and often not given the respect and support it deserves. This process has also been supported by a small research seed fund available to attendees of the Crucible to apply for money to support interdisciplinary pilot projects that can lead to further collaborations and more substantial grant applications. A little cash incentive always helps!
Since finishing the formal Crucible events, I have teamed up with colleagues in the Faculty of Health Sciences and Sport and Education Studies within the Faculty of Social Sciences to apply for funding to support a small research project. This project would use focus groups to look at the barriers and facilitators to career development and progression for women studying part-time for a research doctorate within the Faculty of Health Sciences & Sport. The money provided by the Crucible would help generate positive policy change within the University (largely through the Athena SWAN initiative), but then also lead to further funding applications to explore this topic across disciplines, as well as across institutional and national boundaries.
Amongst the 2016 Crucibilists, there are sure to be plenty of exciting projects to emerge that are hopefully just the start of several years of successful partnership. There may be some severe trials that the Crucibilists face in their careers going forward, but hopefully we’ll continue to be able to face these as colleagues and friends who support each other through these challenges.
© Tony Robertson, 1 July 2016
Tony Robertson is a Lecturer in Public Health in the Faculty of Health Sciences & Sport at the University of Stirling
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @tonyrobertson82