Everything is PAW-ssible (or so they should be)

Posted on: 16 October 2020 by Dr Joan Chang (Length: 884 words - Read time: 4 minutes, 25 seconds) in Blog posts

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Dr Joan Chang talks about her experience in organising the first UK and Republic of Ireland-wide National Postdoc Appreciation Week events.

PAW logo

The UK PAW logo – we decided to have a play of words on “PAW” and show people embracing a heart that resembles a paw print.

First off, sorry (but not really) for the pun in the title!

In case you’re not aware, PAW stands for Postdoc Appreciation Week, a movement started in North America. The reason why I’m here is to share my experience in organising the first UK and Republic of Ireland-wide National Postdoc Appreciation Week events (NPAW, Twitter/Instagram @UK_NPAW, watch-on-demand videos). In hindsight, we probably should’ve kept the word “National” out of all titles, as ROI is not part of the UK; however, hindsight is always 20/20, and in a way it highlights the often messy (but unseen) process of putting something really worthwhile together.

It all started with lockdown. I was the lead in organising the PAW event at University of Manchester, and the sudden financial freeze at UoM highlighted a unforeseen issue: everywhere, events that are designed for Postdocs and researchers (be it well-being or careers) may have been cancelled due to funding issues. Not good. However, on the flip side, as everything moved online, this presented a unique opportunity for British and Irish universities to come together, pool resources, and create an online event with celebrated speakers to appreciate postdocs. Additionally, not all universities have picked up the PAW initiative (e.g. UoM only started last year), so why not give everyone, regardless of where they work, a chance to feel appreciated? Thus, the NPAW initiative was created.

Finding people to support and help organising is the first step. I asked the Researcher Development team at UoM to send out an email to their networks of researcher developers, including the N8 Partnership, and the responses were incredibly positive.

Tip #1: utilise your network. Organising the first Zoom meeting was daunting - there were more than 30 people whom I’ve never met from over 15 institutions, and I needed to take charge and avoid a “failure to launch” scenario.

Tip #2: create an agenda. To help avoid your meeting derailing. I found “I’m aware of the time, so I’m keen to move onto the next topic” is a good way to keep on track. The use of surveys to collect more information on diverse views also helps limit lengthy discussions. It is important that people feel that their opinions are heard and valued, which brings me to

Tip #3: communication. Communicate honestly, openly, and make it personable. It might take a lot of extra time to respond that way, but it is crucial to your group working synergistically.

It quickly became clear that resources were scarce across the board regardless of institution due to financial uncertainties, so we needed to find sponsorship for the event. I decided to go with the big funders for research within the UK, namely Wellcome and UKRI, as the nature of this event fits in with the remit of the new Research Culture and Concordat. Again, network is important here – I have one contact within Wellcome, and one of the volunteers knows a contact for MRC.

Tip #4: you don’t necessarily need the “correct” contact. Often people you have contacted are willing to help - if they’re not the right person, they will offer to pass on your enquiries to the correct person. And here comes;

Tip #5: always ask. Politely, of course. My motto is always “What you don’t ask, you don’t get”. What’s the worst that could happen? The answer “no” – no more, no less. “No” is just a phrase, it is not an assault on you as a person, it is not a reflection on your capabilities. You can negotiate, but it all starts with asking. This is how we ended up with over £5500 in sponsorship and technical support.

Tip #6: delegate. When you ask for volunteers for a specific task, it’s ok to wait for a few seconds (if you’re in a meeting) or a few days (if you’re on email) for people to consider and respond. Then step back, and let people who were delegated the tasks take control. Don’t micro-manage. You are not superhuman, you won’t (and let’s face it, shouldn’t!) be able to do everything. Let others who share your passion and vision help, so that they feel they’re part of a team, instead of just a dogsbody. 

I am aware that this is getting to be quite long. Ultimately, the most important tip of all is to find a strong cause that you truly believe in. It’s the same with conducting a research project, or just in general life – once you found your purpose, it’s much easier to focus and move in that direction. There will be setbacks, don’t feel defeated, it’s all part of the process and you will always learn something from them. There will also be people who disagrees with you – don’t dismiss them, as their opinions are valid and useful; listen and communicate so that you can reach a mutual understanding, even if it’s to agree to disagree, and move on. Don’t forget that today’s adversaries may be tomorrow’s advocates. However, along the way you will find allies that will lift you up more than you can imagine. Make sure you acknowledge them, credit their efforts, and appreciate them on a more personal level – it takes a team to make something big/important work, it’s never just one single person.

PAW team screenshot

A fun screenshot of a zoom meeting when we had double-Sara (one of the volunteers)!

Editors note – Wonderful tips included in this blog, NPAW2020 was a great event and we too here at Liverpool run a week of local events (opened nationally) that generated a rich bank of resources. Revisit or catch up here.

About the author

Joan studied Biochemistry at Imperial College London, and received her PhD from the Institute of Cancer Research in 2013. She has travelled the world in the name of science (Denmark, Sweden, USA, Hong Kong), and arrived back in the UK to study the nitty-gritty of matrix (read: collagen) control by cells. She is currently a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the University of Manchester, and is a Mass Spectrometry aficionado. She is also a Postdoc Representative – she believes in changing the traditional views on “academia”, broadening career horizons for Postdocs, and promoting wellbeing for scientists in general.


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