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"The best training programme I have ever participated in"

Friday, March 23, 2018

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Dr Lucy Wallace

Walker Knowledge Management Strategic Lead | CSAT Programme Coordinator

My experience as a communications professional means that I automatically tailor information to the individuals or organisations I am talking to, and although this sounds straightforward, in fact it means that you have to employ a range of techniques depending on the need and understanding of the people you are working with. Training researchers to do this, in the complex networks which exist around climate services, is a fairly large undertaking.

You get a PhD, you are a specialist, you know things! So, why do you need extra training? There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach, and it’s about helping researchers to better understand who they are working with, what their drivers are, and therefore how to best work with them. Ultimately, it involves a shift in the way you think, and then applying this to your practice. When you do a PhD (or indeed at any stage in your research career), you naturally focus your thinking in a very defined, niche area – traditionally, it’s often a very isolating experience, and breaking out of that mindset to work in more interdisciplinary ways across sectors is not often ‘encouraged’. In the real world however, in order to solve real problems, we need to look at things through a different lens – the potential impact of research from the small world you have immersed yourself in is much less than if you work more collaboratively with others. For instance, looking at what the actual issues are from different perspectives and designing your research questions accordingly helps you ensure that the knowledge you are creating can be leveraged: it is the right information, in the right format, at the right time, going to the right people. Just regurgitating a load of data to someone who doesn’t know what the data means or how to use it, will have about the same impact (if not less) than providing nothing at all.

So, that was the thinking behind a new training programme we recently designed and ran at Walker known as CSAT (Climate Services Academy and Training) – how do we train researchers at an early stage in their career to better synthesise evidence? How do we bridge the gap between academic research and real life?

The answer is giving people the opportunity to have their own lightbulb moment: by experiencing these things themselves… by immersing themselves in a situation where they see the issues their research is trying to address first hand… where they experience the networks of individuals and organisations working in and around those issues… where they have to communicate better. We designed CSAT to do exactly this: to give PhD students some intense training equipping them with a wide range of new skills, then giving them a number of real-life scenarios to investigate in the classroom, and finally getting them in the field to experience these ‘scenarios’ in real-life.

We ran the first CSAT at the start of the year, funded by NERC, and with a full complement of eight PhD students. They have now returned from placements in Ghana, Malawi, Senegal and Uganda, and all of them had very different but valuable experiences, which goes to show that there isn’t an exact formula for this. All students reported they would recommend it and they thought it was a worthwhile use of their time (and time is very precious when you are doing a PhD!). I like to think that they have all have come back changed in some way, and they will use what they have learnt to influence their practice in the future. Time will tell, however one of the students ‘synthesised’ their experience into one sentence, which I think gives us a good indication:

“Honestly, I think this is the best training programme I have ever participated in – it so directly answered so many of the questions I’ve been considering myself on the pathway to impact of scientific research.”

You can’t say much better than that! I’m certainly looking forward to the next CSAT, so watch this space…