Middlesex 2022 ECR event: back to Cumberland Lodge

Reports on the July 2022 ECR event organised for Middlesex University. Links to the slides and other resources are included.

After three online writing bootcamps during the pandemic, we were all thrilled to be back at Cumberland Lodge, a place where we had such memorable Business School writing bootcamps before in January 2018, July 2018, and July 2019.

The research environment was perfect, the activities between mentors and mentees was efficient and the arrangements of the ECR event was timely and wonderful. It is the best research trip in my life so far! However, could it be possible a week time rather than one weekend :-)

This year the event was extra special as it was the first physical event run for the our new Faculty of Business & Law. We also had a much larger group of mentors and participants than before and focused not just on paper writing, but also on research plans, funding applications, online research profiles, and the importance of academic citizenship. If you are mainly interested in seeing lots of pictures, go directly to getting to know each other. For evidence of the effectiveness of these events see "Do these bootcamps deliver".

Wow! What an incredibly enriching event. I learnt a lot about the law and business department and my fellow colleagues. I learnt a lot about navigating academia which I have not been taught before but which all seemed absolutely crucial to succeeding in academia.

As we were such a big group, we had the Cumberland Lodge venue all to ourselves. Participants made full use of the lovely lounges, grounds, and cosy bar area. Our plenary sessions ran in the Flitcroft room (see picture below), but as the weather was perfect many had their mentor group meetings in the gardens (see informal interactions).

The opportunity for face-to-face meetings with mentees, in relaxed surroundings outside of the campus, is so valuable. It is possible to offer extensive written commentary on draft papers via email, and mentees are always grateful. Yet, the additional benefit of elaboration through discussion in such an environment lifts the experience beyond the transactional and into the transformative. Cumberland Lodge offers a liminal space in which ECRs may forge new networks, understandings and professional identities. A site of reflection, transformation and becoming. 

Note: many links in this post go to a separate folder on our Professional Development Gateway, which is only accessible to Middlesex academics. This also includes a pictures folder in which participants can upload their pictures of the event.

Opening and RKEI plans

The event was opened by with informal reflections by our new Dean Fatima Anab-Diab and Deputy Dean Research and Knowledge Exchange Stephen Syrett about the future of research support for the Faculty.

A heartfelt 'thankyou': for the financial support of those who provided the budget; the vision of those that designed the event; the passion of mentors who gave their time; and the grounded ambition of the attendees who engaged so freely with the opportunities available. 360-degree collegiality at its very, very best.

This was the first time that most academics were able to meet Fatima. We didn't have enough time for formal introductions. I therefore set myself the challenge to introduce everyone in the room by name and say a bit about their background, even though I had not met most academics in the Law School before. To my own surprise I succeeded ;-).

In the formal part of the programme, Stephen provided a brief introduction on Research, Knowledge Exchange and Impact (RKEI) plans (see picture above). Stephen's slides can be downloaded here.

The format of the event suited me very well, good balance of structured sessions with free writing time. Loved it!
I have been attending the CL events over the years and I believe this year the balance between paper polishing and funding knowledge has worked great.
The balance of talks, intensive writing, mentoring, discussing, interacting and socialising were all great. I really liked all aspects and cannot fault anything as too much or unnecessary. It was a well-planned and successful event.

Writing papers 1: Crafting a memorable, descriptive and easy-to-read title and abstract

On Saturday, we focused on paper writing. Prior to the boot-camp, all participants had been matched with an expert mentor who will work with them during the whole process - from paper submission to the final stage of the revise and resubmit process.

The most important aspects of the ECR event for me was improving my understanding of the route to publication for academic work.
The support received from the mentors is very tangible and helpful in amending the Abstract and Introduction.

They also received the slides which outlined a seven-step process on "how to avoid a desk-reject". The full presentation can be downloaded here. Participants also had access to seven pre-recorded videos that are freely accessible on my YouTube Channel. The seven-step process has also been written up as a blogpost series: How to avoid a desk-reject in seven steps [1/8].

  • Pick the right outlet for your paper. Participants had picked a target journal and were encourage to come prepared with three model articles from the journal, as well as the journal's author guidelines. For detailed advice on picking the right journal, see: Who do you want to talk to? Targeting journals [2/8]. The related video is embedded above.
  • Craft a memorable and descriptive title. We worked in groups of 3 or 4 facilitated by a mentor to improve our manuscript titles. More detailed advice is available here: Your title: the public face of your paper [3/8]. The bootcamp slides contain lots of examples of title transformations.
  • Ensure the abstract is easy to read and guides the editor to the “right” reviewers. Here academics worked groups, pairs or with their mentors to revise their abstracts. More detailed advice on writing a great abstract can be found here: Writing your abstract: not a last-minute activity [4/8].
I really enjoy the mentoring time when three of us (mentees) worked together on our paper title and abstract with our mentor (thanks Nico).
The mentoring element was by far the best part along with the workshops. I can't think of any improvements- just do the exact same thing in future!

Writing papers 2: First and last impressions count: Polishing your introduction and conclusion

The next two steps involved working on the introduction and conclusion sections of the paper. After a brief plenary session, academics worked on their own papers, with seniors providing them with targeted feedback. The related video on introductions is embedded below.

I liked working with the mentors on a specific project. The fact that the mentor reads my work in advance and has some thoughtful questions and suggestions are extremely helpful in progressing the paper. 
The second most useful element of the ECR was time with a mentor in one-on-one or small groups, to benefit directly from their experience in publication.

For detailed advice on ensuring your introduction is a mini-version of the paper, see the post: Your introduction: first impressions count! [5/8] which contains an extended example of an effective introduction. For advice on how to write an effective conclusion, see the post: Conclusions: last impressions count too! [6/8].

Writing papers 3: Referencing and the journal submission process

The last part of the bootcamp dealt with issues such as using references strategically to signal you are part of the journal's conversation, (see also the post What do you cite? Using references strategically [7/8]).

We also discussed the importance of writing a good letter to the editor, which is now expected in some disciplines. The letter helps the editor see the paper’s contribution and pick the right reviewers (see also Why do I need to write a letter to the editor? [8/8]). The related video is embeded below.

The most valuable part of the weekend, in my opinion, was being mentored directly on work I have in progress by top, senior academics. Next, I found the time to then work undisturbed on my paper really valuable. I progressed my paper more in the two days than in the preceding couple of months. 
The event was well structured and paced in a balanced way. As a mentor I had suffucient time with my mentees. The facilities were superb.

Research profiles

We also talked about the other things that you can do to improve the chances of getting your paper through the desk-reject phase. First, this requires polishing your paper through editing and proofreading.

However, it also involves getting your name known as someone who has something important to contribute to this field, as well as someone who is likely to do a good job if given the chance to revise and resubmit the paper. These resources might help you in this respect:

Funding applications

On Sunday morning Stephen Syrett shared his expert advice on successful funding applications (slides are here). His top-ten tips are as follows:

  1. Read the call carefully
  2. Identify and communicate your "big idea"
  3. Look through the eyes of the funder/evaluator
  4. Assemble the best team
  5. Set out what you are going to do and why
  6. Build impact into the design
  7. Ensure resourcing appropriate to project needs
  8. Plan bid preparation
  9. Keep going!
  10. Give it a go!

After the presentation a funding panel composed of Anastasia Christou, Erica Howard, Andrea Werner, and Tim Freeman (see above) provided valuable "behind the scenes" insights into how funding pannels work. 

I thought the focus on external funding was very useful. Conclusion all three of the bootcamps I have attended have been excellent, but this was the best!
In addition to clarity around general aspects around researching and preparing funding applications, there were quite specific discussions on writing that were helpful to apply to our work in progress.

Their notes are available here on our Professional Development Portal (Middlesex staff only). For guidance on how to get funding alerts for your research area, see Appendix 2 of the April 2022 Research Resources Bulletin (Middlesex staff only).

Academic citizenship

Anastasia Christou provided us with a lovely closing presentation (download slides here) that pulled the whole event together and emphasised the importance of academic citizenship. The articles that she referred to in her presentation provide both excellent reflections and practical tips. Copies are available here for Middlesex staff, but they can also be accessed open access by other academics.

You might also enjoy some of my own posts on the related topic of academic etiquette, which are collated here. The first one (Be proactive, resilient & realistic!) is particularly pertinent to Anastasia's message, which emphasised the importance of agency in crafting your academic career.

The opportunity to be around colleagues with similar career interests that however are in different levels of seniority. From ECRs to the more senior positions, I believe that everyone benefited from the interactions and managed to gain something out of it.

Although as ECR you might not always be able to influence your broader environment, everyone can play a role in creating positive "micro-climates". See also my blogposts: Changing academic culture: one email at a time... and Using LinkedIn recommendations to support others.

Getting to know each other

On Friday evening I faced the challenge of getting a group of mostly introverted academics, many of whom had not been networking face-to-face for over two years, getting to know each other. I could see several faces drop when I suggested they all had to go and talk to someone they didn't know yet.

I also found the networking aspect extremely valuable, both meeting and talking to other ECRs in and outside of my own discipline, as well as now feeling welcome to approach and obtain help and advice from senior academic researchers.
The opportunity to get to meet colleagues - many of whom I had either not met before or if so, only in passing, is very useful for network development and for getting a better feel for the School. The depth and the breadth of many of the conversations I had was inspiring.

But this hesitation only lasted for a few minutes. Soon everyone was involved in animated discussions and the sound levels in the room literally exploded. It was wonderful to see how participants - emboldened by their first conversation - purposefully started looking around the room to find another stranger to talk to. Here are some pictures of the entire room as well as duos and trios in full conversational flow.

Informal interactions: lunch

There was also plenty of time for informal interaction during the shared breakfasts, lunches and dinners. Lunches were served in the gorgeous gardens, with a croquet lawn set out for those wanting some activity.

Informal interactions: dinner

Dinner was served in the magnificent oak-panelled dining room with impressive paintings. The same room was used for breakfast, but I thought I'd better not take any pictures so early in the morning :-).

Informal interactions: walks and talks

On Saturday evening, whilst some participants continued to work on their papers, others had discussions till late at night or even 3am in the morning. Many went for an evening walk (or early morning run) to explore the beautiful Windsor Park surroundings (see pictures). More generally, the event was an excellent opportunity for all of us to get to know our colleagues a bit better. For many it was the first time they met their colleagues face-to-face as they had joined during the pandemic.

I was meeting everyone for the first time. By doing so, I was able to learn and understand other people's research to explore future collaborations. It was also an opportunity to mentor/field questions from other new ECRs.
It was great to interact with people outside of my department. Likewise, it was great to move away from the zoom call and interact with people in-person.
Another important element of the ECR event was to forge links with fellow researchers both within my department and across the faculty.
The most important aspect of the event was that it was inclusive and I could bring my partner and baby at no cost - without this I wouldn't be able to participate in the event. It felt important that the event was face to face and away from campus in a beautiful location with a lot of opportunity to get to know colleagues and take time for independent work.
The aspect that I enjoyed the most were the many opportunities to get to know colleagues in the faculty - either deepening connections or creating new ones. There are several shared interests in research but also in life - so this was a great opportunity to work on community building.


The "cow pond" was a big favourite for a refreshing morning, lunch, or evening walk and Kiruba (second from the left in the group picture above) took a great picture that could well be seen as metaphor for the event: mentors guiding their mentees.

Do these events deliver?

Some Research Deans and Vice Chancelors reading this post might wonder whether to invest in these activities in their own universities. For them, an important question might be: do they "deliver the goods"? Of course not every participant manages to get their papers published or funding applications submitted within a reasonable time-frame. That said, to date our six writing boot-camps have resulted in well over fifty papers that are either published or under revise & resubmit.

The exit survey for this event showed that the majority of the participants strongly agreed that their knowledge on various aspects of research and knowledge exchange had improved. They also feel more comfortable approaching their Faculty colleagues for support.

Participants also had clear plans to submit the papers and funding applications they had been working during the event on as can be seen in the graphs below. 

In our participants own words

The quotes below also show that our participants certainly seem to think these events are effective. However, what is crucial for the success of these events is that your institution has a collegial culture. Our Middlesex academics enjoyed each other's company and readily spent time on each other's papers and projects; this is unlikely to happen if your university's culture encourages cut-throat competition!

It is my second bootcamp and, as my previous attendance, I enjoyed knowing more about colleagues' work and the feeling of purpose and academic community that is fostered by such events.

I am the most motivated I’ve been in some time and that’s down to the mentoring and discussions from the weekend. My mindset has really shifted with respect to paper writing and funding and there were so many concrete takeaways and new connections.

I want to express my gratitude to you and other great research leaders for organising this amazing event where I personally received not only very good feedback, but also encouragement, motivation and attention from our work family which I needed at this stage. Thanks for caring about us...

The event provided a fantastic opportunity for me to receive feedback on my paper and funding project, get to know some senior academics as well as colleagues closer and learn about life saving tips in academia. The venue, accommodation, hospitality and the supportive attitude of senior academics and organisers were great.

It was also a very well timed event, I had not seen colleagues face-to-face in several years and was feeling disconnected from both my department and the university due to lack of meaningful contact. I was really evaluating my options. This weekend made up for this distance by enabling me to be in a positive and supportive environment where there was prolonged contact with colleagues which was not bogged down by administration or the stress of the term time. We had time and space to breath life back into our research aspirations.

And finally...

As one of my roles at the event was being the "official photographer", there are no pictures of me beyond the group picture opening this blogpost. Fortunately, Matthew Pauley realised this and took one of Yan Jiang and myself working on her response to the reviewers. Thanks for being so considerate Matthew!

Relevant books

Aug 2022:
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Nov 2022:
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Feb 2023:
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May 2023:
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