Middlesex university staff development: Boot-camp #8

Reports on the July 2023 retreat that I organised for Middlesex University. Includes links to a large variety of public resources on academic careers

The most important aspect of the event for me was the time it accorded me to work on my article without any interruptions. No emails, no students, no domestic demands. It is so unusual for any of us to have time to devote to writing, just writing, that it feels like the very height of luxury.
Add in the fact that the University's top research leaders are available pretty much 24/7 during the bootcamp, should you get stuck with your work, and this becomes the research highlight of my academic year. I really don't have superlatives enough for this event and how much it means to me.

Table of contents

This is a very long blogpost with lots of pictures. I hope you will enjoy perusing all of it. However, you are also welcome to dip in and out individual sections that are of interest to you. The links below will help you to do this.

New flexible approach

Support resources

Mentor support

Arrivals & introductions

Plenary sessions

Academic well-being

Doctoral supervision

Meal times

Working anywhere

Do these boot-camps deliver?

New flexible approach well-received

Our July 2023 event was our 8th boot-camp. We were thrilled to be back at Cumberland Lodge (see picture below, courtesy of Mariette Jones), a place where we had such memorable events in January 2018, July 2018, July 2019 and July 2022. Although our three online bootcamps during the pandemic were productive, there is nothing like face-to-face meetings to re-invigorate both research and research culture.

In previous years, our boot-camps focused mostly on article writing. We followed a fairly structured format, with sessions on journals as communities, crafting memorable, descriptive and easy-to-read titles and abstracts, creating polished introductions and conclusions, using references strategically and writing a letter to the editor. If you are interested in running your own event along these lines, you can still find this format described in detail in the July 2022 event post.

This year, however, the key theme of our bootcamp was flexibility, embedded within a supportive framework including both resources (see next section) and on-site mentors. With free copies of my four books in the Crafting your career in academia series and online support available any time on my YouTube channel and our Faculty Professional Development Gateway, we decided to make the most of our time at Cumberland Lodge and give participants as much time as possible to engage in actual writing in a peaceful and inspiring environment. This shift seems to have been appreciated by all.

The shift towards a more writing focused event, moving away from mandatory training sessions to optional ones, was great. While I could focus on my writing and research, I was still able to gain professional value from those sessions that aligned with my interests and experience. This allowed all of us to engage with the information and training provided without sacrificing all of the mental energy which is required to create articles.
I enjoyed the whole setting. Anything more formal would have not worked well for me. I enjoyed the socialising aspects and getting the chance to know colleagues and speak to them casually about everything, including research.
The three-day bootcamp is amazingly well-organized, striking the perfect balance between structure and freedom for academic creativity to thrive.
I particularly welcomed the more open planning of the event, in which participants were free to draw on those elements which they needed most, and to use time to work on their own as required.
The flexibility of the event worked well, and it was a really productive weekend for me. I work best in 90 minute 'bursts', but also need some time to settle down and emerge before and after this, and so the big chunks of time to sit down and write worked really well for me.
I particularly enjoyed the flexible approach adopted this year as we had more time to focus on writing and researching. I managed to work on my promotion application and to revise my manuscript for publication.
I think a flexible, lightly structured, approach which allows staff to form connections and develop ideas in such supportive surroundings is definitely the way forward.

However, this flexibility also meant that it was harder to get everyone together in the same place at the same time. So in addition to the group picture above, below is a smaller group who weren't able to be in the other picture, joined by Sally and Robyn to make up a nicely sized group. Unfortunately, we are missing Nico, Karen, and Chandana in the group pictures as they were only able to join us for part of the event, but you can spot them in some of the other pictures in this post.

Resources available to anyone at any time

During the pandemic years, I recorded the boot-camp presentations (see this YouTube playlist). The slides for the bootcamp were also converted into my blogpost series How to avoid a desk-reject in seven steps in 2020 and my Publishing in academic journals book in 2022.

Other resources on topics such as research funding, research impact, promotion applications, and social media profiles are now also available online and/or in book format (see relevant books below). A summary of these resources distributed during the boot-camp is here. Note that any links to our Middlesex Professional Development Gateway are only accessible for Middlesex academics. Here is a summary of the publicly available resources:

I have to give kudos to Anne-wil for the fantastic online resources provided; they have truly taken the experience to the next level. I feel incredibly lucky and privileged to have spent such a productive weekend at the camp.

Relevant books

Aug 2022:

Nov 2022:

Feb 2023:

May 2023:

August 2023:


Dedicated mentor support

As always we had ensured that dedicated mentor support was available for every paper and funding project. Our mentors Anastasia Christou, Karen Duke, Tim Freeman, Paul Gooderham, Erica Howard, Robyn Owen, Nico Pizzolato, and Stephen Syrett all invested significant time in providing tailored feedback. Thank you all for your dedication!

What I really liked was to be able to have open informal conversations with many different colleagues in a short amount of time. Getting immediate feedback on my writing was also extremely valuable.
I had very constructive and helpful conservations with Tim. I needed to speak to someone about funding application and how an application can be put together. Tim gave me lots of tips and made really very good suggestions.
The networking aspect was also really important, thanks to Stephen's suggestion I spoke with Bastien about a funding application that I would not have been able to progress with without him (and would not have thought to approach him about otherwise). Because we were all in the same place at the same time the idea progressed really quickly and we're now in a good position to work on an exciting proposal. [Siân Stephens]
My mentor was very approachable and helpful in providing feedback and tips to improve my research paper before submission.

The presence of nine mentors with a variety of skill-sets also allowed plenty of opportunities to have one-on-one discussions with mentors about any of the above topics throughout the event. Many participants used this opportunity to the full. 

Working with senior members of the staff, notably the professorial level in law, I was able to get a much clearer understanding of the promotion process and the gaps or subjective issues which must be addressed throughout. The time that was taken to both prepare, edit, and critically discuss the promotion process was invaluable and something which was opaque or absent in the HR guidance on the topic.
It gives opportunities to talk to experienced colleagues and school research leaders on any relevant topic/issue.
Cumberland Lodge is a haven in a busy world - a liminal space in which colleagues may focus their attentions on their research and draw on the experience, guidance and advice of others in developing their research career.

Arrivals and introductions

We had asked participants to arrive early so that they could make full use of the lovely grounds before our first session. Here is group doing exactly that!

As a first time attendee, I found the venue and grounds impressive and inspiring. The rooms were lovely, the staff were friendly and the food was tasty. My dietary requirements (vegan) were very well met! I would certainly attend again. Congratulations to the organisers and mentors!

As last year we were in lovely big Flitcroft conference room with plenty of space to spread out. Before our Friday dinner, I introduced the structure of the event (see picture) after which I asked participants to go and find two people they didn't know yet to talk to.

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 part of the room as well as duos, trios and quartets in full conversational flow. I am struck by how many of us use our hand when talking!

Plenary sessions

Our new flexible approach meant that plenary sessions were limited, but we still included two plenary presentations. This allowed us to benefit from specialised knowledge of two mid-career academics: Athina Dilmperi and Nico Pizzolato on academic well-being and doctoral supervision respectively. This mix was very well-received.

All of the plenary sessions were instructive, thought provoking and positive contributions. Thank you.
The number of plenary sessions was perfect and on topics relevant to everyone.
It would be great to integrate similar interactive components that affect both staff and students across early, mid and senior career colleagues. The one integrated last year on academic citizenship and the ones this year on well-being and doctoral supervision are definitely such useful options across the board.

What suprised and delighted me, however, is that this inclusion of presentations by mid-career academics appeared to unleash considerable creativity with other participants. Some offered very concrete and positive suggestions about things we could do to make the boot-camp even more interesting, enjoyable, and productive next year. Others volunteered to offer opt-in lightning talks about specific topics that were as interesting as they were varied. This quote by one of our mentors captures the importance of this co-creation spirit well.

I had many very good conversations with individual colleagues as well as groups of colleagues and as the bootcamp developed I felt that I was participating in culture building/development around a set of values that I (as a Nordic!) prefer and that I believe confers long-term competitive advantage for our type of institution: being inclusive, supportive, non-hierarchical and ambitious at the individual and collective levels. I came away feeling more strongly than ever that we are pretty good bunch of people. For me this was invaluable. [Paul Gooderham]

Academic well-being

After another difficult academic year, we decided that the event should have a focus on well-being in an academic context. We were very fortunate to have in our midst a colleague - Athina Dilmperi - whose favourite pastime readings are in neurobiology and philosophy of mind. She is also leading a research cluster on Consumer research for well-being.

Simply having this event after a long, draining academic year with many challenges is an invaluable opportunity for restorative socialisation, collegial collaboration and interactive learning. So everything was great and thank you once again for the hard work in organising this for us.

Physical well-being

Athina gave an excellent presentation on the research underlying the various aspects of well-being, with a focus on physical well-being. The slides can be downloaded here and also available on our Professional Development Gateway.

I think we were all impressed with the time and care taking to address staff well-being!
Top notch all around. I have to mention my appreciation of the inclusion of well-being - I think it is of utmost importance and the presentation on it and implementation of well-being sessions were very interesting and valuable.
The well-being focus of the event was hugely helpful. Its not the kind of thing I would usually seek out (and suspect I stated it was 'unimportant' on the pre-attendance survey) but it really stuck with me.

However, this was not a purely theoretical exercise. Athina had lots of practical tips including a 6-step "protocol" to take care of our physical well-being. We implemented part of this during the boot-camp with early morning walks and after dinner strolls, a focus on good sleep, as as well as guidance for breathing exercises and meditation.

Athina and I were pleasantly surprised with how well the presentation was received. We were a bit concerned that some colleagues might find it too personal a topic. However, we needn't have worried. Many colleagues told Athina that they loved the presentation, that it had the right tone and all the necessary information without being overwhelming. Below you can find Athina in full flow speaking to an attentive audience.

We were even more surprised about how many colleagues where trying the various suggestions we gave them. A few people came to talk to Athina privately and asked questions, while others initiated conversations during our social evening gatherings. A lot of jokes were made referring to some of the suggestions like leaving meetings if they last more than 90 minutes. Colleagues also baptised Athina the “well-being police”, which we thought was hilarious. Nevertheless, they were following all the suggestions made, for example going to bed by 23:00.

One suggestion that gained very widespread acceptance was the evening walk. Suggesting this as one of the well-being activities at the "plenary" first evening opening seemed to have created a natural incentive for everyone to join in. The first evening nearly everyone joined for a walk to the cow-pond, an easy 30 minute stroll in a stunning environment.

This also meant that after the first evening everyone knew where the pond was. So a "walk around the cow-pond" became a standard walk-and-talk meeting for many. It was also a favourite option for "time alone to replenish the battery" for our many introverted colleagues. With plenty of benches around the pond for longer discussions and reflections, I am sure loads of great collaborations and creative solutions originated around this pond.

It is difficult to think of what could make this excellent event even better. The walk to and from the Cow Pond seems to be very useful and used by many of us as a mode of reflective discussion. I, for example, found talking to my mentor while we took a walk very useful. Also, the focus on physical activity being part and parcel of well-being, which in its turn is such an important part of productivity, was very welcome.

Unfortunately, I haven't managed to get any pictures of the cow-pond this year, so here is a particularly nice one of last year's event. 

Resources for mental well-being

Athina’s presentation and the activities during the Cumberland Lodge event focused on physical well-being and brain optimisation, which are aspects of well-being that we tend to have more individual control over. Below I reproduce a list of blogposts about mental well-being in an academic context that may be helpful.

Research evidence on knowledge workers' energy management

I also found this article about energy management at work very helpful as it links physical and mental well-being. It appears my colleagues agreed. I circulated it before the boot-camp as a resource and I have never received so many responses to a resources email. The article first discusses five forces draining human energy at work that all academics will recognise. The two key tables of the article on energy management are reproduced below. 

It then reports on a study of ways to recover energy at work (measured as vitality and lack of fatigue), rather than recovery during non-work times. Frequently used strategies such as checking email, drinking coffee or surfing the web do not appear to lead to recovery. Instead, strategies related to learning, meaning at work, and positive relationships with colleagues create energy. Interestingly, these are exactly the things we focused on at the boot-camp.

What I found particularly interesting is that venting about a problem to a colleague is a strategy that has a strong negative impact on energy at work. This certainly rings true to me. Although it can be good to "let it all out" occasionally, regular venting sessions only leave one more pessimistic and fatalistic. I found this email response by a colleague particularly illuminative. That is #Positive Academia for you.

I've noticed that, when I'm annoyed at everyone and everything, doing something nice for someone else is a good re-set. I don't apply this at work very much, but I shall start.

Doctoral supervision

This year we had limited the time spent on plenary sessions. However, we also wanted to accommodate the preferences of those who enjoy presentations and interaction with a big group. So in addition to the presentation on well-being, we included a session on doctoral supervision. Nico Pizzolato, our brandnew university-wide Chair of postgraduate research, took us on a "participative journey into the doctoral supervisory relationship".

The multi-disciplinary review of the PhD supervision process was useful, especially as someone that has taken on supervisor duties. Having both a mix of backgrounds and experiences was beneficial.
I really enjoyed my second time as mentor for the CL bootcamp and found the doctoral supervision interactive session very useful.

Nico's characterisation of the supervisory relationship as one of the most signficant relationships in life after marriage generated both laughter and recognition. His first slide about different ways to interpret this relationship generated so much discussion that we ran out of time for the rest of the presentation. I highly recommend you to download Nico's slides here. They contain lots of useful tips and reflections.


Every day we had breakfast, lunch, and dinner together. The food provided was lovely and included good vegetarian and vegan options. As it was table service we could all sit down, relax and focus on conversation. As such, the meals provided us with another 3.5 hours a day to get to know more about our colleagues research passions and unique skills. It also provided participants with a chance to talk to mentors informally.

In addition, we discovered plenty of common out-of-work interests and shared tips about nice things to do in the London area. Middlesex's inclusive approach also meant that parents with young children, single parents, and those with traveling partners could bring their kids. This was much appreciated and added to the informal atmosphere.

Mostly I liked spending some time with colleagues, the common meals and informal chats. I also appreciated that I was able to bring my toddler and partner because even if I wasn't as productive as if I came alone, I was more productive than if I hadn't come!

Working and roaming anywhere

Cumberland Lodge is located in extensive grounds in Windsor park. It also has a wonderful sitting room, drawing room, and tapestry hall (see pictures) that can all be used by guests who like a bit of peace and quiet. Unfortunately, the beautiful library was out of bounds. However, we still have pleasant memories of our first boot-camp there, at which our much smaller group size meant we could hold our event there.

The gardens

Many liked working in the gardens which had convenient pick-nick benches, as well as bigger tables for group meetings. The combination of perfect weather, not too hot, not too cold and beautiful views was very conducive to deep concentration.

Also the flexibility in where to work was great, as I enjoyed working out doors. Despite some light rain, I worked in the garden for the entire duration of the retreat. The grounds are serene and inspiring and I would highly recommend it!
The peace and quiet of the Cumberland Lodge is uniquely conducive to deep reflection and creativity. Yes, you can and should be able to write anywhere. But some places are much more suited to the activity than others, and this place is second to none.
This was my first bootcamp/writing retreat. I like the word 'retreat', rather than 'bootcamp' because the setting was spectacular and it was a dedicated space away from our daily academic pressures to focus on achieving our own goals and ambitions relating to our own careers.

Kasia Narkowicz sent me these wonderful pictures of what working in the garden was like. The left one shows her workspace, the right one the views to the left of it.


"Working" in the bar

Tea and coffee breaks took place in the bar. Unlike the rather rowdy group of lawyers (with flashy cars!) that we shared the weekend with, we did stick to tea/coffee and water. However, the comfortable couches in the bar were a favourite for relaxed discussions and a quick email check.

The boot-camp approach to writing is very useful and, in combining it with an escape from the office, it allowed for us to avoid the pitfalls of the office and fall into bad patterns (such as checking emails or working on admin projects). This setting was conducive to creativity, productivity, and a reduction in many of the stresses imposed upon staff by other demands on our time.

On the way...

As our meetings and meals were in different places, we walked up and down quite a bit, which was good for both our physical and mental well-being. The pictures also show how beautiful the Cumberland Lodge grounds are this time of the year.

Do these boot-camps deliver?

Some Research Deans and Pro 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"? Every year I run a feedback survey, which allowed me to write up analyses like this one last year. It also provided the source for the quotes in this blogpost.

This year, I again asked staff whether their knowledge on a range of topics (well-being, writing, funding, impact, promotions, social media) had increased as a result of this event. Invariably "strongly agree" was the most common answer, with nearly all of the remaining answers being "agree". Staff also strongly agreed that they had made good progress on their writing project (68%) and that their comfort in approaching colleagues had increased (63%). Virtually all of the others responded "agree".

In my presentations about our work at Middlesex, I have also argued the case for investment in staff development more generally based on hard metrics (see How to convince your institution?). Increasingly though I think this is the wrong approach. As researchers we all know that it can be hard to unambiguously link cause and effect, especially with quantitative data. However, qualitative data suggest that my role in staff development more generally has certainly led to a boost in staff morale (see slide below).

Ultimately, I consider this effect to be even be more important than the "hard metrics". Universities are only as good as the aggregate of their academics and better staff morale increases the likelihood of staff retention. A good staff development programme can also make it easier to recruit staff, especially for post-92 universities.

It is my firm conviction that the UK is heading for a recruitment and retention crisis, especially in Business Schools. If they want to survive, universities need to change their perspective on all aspects of Human Resource Management and put talent management centre stage. Staff development can play a major role in this.

This was is also evidenced again in some of the feedback by our boot-camp participants. Interestingly, mentors have found the event as inspiring as participants.

I had many very good conversations with individual colleagues as well as groups of colleagues and as the bootcamp developed I felt that I was participating in culture building/development around a set of values that I (as a Nordic!) prefer and that I believe confers long-term competitive advantage for our type of institution: being inclusive, supportive, non-hierarchical and ambitious at the individual and collective levels. I came away feeling more strongly than ever that we are pretty good bunch of people. For me this was invaluable.
The opportunity and time to engage with colleagues from other departments, and to build networks and relationships across departmental lines, is often overlooked as a site of both learning and potential production by the University.
Having the time to focus exclusively on my own research, to spend time writing and expanding upon previous work, is critical to all researchers. The separation from administrative requirements and students, and to be shown actual support by the Faculty in the preparation of publication material was gratifying.
I was there as a mentor, but also benefitted enormously from meeting new colleagues and having discussions about common areas of work and possible synergies. This is a very special event in our academic calendar - not to be missed! As always, I'm very grateful to Anne-Wil! [Karen Duke]
It's so important to know colleagues well before we can approach them for collaborations in papers and funding applications. Socialising is an important part of doing research as you get to know about others' views and how they work.
Simply having this event after a long, draining academic year with many challenges is an invaluable opportunity for restorative socialisation, collegial collaboration and interactive learning. So everything was great and thank you once again for the hard work in organising this for us.

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A story about perseverance and publication failures