September 26, 2019, by Irena Hulova

Walking the Walk

It is striking that, for all the research projects, publications and impact statements, as researchers we still get anxious about involving people as advisors. Yet the relationships we form are so important for the success of any research project. These relationships need to be fostered pre-bid and sustained beyond the life of any study.

Of course it depends how you measure success. If your only concern is the REF and sadly this is true of many universities then this piece may not hold much value. Taking a broader view; why do we do research? It is a risky business; we accept rolling temporary contracts. We constantly write bids and accept filler jobs between periods of anticipation. We learn to accept the ebb and flow of research cycles and see our protégées rise. Lecturers wonder what on earth we do and administrative staff fear the extra resource demands. We wonder where all the time has gone, realise what a pile of shite our thesis really was and pinch ourselves at how we ever got this far, still have a marriage or even got published.

After competition of any project, the challenge is to ensure that the improvements or changes or discoveries are sustained and that every opportunity is explored to share the lessons learnt. This is why I’m sharing today the lessons learnt over the past 12 years about building relationships with people who wish to support you in research as advisors and supporters. I’m focused on those who do not take part in research as consenting participants. There is a distinct difference yet I still see researchers getting muddled by this. I’m taking about the people who give their time, enthusiasm and passion to becoming your critical friends. So my tip is to walk the walk. Literally.

The majority of my critical friends have rarely stepped onto university soil. Why? Well because they aren’t interested, a few are intimidated, there is no parking. They are more interested in showing me their localities, what matters to them and their backgrounds. We meet for walk and talk. Walking is enjoyable and lead to discussion, sharing and a sense of doing. It also connects people in ways which sitting at a desk does not. If your friends have dementia, are older and have companions like dogs then choose a meeting place and activity which fits with them. This makes sense. It shows mutual connection. It is also a great opportunity to share cake and tea in a local café.

It is also key to never go with a prescriptive agenda or think you are going to run the show. Your research survey may be the best validated model ever but if the group think it needs to be improved the odds are it does. Accept this. Collaborate, laugh and change. Work flexibly. Celebrate. Share activities.  Accept that sometimes your research is not important on that day. Be there for them. There may be something more inspiring to discuss. They may be upset by a letter about their dementia and want you to help them. Be there when they need you to explain or want an update about the study. And invite them to your achievements and share your skills. Bring along a student. It works both ways. We held a celebration day for all involved in a study which was a day of activities and enjoyment. It was an opportunity for new friendships to be forged and to enable people to discuss different aspects of research.

Always send a thank you card. And when they pass away a sympathy card to the family.

These are the things that matter most in research.

Blog by Frank*, Jo* and Fiona
Dr Fiona Marshall, Alzheimer’s Society Senior Research Fellow, Institute of Mental Health,
*Frank and Jo (pseudonyms) are Fiona’s critical friends

Scaling the Peaks study 2015-19


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