Adventuring at the Crucible

I attended the Digital Economy Crucible Leadership Programme in the summer of 2019. Truthfully, I was unsure about applying when I first came across the call for participation; I had attended a local leadership programme for early career researchers in the previous year and I had several looming deadlines at the end of the summer. However, peers had been very enthusiastic about the programme, so I decided to put in an application. I’m thankful that I did, because this turned out to be one of the best experiences of my academic career.

The Crucible skills session, hosted across the UK, consisted of three broad themes: Communicating your research, building and maintaining collaborations, and impact. The whole programme was thought-provoking and well-designed, but personally I found three activities to be particularly valuable.

Media training: I was interviewed by the BBC’s Leo Kellion about my research! This was a great opportunity to learn how to present what I do in an accessible and exciting way, and – despite the pressure – it was a very enjoyable experience. I heavily drew upon this training a few weeks later during a radio interview discussing cybersecurity tips for older people.

Engaging stakeholders: In this session with Vivienne Parry we practiced, in front of the whole group, how to communicate our research succinctly to potential stakeholders to maximise their engagement. This exercise, and Vivienne’s feedback, proved to be key in the following months for securing Letters of Support for my grant application.

The Dragon’s Den pitching session: Over the course of three weeks, we had to develop a fundable idea with peers, write the proposal (with the assistance of professional grant writers!), and pitch it to a panel of well-respected industry and academic experts. This session brought together all the previous skills that we developed in the programme, and aside from being enjoyable, it gave us invaluable real-world experience that few other early career researchers have.

So, what made the Crucible a step above all other training programmes that I have completed? We were essentially thrown in at the deep end with other like-minded – but diverse – early career researchers, and with some guidance from experienced mentors we practiced the key skills needed to succeed in academia. Our drive to improve ourselves and to complete the challenging activities made us a community. But crucially, we also had frank discussions about career planning and work-life balance that put many aspects of research and academia into perspective and will prove fruitful in the long run.

This explosive cocktail of activities, experiences, and discussions has improved my overall confidence as an academic. While I was comfortable developing research ideas, carrying out the work, and writing academic papers, I feel that this experience has assured me that I can communicate and sell my research to industry and funders. I also feel like I can effectively converse with non-academics about what I do, opening up many more possibilities for future collaborations and funding. Due to this new-found confidence I have since volunteered for media opportunities and have sought collaborations with organisations that would have intimidated previously.

There will be one final intake in 2020 for the Digital Economy Crucible Leadership Programme as we know it. I would encourage any early career researchers who are reading this to apply, regardless of any other training completed. The skills activities are extremely valuable for your development, but one aspect that is unlikely to be reproduced by other programmes is facilitating you to meet like-minded peers from other disciplines, well-known academics, people from industry, and people from the UK funding councils in one course. It would have normally taken me years to achieve what I have achieved in the Crucible in 6 days.