What I learned from and about the sandpit experience
Without doubt, the sandpit was, as my Head of Department put it, “a valuable learning opportunity”. If I ever have the opportunity to attend another sandpit, as I hope I will, then I would approach it differently.
The basic principle of a sandpit is that a diverse group of people is mixed and stirred in the hope that something rich, wonderful and innovative will emerge. In the EMOTiCON sandpit there were researchers from Psychology, Philosophy, Computer Science, Sociology, Neuroscience, Education, Linguistics, Marketing, Drama, International Relations… and more. This is a range of disciplines which would rarely talk to each other and our perspectives on research and our approaches to research are very different. This means exposure to new and exciting ways of working but also requires flexibility and receptivity As one member of the group said, “When I came here, I thought that there was only one way to measure empathy. Now I realise that there are many ways to do it.” In addition, in the second stage, projects and groups change rapidly. The landscape of phase two has underwater volcanos so that with each feedback round new islands emerge, other islands sink and some simply change shape. Whilst this is exciting it can also be unsettling and disorientating, especially as it involves the formation of new alliances and may evoke memories of the school playground: of choosing and being chosen.
The support provided by the mentors and facilitators was extraordinary. Naturally, all of them understood the sandpit well and knew that the intensity of the process may create an emotional pressure cooker. On this sandpit there were no real emotional explosions but I would not be surprised if sandpits occasionally contain some pretty uncomfortable conflict. The mentors can provide listening, advice and, if needed, mediation. I was extremely impressed by the skill of both mentors and facilitators and also by their commitment to the process and the extent to which they cared about participants.
I was surprised that there was no notepaper. I had assumed that because the event was at a conference centre, notepads would be provided. Instead we had flipcharts and post-its. In fact, I did feel the need for notepaper for working through ideas but the rationale for flipcharts and post-its (I think) is so that all thinking and ideas are in the group; everything is posted where it can contribute to the definition of ‘the problem’ and development of the research questions. I would still take notepaper next time though (and my own coloured gel pens because I am sure that they help me to think).
What I would definitely do differently, if there is a next time, is make more use of ‘buddy presentations’ and ‘sandbox’ slots. We were allocated ‘buddy pairs’ before the event with the instruction to connect and find out about each other so that we could introduce each other to the group. There were also a couple of questions to discuss. My buddy and I did our presentation early in the week and I think that we (well, I) could have used this more strategically. ‘Sandboxes’ are strictly-timed two-minute slots where you can present individual ideas to the group. Both ‘buddy presentations’ and ‘sandboxes’ provide opportunities to communicate who you are and where you come from in terms of skills, expertise, experience and philosophy and it is important to take advantage of this. Fairly late in the process one of the mentors said to me “You know, I’m still not really sure what it is that you do” and this was because I had not really stated it clearly enough to the group.
Some of my colleagues have asked if people took project ideas to the sandpit and my feeling is that this probably did not happen. However, people clearly did take ideas about the sort of methodologies that they might contribute and the areas of literature that were familiar. This, again, is about being clear about who you are (academically) and what you can offer to a project team. Several people were on more than one project team so whilst two thirds of the participants were not successful with regard to funding, others were on more than one successful bid. However, of four successful principal investigators (PIs) two belonged only to their own project team (by Thursday evening). The other two seemed to have concentrated more intensely on their own proposals than on the other teams to which they belonged. It seems that focussing on a single project will maximise the chance of being a PI but keeping options open will maximise the chance of getting some funding.
The multiple rounds of project pitches lead to a lot of detailed and constructive feedback from the panel. I suspect that there were variations in the extent to which feedback was acknowledged and implemented. The panel members, both funders and mentors were always available and always willing to talk. This, alongside the speed of the process, is one of the great differences between a sandpit and normal research bid development. Normally, feedback comes at the end of the process and there is very little opportunity to respond. In the sandpit there is not only the opportunity to revise the proposal in response to feedback but also to discuss the proposed revisions with the panel. This is invaluable and my observation was that some people may have made more use of this opportunity than others did.
By the end of the week, everyone was exhausted and most people seemed to be popping paracetamol by Friday afternoon. However, the worst possible outcomes from a sandpit are to have met some amazing academics; to have discussed novel and exciting ideas and to have spent a free week in a luxury hotel. The best is three years of funding for a research project which is genuinely engaging. One participant said, whilst we were waiting for the final feedback and decisions from the panel, “If I don’t get it, what will be really disappointing will be not doing the project.” He left with the best possible sandpit outcome. As for me, well, here’s to better luck next time!
Tips for sandpits
- Do make the most of individual presentations to the group.
- Don’t take fixed ideas about the sort of project that you would like to do.
- Do attach yourself to several project teams unless you are really, really committed to a single project.
- Do listen carefully to the feedback from mentors and funders and take advantage of the opportunity to discuss potential revisions.
- Do set out to enjoy yourself (but make sure that you have plenty of paracetamol).