London Connection Q&A: Professor Rob Briner

Professor Rob Briner talks to Peter Quinn about study plans, asking the right questions and eureka moments
Professor Rob Briner
It’s rather like doing a crossword: Professor Rob Briner
"When you get to high-level postgraduate courses such as the ones offered through the International Programmes, you are being let into the world of research"

Is it actually possible to achieve the right balance between work and study, or is it some kind of mythical ideal?
I think, yes, it’s a bit of a mythical ideal. If you give people the idea that there is this thing called balance, then if they’re not getting that – whatever that is – then they feel they’re failing. The fact is that if you demand quite a lot of yourself, as a parent, a worker, or student, if you demand more then you’re inevitably going to feel that you have to make compromises. You can’t do everything you want. The balance idea is unhelpful. Unless you really minimise what you do, you are going to experience imbalance.

You have many years’ experience teaching part-time students. What advice do you give them regarding planning their study?
I’ve worked with part-time students for a long time, so I’ve thought quite a lot about this over the years. In terms of planning, you need to be thinking in terms of long-term goals and being able to set aside the blocks of time that you need. Students inevitably sometimes cram stuff in and end up rushing assignments and essays, and doing things at the last minute just isn’t enjoyable.

"I’m constantly amazed that students can have written an essay, submitted it and got a mark back and still don’t know what the criteria are we use"

The second thing students are worried about is assessment: really getting a clear angle and understanding of what the criteria are that the examiners are using. Even though I give sessions about writing essays and the criteria we use to assess things, I’m constantly amazed that students can have written an essay, submitted it and got a mark back and still don’t know what the criteria are we use. In a sense they’re really shooting in the dark by just writing an essay and hoping it’s what we’re looking for.

I even suggest to students that they stick these criteria on the wall where they work, or have them as a PDF on their desktop, so that they’re always to hand. It seems crazy to me to work hard on a piece of work and not really understand how it’s going to be assessed. You could do a great piece of work, but it might fail. It’s not so much what students think is good, it’s what the people assessing them think is good.

The third piece of advice is that, generally speaking, academic journal articles – and even academic books – are often incredibly difficult to read. They’re not fun, they’re not entertaining, they’re not Harry Potter. They’re not meant to be fun. I think this comes as a huge shock for a lot of students moving from undergraduate to postgraduate, when they’re used to reading everything in nice little boxes and everything’s over-simplified.

When you get to high-level postgraduate courses such as the ones offered through the International Programmes, you are being let into the world of research, in a sense. Journal articles are technical documents for communication between researchers. They’re not designed to be easy to read things for a student. But it’s really important that you look at those because that’s where you’ll find – depending on the discipline – the best available evidence, theory and empirical work.

And have you gained any insights from your students?
Oh yes. What I’ve learnt from them is absolutely invaluable, in different ways. One is that, generally, mature students are very good at letting you know when what you’re saying just doesn’t make sense. They’re not scared of saying look, I just don’t get this, what do you mean? And nine times out of ten they’re right. In applied areas, they might say why are you criticising this particular practice or technique – it doesn’t happen in business, or it only happens in these sectors, or in these countries. So it’s a very good check on whether you really know what the modern world of work is like.

It’s great hearing from people in the health service, government, business and multinational corporations. They can tell you about what’s going on. Again, not just in terms of teaching but for research as well, that’s very useful. Certainly I’ve had many ideas for research projects from students.

"For part-time students, family and friends almost become part of the studying process. I think it’s about keeping them informed of what you need to do, when you need to do it, and explaining the nature of the demands"

And in terms of supervising projects, people often do these in their own organisations and you get absolutely unparalleled access to often brilliant and fascinating data. As a researcher, if you knock on the door and say can we do some interviews or questionnaires, yes, you’ll get access – you’ll get so far – but when the people are actually in the organisation itself then often they have superb access to great data and really interesting stuff.

 Studying while simultaneously holding down a job and trying to maintain some kind of domestic life can be stressful. Do friends and family have an important role to play?
For part-time students, family and friends almost become part of the studying process. I think it’s about keeping them informed of what you need to do, when you need to do it, and explaining the nature of the demands. It’s very hard being a part-time student when the people around you don’t know what you’re doing and don’t appreciate it. If you don’t tell them, all they see is this person they want to be with and spend time with stuck in a room or library somewhere. It’s important to get those people around you on board.

"You always need to have a set of questions in mind"

 You’ve talked elsewhere about work and study in relation to people’s identity. Could you explain what this relationship entails?
Yes, it’s interesting. One of the times when people feel out of kilter and like their life isn’t balanced is when they’re trying to take on too many identities: I want to be a great parent, a great worker, a great student, a great friend, whatever it is. That’s one of the things that can cause a sense of conflict: they want to be all these different things because that’s part of who they are. I do think that if you’re taking on studying and haven’t done it for a while, and you’re working, you have to maybe diminish – not lose – but diminish some of those other identities and say for a few years I’m not going to be a great whatever it is. I’ll maybe do it a bit and it’s still part of my identity, but it won’t be as strong a part of my identity because I just can’t do everything.

  Regarding study time, is there a ‘best practice’ in terms of what produces the best results?
One of the things that students find really difficult is the quantity of reading they have to do. A classic thing I often see regarding people spending their study time is you look at the papers they’ve got in front of them from subject guides or resource packs and they’ve actually highlighted 80 per cent of the document. You always need to have a set of questions in mind such as what is the author trying to say? What does it mean? What’s wrong with what they’re saying? How does it help me answer my question?

 The analogy I often give is that it’s like giving someone a train timetable and saying could you just read that. You can, but you have to approach these things with a question. People can waste a lot of time trying to read this stuff and construct a narrative. They’re trying to get a nice story out of it, and it won’t be there in most cases.

 And is there a secret to coaxing out those rare ‘eureka moments’ which all students hope for?
I think it’s rather like doing a crossword, where you put it down because you get stuck. Then you look at it again, and put it down. And then you’re doing something else like the washing up, and suddenly it comes to you. That only happens because you keep dipping in and out to try and make sense of it, and you’re not forcing it. You’ve thought about it and put it down. And that’s when you get these eureka moments.

"Eureka moments can happen years and years after you’ve finished the course"

Another thing to bear in mind is that some of these eureka moments can happen years and years after you’ve finished the course. What I always say to students is this course is just a sort of taster to get you thinking. Yes, there are exams; yes, there’s a dissertation; yes, it’s great you’ve got a Masters. But if you stop thinking about this stuff then we haven’t done our job. The things that you’ve thought about during the course should carry on helping you learn about your job and things that are going on at work. 

 Finally, what makes a successful student successful?
My sense is that that they get to grips really quickly with what the course requirements are. In other words, they are the students in the group other students go to, to ask them about the programme. They’ve read the stuff, internalised it, they’ve looked at the exam criteria, the essay criteria, they understand what modules you do when. They are successful because they really understand what’s required. 

Professor Rob BrinerRob's top five study tips :

1. When planning ahead, think in terms of long-term goals.
2. Get a clear understanding of what the exam criteria are.
3. Look at journal articles for the most up-to-date evidence.
4. Keep family and friends informed about your study commitments.
5. Have a set of questions in mind when reading your study materials. 

A former Professor of Organizational Psychology at Birkbeck, University of London, Rob Briner currently teaches at the University of Bath. Rob is the author of the subject guide and resource pack for ‘Work and well-being’, a module from the Human Resource Management and Organizational Psychology postgraduate programmes offered through the University of London International Programmes. For details please visit: www.londoninternational.ac.uk/ophrm