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Retreating for success

04 Oct 2019 | Professor Richard Hill Professor Richard Hill, Head of Department of Computer Science at the University of Huddersfield, reflects on the value of attending a Principal Fellow Writing Retreat.

It worked for me. 

One day spent at Sally Bradley’s Principal Fellow Writing Retreat got my application “unstuck’. Like many, I had started the process full of vigour and enthusiasm. What happened next was the usual work-related hiccups that, when reflecting, seem like trivial excuses.

Course validation documents, staff absences, budget planning, quality assurance action plans and other “things” all conspired to keep pushing the PFHEA application further down my to-do list.

I had actually done quite a bit of thinking. Planning what evidence I wanted to present had made me reflect on my achievements, as well as my aspirations. I still had a few projects that I wanted to complete before I would be satisfied with the story I wanted to tell.


Thinking and planning, while creating new evidence, became procrastination. Not that I had my feet up on the desk, but there were plenty of organisational pressures to prevent my application from progressing.

And so the email arrived in my inbox, advertising a Principal Fellow Writing Retreat with Prof Sally Bradley. It piqued my interest, perhaps because I was frustrated with my inability to complete it. Or maybe it was a feeling of hypocrisy as I actively mentored colleagues to become Senior Fellows of the HEA. Giving them advice to get their applications submitted was part of the conversations. Somehow though, the wise words weren’t working for me.

In the end, I reasoned that I just had to make some time for myself and I should at least be able to put aside one day. So, I booked a session and then practically forgot about it as I went about the day job.

The night before

The day before the event I found myself thinking about my application and for once I got away from work on time. I was preoccupied with my case study evidence on the way home and I found myself re-reading and reflecting upon my notes for the rest of the evening. I had already gone into “retreat mode”.

The day

My reflection during the previous evening had already unearthed some new perspectives that I wanted to weave into my story, and this resurrected my enthusiasm for the process.

It was a simple schedule. An introductory briefing about the application process followed by writing, feedback and networking sessions, with a short plenary at the end.

There were attendees at all different stages of application, and it was comforting to hear their excuses as well. But there was a feeling of camaraderie and a spirit of wanting to achieve completion.

I went with a list of the case studies that I wanted to use, which were mapped across to each of the UKPSF criteria. I presented this as a simple spreadsheet - the list of case studies in the left-hand column, with the UKPSF criteria across the top row. An ‘x’ in a relevant cell marked the intersection of a case study with the relevant criteria.

A participant remarked that this arrangement was “typical of an engineer”. Taking this as a compliment, it certainly worked for me!

This approach helped get the process of initial feedback underway, as then Sally could make an immediate assessment of the balance of experience that I was presenting.


My conversation with Sally confirmed gaps that I knew about, aspects that I needed to consider and some suggestions for the type of evidence that I should seek. This removed a couple of hurdles that I had and I was able to progress the text of my application during the afternoon session.

It was encouraging to hear that what I had planned was exactly what the assessors would be looking for. This was instrumental for shaping my view of what opportunities to seek out. Selection and focus are key!

At the end of the day there was a general feedback session where Sally kindly offered individual follow-up discussions with everyone, to help ensure that the good work would continue post-retreat.

I went home that evening feeling that I had made progress. I had found a better story to tell and cleared up some questions that were preventing me from completing the application. My text was now in a better form, it was now an editing job.


One actionable output that came directly from the retreat was to write 150 words about an experience that Sally says would be a useful part of my case. The following morning I spent 35 minutes before opening my email, writing and editing two paragraphs that made it into the final submission. As a manager it is unlikely that I will finish many of my projects in one sitting. This one action of writing up some missing evidence took me a step closer to my objective.

What’s in it for me?

Specifically, the retreat provides:

  • a focused block of time that can be shoe-horned into an academic manager’s schedule
  • an opportunity to talk with an experienced representative of the HEA (in my case Sally),  who can also initiate an essential follow-up coaching telephone call
  • networking with other people who have independently chosen the same development objective
  • a structured day that separates out key stages of the application process. If I was going to eat the elephant, it was going to have to be one mouthful at a time
  • the forum to identify gaps in personal experience and to direct future development activity.

What’s your next action?

Download the PFHEA application pack and see how you measure up. This will at least identify what evidence you have in place already. Then book a place on the next retreat!


Richard Hill is Head of the Department of Computer Science at the University of Huddersfield and is an active researcher in the field of cloud computing, big data analytics, research informed teaching and academic leadership. You can find out more about Richard via his blog at

Find out more about the Advance HE writing retreats for Principal and Senior Fellows 


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