I’ve been loathe in the past to talk too much about what I do on an everyday basis in my job.
This is because I’d been made wary by certain (rare, it must be said) attitudes towards sharing information about internal processes for research development and researcher support.
I said then and I’ll say again now for the record: There’s nothing really new or ‘top secret’ in research education and development. As every Australasian Research Management Society (ARMS) conference testifies, there’s much to be gained and nothing to lose by workshopping or sharing your processes.
As yet, there is no laser-pen that will automagically generate a winning grant application. Until that pen happens along, what research education and development people do – academic or professional administrative staff – is hone models and ideas that have had a range of outings.
As in so many areas of intellectual and professional endeavour, lots of people have gone there before you, and they’ve been doing it for longer than you.
This does not mean the work is any less valuable to researchers who need to know about these strategies and methods. Nor does it mean the staff managing these researcher development programs are any less committed to finding better and more effective ways to help researchers make good research happen.
I’m sharing all of this now because I’ve just started a new job. An academic one. My previous position was considered ‘non-academic’, and was under the university’s administrative classification. All smart people know that the term ‘academic’ can be a slippery sucker (as Kieran Fenby-Hulse has posted about recently).
One thing ‘academic’ means to me is that the work that I do and topics I research are part of a broader, public conversation. Indeed, academics are actively encouraged to be part of such a conversation.
Tonight, while commuting home, I was running some of the current new-job deluge of tasks through my ideas bank and came up a little short. I blame the end of daylight savings.
My question was (in full, without Twitter truncation): “What kind of research development / skills talks would you make time to attend? Specific is good.”
I was thinking a couple of buddies might respond. Instead, I had a spate of responses, many with a multitude of suggestions and priorities. Most of the respondents were early career researchers (ECRs) or PhD students.
These are the topics that they said they’d like to see (and would make time to attend):
- A “Stats 101” session for qualitative and/or humanities researchers, and how to be savvy in mobilising stats data. This idea of generating insight and understanding for those from one area (e.g. critical, qualitative, or quantitative methods) about another featured a few times.
- Writing for publication. I’ve seen these become especially useful when paired with sessions with journal editors, who are usually more than happy to pass on the common mistakes that will get your paper desk-rejected!
- Initiating collaborations / Networking. This can be a tricky kind of session to put on because so much about how a person approaches the process is informed by personality (e.g. those who hate conference dinners and will never attend them if they can possibly avoid them…ahem). Still, pushing out of comfort zones can be an extremely good thing at times.
- Grant application development strategies. This is very much my ‘home-ground’ topic at the moment, and I aim to build on my personal experiences of the grant roundabout in the near future.
- Other researchers’ stories. These are invaluable in providing reality checks about the research process, as well as inspiration about what’s possible for a really happening research area.
- New ways to assemble and disseminate research. This is another favourite area for me, particularly on the topic of building a digital profile (and particular efficiency flows, such as enmeshing blogging as part of research reflection/feedback and practice).
I’m listing them here in case it’s useful for others who are thinking through research development programs and their potential terrain. The listing is also for me to look back on, as a mark of my first crowdsourcing foray in this role.
Narelle Lemon (@rellypops), one of my shiny new colleagues, requested: “Could we have presenters who are doing it now and not who have done it from one field and a looooooooong time ago?” This tallied with comments that I’ve heard from various other research development sessions I’d attended. In the same vein are observations that wheeling out a ‘research star’ had limited value for academics who were looking for day-to-day coping and productivity strategies.
On a slightly different track, Ben Kraal (@bjkraal) flagged that he’s found ‘flipped classroom’ formats particularly useful in research development events, and I’d be interested in hearing more about this, Ben!
Happy to hear of other research development program components that have worked well, are in demand, or that you’d like to see!
Thank you to all who RT’d and contributed to the answer stream: Narelle and Ben (mentioned earlier), @liz_beths, @meganjmcpherson, @abbeydiaz_says, @effectsofNAPLAN, @mayukanamori, @kyliebudge, and @vickytnz.
Some good ideas there.
I think universities are very decentralised in their research support activities and research support staff in central roles could better organise and coordinate what is currently on offer. I’ve learned a lot about research methods and data collection informally and on an ad hoc basis. Even for seemingly simple and routine things, like advice on choosing the most appropriate survey software package or what licences the university holds for such packages, it often seems as though I am the only person in my university collecting online survey data. That is not to say I have not received generous support and time from research support staff, it is just that I am surprised that it is generally a one-to-one basis and conducted informally.
Many researchers span more than one discipline, and within the social sciences there is a lot of overlap between education, politics, social sciences, business, economics, law (etc.) but most communication is local. I think it could be improved by having a central repository or webpage just to inform what is happening, rather than things being scattered across departmental websites, faculty/university staff emails, or on posters in the lunch rooms, etc. Some universities do this better than others, but I often miss things which I would have liked to attend just because I am not looking in the right places.
Secondly, seminars could be opened to people from other faculties or universities. Why run early career seminars on publishing, networking or stats only for those within one’s own faculty, or even university? No university is truly comprehensive and covers everything.
Thanks, Peter. Again, I totally agree with what you say, particularly with regard to the opening up of seminars and workshops to other faculties and universities. Institutions get very territorial about their offerings, as if there are top secret research education and development moves that others don’t know about. Part of the ‘success’ formula in these events, I think, is access to the right combination of people, and a good depth of peer info-sharing. These aspects can only be boosted by a more open invitation.
Re central vs local: This is one of those things that will never go away in the flow of university (re)structuring. And add to the mix the best way for information to be presented/shared in within that structure… I can understand that a centralised point that’s easily searchable and clearly presented for all info would be a great thing but I’ve yet to see a university website that can centralise that kind of information well. The lag-time between soliciting and gaining the right information, then having that fed to the site, usually ruins timeliness.
I have to say that the information stream that Twitter offers is actually a very good way to trawl through masses of workshops, seminars, and links. But getting people on Twitter – and having them use the platform regularly/well – to gain that critical mass is the sticking point!
The topic list above is certainly a useful start and most of these elements (if not all) have been present in the researcher development programmes in the three Universities I have worked in over the last 9 years.
One topic that I would add to the list is something on developing an academic career. In my experience, many new academics are very focussed on the day-to-day challenges of getting on with their teaching, developing their teaching, getting published and wining funding, sometimes supervising research students and always having some administration duties. With all these pressing issues they often neglect to put time aside for themselves and reflecting on what they want to get out of their career and finding the most beneficial activities and career path for them.
What I have in mind includes:
*Providing new academics (and sometimes the not so new) with some space to reflect and to develop a proper career plan, with sensible milestones that they can map their progress against,
*challenging them to consider alternative pathways to their goals,
*providing them with them with tools and strategies to get a better return on the time and energy they invest in their academic activities
*Helping them to identify their immediate and medium-term development needs and how they can meet these
While “other researchers stories” would be a useful addition to this, the stories alone are not enough to allow new academics to reach their true potential.
It is not just undergraduates that can benefit from career support!
Thanks, Rob, for your thoughtful comment. Yes, I have seen many of the listed topics across various universities, often with varying levels of detail and complication. There’s also a huge subset of grant application-specific ones that I could think of that weren’t necessarily flagged. Re the latter: I started thinking maybe they’re the workshops and seminars I think people need rather than the ones they WANT!
I really like your idea re thinking about career paths and development. Once people start at an institution, there are only rare chances to sit back and reflect on how things are going and what you really want to be doing. There are institutionally-driven workload planning tools that are compulsory in many universities, and these often pay only lip-service to career planning (let alone satisfaction). Would you see this as a particular research education and development initiative, or a broader uni HR project?
There are sessions on gaining promotions and how to move between academic levels, but these focus primarily on the promotion criteria themselves.
While I would like to see all staff within HE universities being given appropriate support and career development, I do think that academic staff are a specific case. The challenges that an academic faces are varied and contextual and to be able to provide the appropriate support requires a good understanding of these. While many academic/educational developers have this understanding it is generally not a strength of wider HR or organisational development staff (though some may be strong in this area). Certainly, within the UK, I would see supporting career development for academic staff being situated alongside the development for new academics in teaching, learning and research but with a significant amount of provision being from whichever unit(s) provide leadership development.
You’re right, Rob, about the specific career elements that make up an academic role. The increasing levels of support for ECRs (early career researchers) at institutions in Australia is a discernible trend (if those in my kinds of roles are anything to go by). I do wonder, however, whether universities get the leadership development right. Do you have particularly good examples in mind? I’d be very interested in knowing more about them.
Thanks very much, I appreciate your sharing of this info. I am indeed thinking through research development programs here at our comprehensive institution, and I look forward to your future posts on how these go. We’ve found such a difference between “would like to see” and “actually makes time to attend” – Faculty are so busy that while they like the idea of such opportunities, when the day comes they’re too swamped to make it.
Thanks, Amy. Glad you found it useful.
If only we knew the formula for having people actually turn up to sessions/events! I think most people work on a 30% attrition rate between number of RSVPs (partic online) and number of people who will walk into a room. It’s even more tricky if there’s catering involved. That’s why I worded the query the way I did – not what SHOULD people attend or know, but what they WANT to know (and would make time for). But, even so, I suspect there’s a big drop-out rate when things start piling up in any given semester!