Once more unto the breach

Image from pasukaru76 on Flickr | Public Domain
Image from pasukaru76 on Flickr | Public Domain

I am a researcher developer in an academic role.

In my field in Australia, this situation of being an academic appointment in a research education/development role is not that common. In my unit, all four of the research educators are academic appointments and we are all active researchers. This is rare.

Many research education and development units are staffed with professional roles, often with academic collaboration and input. It is a field where staff come from a very diverse range of disciplines, and often show up conceiving of it as an “accidental career pathway”. I first realised how prevalent this feeling was when reading my colleague Jeanette Fyffe’s 2018 paper on becoming an academic developer (yes, I’m pushing academic developer and researcher developer into the same bucket and I realise I may well be cursed for life…). Many who are in the researcher development field are PhD-qualified. For some professional staff in these roles, the researcher identity is one that becomes increasingly a remembered or historical one. For academic staff in these roles, the researcher identity is ongoing and always freshly fraught.

This post isn’t to set one against the other as superior (however and whichever way you may think they might be superior), but to talk about how it feels right now to be an academic in a researcher development role. I’m discussing this with the background of having been consecutively in roles there were research-only >>professional >>teaching/research.

Being an academic in researcher development feels like I sit partway between a more standard discipline academic role and a professional one. Across all the jobs I’m talking about for this post, I have stayed in the university sector but felt the pressures around it in differentiated ways.

Here are how aspects of university life affected me while I was in each of those positions:

Competition in academia

Research-only (fixed term): More or less stressed 24/7 about how I was doing compared with others in the area or at similar career stage because my next potential fellowship depended on out-performing everyone else. My years were filled with overwork, anxiety, insecurity. It wasn’t good even though it wasn’t all bad. It was utterly unsustainable.

Professional (continuing): ZERO. It was the most liberating thing about stepping into a professional role after being a research-only fellow. I had a job, I did my job, I liked my job. It was continuing and I wasn’t constantly worrying about ‘the next job’. I had vicarious concerns about whether the researchers I was helping were competitive for various rounds of grants they were putting their hat in for but, ultimately, it was a job that was all care and no responsibility. I couldn’t control the grants process.

Teaching/Research (continuing): Latent most of the time. I know what the expectations are and I try to do well by them. All the shiny, extra things I do are because I want to, not because I feel I have to. I still get anxious about what does it all mean and where am I going with all this but, it must be said, this happens a lot less. Age and wisdom? Age and tiredness?


Research-only: Overwhelming expectations to get more and often. Again, track-record on this front essential for next potential position.

Professional: My job was working with researchers to get them funding, or set up to be competitive for funding so the world of funding featured heavily and constantly, but the pressure on me personally was non-existent. Professional staff weren’t expected to get any funding. This felt very good.

Teaching/Research: Expectation is there and I’ve been slow to get started on the funding wagon with new research projects. I attribute it to getting back into the academic groove after 3+ years of cutting free from it, and there’s also a disciplinary skew to contend with. Still, I’ve been slow.

Time (or lack thereof)

Research-only: I had all the time. I was 100% research and there was no onus on me to teach at all. I did whatever I wanted pretty much all the time. This aspect was fantastic. I was also long-distancing with my partner and turned into a workaholic who never really switched off – after-hours and weekend work were the rule rather than the exception. At the time, it didn’t feel great and now, in retrospect, it was really quite terrible.

Professional: I was a 9-5’er and it was BLISS. I had weekends and after hours back. Very occasionally, I’d have to attend an after-hours event or do a later day, but this was the exception rather than the rule.

Teaching/Research: I work hard to ensure I manage work hours that are reasonable and effective. I’ve been in this role more than five years now and I’ve had to do 2 all-nighters, a moderate number of later work days, and a sprinkling of weekend periods of work. It is much harder to keep everything in the ‘reasonable’ boundaries but it’s also worth that work to do so.

Institutional and sector literacy

Research-only: I was so clueless! As a research-only person, I knew about funding streams for my area and grantseeking manoeuvres, but rarely looked up enough to get much of a handle on my institution (beyond where internal funding might exist). Sector literacy, again, was limited to the funding focus. It was narrow.

Professional: Being in a professional grant developer role really opened my eyes to these elements and meant I had to keep up with more policy and sector news. It was essential to my being able to do the job well and advise researchers on developing their track-records and availing themselves of opportunities internally and outside. Again, the knowledge that I gathered was relatively broad around higher education and government research policy, but the majority was focused on the grants/funding area.

Teaching/Research: Absolutely crucial and a constant part of the job – much broader than grants/funding (an area I don’t have to keep up with in minute detail anymore), and extends to stuff about higher degrees by research, graduate/postgraduate careers, employability, state of academia overall (including internationally). So much of my research reading is all about sector and institutional literacy and positioning.

Research culture 

Research-only: My vision around this was focused laser-like on growing the research network and areas that I helped found. I did not feel particularly included in the broader culture of my institution, and realise that this is partly because I never made overtures in that direction. So, I knew what I liked in research culture and just tried to make things happen for it in my own space.

Professional: I viewed the various shapes of research culture in the units that surrounded my role but it felt like I was only an observer rather someone who might have the authority/remit to be involved in it. Ironically, this was the time in my career when I started Research Whisperer with Jonathn, which deals quite a lot with research culture and ways to improve and strengthen the one that is local to you!

Teaching/Research: IT IS MY LIFE. Research culture is at the heart of what we as researcher developers do. We teach heaps of sessions and run programs/workshops around many researcher development topics, and a lot of our work is in the creation of opportunity and motivation to want to do quality research and develop as a researcher (from postgrad to ECR, from ECR to MCR, etc – with full acknowledgement that this linearity is not really the way researcher identities shift and grow). We are focused on applicable answers to questions such as ‘what does a supportive culture look like and how does it work?’ ‘who should be involved in these experiences?’ ‘how should this be set up so that researchers get the best experience during and after it?’.

We are researcher-focused, and are researchers ourselves. So, it can lead to an odd positioning of our selves outside identities that we actually occupy…!

As researchers, we are also in the mix and thinking through competition in academia, research funding, institutional and sector literacy, and our lack of time (to do research!). It can be a meta kinda life, but it’s one that is also fascinating and enlightening. I never thought this much about the idea of being a researcher and the doing of research while I was trying to be an uber-researcher (as a research fellow).

So, having a been a gun researcher doesn’t necessarily equip one to be a gun researcher developer. There’s a lot more to it. So much more.

That said, being a researcher developer AND a researcher means knowing way too much about why you’re not doing the research that you need to do, or how you’re hiding from the scary accountability of compiling your own research plan, or the ways you’re procrastinating around your writing, or….

This post was written during the last day of a 3-day writing retreat that was run by my unit, convened by two of my fab colleagues. Attending the retreat made me realise acutely that the best and worst thing about being a researcher developer who is also an active researcher is knowing exactly what fellow researchers go through in the doing of the work. I’m right there in the Colosseum with the other word warriors, facing down the fraught beasts of prevarication, procrastination, and performance paralysis. My sword is no sharper, nor is my armour any lighter.

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