Professional Development for all, yes I’m talking to you Researcher Developers!


I recently attended the Vitae Connections event for Researcher Developers who had, to quote the room on the day, “been around while”. We spent six glorious hours in London thinking about our own career development whilst also hearing about researcher development initiatives from various national and international universities.

The day started with a session considering the future for roles like ours and the researcher needs of tomorrow. Using the horizon scanning technique of communities of interest, we considered the impact of emerging technologies and economies, changing supply and demand of resources, social attitudes of young people and future demographic changes on what we do today and how this will change in the future. Generally, the room was positive with many saying that their role had come a long way since the ‘Roberts’ era but the future was a lot less clear.

skills_wordThe second session tapped in to this uncertain future. When asked to reflect on the challenges we now face, i.e of being in a role that has no set career path, it was interesting to be given a copy of the Vitae Researcher Developers’ Professional Framework (ReDProF). However, I found the most useful element of the session was to consider my own abilities, skills and strengths using the analogy of a cruise liner. There was agreement that we are all captains of our own career cruise liner but often we are so focused on “the passengers, the entertainment and the catering” we often forget to take time to consider where are we heading. I found it useful to reflect and ask myself ‘who is currently captaining that ship?’ ‘What small changes do I need to make in order to ultimately arrive at my desired destination?’ ‘Do I know where that destination is?’ ‘Who else do I need help me navigate rough seas?’ We were reminded of the adage you can’t turner a tanker on a sixpence, and through implementing change at this point we could ultimately plot our own course. Keeping that analogy in mind what followed were 3 insightful speakers sharing practise, knowledge and experience of working in, influencing and challenging higher education policy and culture.

Firstly, Dilly Fung, Director of the Centre for the Advancement of Learning and Teaching at UCL provided two interesting casestudies on the perceptions of teaching, research and learning at UCL and her challenge to bring these areas together under the banner of UCL Arena“If you teach, supervise, assess or support students’ learning at UCL, in any context, UCL Arena is for you. It’s a meeting place for colleagues to share approaches to teaching and learning in our research-intensive university – a conceptual space for debate and exploration. UCL Arena is accredited by the Higher Education Academy, so it’s also a place in which you can choose to gain professional recognition awards for your teaching expertise.” (Taken from the UCL Arena wesite)

Dilly was keen to share the experience reminding university staff of the ethos of education and teaching within a research institute. The launch of Connected Curriculum in Septemeber 2014 has allowed all UCL students the opportunity to become involved in research from the very start of their degree programme and for research skills to become embedded in all undergraduate courses, closing the gap between researchers and students.

“Comprising seven dimensions of connectivity, Connected Curriculum sets out a plan for a joined up approach to education. As well as defining the relationship between students’ learning and their participation in research, it also describes the connections to be made between disciplines, years of study and staff and students. Connected Curriculum is a standard for the future of education at UCL, and over the next five years (2015-2020), UCL will work towards ensuring all courses meet its seven dimensions.” (taken from the UCL Connected Curriculum website) 

What I took from this session was the potential and possibility of change within an institution. By bringing together 2 separate areas and highlighting the similarities, the benefits of working more effectively together for the good of those who are the future of research were obvious. It reminded me to consider the communities of interest who have a stake in the future of higher education in the UK and who I need on my career cruise liner.

Secondly, Kelly Coate, Director of King’s Learning Institute at KCL set out an interesting body of research looking at the concept of the prestige economy and the gender inbalance of senior staff positions in higher education. Kelly spent time demonstrating that “…academics are motivated by prestige factors accrued through advancement in their careers. Prestige, authority and status, we suggest, may be more easily acquired by male academics” (Coates & Howson 2014, 1).

By comparing the factors influencing progression for women in academic roles, I asked myself what could this mean for us as women researcher developers? As I looked around the room of 25 women and 1 solitary man I considered how the recommendations to avoid ‘fixing women’ could be extrapolated to consider how we could empower our women researcher developers and ultimately enable them to progress from researcher developer to more senior roles, especially when that role does not exist – yet. The answer is surely identifying the prestige economy and the currency of esteem for researcher developers.

Finally, in stark contrast to the ideas put forward by Kelly, Guy Woodward, a Reader in Ecology at Imperial College with over £7M of funding to his name, presented a personal view on why researcher development is not top of his agenda. It was his view that, when it comes to being the research leaders of the future, researchers should research first, teach second and do admin third. In order to get ahead in the world of academia he encourages his researchers to ‘shape the field’, write opinion papers, attend conferences, lobby, co-ordinate writing proposals for RCUK and sit on panels for funding and papers. He also talked about the need to collaborate in order to play to your strengths, build alliances and know who you can work with always with an eye on future funding and ultimately expect rejection as a marker of how high you are aiming.

To start a presentation stating that researcher development isn’t needed in a room of researcher developers was always going to be controversial, yet in a strange way I found the session inspirational. Perhaps, what Guy was saying was using experience and ‘real-time’ training is just as valuable as attending a workshop, something I think most researcher developers would agree. If you want to get noticed in a university attending a workshop in networking and influencing skills is just part of the journey. If you can, why not learn on the job and accept that sometimes there will be rejection or you might get it wrong? If you start small (remember that career cruise liner making small adjustments to its trajectory?) those rejections don’t push you off course that much and through reflection and learning from that experience you can correct for that over time. Just ‘doing it’ can be just as good a way to learn.

Perhaps, it is just about jumping in at the deep end, being brave – its just that researchers and researcher developers who have attended a training session jump in wearing a life jacket…

life jacket


Lifejacket image from

Kelly Coate & Camille Kandiko Howson (2014): Indicators of esteem: gender and prestige in academic work, British Journal of Sociology of Education, DOI: 10.1080/01425692.2014.955082

“physician heal thyself” Taken from


Research Staff: Careers Beyond Academia

people around the globe

Vitae has been involved for some time in the ‘What do Research Staff Do Next?’ project: .

Some interesting preliminary findings were discussed at the Vitae Researcher Development International Conference on 9-10 September 2014, along with further useful insights into the job market and career progression for researchers published in Research Fortnight’s Vitae Supplement, to accompany the conference:

Whilst tracking of (initial) career destinations for graduates and knowledge of career paths within research have existed for some time, there has been no information about where research staff have gone upon leaving university research positions.  ‘What do Research Staff Do Next?’ aimed to reach people who had moved away from postdoctoral positions and through a survey find out why they had left, where they had gone and reflect on the transition.

‘Lack of job security drives out researchers’ is the title of one of the pieces in Research Fortnight’s Supplement, in which Janet Metcalfe – chair and head of Vitae – set out the reason for the project in a competitive job market.  “Through this project we will provide careers resources to institutions and information for staff looking for alternative careers”.

In one of the conference plenary sessions Janet expanded on the survey’s preliminary findings, with some interesting statistics.  In terms of destinations, a variety of sectors were represented fairly evenly including public administration, finance, IT, manufacturing, health & social work and charities.  However, 24% had opted for different roles within higher education.

79% of the surveys collated noted better long term prospects as a key reason for leaving their research role, reinforced by 76% referencing more job security.

Lack of flexibility and the change in organisational culture were highlighted as significant challenges in the transition process, but the support of new colleagues proved a common and helpful factor in transition.

It will be interesting to see further details on the preliminary findings to be released soon by Vitae.

The Value of Networking for Researchers


Your current research may be your all-consuming focus at the moment, but it is likely that you will move on in terms of both location and research remit before long.  Thinking beyond your immediate environment now will help you to plan your future in research.

Original research – the kind that gets funded – can be as a result of ‘individual creativity’, but it is also defined as a new combination or connection between ideas – the result of positive collaboration.  This idea is explored further in ‘The Creative Researcher’ booklet, part of the Vitae Researcher booklet series, which can be found at:

When you reach a certain level of seniority the value of international collaborations is perhaps more obvious, but for early career researchers a regional network can be key to your next funding step.  A recent blog post from The Researcher Whisperer included a telling quote:

“I was listening to a wise old researcher the other day when she said:
International networks are lovely, but it is your national network that will get you funded … we don’t often talk about the importance of building a local network.”

Some practical reasons for networking to support future collaborations:

  • Funding opportunities are increasingly inter-disciplinary and across institutions. As just one example, RCUK has six priorities for funding which draw across the spectrum of academic disciplines and EXPECT collaboration to address the priorities.
  • REF and Impact. With ‘impact’ set to have an increasing place in the REF, wider networks can be invaluable in increasing your research profile in new areas.  Impact also looks increasingly at collaborative research with industry and the public sector.

Vitae’s training programme on ‘The Collaborative Researcher’ includes exercises focusing on how to approach planning for networking and collaboration.  In considering how ready you are to network effectively, how easily and succinctly could you answer the following questions to someone from outside your area of research?

  • What’s the focus of your current research/area of research interest?
  • What are your plans for developing/disseminating your work?
  • Do you have any ideas or opportunities for collaborating on future research?

Or, to what extent could you respond to these points positively about your research?

Provide clarity – could you or someone in your department (not your supervisor) describe your research in simple accurate terms?

How visible are you? – Does your name or work come up in a web search for your research topic?

Translate – Have you described your research in interesting and relevant terms to someone from a different faculty in the last 6 months?

Be interested – Do you make a habit of talking to other researchers about their work and do you find them interesting?

Create opportunities – Can you think of three possible applications for your expertise outside your current project … do you know where to start looking?

Tune in  – What do you think the main research questions will be in your field in five years time … how would you know?

The Midlands Research Staff Association (MidsRSA) is building on its mailing list of 100+ research staff to set up a self-sustaining forum for networking to discuss shared issues and explore future collaborations.  If you’d like to know more, or join the MidsRSA please contact

If you’d like to find out more about the national Research Staff Association (UKRSA), visit:

Getting Started in Research


If you are new to research or just overwhelmed with what makes a successful researcher you may like to consider using one of the Vitae Researcher Development Framework lenses. Vitae recently published a Getting Started in Research lens to help those who are new to research begin their development journey. The lens focuses on the descriptors required to start out in research and to begin developing as a researcher.

Using the Getting Started in Research lens,  or our other lenses, may also help to alleviate the sense of complexity that some researchers experience when they first encounter the RDF.

The most important things you should know about Research Staff Associations (RSAs)


Vitae recently organised their annual Research Staff Conference. This year the event drew researchers from across the world! We heard from those who had carved out a career in academia and from those who had moved out in to research related opportunities in senior government roles. The Midlands Hub was involved in running a discussion based workshop on Research Staff Associations.  

The Midlands Hub Manager was joined by a panel of researchers actively involved in running local RSA and also involved in the UKRSA (Alex Tarr, Midlands Research Staff Association Chair; Rebecca Elvey, University of Manchester; Patrick Hadoke University of Edinburgh)

So, what are the most important things I should know about RSAs?

There are many benefits for members and for organising committees of RSAs, these include

    • Networking and finding people to work, discuss and collaborate with from outside of you department/school
    • Potential interdisciplinary opportunities
    • Professional Development opportunities
    • Opportunity to find a formal or informal research mentor
    • Ability to take control of your own future
    • Being involved in a grassroots organisation
    • Being involved in an association that has access to senior committees and members of staff at university management level
    • A greater understanding of formal committees and how to change things through a committee organisational structure
    • Develop skills in event organisations, networking, budget management, people management and striking the balance between work/other work/ home life

These benefits seem great I hear to say, so how do I get a RSA started at my university?

The overwhelming piece of advice was to start small (or at least not worry if you start small!) then it was important to:

    • Find out the issues and identify topics that will engage research staff
    • Invite members to suggest areas and themes for the RSA
    • Find a dedicated group of ‘doers’ to help push things forward – but don’t ask them to do everything, rotate their roles
    • Bring people together to talk about their issues but always remember to advise that an RSA is not a HR union or counseling service – signpost to other departments and organisation that offer this support
    • Make the benefits clear to members to encourage them to promote the RSA in their departments and networks
    • ‘Sell’ the benefits of committee members to encourage them to remain and recruit new members
    • Remember that an RSA is a communities, therefore, it should not take over just one persons life – share the responsibility with other community members


Some helpful organisations and places to find further information


A Guide to Research Staff Associations

Midlands Research Staff Association

Supporting Researchers to make career choices

Career opportunities for researchers cover a wide range of sectors including HE; manufacturing; finance; business and IT, health and public administration. Recent trends demonstrate that over half of researchers on completion of their doctorate will go on to pursue a career outside academic research or teaching (What Do Researchers Do? First Destinations of Graduates By Subject’, Vitae 2009). Funders of research both nationally and in Europe recognise this trend, and the importance of ensuring all researchers are supported by their institution in their professional and career development, whilst still taking responsibility for this themselves.

ImageManaging a career today is less about having a determined plan, and more about taking a broad and organic approach to employability: leaving the door open to grasp opportunities (and sometimes creating them), taking planned risks, coping effectively with unexpected changes, and crucially adapting ideas to evolving interests and experiences. (More about careers for researchers)

The Career-wise Researcher has been designed to give practical tips to help identify and build the pieces of the career puzzle. It includes the steps needed to understand skills and capabilities; increase awareness of job opportunities and what employers are seeking; setting career and personal development goals; taking a proactive approach to development opportunities, and ensuring every potential employee is presented in the best light to get the job they want.