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Career development: shaping future-ready academic researchers

Recently I read an excellent article about the experiences of 658 early career Australian STEM researchers with respect to their career experiences, challenges and barriers to ongoing employment in the sector. Researchers from across the country highlighted concerning experiences relating to limited access to training and development (particularly in career management, professional skill building, project management, and leadership), and less than optimal support contexts. The article clearly maps a sector that remains largely impervious to the real plight of researchers who are navigating an incredibly complex space of seeking progress across roles and employment avenues to continue their passion for their research.

As a coach and author on research development, I have been very conscious of the ongoing plight of academics and researchers who are expected to shape and build their capabilities, impact and outcome, but often with little in the way of guidance or support. It isn’t only at the early career level: the shift from being a novice to independent researcher brings with it a new challenge of refining one’s research identity and strategy. Building impact from the research and establishing a visibility and voice about the research niche, its importance and the learnings that can be gleaned from the work undertaken, are increasingly critical elements of the research portfolio. This can be challenging, particularly for those who lack mentorship, sponsorship, or quality supervision.

When I first started mapping the developmental needs of Australian researchers, similar issues emerged. This led to the Group of Eight’s development of The Future Research Leaders Program (FRLP), which was launched in 2009. Operating as a blended learning programme, we offered eight learning modules, with associated workshops delivered in each institution. It wasn’t elegant, but it was enthusiastically embraced by researchers across our institutions. Over 1,000 researchers participated in the programme in the first year. They valued the flexibility and the accessibility of learning when they had capacity to do so. The integration of allied institutional workshops contextualised the learning and offered models and important links to policy, exemplars, and a learning community.

“Institutions that wish to support their researchers need to think deeply about what a researcher needs to know and do to be successful.”

This successful experiment illustrated the hunger that researchers in universities have for learning how to be successful in an efficient and informed manner. I watched with fascination as the UK embraced this issue and built a coordinated response through Vitae and developed their Research Developer Concordat. I visited key groups in the UK to find out more, hoping that we could translate these same principles. Despite the establishment of the Australasian Research Management Society and explorations of research development at various conferences, the formalisation of support for research development remains largely discretionary and dependent on the will of the individual institution. In fact, research development often remains a rather contentious space in this country. Which portfolio does it fit under? It might, for example, fit into the DVC Academic or Research portfolios. In some locations, faculties are expected to step forward. When we established the FRLP we found that researcher development fitted into a range of portfolios. In fact, it doesn’t matter, so long as someone is taking ownership.

In the absence of Vitae and a concordat, universities have developed different approaches to their research capacity building. Some have established capability frameworks and mapped their support activities against those standards. This raises another important set of questions for institutions to consider: what are the core capabilities that we need to promote? Should we be focused on early career? Mid-career? Research Leaders? Generally, institutions are targeting the early career phase, where the research fundamentals need to be consolidated and refined. Being a productive researcher who can write, publish, manage a project, and work with collaborators are basic capabilities. Certainly, support to build these capabilities is an important foundation that should be offered in any institution.

However, the advancement from novice to independent researcher requires ongoing growth in capabilities and insights. The individual needs to confidently navigate their career—particularly if it is based on soft money or needs to be adaptive in responding to opportunities. The capacity to build winning bids for funding or fellowships certainly supports career progression. The transition to leadership needs to be carefully guided to build a larger community of constructive research leaders who mentor and sponsor others. The push for impact and engagement has escalated across all of our nations. This translational focus is a progressive journey that reflects the transition to mid-career and senior roles. Critical threshold skills include self-reflection and feedback seeking. Thus, institutions that wish to support their researchers need to think deeply about what a researcher needs to know and do to be successful. The new Advancing your Research Career: Strategies for Research Leadership programme has been designed to capture the shifts in research expectations and to ensure researchers are supported across these elements—and levels.

“Researchers need access to quality learning opportunities that are fit for purpose, capability-focused, flexible, high quality, and impactful.”

Finding the right people to design and deliver suitable workshops and programmes to encourage critical capabilities can be hard to find in each institution. And it takes time to build these offerings to ensure they are authentic, persuasive, and seen as aligning with the learner’s own lived experience. The development of blended learning approaches that provide a top-quality learning mode with contextualised local support offers the best of both worlds. In 2014, when we first released the Professional Skills for Research Leaders, (Epigeum’s first research career development training programme and the precursor to Advancing your Research Career), we aimed to offer world-class learning, drawing on best practice research development, without each institution having to design each module itself. This platform then supports customised, adaptive, localised sessions where institutions, faculties or institutes can explore these generic capabilities in context. It also encourages systemic capacity building rather than isolated pockets of excellence.

The next few years won’t be easy for our sector. There is pressure on researchers and academics to scale up their impact and reach, and to demonstrate their value. To meet these escalating expectations, they need access to quality learning opportunities that are fit for purpose, capability-focused, flexible, high quality, and impactful. The investment in research development is a major strategic decision by each institution, illustrating that researchers do matter. Online programmes like Advancing your Research Career offer economy of scale and customisable learning platforms that reduce institutional load on responding to this need. They also help each individual to optimise their potential with the right knowledge and insights to make the right career choices.

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