wiping the slate clean and starting again: Putting our ‘development’ ethos into practice

I am back from holiday, gearing up my mindset to face the next academic year.

Contemplation © Sandrine SoubesI have just started to review the uptake on a writing programme we have organised for Research Staff in early September. The writing programme is called “Facing the challenge of effective writingand is run over 4 days (11-14th September); it is delivered by Iain Patten, who is an ex- colleague from when I was still working in the lab. Iain is an example of a Sheffield PhD graduate who has made use of his expertise in scientific writing, developed as a biologist, to set up a successful training and consultancy company, enhancing the scientific writing skills and writing habits of scientists throughout Europe. Reviewing the uptake of the course, I feel quite disappointed with the number of participants who have booked so far. I attended Iain’s workshop myself last year, learned a huge amount and gained some brilliant tools to continue developing my writing.

Considering that writing is a critical element to entering not only academia but also a vast array of other professional jobs, I still feel puzzled that so few researchers would want to dedicate 4 days towards focusing their thinking on the writing process. Of course, there is already a huge array of support through the ThinkAhead programme related to writing, from the monthly writing retreats, support by tutors from the ELTC, or November WriteFest. Researchers may prefer other formats than an intensive 4-day programme to suit their needs better.

Still, I remain concerned imagesthat only few research staff may consider dedicating 4 days to enhancing their writing competencies.

When I ask researchers why they do not want to take part in such opportunity, often people respond:

  • 4-days is too long
  • Could you not deliver the same content in just one day?
  • I have experiments on the go and I can’t be out of the lab for so long
  • I need to get enough data before thinking about publishing
  • I only have a one-year research contract and my PI wants me to focus on the experiments. I doubt my PI would allow me so much time out of the lab for a workshop
  • I think my writing is good enough
  • Can you show me it really makes a difference to attend these workshops?
  • Publishing is not about the writing, it is about the data!

As a researcher developer, it can feel quite disheartening when organizing a programme (which you feel can bring great learning!) that does not reach the level of participation, which you would like to reach. This example illustrates the ongoing struggle to identify spaces for development within the hyper-competitive environment which researchers inhabit. While much progress has been made over the last 10 years in ensuring institutions and academics acknowledge the need to support the professional development of researchers, the battle goes on in fostering a culture of professional development support.

So my questions to research staff are:

  • What stops you from further engaging in your professional development?
  • What have you got to gain or lose from engaging or not in your professional development?
  • What are your priorities during this academic year regarding your professional development?

After 10 years working in researcher development, and 3 years after our Think Ahead team success at the 2014 Times Higher Education Award for “Outstanding support for Early Career Researchers”, this year I want to go back to the drawing board in reconsidering our approach to supporting researcher professional development.


If development is our ethos as the Think Ahead team, then we should apply this principle to our own ways of working. From one academic year to the next, it is easy to fall into patterns of offering a similar professional development programme year after year.

Taking a step back and daring to say:

“Let’s stop and re-envision what we offer to our researchers”

is a bit scary, because it means:

  • asking hard questions about what really makes a difference to researchers’ careers, ways of working and effectiveness
  • changing our ‘conformable’ approaches to delivering researcher development
  • putting ourselves as researcher developers outside of our comfort zone
  • challenging our own assumptions

Slides from https://www.slideshare.net/shirley8153/teaching-digital-learners-creating-cognitive-shift-presentation

So, what can you expect as a researcher from the Think Ahead team this year:

  • A programme that is not yet set in stone, but will evolve during the academic year to reflect our active engagement in re-imagining our approach to delivering researcher development that counts
  • Our active engagement with departments and academics, so that we enhance our collaborative approach to fostering a research environment that value the professional development of research staff
  • Our exploration of the use of learning technologies to facilitate different approaches to researcher development
  • Active engagement with researcher societies/ researchers across department to listen to your views on what you feel you need, to maximise your professional development during your current research contract.

So work with us in continuing to explore the best approaches to creating supportive research cultures!

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