The ecology of researcher development

By Dr Kay Guccione (@kayguccione), Researcher Development Team

A close up of a moss and mushroom ecosystem at the base of a tree
Photo by Vinit Srivastava on Unsplash

I imagine that if I were to ask you how you came to know what you know about the job you do, or the career you are building, we would talk for hours.

Where is development?

Every subject matter and professional development course, lecture, workshop, info session, induction, tutorial and seminar you have attended has offered you information and new knowledge, technical vocabulary and practical skills. They have offered you reading sources, models and theories, helped you make links between that new information and what you already knew, and supported you to evaluate and form opinions about how to use that new knowledge in your profession. The formal curriculum of learning how to be a subject expert and how to be a successful researcher is brimming with opportunities, some inside your university, some external.

Additionally, your supervisors, tutors, students, PIs, mentors, peers, expert colleagues, committees, and global disciplinary and research community networks have no doubt been rich with knowledge, ideas, examples, role models, and insider information that has supported you to gain new insights, join the dots, have your questions answered, and make sense of the academic environment, key processes, and career pathways. The people around you are key players in your learning and development, and a range of players, communities and voices weave together as a rich ecosystem of supporters who informally help you to contextualise new knowledge, and apply it in practice.

And further, there are a range of hidden learning spaces you will have taken part in, for example via unorganised social spaces, online platforms such as Twitter, coffee rooms, corridors, and conversations where you weren’t expecting to learn, but you learned something anyway. But yet more, there is hidden learning within formal curriculum spaces. Have you ever gone to a workshop or meeting and learned something important, but completely off topic? Have you been in a meeting where you observed someone’s behaviour in a towards another colleague and thought to yourself, ‘well I wouldn’t have acted like that’. Have you taken a break to fold laundry, dig your garden, or go for a run, and suddenly a shape or a sensation gives you a research idea? This intangible, informal, and serendipitous learning, we call the Hidden Curriculum (Elliot, 2020).

The Hidden Curriculum in researcher development

Whilst writing the Hidden Curriculum of Doctoral Education book with my colleagues, Dely Elliot, Søren Bengtsen and Sofie Kobayashi, we collected stories of hidden learning. A couple of examples from my work are below, and our Hidden Curriculum blog, contains many more examples from researchers and researcher developers across the globe.

Example 1: A first year doctoral researcher attends a workshop on presentation skills. In the workshop they work in small groups with other doctoral students in second and third year, to discuss the ‘USP’ for their research and develop an ‘elevator pitch’. Others talk about attending conferences with their supervisors, and feeling nervous about presenting. They discuss how conferences are important to ‘establish your name in the field’ and to ‘find your post-PhD job’. The first year takes these discussions into her next supervision meeting.

Example 2: A postdoctoral researcher decides to join the Postdoc Committee for her College as a ‘CV opportunity’. At the first meeting she is asked  if she’d like to raise any issues from PGRs in her School. She realises that she should have consulted them beforehand and promises to do so. In doing so she becomes aware that the procedure for taking shared parental leave is overly complex and can be discriminatory. She relays this to the Committee which adopts a policy change as an action point. Through this process, she learns how policies are created and endorsed at her university. She is also better prepared to diplomatically discuss and navigate the parental leave process with her PI when she needs 18-months later.

Interesting eh? And I bet you can think of plenty of your own examples. This is clearly not just a phenomenon limited to postgraduate researchers. But what does this mean for how we see the contribution of Researcher Development to this ecology of opportunity? It’s clear that no one person, or team, could or should have control of all of the development modes and spaces for researchers. To do so is not only impossible, it’s undesirable, as the richness of the development ecosystem comes from the diversity of players, the interactivity, the incidental learning, the unexpected. We don’t want to own, or control it, rather we want to recognise our part, and how we can complement, add value, and learn from the hidden curriculum.

How we work within a development ecology

Our impact as a team is achieved by understanding the development landscape and complementing the structures and opportunities within the Colleges, and other central teams. It is achieved through ensuring time and space for the hidden learning within the formally delivered initiatives, and by building networks and communities. It’s achieved through bringing a focus to the quality of the conversations researchers have with each other, for example in annual progress/performance reviews, with supervisors and PIs, and with mentors. It exists in guiding others across the university in their learning designs. Through listening in to the conversations people want to have, we create new formal learning opportunities or networks that are informed by the needs of researchers.

Most often though our contribution is seen in how we enable researchers to navigate the whole of the formal and informal curricula, and locate and select the forms of development and support they personally need. To think very broadly about their development, and how opportunities can be reached and harnessed.

To do this work in partnership. With the Colleges, Schools, and external partners. With Supervisors, PIs and Convenors, offerring guidance, as well as ideas for practice. Of course we work in partnership with our researchers, through listening to them in our courses and workshops, and through formal feedback, course evaluation, and committee and consultation structures. Find our open, anonymous, team feedback form here, through which you can tell us anything you need us to know, any time.

The takeaway point? Researcher Development is an ecological entity. Opportunities are everywhere, and the more spaces and people you access and learn from, the richer, more tailored, and more meaningful your development.

One response to “The ecology of researcher development”

  1. […] induction is a week-long programme which runs in October and again in January, and takes an ecological approach, by complementing the structures and opportunities within the Colleges, and other central teams. […]


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