To appreciate your postdocs, go beyond the superficial

By Dr Kay Guccione, Head of Research Culture and Researcher Development

yellow, pink and blue graphic that reads: To appreciate your postdocs, go beyond the superficial

The Research Culture and Researcher Development Team are reflecting during this Postdoc Appreciation week, on what it really means to ‘appreciate’ our research staff. It’s been three years since the second iteration of the Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers was published, setting out sector-wide expectations and standards for supporting the career experiences and development of our research-only staff, and we are reaching a milestone for reflection and a review of progress.

The 2019 Concordat was crafted with input from hundreds of Research Staff, as well as experienced Researcher Development professionals. It was designed to lead to better impact for Research Staff; to be shorter, clearer and more accessible and, importantly, to explicitly state that developing our staff is a collaborative effort, requiring us to work together in a collective call to action. As well as noting the responsibilities of Research Staff for engaging with their own development (as is to be expected), it sets out the specific responsibilities of research funders, the universities who employ Research Staff, and the Principal Investigators – the direct line managers of Research Staff – in creating an environment in which they can thrive. Recognising that no group of people named in the document can change whole systems in isolation, the Concordat supports us to think creatively across the ‘players and layers’ of our research culture to design our plan of action.

Our own University of Glasgow Concordat action plan was launched shortly after we became a signatory to the document in May 2020, and a large-scale plan for change was developed in close collaboration with our researchers. This has been progressing steadily over the last two and a half years and has seen the launch of several new and forthcoming projects and programmes, and many more ‘behind the scenes’ developments in creating structures and processes, reshaping policies, and making a big investment in the specialist staff to take a lead on Research Staff Development. Our report on Concordat Action Plan progress and our priorities for 2022/23 is to follow later in the autumn so I won’t spend time on this here, instead I thought it might be informative to say a bit about the Research Culture and Researcher Development Team’s philosophy for developing our Research Staff.

It may or may not surprise you to know that at UofG we have a (growing) team of researcher education experts working in this area, and that over the last year we have all come regularly together to discuss, debate and define our Team Values, and our commitment to developing Research Staff. Below, are the key points:

Development beyond skills

Thinking only about ‘the skills researchers need’ anchors us into a ‘skills deficit model’. Our already highly-skilled Research Staff are not ‘lacking’ a long shopping list of skills. They are not semi-empty vessels to be filled up with new skills. We know that having the right experiences, conversations, responsibilities and opportunities to contribute at work is what counts with employers (not ‘skills training’), and so we seek to we create new ways for researchers to have real experiences and to put skills into practice, such as leading the delivery of Research Integrity workshops, and receiving nationally benchmarked training as a teacher in HE, in order to do so. We also support Research Staff to develop their understanding of the structures and systems that govern research, for example, through events like our Funder Series, and our monthly Q&A with Prof. Chris Pearce, the Vice Principal for Research and Knowledge Exchange.

Engagement beyond training

Rejecting the skills-deficit model, we appreciate and value the experiences and expertise that researchers bring to UofG as well as what they take away from their time here. A fantastic amount of professional learning takes place through discussions, networks and communities, and we know that it is the people who take part in these that matter. So, we have been building more opportunities for researchers to come together to learn from and with each other. Our Glasgow Crucible is a leadership development programme and a prime example of the transformative power of peer-learning and the time out to self-evaluate as part of a supportive cohort. Our Supervisor Community is open to all UofG Research Staff, who are valued members. A simple opportunity for an informal chance to meet and chat with another researcher across the university, such as via our monthly Coffee Connect, has proved really popular over the last year. The brand new Catalyst Mentoring programme pairs researchers with an independent mentor for personalised career discussions, focusing on what matters to them.

Mentoring beyond advice

In our team, we position mentoring as a specialist educational practice, and we ensure that all mentors are helped to develop a skill-set beyond reliance on ‘advice giving’. The idea that mentoring is simply equal to advising, can lead us to a superficial view of what makes mentoring work, and what makes for good Collegiality. We train all mentors to use a range of ways to prompt our Research Staff to think out loud, self-evaluate, and to think critically about what’s next for them. This approach means that mentors can be helpful even if they’ve never experienced what their mentee needs to tackle (likely, in these changing times!), and it means they can help to empower our Research Staff, handing over control of decision-making, and building self-awareness and confidence together.

Voices beyond our own

We are part of an ecology of partners in Research Staff development, we don’t try to ‘own it all’. We recognise that development opportunities are everywhere, inside and outside the university, and we aim to enable researchers to locate and select the forms of development and support that are meaningful to them. We work closely with different groups and teams across UofG as well as external experts, to represent the interests of our Research Staff and to share opportunities. At a team level, (even at an institutional level) we Researcher Developers cannot easily resolve the more complex and systemic problems related to research careers but we have a responsibility to work across the university and the sector to look for ways forward.

As part of this, we see it as our Team’s responsibility to keep our ears always open to hearing from you so that we can champion your voice, and represent you in the way you want us to. As well as the Postdoctoral Researcher Forum, whose members liaise with us on all Research Staff matters, we have run several large consultations this year to design new programmes and services (more on that in tomorrow’s Postdoc Appreciation Week post). In the coming weeks we will be revitalising the Forum, and looking at more, and better, ways of working collectively for Research Staff.

Development beyond the individual

As the Concordat tells us, we have a large amount of work to do at the cultural level, working with your Colleges, Schools, and PIs, with HR functions, and the wider development landscape at the university. Our Concordat action plan, and our Culture action plan have been purposefully cross-referenced so that we are building structures and tools with Research Staff at the core. We will be working in the next year to focus more closely on this, and so to help your Colleges and Schools to create research environments and processes, that support you to be at your best.

Recognition beyond a pat on the head

We know that Research Staff play a vital role in the day-to-day support and development of doctoral researchers and with the right opportunities and framing they can deliver thesis support that makes a big impact! The Thesis Mentoring programme has piloted at UofG over the last few months and the outcomes show exactly this. Armed with this evidence, we supported the creation of the UKCGE’s new Recognised Associate Supervisor Award, which aims to build awareness and development of good supervisory practice for the next generation of research supervisors. Currently in pilot, this is a real way to recognise the real work of Research Staff in creating a good doctoral student experience. Once this award fully opens, the team will be supporting you towards achieving it.

Careers beyond academia

A big forthcoming area of work for our team is the development of a Careers Beyond Academia strategy, in partnership with our colleagues in the Careers Service. We know there are hundreds of thousands of PhD-holding researchers out there enjoying a huge range of exciting carers. We know they’re keen to share insider knowledge with you, and we know that they want to encourage you to see the exciting options open to you. We pledge to build on the popularity of our Careers Lunches, and Careers 1:1 consultations, to bring these stories of transition and success much closer to you over the next year. Our first LinkedIn chat was held this year, on the Practical Steps to finding your new Career and was hosted by an amazing panel of staff from Glasgow and colleagues from other UK universities. This has primed us to create a whole suite of new resources for you, under one banner. Follow this blog for updates on this topic, in the next few weeks.

Back in 2018, in the middle of the consultation on the new Researcher Concordat, two colleagues and I together wrote: “…we suggest that the capabilities we want to flourish in our research staff should be aligned with the institutional framing and expectations for the postdoc role itself, and the responsibilities and opportunities that they are offered within that role.” I still very much believe in this stance, that when we create opportunities for postdocs to flourish, we see the brilliant things they are already very capable of. To full appreciate what our postdocs can do, we have to give them the opportunities, the structures, and the recognition to do it.

One response to “To appreciate your postdocs, go beyond the superficial”

  1. […] that that means designing an experience that is more than workshops and courses (more on this in yesterday’s Postdoc Appreciation Week post). We recognise that our Research Staff bring a wealth of professional expertise and lived […]

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