Launching the UofG Fellow’s Network

By Dr Rachel Herries – Researcher Development Specialist for Research Staff, Dr Maria McPhillips – Head of Strategic Research Initiatives, and Dr Kay Guccione – Head of Research Culture and Researcher Development.

Graffiti on a red brick wall reading  'Together We Create'

Take a minute to imagine a good research leader. Perhaps you are imagining someone you know, someone you’ve met, or the person you hope to be. What are some of the things this leader does and the things they say? How do they interact with others, communicate, collaborate, handle challenges, respond to criticism? Would you trust them?

These questions are designed to help you to think about what good leadership looks like to you, today, in your discipline, and at your career stage and they are some of the questions we are beginning to ask in different ways and for different groups across the University of Glasgow. The new ‘Talent Lab’ project cluster is shining a light on research leadership across all role types and levels of the ecosystem, through a number of different programmes. The Talent Lab is aligned to our Research Strategy and through that is part of our commitment to focussing on Collaboration, Creativity and Careers as priorities for research, and research leadership.

To fuel this work, we in Research Services are thinking about two interrelated leadership concepts. The first concerns our university’s identity in the research world, asking, what is at the core of what it means to be a good research leader at the University of Glasgow? For example, how do our leaders exemplify our four University Values and how do their actions and attitudes contribute to our commitment to building a better research culture, when translated into practice?

The second but not less important question, is how we can support the personalised development of ‘good research leadership’, within the additional contexts of their Colleges, their different career stages, disciplines and roles. In recognition that leadership is a personal practice and that it can take many forms, and be applied to many endeavours, we want to help each of our researchers to recognise and hone their own approach to being a leader. Through the Talent Lab projects, we are making space for reflection, building self-awareness and self-understanding about how each of us carries ourselves in a demanding career.

We begin from a place of understanding ourselves, who we are and what we value. If we can visualise the features of the working environment, we want to create for ourselves and our colleagues, we can then evaluate what skills and resources we bring to this endeavour, and what we need from those around us. What any given person may need (be it knowledge, ideas, skills, tools, templates or resources, an ally, a career conversation, simple reassurance, or an opportunity) often already exists within the research community and recognising this fact, we have recently taken a closer look at the rich leadership experience that exists within our Research Fellows.

We worked with the always brilliant Dr Sam Aspinall (Head of Interdisciplinary Research Development, Horizons Institute at Leeds) to shape a recent event on interdisciplinary working, that also functioned as an opportunity to bring together and hear from Research Fellows who are dispersed across the University of Glasgow. We asked them how a closer, more formal network might work for them, and what they felt they needed from the group in order to lead well.

As anticipated, what our Fellows feel they need is not the swathes of information or training, long hours in meetings, or more ways to be measured and monitored, but rather the opportunity to spend time building connections and building trust with people at the same career stage, who can relate to the same challenges, concerns, opportunities, ideas and constraints. As a perfect illustration of this, this research report from 2016 shared an account from a now Professor, reflecting back on learning to lead during his experience as a newly-funded Research Fellow :

I was elated when I got it. Really delighted. Two months later it actually started, and I was thrown into a panic again though. I sat there in an office with a new computer and a grant code, and the weight of expectation on my shoulders. I felt really under a lot of pressure to perform now. I talked to some other fellows and found that they related to that so that was comforting. Throughout this I learned how to be really self-reliant, getting the fellowship only started the process of research independence, I wasn’t independent as a decision maker when I got it, but it afforded me the right conditions to become independent in my own decisions over the next few years. I was unimpeded, in that I could simply do what I wanted to do, but also there’s no one there to pull you out if you make a mess of it, you are on your own in the sense as the buck stops with you. But there are colleagues, people to talk to, you can’t be a recluse! No one is truly independent, we can’t be, research is a community of peers. You’re never independent of what everyone else is doing, or of the literature. This notion of independence as isolation is crazy. I just let it go, the sense that I have to do everything myself and be alone. Really it took me another eight years before I really felt the confidence in my decisions. Only in the last year I think I’ve properly established myself and fully made that transition.

All though there are many types of ‘Research Fellow’ (and we leave the definition for our network purposefully open), this story rang true with what many of our fellows had to say. The University of Glasgow’s community of Research Fellows includes researchers holding external fellowship funding and working independently, as well as researchers with other funding sources working as part of wider teams, but there are common threads that link the career development challenges across the group.

When asked what they’d like to get out of such a network, UofG Fellows commented that they faced well known sector issues such as lack of coaching conversations, feeling intellectually isolated, prioritising their time and energy, recruiting and leading others, managing projects and budgets, having the time and opportunity to get out and meet people, and crystallising and pitching their own unique identity and value as a Fellow.

Moving forward our Fellows Network will serve these key leadership development aims:

  • It will be owned and led by its members, a space for discussion, quality conversations, Q&A, practical help, open sharing and support on demand.
  • It will follow the ‘hot topics’ of the day, providing responsive support for big picture issues arising in the sector, by maintaining links to expert academics and Research Professionals in the know.
  • It will be career-trajectory focused, proving peer and specialist support for deeper understanding of how to navigate systems and prioritise energy to meet the demands of probation, promotion, funding, and academic job applications.
  • It will offer opportunities to shape, co-develop and pilot initiatives that nurture and stimulate collaboration within and across disciplines; to identify collaborators, seek specialist input or expertise and to gain experience in the review and evaluation of initiatives and research proposals.
  • It will provide a place to belong, to empathise and to connect with others, to define ourselves and share expertise and advice.
  • It will provide a collective voice that represents and champions the needs of Fellows across UofG.

Managing and maintaining engagement with thriving network does not happen by chance of course, and we don’t want to rely on the volunteered time of already busy Research Fellows to sustain the momentum of new network. We are have recruited a new member of the Research Culture and Researcher Development Team who, from January 2023, will lead on multiple communities and mentoring initiatives across the university and will continue to work with our Fellows to take their new network forward. In recognition that Research Fellows are a group who will soon become the Principal Investigators/Managers of Research Staff (a group targeted for action by the Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers) the remit and activities of the UofG Fellows Network will be closely linked to a new strategy for developing Principal Investigators.

Follow this blog for future updates from the team, including on the Fellows Network, and the PI Strategy.

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