By Dr Joanna Royle, Researcher Development Specialist for PGRs.
It’s the early 2000s and I’m in the stacks on level 8 of Glasgow University Library, crying. My distress is squarely the fault of 19th Century antiquarians and their proclivity for incomprehensibly abbreviating their primary sources. Too stubborn to ask my supervisor (and frankly the stout volumes too heavy to carry to her office), I struggled on – deeply frustrated and deeply ashamed that I was being delayed by what seemed like basic technical and methodological knowhow.
It is part of my personal mythology that this lachrymose incident was the reason I chose a career in skills development. While not entirely true (there were, of course, a rich range of compounding factors), it is one of my firmly held values that we undervalue public research funding and researchers’ professional time when we waste it by making them guess at the process. Research time should be invested in the topic under research investigation – not working out for themselves how to navigate a catalogue, master a computer programme, or do a statistical t-test.
Technical training of this kind, is only a small element of the support that forms the researcher development provision that UofG cultivates to enrich researchers skills and working relationships, foster their talents and accelerate their professional prospects. However, it is an essential component. It builds researchers’ awareness of the tools available to them, and builds confidence in their ability to undertake their project well. It frees up their time to engage with other research project and career building opportunities.
What do you mean by ‘technical training’?
Great question! In saying technical training in this context, I’m bracketing together training on a range of methods and tools for collection and analysis of data. For example, how to use SPSS, or how to facilitate focus groups, fall in scope. These are matters of practical skill, the propaedeutics of which can be directly taught, and the application of which can be encouraged through practice. Providing introductory technical training is a matter of research integrity. It enables researchers to store, manage and process their data and sources rigorously and securely. It’s also an equity issue, particularly when it comes to bridging the transition to research for some of our minoritised groups of researchers.
I do not, however, include methodology. Methodology concerns the rationale for choosing such methods and forms a key component of the critical thinking that underpins original research. Training that steps into the methodology space requires a deep disciplinary context and supportive insider conversations, to enable understanding and to avoid availability bias or confirmation bias. Researchers are responsible for their methodological choices, with support and guidance from supervisors/PIs, peers, and their research communities.
What technical training does UofG currently have, and what are the gaps?
Researcher development at UofG uses an ecology model which gives our researchers rich access to expertise and experiences that support their research and career journeys. Technical training therefore sits across the team(s) best placed to offer that expertise, usually either via our team (Research Culture and Researcher Development Team) in Research Services or the College Graduate Schools.
IT Training are key partners of ours and deliver software training to all PGRs. Awareness of this provision has been a huge catalyst for PGR engagement with our offer, and there is very high demand for courses on Endnote; Excel; SPSS; NVivo; Python; OneNote; PowerPoint; and Word for Theses. These consistently get exceptionally positive feedback and additional provision is in the pipeline including on Qualtrics and on using collaborative documents.
At college level, sit the training courses that target the disciplinary needs of researchers. These range from Using Early Printed Books (bless you College of Arts: I needed that one!), to LaTeX (as common as MSWord for writing in the College of Science and Engineering) to Chemical Safety and Emergency Response (essential in the wet labs of the College of MVLS). Uniquely, the College of Social Science even offers an ESRC-accredited Graduate Training Programme covering research design; (applied) qualitative methods; quantitative data analysis; and introduction to social theory.
However, what we increasingly hear from PGRs is that they want the University to do more to meet their needs around qualitative research methods, with ethnography for example being a top request. Our team, and the College Graduate Schools are starting a discussion about how to best fill these gaps in future years.
Which leads me on to the design of technical training:
What should technical and methods training look like?
Direct instruction does have its place in researcher development. There: I’ve said it!
Now, anyone who has ever heard the Research Culture and Researcher Development Team describe our work and values will think I am being deliberately provocative. Our whole ethos rejects the ‘deficit-model’ of researcher skills, and is predicated on a constructivist epistemology that knowledge and meaning are created through doing, in a context which converges social and practical activity. Pretty much the opposite of direct instruction in fact! However, within the PGR journey, I contend that there are times when the pedagogically contested ‘bolt-on’ model is appropriate. For example, it makes sense to be told of the existence of the Excel ‘CONCATENATE’ function and quickly shown how to use it, rather than flounder on Google searching for ways to combine data or participate in a lengthy discovery-learning group activities to get to the same knowledge.
Where technical training misses the mark is when information transmission is the dominant learning mode. This is particularly important as we collectively think about how to build fit-for-purpose qualitative methods training. Researchers can quickly be pointed to the methods literature (the SAGE methods map is a personal favourite) but what is missing is scaffolded facilitated spaces that move knowing into doing. This may be through structured practice exercises and feedback, peer support for solving problems in their own research design, and inclusion in technical communities of practice. This could be an area where researcher developers look to collaborate with research staff, to support the next generation of researchers through their familiarity with their academic territories.
Finally, it matters who delivers technical training. It is a mistake to think that because a scholar has expertise in a technical practice, they are necessarily well equipped to teach it. Researcher Development is a disciplinary field in its own right, underpinned by specific knowledge and signature pedagogies, and ‘technical skills education’ is a sub-specialism within that field. Our Team is always excited to collaborate with academic and research staff, professional services colleagues and PGRs to foster understanding of those signature pedagogies and bring in the best people for the job. Such collaborations enrich learning across all our researcher communities.
So, what is next for UofG technical training?
Firstly, it must be stressed that this is a think piece, not an announcement of a forthcoming suite of qualitative research methods support! There is broad agreement that our central team is well-placed to lead the explorations of researcher needs and make connections with expert practitioners who might support those needs through innovative development approaches. Which in turn will hopefully mitigate against future researchers finding themselves stymied and disheartened in the library stacks!