Career Development – Learning Widely

By Dr Rachel Chin, Researcher Development Project Officer for the Flourish programme.

A computer generated graphic. The brain of the goddess Athena when she was a child is depicted as a tree growing through the roof of a school and out into the clouds.

In the research community we are used to the concept of specialisms and to the idea of holding expertise in a single narrowly defined subject area. However, this is an approach that has always troubled me. In fact, I would like to argue for the value of learning and developing widely, not just deeply.

This particular way of thinking is not new to me. I completed my undergraduate degree programme in the American academic system – at the University of Nebraska to be specific. Like many American degree programmes, I completed a huge range of courses. Some of these courses were quite obviously related to my field of study, but others, like geology, food science and Russian literature, were not. Yet, the further I progressed in my studies, the more I began to trace lines and connections between these seemingly disparate elements of my learning. Not only did I start to see subjects overlapping in unexpected ways. I was able to widen the horizons of my knowledge and the network of experts that could support me in growing this knowledge.

Fast forward a dozen years and I find myself in a similar situation, engaged in two very different roles at the University of Glasgow. As a Researcher Developer I coordinate Flourish, our new career development programme for research staff. As a Lecturer in War Studies, I convene an honours module on the Second World War, publish and apply for grants. When I am asked about what it is like to hold these two roles, I am most often asked about the challenges of working in two such different areas. However, what I have, in fact, found, is that my learning in both roles cuts across and complements the other.

For example, my experience co-designing the Flourish programme with research staff has strengthened my academic teaching. I now integrate more opportunities for peer to peer and instructor feedback and collaborative research design. Likewise, my knowledge of academic publishing and grant writing has allowed me to engage in fruitful conversations and connect with new and experienced research staff across the University. 

The point I am trying to make is that as researchers or as research professionals, it is critically important that we look beyond our disciplines for support, development, mentoring or advice. Learning widely supports us to think creatively about different elements of our profession. It broadens our professional networks, giving us a larger range of support to draw from when problem solving and trouble shooting. And it can introduce us to new ways of thinking and new avenues for career development that we would not have otherwise encountered.

A different way of understanding this ability to cross-relate diverse disciplines, and make use of each within the other, is to look at the concept of interdisciplinarity. Perceived as the way to solve complex societal challenges, interdisciplinary research is on the rise in the sciences and in the social sciences and recent research has shown that the ability to think broadly is of benefit to research careers, not just professional skills development. In fact, interdisciplinary researchers attain better long-term funding performance.

Many of the initiatives that are currently running or being launched by the Research Culture and Researcher Development (RC&RD) team celebrate this idea of learning widely – a learning ecology. This is what makes them so exciting. The new Flourish programme, for instance, brings together 41 researchers from across different disciplinary areas of the university. It also integrates diverse programming, such as how nutrition and movement can nourish performance and creativity and how to communicate for impact. In this way it supports researchers to think about career development in a wider way – whereby individuality, well-being, and self-advocacy are intrinsic to career journeys. 

Other RC&RD mentoring and networking opportunities like Coffee Connect (a randomly matched, peer-to-peer monthly coffee), Catalyst Mentoring and Thesis Mentoring similarly bring Research Staff together with other researchers from outside their discipline or college, and emphasise the benefits of a good conversation. Building these connections is a way to broaden our thinking about our existing work, our longer-term career development plans and even our approach to work-life balance. It’s a way to access the unspoken rules of academia, the Hidden Curriculum.

My own career journey has only emphasised to me the value of learning widely and of building a network of support that draws from a diverse range of disciplines and experiences. It is a practice that I look forward to continuing in the coming months and years and it is a practice that I hope I can persuade you to join me in.

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