The Researcher Development Framework: Sow’s ear or silk purse? | University of Oxford

The Researcher Development Framework: Sow’s ear or silk purse?

Dr Bill Dunn, Oxford Learning Institute

Vitae ( was set up by the government and research councils to be the central national body for supporting and prompting the development and enhancement of researcher careers. One of their major outputs has been the Researcher Development Framework (RDF), which identifies the key skill areas needed to be considered a competent researcher and breaks these down into sub-skills. The theory is that, if you can break something down, you can also build it up, so researchers can use the framework to identify their strengths and weaknesses and then look for ways of filling any gaps they feel might be important to them according to their direction of travel in their careers.

The framework attracted a lot of criticism at launch (and still does). Accusations ranged from ‘reductionism’ and over-simplification, to complexity and over-complication. Some of those critical voices came from Oxford, so it was surprising when the Learning Institute ran a pilot of the framework in action with research staff from all divisions at the University and received almost unanimous endorsement from the triallists. What did they find useful? Basically, it was the thinking that the RDF prompted... What exactly am I good at? Why have I never thought about that area? What could I do to develop that?

It seems then, that what appeared at first to be something of a sow’s ear may have a silk lining, depending on what you see as its purpose. If you think it is going to provide a precise analysis of your development needs and a roadmap of how to meet them, you may view it as a sow’s ear; if you see it as a prompt for your own thinking and for a discussion between PI and researcher, you may find that silk lining.

We suggest that you look at the wheel at key points in your career. Use it to establish a baseline for your skills and understanding and to produce your first personal development plan to address any areas you feel are key to your development. You can then revisit the RDF at key times, such as just before your Personal Development Review (PDR), when you are thinking of changing role or when you are nearing the end of a contract.

PIs could point their researchers in the direction of the RDF to help give them a framework for thinking about their development. It won’t provide the answers, but it will help you pose the right questions, and as all researchers know, that is often the biggest challenge.

If you would like to arrange for an introductory workshop on the RDF for your researchers please contact Dr Laura Hodsdon.