By Dr Bill Dunn, Oxford Learning Institute
Research staff development is a hot topic. You’ve probably come across some of the various initiatives, such as the Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers and the EU’s HR Excellence in Research Award (both of which might ring a bell if you’ve written a grant application recently or if you were involved in the REF Environment statement); and Athena SWAN, although focused on gender balance, has recognized a particular need to pay attention to researchers. The word "development" features prominently in these initiatives. As this emphasis shows, funders want us more and more to be more mindful and deliberate in the way we develop researchers and are more ready to ask us exactly what we are doing to ensure that we leave a legacy of capable researchers able to lead their field and contribute effectively to society in multiple ways. But what exactly is "development"?
Perhaps the main point I want to make here is that "development" does not mean "training course". When talking about staff development to research group leaders there is often a wariness that stems from the perception that I am trying to take their staff away from them for days on end to do things like Time Management. I’m not. The vast majority of development takes place at work or when doing work-related activities, such as preparing papers for publication, going to a conference, or being shown by a colleague how to carry out a procedure. Training courses are fine – in fact they are great if they are covering exactly what you need – but they are only one option amongst many. Put simply, development is anything that moves a researcher on in terms of their knowledge, understanding, practical abilities, professionalism and personal effectiveness linked to research. All of these things should help them move forward in their careers and help them fulfil their potential, which should, of course, then help you carry out your work better, too.
However, just doing something does not mean you learn anything, or that you get everything from it that you could. For example, attending a conference might teach you little if you happen to attend dull sessions on topics you already know a great deal about. But, by encouraging your research staff to spend a little time deciding what they want to get from the conference, and thinking about the opportunities a conference offers for networking, informal discussions and so on, your staff are much more likely to learn something and to develop in some way. And by getting them to discuss the conference on their return and explain the key ideas to others, they are more likely to consolidate their learning and share some of it around. Now that’s development.
Of all the methods of developing available to us, coaching is perhaps the most under-used and yet one of the most powerful. Coaching is not simply sitting down with someone and explaining something to them. It is helping them to develop ways of thinking, prompting them to come to their own conclusions and helping them manipulate the ideas for themselves. Think ‘tutorial’ rather than ‘lecture’.
So when you hear the word "development", think about what activities could best benefit you and your researchers. It might be a training course, but is more likely to be any one of a range of other ways of developing, and perhaps reflecting on it afterwards. Watch out for more posts on specific techniques.