Group of Eight Australia
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Settling in: The Researcher's Guide to Your University

3.1 Working as a researcher

There are many different models for employing researchers in universities. In some cases, the researcher's role includes teaching responsibilities. In other cases, researchers may be employed to focus solely on research. Despite these differences, researchers across your university face similar challenges in managing the overall work role and concomitant expectations for achieving sound and reputable research that is widely published and of high impact. This section will highlight the necessity of managing your career, your ongoing development, and your relationships. Of course, there is also the need to maintain the impetus and focus of the research itself.

Recent research across the Group of Eight universities (Debowski 2006) has identified a number of important skills and capabilities that researchers should feel able to undertake and perform – no matter what their level of appointment. These generic attributes are listed below. As you read them, consider how you have recently demonstrated these capabilities. If you feel that you could benefit from further development in any area, note it down for reference later.

Research is primarily a self-managed process. The researcher must ensure that he or she has the appropriate expertise and capacity. There is also a need to plan for both long and short term goals, so that the researcher's full potential is realised. There is increasing recognition that researchers need to be proactive in seeking opportunities to gain recognition for their research and to promote the work of their university. A strategic researcher also takes advantage of opportunities to build new strengths that will be of value in the future. Self management is therefore one of the three generic attributes outlined here. Three elements can be identified: time management, career management, and media skills.

Media skills are valuable for any researcher. Increasingly the impact of research projects and publications are affected by good profiling in the media. You should ensure you have a good personal webpage on the university website, and well constructed profiles through public avenues (e.g. Community of Science (COS) database), and that important research achievements are highlighted in the university's publications or broader marketing channels. The media can be a useful channel to build public awareness (and potential-sponsor awareness) of your research. For example, the ability to write about your research in an engaging way that can be understood by the public is a very useful skill.

Working with others

Researchers interact with many different people. They may work closely with colleagues, supervise more junior researchers and staff, or work with sponsors and other stakeholders. An effective research program relies on people who can work well with others. Six aspects are worth specifically noting:

Communication skills (both verbal and written) are foundational skills for any researcher. While it is important to be able to write and converse on academic matters, it is equally important to be able to communicate in a sociable and respectful manner with other colleagues. The capacity to communicate clearly, coherently, and constructively is important in order to successfully work with others. If your first language is not English, monitor how well people are responding to you. There are many avenues of support which might assist you – including advanced language courses and coaching. Your mentor may be able to assist you.

Interpersonal skills are critical – particularly for those working collaboratively. Interpersonal skills cover a range of capabilities. Aspects to consider include the ability to listen and consider other points of view, a willingness to adapt and take a different approach to accommodate the needs of others, a valuing of diversity, and a desire to work with the strengths of others.

Relationship management is a third area which strongly relies on the ability to work with others. Relationships with colleagues, stakeholders, and other significant people require consistent attention and commitment. These relationships thrive on regular contact, common interests, respect, and an ability to work, as well as the development of common goals. In some cases, your relationships may be ‘virtual’ (internet-based) relationships – straddling time and distance barriers. In these cases, you will need to put considerably more effort into the establishment and maintenance of those relationships. Teams demand even more focus on the maintenance of effective relationships.

Human resource management skills to work with students, junior colleagues, and across larger research groups also play a major part in most researchers' activities. From the moment you commence supervision of an honours or postgraduate student, you will need to build a strong understanding of how to recruit, select, manage, and develop other people. Your university will have many expectations and policies about how you manage people. In particular, you will need to comply with some basic codes of conduct and follow the necessary policies and protocols. The process of research student supervision is particularly important as you will be required to demonstrate your understanding of and compliance with the university's policies, deadlines, and standards. Supervision and collaboration with team members also requires sensitive interaction with others and knowledge of the university's own standards, codes, and protocols.

Research mentorship strategies (as both mentor and mentee) are a fifth aspect of working with others. The mentoring relationship is a particularly important component of a researcher's life. In your work you will hopefully experience the pleasure of being both a mentor and mentee. Evidence from Go8 researchers indicates that mentoring is a most powerful learning experience. The qualities and commitment you bring to that relationship will be a major determinant of whether such a relationship successfully grafts and holds.

Collaborative research requires some additional skills to successfully work with other colleagues. As well as the various attributes noted above, it is most important to have a clear understanding of how intellectual property will be managed and the ways in which ownership and responsibility will be assigned. The partnership relies on a strong basis of trust and respect for the other individuals as people and as reputable researchers. The need to share ideas and contribute to a collective research strategy also requires a willingness to operate flexibly and constructively.

Research skills and capabilities

Although you may have come to this university with a raft of well-established research skills, there is a continual need to refresh and expand your skills. Each year, new and improved research methods emerge and need to be monitored. Thus, it is most important to take the time to maintain your professional research skills base and to attend any suitable conferences or courses which can assist you in keeping up to date. In addition, you will no doubt have other research skills and capabilities which your university will expect you to demonstrate.

Analytical skills and critical thinking skills are clearly part of any research activity, as is the capacity to generate innovative ideas. Researchers progress from being novices through to experts in many areas of their work. As you become expert in various areas you will be asked to share some of that knowledge and expertise with others – as a teacher but also as a knowledge source.

Project management is a must for all researchers. Each research project you undertake will require careful planning, management, and evaluation. This orientation module explores the process of project management to highlight the various areas that you should be able to demonstrate and control. Your university expects that you will have the necessary skills to successfully manage the time, people, funds, relationships, and risks attached to any project for which you are responsible.

Budgeting and contract management expertise has become an increasingly important aspect of research practice. If you apply for and receive a grant or a research contract, you will be expected to manage this aspect of your work with due diligence and a careful reflection of university practice. You will also need to comply with the granting body’s requirements. Every researcher needs to be skilled in managing budget and contract processes. These skills may include knowing how to view and read budget reports, search spreadsheets, use pivot tables to change the report view, and monitor staffing and other expenditure reports.

Knowledge of how the university and research processes work is critical to your work. This orientation module is designed to provide you with a broad overview of the main aspects of process and practice with which you should be acquainted. However, this will need to be supplemented by an ongoing monitoring of changing policy and systems. You may also need to spend some time learning about the various reporting and performance monitoring tools that are used to record your own research performance.

Your information and technology skills are critically important. Most of us have acceptable capabilities in using the main applications. However, there are many advanced strategies that can greatly enhance your work. It is important to update your technological literacy (and library retrieval skills) on a regular basis.
While we are educated in our preferred research methodologies, new and improved research approaches constantly emerge. Researchers need to keep pace with new technologies. This may sometimes require further formal learning.

These generic attributes are necessary for any researcher to function effectively. You may find that some of these are more fully developed than others. This is to be expected. At this stage, it is important to consider which are well established and which need further nurturing. Jot down any areas that you feel are potential areas of concern. These will be picked up later in our final review of this module.

While these are generic skills, it is natural that some will assume a higher priority than others, depending on your research context. Table 2.1 summarises the areas and their likely importance, depending on your research focus. A space has been left for you to consider how important each capability is. You may like to identify the top three development areas you would like to focus on. Make a note of these in your Induction Interview Checklist for discussion later.

Table 3.1: Generic research capabilities
(Rating: *** = very important, ** = quite important, * = of some importance)

Capability

Small project/
individual research project

Project team

Large research program

Your context

Time management

***

***

***

 

Career management

***

***

***

Media skills

**

**

***

Communication skills

**

***

***

Interpersonal skills

**

***

***

Relationship management

*

**

***

Human resource management

*

**

***

Research mentorship strategies

**

***

***

Collaborative research

*

**

***

Analytical/critical skills

***

***

***

Budgeting and contract management

***

***

***

Understanding the university processes

***

***

***

Project management

**

***

***

Reference:  Debowski, S. (2006) Critical times: an exploration of recent evaluations of researcher development needs. Research and Development in Higher Education 29: 81–86.

 

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