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Settling In: The Researcher's Guide to Your University

3.2 Researcher roles and contributions

To date we have explored the broad skills that a researcher should display – at any level of appointment. However, not all skills and capabilities operate across the spectrum. There is an increasing understanding of how researchers grow into new roles and responsibilities as they move toward more senior appointments. While there is no fixed progression and people can transition to quite different roles rapidly, there is also evidence to suggest that the following stages are commonly reflected in the career paths of researchers.

This section therefore outlines the different roles that researchers may play and the important capabilities that are desirable for researchers to have. Again, as you review these areas, consider which of your capabilities perhaps need further bolstering. And if you are a senior researcher, consider how you will promote the development of these skills in your junior team members.

If you have time, please read the following information about early career researchers, midcareer researchers, research leaders, and research leaders. If not go straight to The Future Research Leaders Program modules.

Early Career Researchers (ECRs)

The term Early Career Researchers has been used as it is widely understood across our sector. It is taken to mean those researchers who have completed a PhD and are seeking to consolidate a research career.

However, ECRs may also be people who are in the process of completing their research degree – particularly if they have come from a business or clinical background. Early career researchers can demonstrate a great diversity of background and experience and are not necessarily younger staff. Many researchers bring considerable experience from other work settings, including overseas appointments and long track records in professional roles. While most may be young, there is strong evidence of an increasing number of older academics seeking a different career path through research. Thus, this term is meant to reflect the commencement of the research journey as the knowledge learnt in a PhD is translated into the business of developing and implementing research grants and seeking avenues for publication and research dissemination.

In general, the largest issue facing ECRs is the establishment of a viable research niche. The PhD does not necessarily transition into a sustainable research focus that complements the university's research priorities or the foci of the research area to which the ECR is appointed. In this case, the researcher may need to 'adapt' the research focus to complement these priorities. The consolidation of a research focus can take some time and may require careful discussion with other researchers. A challenge for many ECRs is that time is limited. Establishing a creditable track record is a critical priority. The goal of any early career researcher should be focused on being a Chief Investigator (CI) by midcareer. Despite needing to clarify and consolidate a research focus, many early career researchers are also expected to teach, supervise, and take responsibility for seeking new grants. They are also expected to build a publication record as quickly as possible. If this is your context, think carefully about your time and work role management. While the teaching is an important element of your work, it can become all-consuming. A balance between research and teaching is critical. Steady progress in research needs to be maintained, particularly in the first 5 years after a PhD.

There are five critical areas that an Early Career Researcher needs to consolidate in the first years of research. These are briefly described below.

  • Induction to both the local research area and the broader university context ensures the individual is well informed of the strategic, political, and practical context in which research operates. Researchers who enter university without taking time to become familiar with the university's context, as well as their local research environment, can greatly impair their effectiveness. New and inexperienced researchers need to be well guided through the complex world of university research. Such guidance may be provided by a supervisor or mentor.
  • Grantsmanship skills need to be cultivated. New researchers have much to learn in terms of grant seeking models, avenues for funding, sponsorship strategies, university and grant body contacts, and the practical skills of developing grant proposals. While an individual can work through these processes through trial and error, there are major benefits in drawing on existing models and seeking guidance from experienced researchers. Peer review of grant proposals, and mentors who will guide the researcher through that process, are two highly valued avenues for learning.
  • Development of a credible track record is a critical goal for any early career researcher. A balanced research profile needs to be achieved. The nature of that profile can be different for each researcher. However, publishing in high quality journals, presenting refereed papers at international conferences, and building a profile within the relevant disciplinary community are core elements of a track record. Supervision of honours and PhD students through to successful completion in a timely fashion also contributes to a strong track record. Advice and support from more experienced researchers can be very helpful in identifying the best journals and conferences. An important issue in establishing this track record is to ensure that you are profiled in any publications drawing on your research. (The attribution of authorship is discussed in Module 3.)
  • Life as a new researcher also must be navigated carefully during those early years of working in a research-intensive university. Early career researchers need to initiate and cultivate research networks, establish mentoring relationships, develop a career strategy, and ensure effective performance across the necessary portfolios. This immersion into university practice takes time and commitment. It can be greatly assisted by connecting with other more experienced researchers, and through ongoing sharing of experiences with other early career academics. The investigation of Go8 researchers emphasises the importance of encouraging links with other early career researchers. Peer mentoring can alleviate a sense of isolation and loneliness.
  • Overall, however, time deprivation is probably the most significant challenge that an early career researcher will face. Over time this sense of pressure will become more controlled, but in the first year or two, it can be particularly overwhelming. Three main strategies can assist with managing time pressures. First, identify what you need to achieve to further your career. This will assist in clarifying priorities. Second, cultivate people who can provide you with quick tips and assistance to fast track the learning process. Third, seek out developmental opportunities that can assist you to acquire the necessary skills. Early career researchers interviewed in the Go8 project noted that they were reluctant to seek opportunities to learn and develop their skills as they felt that time away from the bench would be disloyal to the research project and the research team. However, they also noted that this was a mistake which impaired their career progression. Each researcher should take the time to learn effective and efficient strategies which will assist with their work. A few hours away from the laboratory or research desk can be paid back very quickly with the implementation of improved processes. Topic 4 (Managing your research priorities) delves more deeply into the whole issue of priorities, time, and career management.

Mid-Career Researchers (MCRs)

Mid-Career Researchers can be defined as those who have established their track record, achieved grants, published papers, had successful postgraduate completions, and built a creditable profile. They commonly manage projects, teams, and areas of research activity. In some cases MCRs hold large administrative portfolios and work closely with their research leaders. They commonly supervise many staff and students and have a history of grants and publications. Many mid-career researchers are highly successful and ready to launch into a more substantial leadership role as a senior researcher. In some cases, however, they may feel a lack of recognition as Chief or Principal Investigators on grants, and may experience a tendency to be listed as second author, behind the research leader, on publications. (Having said this, it should be noted that there are different protocols for publishing, depending on the discipline and group within which a researcher is working; there will be more discussion of this in Module 3, Topic 4.1.)  In the 2006 study of mid-career researchers, some respondents expressed a strong desire to create their 'own space in the sun'. On the other hand, they recognised the need to seek mentorship from their leaders while continuing to build their profile. The jump from emerging to established research leader was sometimes noted to be a particularly large challenge for this group, with several interviewees indicating that they expected to shift to another university to make that change. Obviously, our universities would prefer to retain their researchers instead of losing them to another institution. The Future Research Leaders Program can assist in preparing researchers for new and more complex challenges – and in ensuring existing opportunities are fully realised.

Overall, the biggest challenge facing mid-career researchers is the chance to take time away from the research agenda to reflect, plan, and renew the research focus and research skills. Researchers with management roles can find it difficult to secure time away from the research area. They may also feel that there is insufficient recognition for the role they play and find it hard to gain additional resourcing and support. These are not insurmountable problems, but they do point to a need to operate more strategically to overcome these obstacles. There are some major areas of focus mid-career researchers should develop to increase their profile, effectiveness, and achievements. These include:

  • Career management (particularly with respect to gaining increased profile and recognition)
  • Project team leadership and management (particularly with respect to planning, financial management, and performance management of the research team)
  • Building and strengthening collaborative research partnerships with industry, colleagues, and national and international partners
  • Managing and building up a credible profile within the university is another important skill to acquire. Opportunities to build cross-disciplinary collaborations, networks, and a knowledge of university processes all assist in building a stronger presence across the academic community. Many researchers find they reap many benefits from engaging more strongly with their colleagues and the formal channels within the university.

Research Leaders

“It's funny, because it has very little to do with real science ...”

“We need opportunities to get together with other colleagues with similar issues.”

These comments from established research leaders reflect the complexity that faces those with high level profiles and track records. Research leaders are normally well established in their fields, with a strong and sustained research profile and a sound group of researchers and students who work in their research niche. They generally demonstrate a confidence in their ability to maintain their research reputation and in drawing additional research grants in to fund their activities. The level of funding for research leaders can greatly vary from 'an embarrassment of funds', to a continual need to generate 'sexy [research] on a shoestring'. Research leaders funded through fellowships and ongoing research grants are particularly challenged in maintaining funding streams as well as research program and teams. Many rely on consultancies and research contracts as well as grants to generate their funding base. This clearly places additional pressures on their role, as relationship management and industry connections are pivotal to the research group's well-being.

Human resource management skills to work with students, junior colleagues, and across larger research groups also play a large part in most research leaders' 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 conform with some basic codes of conduct and follow the necessary policies and protocols. The process of postgraduate supervision is particularly important as you will be required to demonstrate an awareness of the university's policies, deadlines, and standards.

Research leaders have both leadership and management roles. Some of these include:

  • Research discipline leadership at local, state, national, and international levels
  • Research management, particularly in relation to human resource management, technology and systems management, business process redesign, commercialisation, financial, and reporting activities
  • Research leadership focusing on vision setting, mentoring, relationship building and maintenance, innovation and entrepreneurial activities, culture building, and developing and sustaining a high performance culture
  • Personal/life planning to enable hand over to new leaders, and to assume a statesperson-like role in retirement. Many research leaders also recognise a need to continue developing interpersonal skills, their own passion and self-belief, and their time management strategies.

Research Centre Leaders

Research leaders may also grow toward more formal roles as research centre leaders. These individuals carry great responsibility for the management of a facility, large budgets, multiple research programs, and relationship management across many different stakeholders. They may employ a team of administrative staff to support the research process and hold high level positions on university committees or within faculties. They normally have high profiles across the nation and may be drawn on regularly to comment on the research area. These leaders play a key role in promoting the research agenda and its development.

They also play a lead role in guiding the growth of the centre and its individuals. In addition to the skills that should be evident in all research leaders, they need to provide strategic leadership of the centre and demonstrate a capacity to build a high performing and very capable leadership team. Centre leaders require strong skills in management. They need to ensure their centre remains financially viable and that a steady income stream is generated. Promoting the centre's outcomes is critical, together with building a critical mass of research. Research centre employees are often employed through grant funding. As a result, they require additional support and assistance to ensure they are able to move to new employment opportunities or projects as their existing program of research concludes.

The Future Research Leaders Program modules

This induction module will later introduce you to another 8 modules that have been designed around the management/research strategy needs of researchers. The modules accommodate the needs of all levels of participants through the blended learning approach that enables you to choose your level of focus. You can take more time to explore new areas of expertise or simply review your existing practices and check your knowledge of current ideas. However, you may find that you have identified certain areas of development that are particularly critical right now. The modules on offer are introduced in this module in Topic 6: Progressing your research career. At this stage, however, think about the areas of development you might like to target in the coming year.


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