What is meant by a positive research culture?
The Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers, published in 2019, states that “excellent research requires a supportive and inclusive research culture“. While this includes research integrity as well as researcher wellbeing, here I’m focusing on wellbeing. And I’m including staff who support research – especially research managers, as well as researchers at all stages, including research students. Research technicians are another essential group of staff and the Technician Commitment is addressing several components of research culture from the technician perspective.
What does a “supportive and inclusive research culture” look like on the ground?
So many things can be bound up in this phrase! Mental wellbeing is of prime importance to any culture that is supportive and inclusive. There are lots of factors that can contribute to this but I would include:
- a sense of feeling valued and listened to, regardless of role or background,
- manageable workloads,
- policies to prevent unacceptable behaviours such as discrimination and bullying,
- training to help all who manage researchers and research managers to appreciate what is inappropriate behaviour and how the institution tackles it effectively,
- career development opportunities,
- support for those on fixed-term posts to help them to find an open-ended employment contract – either in the current institution or elsewhere,
- support for those who are struggling with any of the above,
Institutional policies concerning research culture need to be communicated to all who are part of the research environment and implemented. And I believe that there should be an associated action plan, the progress of which is communicated, perhaps on an annual basis.
What were the key findings from recent surveys of researchers and research managers?
In 2020, a study was commissioned by the Wellcome Trust concerning the research culture as experienced by researchers. While the experiences reported vary widely, overall, the Wellcome Trust study report describes the results as “shocking”. For example, 43% of researchers reported having experienced bullying, harassment or discrimination, 31% of those on a full-time contract reported working more than 50 hours per week and 33% of respondents stated that they had received or had asked for professional help for depression or anxiety.
Also in 2020, ARMA carried out a survey of research managers and administrators – individuals who “support, manage and design many of the policies, processes and strategies that inform research culture”. In line with the report from the Wellcome Trust-commissioned study, the ARMA survey report states that 44% of research managers and administrators had experienced bullying, harassment or discrimination, 32% had sought or received professional help for depression or anxiety, and workloads were high due a perception of understaffing. There was also a perception that, compared to academic staff, these non-academic staff did not feel valued, with a “them and us” culture pervading.
But it’s not all doom and gloom!
Despite these very worrying statistics, several universities have and continue to take action to improve their research environment and cultures. One good example is the University of Glasgow. The Head of Research Policy and the Researcher Development Manager summarise the approach taken in a paper published in 2020. Changes implemented by January 2020 included redesigning promotion criteria to include for example, collegiality, and raising the profile of research culture through events and awards. A recent Russell Group publication “Realising our Potential“ summarises the findings from interactions with researchers, university leaders, funders and publishers as well as interrogation of data and current practices. The outputs include many ideas for improving research culture from across the Russell Group and a toolkit to help universities to get started. I believe that many of the ideas presented are worth exploring by universities across the sector, not only Russell Group members.
How can coaching help to build a positive research culture?
Coaching cannot replace institutional actions but it can complement them at a personal level. Coaching provides a confidential space for individuals to discuss issues they wish to work on with a trusted professional. The person being coached decides what topic they wish to work on and the coach facilitates their learning and personal development. Topics might be, for example, work-life balance, deeper understanding of self, understanding the perspectives and motivations of self and others, confidence building, conflict at work, career aspirations.
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During a 35 year career in higher education, Jenny Ames led a productive research group, worked with people from a wide range of subject areas and countries and collaborated with organisations from various sectors. She held the title of Professor at 6 universities, graduated ~25 PhD students and mentored ~25 contract researchers. Jenny was also a senior manager for 8 years. As Associate Dean and Assistant Pro Vice Chancellor, Jenny led on Research Impact at University level. In 2017 was she was made Founding Research Impact Lead for University Alliance.
Since 2017, Jenny has been Director of Jenny Ames Consulting Ltd. Jenny’s coaching practice focuses on university researchers and people in career transition. She also delivers training for groups. Her clients are both universities and researchers on a private basis. Jenny holds a Postgraduate Certificate in Coaching and Mentoring Practice from Oxford Brookes University. She is also a Member of the Association for Coaching (MAC). Jenny has been a role model for the Aurora Leadership Development Programme for women run by Advance HE. She was also a facilitator on ‘Entrepreneurial Leaders’, a programme for senior university leaders run by the National Centre for Entrepreneurship in Education (NCEE).