Developing the next generation of researchers and academics

When developing guidance on good practice to inform staff development, Brunel University asked academic and research leaders to reflect on their own experiences early on in their career. As part of a series of posts by the nine ITF-funded projects, Fiona Denney explains the work.

Brunel University London has been leading on a project to understand the career journeys of research and academic leaders and to use this to inform training and development for “the next generation” of research leaders.  

The project, carried out in partnership with Vitae and four other UK universities, aimed to identify common themes and examples of what academic and research leaders would have found useful when they got their first grant or first lectureship. We asked them to reflect on their own journey and the professional support that could have been better provided to enhance their own career development and transition to a leadership role in order to provide guidance for HEIs and senior academics on how to manage the development of the next generation.

We conducted 18 interviews across five universities in the UK – three Russell Group universities, one post-1992 and one smaller research intensive university – with academics in leadership positions. The aim of these interviews was to capture their views and experiences of leadership development in academia.

The interviews were transcribed and thematically analysed, giving eight themes on which we are now producing guidance for researchers and institutions.  The themes are:

  • Careers and career planning
  • Balancing work and life
  • Culture and environment
  • Working with others
  • Management
  • Mentoring and role models
  • Networking
  • Doing the “business” of research

We took the themes out to consultation with representatives from other universities at the Vitae International Researcher Development Conference in September and the feedback we received there was instrumental in refining the final versions of the themes.

Under each theme, we identified “top tips” from the interviews along with some training tools for staff developers / HR / senior management to enable them to review their own guidance and provision for talent management.  

The interviews yielded far more information than we could do justice to in the time that we had allocated for this.  However, the project has captured the commitment and enthusiasm of the team and we are keen to do much more with the data than we have currently been able to.  

Engagement across the sector was also a key aspect of this project.  Communication within each university has involved engaging with appropriate staff in academic leadership positions for the interviews and we then wanted to engage the wider sector to obtain feedback on what we’d distilled from the interviews.  The Vitae conference gave us an ideal opportunity and forum to do this.

Further analysis and more outputs will be planned as follow-ups.  In many ways, the short time frame of the project focused our attention and was beneficial in providing energy and drive to do the work but we vastly underestimated the depth, quality and sheer quantity of information that we got from the interviews.

The printed and web outputs are available via the Vitae and the Leadership Foundation websites for all UK universities.  These will include mapping the findings to the Vitae Researcher Development Framework (RDF), which will help to contextualise and communicate the findings in an accessible way, and will encourage HEIs to use the project outputs.

We very much hope that the results will be used to assist academic and research leaders to develop talent more effectively within UK universities, and to provide HEIs with guidance on how to enhance academic talent management.

Ultimately, it is our intention that the engagement, communication and dissemination of the project will extend beyond the life of the project, culminating in an online community of practice around the development and talent management of the next generation of leaders in academia.

Please contact Dr Fiona Denney, director, Brunel Educational Excellence Centre, Brunel University London for further information.  

The Innovation and Transformation Fund (ITF), supported by the Leadership Foundation and Hefce, stimulates projects to unlock and share good practice in order to advance efficiency and transformation across the higher education sector. The nine projects for 2014, focusing on engaging the higher education workforce in process review, performance and career management and development, are nearing completion and will be shared over the next few months.