Vitae is a UK-based organisation that “champions the personal, professional and career development of doctoral researchers and research staff in higher education institutions and research institutes.” A couple of years ago, when I first discovered them, I found their website contained a wealth of resources for assessing your position as a researcher and for thinking about personal development. I reviewed how I’d done in May last year, and now the time has come around again for me to revisit the question of where I am in my professional development and how I want to improve. Vitae has upped the game a bit, though – they’ve recently introduced this nifty Researcher Development Framework spreadsheet that helps you identify key characteristics of your state as a researcher, and work out how to get from where you are to where you want to be. The RDF works as a wheel – you have four main categories of qualities demonstrated by researcher, which in turn are broken down into three sub-categories, which themselves have between three and seven qualities associated with them.
Each of the subcategories have rubrics associated with them, so in the spreadsheet you can identify where you are in each category and where you want to be – thus not only giving you an accurate position of where you are as a researcher and where you want to be as a researcher, but also of where you could be as a researcher. For instance, the highest level rubric for the category of “critical thinking” is “creates evaluation processes and evaluates progress, impact and outcomes for national/international organisations and/or projects.” Now, nobody, bar nobody, is going to expect just-been-awarded-her-doctorate me to have involvement with international organisation – but it’s a good thing for me to know as I start to eye a career in academia, in terms of five and ten year plans. It’s also quite a good thing to help bridge the gap between my old identity as PhD student and my new identity as the holder of a doctorate - there’s a sense of a broader career progression here that doesn’t assume some magical process occurs when you submit your thesis and transforms you into a grown-up, which helps as a mechanism to negotiate that liminal space.
A lot of the rubrics also ask you to demonstrate things that really you can’t demonstrate until you have a proper faculty level job. For instance, take the rubric for ‘enthusiasm’ (yes, there is one). There, the mid-level rubric asks that the researcher “is passionate about research: enthuses others; inspires enthusiasm in the discipline/research area.” Great – but as a fairly isolated PhD student, I don’t really have a great deal of clout to inspire or enthuse others, or (for that matter) the opportunity to speak to others to inspire them in the first place. Give me a faculty position and I can work on developing this – but not before then.
There are some areas that are obviously written to apply to the Broad Church of Academia, that don’t apply so much to the humanities in general or to classics in particular. That’s going to be the case for any discipline, of course, but the moral issues that arise with data collection from interviews simply aren’t an issue for my sources, given they’ve been dead several hundred years and their writings have been public property for a long time before I started on them. Of course, I thought I’d never have to think about the ethics of this sort of thing – and then I wrote an article on pedagogy and had to make sure I had students’ permission to quote what they had said about the course I was writing about. So these issues can surface in the most unexpected places, and the RDF does at least bring them to mind so you are prepared if you unexpectedly encounter them as your research takes its own directions.
I’m very glad to see the Framework highlights the importance of building support networks to being a successful researcher. As an off-campus grad, I had to learn that the hard way – but it’s reinforced for me the importance of having a learning community, which is something I’ve taken into my classrooms with quite reasonable success. I’m glad that sense of community is valued here, and a measure of a good researcher includes their integration into communities.
Another good thing about the structure of the spreadsheet is that you can omit things that you aren’t interested in measuring. For instance, I decided that (on balance) I wasn’t particularly interested in evaluating my knowledge of research methods in either theoretical or practical terms – the rubric felt much more appropriate for experimental techniques, which doesn’t really have quite the same applicability for someone who basically works with chunks of text. So I can just choose for the spreadsheet not to evaluate it. This has the beneficial result of making the framework useable for a researcher in any field without invoking frustration at having to look at irrelevant boxes. It also means you can make a very small, targeted plan that focuses on just one or two areas you’d like to improve, or you can do a a much more thorough, overall profile to get a sense of where you are in general.
Frankly, though, there are some descriptors that are just – well, odd for someone like me who basically spends most of her time with texts and books. Let’s take the ‘health and safety’ element, where the level one rubric includes the phrase “understands relevant health and safety issues and demonstrates responsible working practices”. As one colleague said to me, for those of us in classics, this basically means trying to avoid dropping the OLD on your foot. I know that things like having a first aid kit accessible, good posture while using computers and making sure your office doesn’t have any trailing cables for people to trip over also form part of this, but in all honestly I find it quite hard to get excited about the fact that one day I might meet level five of the rubric, “shapes policy and procedures of own institution, national or international professional associations/bodies”. I guess that sort of thing is just more exciting if you’re talking about acid or x-rays.
One interesting thing was in the rubric for ‘Ethics, principles and sustainability’ – the suggestion that a level 1 researcher would be “mindful of own impact on the environment’ and would understand ‘how to behave and work in a sustainable way’. That’s a brilliant thing to see on a researcher development framework from a green perspective, but as someone who is very aware of how many air miles she’s racking up at the moment, it is something of a wake-up call. Environmental impact should be something we think about in our work, and it certainly informs how I’m thinking about mine at the moment, but it was a bit of a shock (albeit a pleasant one) to actually see that concern formally articulated. I wonder how often it actually gets talked about. Plus it also raises an interesting question – if you are considering which conferences to submit abstracts to, how much consideration should you give to the environmental impact your travel will have on that trip?
Once you’ve worked through all of these rubrics, decided where you stand what you want to improve over the future, Vitae has also included handy tips and links for where you might go to develop action plans to get where you want to be. Naturally, I approve of this – it’s good to be given some hints about how to move forward rather than just being to jump mysteriously from A to B. Some of these links are more useful than others, but everything helps get the ideas flowing.
In a future post, I will be thinking about what working through the RDF has done for me personally, but I hope I’ve already made a case for it being a worthwhile investment of time for a researcher at any stage, and a valuable element in continuing your professional self-assessment.