Research Careers Tool

The Research Careers Tool is designed to help researchers, in conversation with their peer groups, mentors and line mangers, to be more strategic and selective in what they take on.

What is the purpose of the tool?

Academic staff engaged in research often experience acute pressures on their time. Over the past decade, there has been an expansion in the types of activities we are expected to undertake: from the core tasks of data collection/analysis, publishing, winning research grants and wider academic citizenship; to new forms of interdisciplinary collaboration, knowledge exchange and industry engagement; and all in a context of increasingly complex requirements for ethics, project management and data management.

These pressures are often heightened for women, colleagues from minority ethnic backgrounds, with health problems or from less advantaged socio-economic backgrounds, and at earlier or mid-career stage - given additional challenges in juggling roles, securing the right support, and navigating university structures. We also know that colleagues with protected characteristics often are shouldering more of the ‘altruistic’ or ‘collegial’ activities than others.

The premise of the Research Careers Tool is simple: we want to help researchers to select and prioritise their activities, in a way that furthers their research careers, and avoids them being overstreteched. The Tool is designed to help researchers, in conversation with their peer groups, mentors and line mangers, to be more strategic and selective in what they take on. Rather than expect everyone to do a bit of everything, the idea is to encourage academics to focus on a subset of tasks. This package might reflect where their specialisation and skills lie (for example, collaborative versus individual scholarship); what academic trajectory they would like to be on (building a public profile or leading a team); or it may reflect wider goals and priorities within their subject area of school (for example, promoting local community engagement, or forging partnerships with industry).

Importantly, such selection need not be static, but should be seen as something that evolves depending on career stage, or across career cycles.

How does it work?

The tool sets out the wide range of activities that researchers might carry out across different aspects of research, engagement and leadership. The activities are positioned on an indicative spectrum from ‘Starting’ to ‘Advanced’ – though in some cases activities may not be obviously correlated to any particular career stage, or may be equally relevant across a full career (e.g. organising a workshop). It is also worth noting that the points along this spectrum are not aligned with academic grades or promotion criteria. They are simply there as aids to reflecting on career development more generally.

Using this grid, researchers can map those activities they are carrying out, across the three dimensions. Through this mapping process, the Tool aims to help staff in the following ways:

  • Prioritise Activities. Help people map where their current activity/focus is, with a view to understanding current pressures and helping focus on a narrower set of tasks
  • Career Planning. Reflect on what their future career goals are, and what type of ‘package’ of activities might best support these (for example, through identifying possible pathways based on career goals – becoming a research centre leader, leading collaborative projects, or engagement with industry)
  • Retrospective Assessment. Provide a retrospective tool for researchers to understand and communicate how they have navigated their careers (for example, senior researchers could share their ‘route’ with earlier career colleagues)
  • Addressing Inequalities. Help identify inequities in the burden of activities across colleagues, especially in relation to the extent of ‘leadership and collegiality’ activity being undertaken.

Examples of how the tool might be completed

It is helpful to provide some examples of how the Tool might be filled in, and what this might tell us about research career support.

An example of an Early-Career Researcher

An example of a Mid-Career Researcher

An example of an Advanced-Career Researcher

How can I use the tool?

You may find it helpful to organise a meeting or workshop with a group of peers – this could be a group of postdoctoral fellows, recently appointed Lecturers, or final year PhD students. Distribute copies of the tool along with marker pens, and encourage each participate to fill in the main activities they are engaged in across the three dimensions.

You can then take it in turns to reflect on your distribution of activities, or map, and compare with others.

  • Is the chart too busy? If so, which areas might you consider doing less of or stopping?
  • Which areas are important for you to prioritise for career development?
  • Using a different coloured pen, you might want to fill in the activities you would like to be doing in 2 or 5 years. What might you need to do to move towards these activities?

You can structure a conversation with your mentor/mentee around the Tool. Ask the mentee to fill in the graphic either before or at the beginning of your meeting. You can use the Tool to explore:

  • What areas is the mentee focusing on?
  • What are the career goals of the mentee (over the next 5 years)? Is this the appropriate cluster of activities given those goals?
  • Does the cluster of activities suggest that the mentee is too thinly spread?
  • Is the mentee taking on the right level of leadership/collegiality (or too much/not enough)? If not, what might be done to address this?

The Tool can help guide discussions around research career goals, workloads and leadership/collegiality, as part of Annual Review or research review meetings (some Schools conduct these in addition to Annual Review). However, it is important to note the caveats below, notably that the Tool does not correspond to academic grades or promotion criteria; and that it only captures the research-related component of academic staff workloads (not teaching or administration).

Those conducting Annual Review may find it useful to have printouts of the Tool available, and then ask if the reviewee would like to fill out the form as part of their discussion. It would be important to clarify that the Tool is not a formal codification of workload, nor will it be used to calculate or assess workload in any formal sense. Rather, it is a means for a staff member to map and describe the range of research and engagement activities they undertake, as a basis for discussion.

Once the reviewee has filled in the form, the reviewer might like to explore the issues outlined above, i.e.:

  • What areas is the reviewee focusing on?
  • What are the career goals of the reviewee (for example over the coming 5 years)? Is this the appropriate cluster of activities given those goals?
  • Does the cluster of activities suggest that the reviewee is too thinly spread?
  • Is the reviewee taking on the right level of leadership/collegiality (or too much/not enough)? If not, what might be done to address this?

What the tool does not cover

This tool is designed to help academic staff with responsibility for research. It focuses on research-related activity, rather than teaching or more general leadership activities, for two reasons. The first is that this is the area over which academics typically enjoy most autonomy: they have considerable scope for selecting those activities they believe will best support their goals in research and knowledge exchange. This is in contrast to teaching or administrative roles, which are often allocated based on the needs of the relevant unit. The second reason is that research is the area in which academic staff typically feel the most pressure to perform. They are often confronted with high expectations about what they should be achieving – in terms of publications, grant income, impact, wider recognition, and so on. It is this dynamic that creates particular pressure, leading to people often feeling over-stretched. For this reason, the Tool focuses on how academics can prioritise and select within this part of their job. Clearly, this does not address pressures around teaching or administrative workloads, which require different kinds of support.

Given the focus on selecting and prioritising activities, the Tool may have more limited purchase for post-graduate researchers, research assistants or post-doctoral research fellows with a clear set of allocated tasks. In both cases, there will be less scope for selecting which research activities to focus on. However, for both of these groups, the Tool may be useful for reflecting on future career plans.

Finally, we should stress that the Tool is not designed as a guide to academic grades or promotion. We included a very loose spectrum of career stage (from ‘Starting’ to ‘Advanced’), but this is not relevant to many of the activities included, which may be equally relevant across career stages. Moreover, an early career researcher may be involved in activities under the ‘Advanced’ end of the graph, and conversely senior researchers may be involved in activities under the ‘Starting’ end. The tool is designed to map activity and, across some dimensions, explore what next steps might involve. But it is not intended to be aligned to, or support, grading or promotion.