- Supervisors & managers
- Leadership development for principal investigators
- Managing people
- Supporting professional development
Supporting professional development
What is professional development?
Professional development is the acquisition of skills, knowledge, understanding and attitudes that will enable a researcher to fulfil their potential in their current and future roles and help them work towards their career plans. It is a constantly on-going process and can take a wide variety of forms from specialist training to on-the-job experience. Each of the funding councils expect researchers to actively engage in professional training and development, it is an expectation set out in The Concordat and many Higher Education Institutions in the UK are now including related provisions in their own policies concerning research staff.
What's it got to do with PIs?
Your researchers' professional development is important for you for several reasons:
- They will be more competent, and this will take pressure off you
- They will be more committed, and this too will take the pressure off you
- You are well-placed to encourage and support their development
- Well developed researchers will be beneficial to your discipline as a whole.
The Concordat encourages researchers to take responsibility for their own development but also makes it clear that this is something they should not do alone. It explicitly states that their research manager should share the responsibility.
‘ Employers should....ensure that research managers provide effective research environments for the training and development of researchers and encourage them to maintain or start their continuous professional development. (The Concordat, section C. 6) ’
What can the principal investigator do?
The role of the principal investigator is absolutely central to enabling and encouraging each researcher to continue their professional development. You:
- understand the demands of your researchers' posts
- will have an insight into their strengths and weaknesses
- can offer support and advice to your researchers when they consider their development goals
- are in an excellent position to shape your researchers' professional development by ensuring they have access to appropriate opportunities to develop their skills and experience
- will often be viewed by your researchers as a role model, whether you like it or not
- can provide opportunities for them to try out their newly-acquired skills, etc
- can encourage your researchers to reflect on new experiences to ensure they learnt the most important lessons from them.
Development should not be seen as something distinct from the research project as, with your input, it can often immediately complement and impact upon your researchers' work on the project. You will want to familiarise yourself with the researcher development opportunities on offer at your institution which will often be free of charge and at a convenient location but development is not just attending courses; some of the best opportunities will be the ones that you can provide - such as the chance to help with bids or to liaise with external stakeholders. So you will want to consider how development can be embedded within all stages of the research project including work-based opportunities and outside opportunities.
The importance of reflection
It is important that your researchers get the full benefit from any new experience they may have as part of their professional development. Giving them an opportunity to formally reflect on what they learnt from an opportunity can be immensely beneficial in encouraging them to consider the lessons they took from the experience and apply them to their current and future work.
Reflection can be done by the individual (keeping a written record such as a personal learning journal can be very helpful) but it can also be joint venture involving a review that includes other researchers or their principal investigator. You may want to explore with your researcher the most effective way of ensuring that their experiences are learnt from and built upon in future development plans.
Increasingly researchers are taking advantage of support mechanisms such as peer mentoring, coaching schemes or participation in action learning sets. These can act as an excellent aid to help them reflect on any development opportunity they have been involved in.
You can also help by sharing your own experiences of development and reflection. Though it may be useful to remember that you may be unconsciously competent in relation to some of the things that you do. You may have to reflect on this to allow you to share your expertise effectively with your researchers.
In 1983, Donald Schön developed the concept of ‘reflective practice'. He argued the importance of reflection both during activity (‘reflection-in-action') and afterwards (‘reflection-on-action') to an organisation's or individual's ability to develop. While most practitioners will reflect informally on experiences, Schön advocated the benefits of formal reflection.
While we may gain much from simply having a new experience, reflection is vital to ensure the lessons that experience can give us are carefully considered and fully understood. In this way the individual can take lessons from one situation and apply them to another.
Identifying development needs
Clearly there is no benefit from burdening researchers with so many duties and so much responsibility that they struggle to find the time to complete their research. Striking the right balance is a responsibility for both the researcher and the principal investigator. Depending on institutional arrangements or funding conditions, there may be also be a requirement of a minimum number of days put aside for development activities. For instance, guidance from Research Councils UK gave a recommended minimum figure of two weeks training on transferable skills and career development per year for researchers and stressed the importance they placed on continued professional development (Research Councils' Career Development and Transferable Skills Training (Roberts') Payments, RCUK, 2008)
Ultimately, the ideal is that a researcher will take the lead in deciding their own professional development plan; no-one benefits if the researcher feels they are being dragged through a box-ticking exercise. However, indentifying the most useful or pressing development needs and how best to fit these into their schedule is a job that is often carried out in consultation with the principal investigator. Indeed the attitude of the principal investigator at this point can be enormously influential in how the researcher approaches their own professional development.
Researchers may be initially reluctant to admit to areas which need developing or may not have given thought to areas such as communication, networking, project management or assumed they are not relevant to their research. Principal investigators can help encourage them to consider the range of abilities they may need to develop to fulfil their potential as a researcher and succeed in their chosen career path. It might be helpful to refer to the Researcher Development Statement for examples of the sort of areas which can be developed.
Having a formal conversation with your researcher about development needs at the start of their contract will be of great benefit. It will show you are serious about supporting them as a researcher to fulfil their potential and encourage them to give their own development careful thought. It can also be a good motivational tool: "I will expect you to work really hard. You can expect me to help you to develop as a researcher".
Further identification of needs can take place formally at appraisal or review meetings, it can involve the use of 'Training Needs Analysis' tools or creating a Skills Profile' or, equally, it can happen much more informally. The important thing is that the conversation happens and is followed up with action. Keeping a record (or encouraging your researcher to) of the skills gaps identified and the training completed or experience gained can be a very useful tool in planning further development and helping the researcher in applying for jobs or contracts in the future.
The Researcher Development Framework has been developed specifically to help researchers identify the areas in which they could look to improve and directions in which they could develop.
What could be your next step to promote the professional development of your researchers?
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