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- Vitae Research Staff Conference 2010: Report on Workshop B1 - Case study examples from local RSAs and launch of RSA guide
Vitae Research Staff Conference 2010: Report on Workshop B1 - Case study examples from local RSAs and launch of RSA guide
10 November 2010
By Stuart Gilfillan
It’s fair to say the majority of this workshop was focused on examples from local research staff associations rather than the Guide to Research Staff Associations. I guess this a reflection that the guide hasn’t yet been published so few people have had a chance to read it. However, the workshop still provided some very useful experiences from those running Research Staff Associations and a taster of what the guide will contain.
The workshop kicked off with an Introduction to the Guide by Rob Hardwick from the University of Leicester, the author of the guide. Rob explained the purpose of the guide which is:
- To provide a resource for those interested in starting and sustaining a Research Staff Association (RSA).
- To describe common RSA models.
- To capture researchers’ experiences of RSAs from the UKRSA/Vitae survey of RSAs and case studies from existing RSAs.
Rob then outlined the main reasons for starting an RSA expressed in the UKRSA/Vitae survey. These were; providing opportunities for research staff to network and collaborate, giving practical support to researchers, influencing policy and simply the experience of running an RSA. He then outlined the two main types of RSAs, namely Faculty and Department discipline based RSAs and University and Multi-Institutional RSAs.
He explained that Faculty and Department RSAs are typically run by ‘local’ researchers for colleagues and are usually found in large departments focused on specific disciplines. These are valuable in establishing dialogue between individual researchers and senior management. An example of this type of RSA is the Little France postdoctoral Society at the University of Edinburgh (http://www.lfpds.ed.ac.uk/).
Rob went on to say that University and Multi-Institutional RSAs tend to have a greater number and diversity of members (cross-discipline) and tend to function in advisory roles. This can be a good model for smaller departments to implement and a good example of this model is given by the Research Staff Reps Committee at the University of Bristol (http://www.bris.ac.uk/researchstaff/reps/).
Rob also described the role UKRSA, supported by Vitae which is the national RSA for the UK. The UKRSA supports the development of local and regional RSAs, provides a collective voice on research staff issues and represents research staff with national stakeholders.
Rob’s concluding advice on establishing RSAs were:
- Define the objectives of your RSA.
- Build the committee.
- Publicise your RSA.
- Develop stakeholder partnerships.
- Identify sources of funding.
- Seek help from the faculty or university careers service.
Rob finished by outlining the main challenges to running a sustainable RSA. These included researcher apathy, resulting in reluctance to attend events and the turnover of researchers and committee members. He stated that RSAs need to be flexible to respond to researchers changing agendas in to provide a valuable means of support and that there is no substitute for dedicated committee members!
David Proctor then presented an excellent example of how to run an association from his extensive experiences as co-chair of the Life Sciences Postdoc Association at the University of Dundee. David firmly believes that the key to engaging researchers is to provide what they want and for the association to be viewed as useful. To this end the Life Sciences Postdoc Association has produced a handbook for new researchers that have recently moved to Dundee. This is primarily focused on researchers arriving from overseas covering topics such as how to get a bank account and finding accommodation and but is also relevant for UK researchers who have just moved to the city.
David outlined that the Life Sciences Postdoc Association provides a number of social activities aimed at providing networking opportunities for researchers and these include an annual ceilidh jointly run with the graduate students, a summer BBQ and pub quizzes throughout the year. David was keen to point out that associations need to cater for a wide range of researchers including those with family commitments.
The other key element of supporting researchers is assisting with their career development. The association has built a strong partnership with BioDundee which helps to provide external speakers to highlight career options outside of academia. David also pointed out that the more people on the committee the easier it is to organise events and the easier it is to keep the association running. The Dundee association committee currently consists of 15 researchers. Currently the budget is an impressive £7000, which is solely funded by the School of Biological Sciences and is non-competitive, although the association does have to prepare a proposed budget for the year ahead for approval from the Head of School.
Jo Rees presented her experiences from being the vice president and social officer for PdOC (Postdocs of Cambridge). PdOC was started by obtaining funds via sponsorship from science companies. This money enabled them to hold monthly meetings and reasonable researcher attendance at these provided an impetuous for the department to provide additional funding. PdOC currently hold 2 general meetings a year in order to obtain the views of researchers on the association and ensure they are still organising events which are relevant to the researcher community at Cambridge. PdOC main aim is to provide a communication point for all of the postdocs at University of Cambridge as prior to the setup of the association there was no representation for research staff within the University
Jo highlighted that for an association to be successful it is essential that the committee are enthusiastic and proactive as this will encourage researchers to attend meetings and take part in the association. Other tips she offered was ensure your association has a web presence, try to obtain official representation for researchers at School or College level to provide a relevance for the association and approach all potential sources of funding, no matter how diverse!
Sheila Thompson, Head of the Researcher Development Programme at the University of Edinburgh provided an excellent example of how Universities can help research staff associations. Sheila provides a point of contact for existing and starting-up associations and maintains a directory of existing RSAs containing contact details for the main committee members of each association. She maintains a University wide email contact list for all research staff at Edinburgh and this is freely available to any RSA that wishes to identify researchers in their school or building.
Much of her work with RSAs is in the setup phase. Sheila described how she has worked with Head of Schools and Departments to get their endorsement for new associations and to help with obtaining funding. She is happy to help with composing the remit of new associations and has presented at a number of association launch events.
Sheila also works across the entire University and sits on a number of committees representing research staff. In these she is able to highlight the achievements of RSAs and raise awareness of their importance and this also allows her to promote more communication between Schools and Departments on Research Staff issues. Sheila concluded by outlining her direct work with associations, which included publishing details of events through the Researcher Development programme website and newsletters and hosting networking events for associations across the University.
A constructive discussion session followed the four presentations and again this was mainly focused on examples from existing associations to assist with those in the room who wished to setup an RSA or those running RSAs. The main outcomes of the discussion were:
- Contact your University Researcher Development Officer as they will be able to offer some of the support for your RSA that was outlined by Sheila.
- There is a concern that funding in a ‘post-Roberts’ world will be more difficult to maintain, especially in Universities that have yet to fully support RSAs
- It is essential for an RSA to record details of the events that have been organised and how successful they have been. This allows identification of popular topics with researchers and is useful in future funding applications.
- It is essential that an RSA is addressing the needs of the researchers that they are representing or its value is lost.
- It is often worth ‘going above’ PI’s for support for RSAs to a School or College level. Typically, Heads of School or College are more aware of the benefits of good management of Research Staff than (some) PI’s!
Hopefully this will be of some help for those of you running RSAs or those thinking of starting one up. I certainly learned a few tips that I will try to incorporate into the RSA I’m involved with and I hope those that were there and those reading this blog will do too. In addition, the Life Sciences Postdoc Association at the University of Dundee have produced an excellent top 10 tips page for setting up an RSA and it is well worth a read (http://postdoc.lifesci.dundee.ac.uk/runningapostdoc/top_ten_tips.html) as I’m sure will be the UKRSA Guide to Research Staff Associations when it is published on the 30th November.