Supporting researcher 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 goals. It is an on-going process that can take a wide variety of forms from specialist training to on-the-job experience. In the UK, all funding councils expect researchers to actively engage in professional training and development and the Vitae researcher Development Framework  (RDF) and the RDF Planner have been produced to support this process.

This expectation is set out in the UK Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers  under Principle 4. The European Charter for Researchers also states that 'researchers at all career stages should seek to continually improve themselves by regularly updating and expanding their skills and competencies'. Many Higher Education Institutions 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.

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.  The  principal investigator is  in fact central to enabling and encouraging each researcher to undertake professional development.  Uniquely, you:

  • understand the demands of your researchers' posts
  • 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.

The UK 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?

You could 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 remember develoment is not just  about 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. Do consider how development opportunties fior your team can be embedded within all stages of the research project.

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 applying them to  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.

Identifying development needs

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".

Striking the right balance between the needs of the project and the needs of the researcher is a responsibility for both the researcher and the principal investigator.  Depending on institutional arrangements or funding conditions, there may be  be a requirement for a minimum number of days to be put aside for development activities. Indentifying the most useful or pressing development needs and how best to fit these into the schedule is a task that can be undertaken jointly. 

Principal investigators can also encourage researchers to to consider the range of abilities they may need to develop to fulfil their potential as a researcher in the longer term. It might be helpful to refer to the Vitae Researcher Development Statement for examples of the sort of areas which can be developed. Indeed the attitude of the principal investigator at this point can be enormously influential in how the researcher approaches their  professional development.

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.

Ultimately,  a researcher will take the lead in deciding their own professional development plan.  The Vitae 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. The RDF Planner is an online tool to enable researchers to manage their development. Check whether your organisation has a subscription.


What could be your next step to promote the professional development of your researchers?