Ten is Zen, but why and when?

Posted 22/06/2022 by Sarah Nalden

Dr Mat Tata    Sarah Nalden

Dr Mathew Tata, Project Manager and Sarah Nalden, Communications and Marketing Executive, Vitae, round up the presentations and discussions at 'Ten is Zen:Counting 10 days of Continuing Professional Development (CPD)'

Twenty years ago, Professor Sir Gareth Roberts’ report SET for Success first suggested an allocation of at least two weeks per year for doctoral candidates  to undertake transferable skills training. The report itself led to a researcher development revolution nationally and further afield, but how are UK higher education institutions actually measuring up against this aim? 

The goal of researchers’ engaging in at least 10 days professional development was subsequently reinforced in the 2019 revision of the Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers (‘Researcher Development Concordat’ or simply ‘Concordat), but the latest Culture, Employment and Development in Academic Research Survey (CEDARS) revealed that a mere 15% of research staff reach this target and as many as 27% spend less than one day per annum. The trend continues across career stages, so what are the barriers in research causing this? And what is being done to try to overcome them?  

The pressure to prioritise the ‘real’ work’ often leaves continuing professional development (CPD) on the back burner’, which is further compounded by resistance from supervisors or managers and the fact that researchers don’t realise the immediate and distanced benefits that can be reaped from investing in this process.  

It is, therefore, key to help researchers take ownership of their development, which extends far beyond the training and courses many consider representative of CPD.To that end, the Researcher Development Concordat outlines additional activities over and above the recommended 10 days, such as: engaging in regular career development reviews; preparing for employment options in different sectors; developing research identity and broader leadership skills; and developing an awareness of the wider research system. 

At the end of May 2022, Vitae brought together a number of speakers to discuss examples of practice, and new ways of thinking around CPD at their organisation, which included universities inside and outside the UK, as well as a Concordat signatory funder. Below is a summary of the key considerations raised during presentations and roundtable conversations that delved into the systemic, institutional and individual requirements for enhancing researcher engagement with professional development. 

Presenters and participants alike were clear in emphasising the importance of defining and evidencing what CPD looks like, and in terms of clarifying the university-wide understanding of CPD, two speakers discussed the development of lists of activities that their institution considered to be credible examples of CPD. Presenters were quick to state that lists were non-exhaustive, ‘living documents’ liable to change with time, and that policing engagement with these activities was avoided (with gentle but sustained encouragement preferred) as although 10 days is considered critical, it is not communicated as mandatory. 

Crucially, these case examples of developing lists of activities were felt  to mark an institution’s intent to encourage and promote CPD as widely as possible, as part of its implementation of the Concordat. Securing high-level buy-in and support, through established Concordat governance or Equality, Diversity and Inclusion committees, for example, can further embed researchers’ professional development in institutional strategy. 

Vitae and new research group leaders at a number of UK universities have recently published toolkits detailing the support managers can offer researchers in their career development and progression, which highlight in particular the 'hidden' activities that offer real value to researchers but often remain overlooked or inaccessible.

Despite the role institutions can play by defining CPD activities, the conversations held between researchers and their managers are critical in helping researchers feel clear, capable and supported in prioritising their development. After finding low levels of engagement with CPD across their institution, one speaker remarked how managers needed encouragement to pursue development activities themselves, thereby underpinning their capacity to be a role model for researchers doing the same. In roundtable discussions, a number of attendees shared their focus on helping managers of researchers to see time spent on professional development as an investment, rather than simply 10 days that could be spent performing research. This could help mitigate the chronic ‘time poverty’ researchers attribute to not taking up 10 days of professional development, and this could be engineered through more effective personal development reviews that prioritise CPD amidst competing demands and embolden researchers.

The role funders and other researcher-supporting stakeholders can play in promoting researchers’ engagement with CPD can be more nuanced. ‘From afar’, funders, for example, can mandate professional development, such as through the terms and conditions attached to awards, although whilst awards can include training allowances, some funders may perceive the responsibility for providing said training is with the host organisation. Mid-term reviews and post-award reporting offer further avenues for evidencing engagement with CPD, though bureaucracy reviews might restrict what funders can ultimately ask for. Ultimately, funders’ support for professional development enables institutions to quote this backing when encouraging their own researchers. 

We hope that events like this continue to highlight the growing numbers of policies and practices across the sector that push towards ‘Ten is Zen’ as a reality for researchers. Though, as captured in the Concordat, it will require a concerted effort from key stakeholders, right down to researchers themselves. 

We would like to end by thanking our ‘Ten is Zen’ panellists speakers who shared case examples and perspectives with those gathered at the event: 

  • Dr Anna Price, Queen Mary University London,
  • Dr Chris Wood and Dr Clive Betts, University of Exeter 
  • Dr Caroline Magee, National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) 
  • Dr Saneeya Qureshi, University of Liverpool,  
  • Dr Raquel Tavares, Karolinkska Institutet.

In conjunction with this blog, a dedicated member resource has been produced from the discussions and ideas at the 'Ten is Zen: Counting 10 days of Continuing Professional Development  (CPD).