What does the professionalisation of researchers mean?

What does it mean to be a ‘good’ researcher?

There is no right answer to this question as individual researchers will have different sets of competencies (skills, knowledge, behaviours and attributes) in order to be successful in their particular contexts. However, identifying what professional development looks like at your institution and how you will approach this is important in establishing your institutional strengthening programme. The Vitae RDF can help you to do this.

It is a comprehensive model that provides:

  • Researchers with a reflective tool to recognise the competencies they have and those they want and need to develop
  • Institutions with a comprehensive strategy to underpin training and development activities as a way of communicating how they develop their researchers
  • Policy makers such as funders and governments with international language and a global benchmark for researcher development.

You may be familiar with the concept of the 'T Shaped' employee; this person has both the deep expertise required for their role and the broad competencies needed to thrive in the modern world. Vitae has adapted this model to the professional of researcher, and developed a model tailored to the African context as part of The Path to Research Leadership in Africa, a project exploring the landscape of research leadership, commissioned by Wellcome and Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa (AESA).

African T shaped modelFigure: Model of African Research Leadership 


As the model shows, researchers are specialists with deep expertise in their subject, academic discipline and research methods. Alongside this they need other competencies that are applicable across all sectors; e.g. communication, problem solving, team working, project management and creativity. (These are sometimes call 'soft' or 'transferable' skills.)

Some of these competencies will be developed by researchers through the course of their research; others can be supported through institutional researcher development provision, which may include some of the following activities:

  • Mentoring schemes
  • Training on academic and research skills eg. writing or funding applications
  • Opportunity to develop wider skills eg. team activities
  • Online training
  • Links and placements with employers
  • One-to-one sessions utilising the Vitae RDF

It is difficult for researchers to be successful and effective as they become more senior if they do not develop broader competencies alongside their deep disciplinary knowledge and expertise. Helping researchers to develop their competencies will not only make them better researchers but also make them better research supervisors, managers and leaders. In turn, this will positively impact their research outcomes and outputs, and those of their team.  Better researchers produce better research, leading to greater recognition for an institution both nationally and internationally.

Helping researchers to develop a broad range of competencies can also lead to a change in research culture and will undoubtedly improve research leadership.  It can also lead to higher levels of engagement and impact. 

Once a researcher, always a researcher?

Helping researchers to develop their competencies is also essential if they move to roles beyond academia when they will need to be able to articulate their research and the skills and competencies they gained as a result of the research process in areas in which it may not be obvious.

Find out more in our publications what do researchers do.