How four participants were inspired by #VitaeCon2023

Community reflections: four participants reflect on the Vitae International Researcher Development Conference 2023 - #VitaeCon2023 


Across the online and in-person elements of #VitaeCon2023, attendees heard from 31 speakers, 8 plenary sessions, chose from 35 community workshop sessions to take part in, had access to 12 items of on-demand content and enjoyed opportunities to connect with other attendees and 13 exhibitors. With attendance exceeding expectations for both elements, the conference brought the community together to share practice and develop conversations on key issues within researcher development 

So, what did #VitaeCon2023 participants think of the conference this year? We caught up with some of them to find out. Read on to discover what insights #VitaeCon2023 gave them. 

Bettina Chioma Teegen, Doctoral Candidate, University of Surrey

Bettina Chioma TeegenBettina is a current doctoral researcher with research interests in international students and educational inequalities in higher education, internationalisation of higher education, culturally competent teaching approaches, acculturation, mental health (in academia), intersectionality, social injustice, and Black Feminism. She was a speaker on Plenary 1: Voice of the Researcher  

I was an invited speaker for the online session 'Voice of the researcher’ in which we discussed issues early career researchers and doctoral researchers face within the research culture environment, but I also found other sessions on researcher development highly interesting. I honestly cannot say what my highlight was as there were a variety of informative sessions that I learned so much from. But one thing that really stood out was the diversity displayed throughout the entire conference. Black and ethnic minorities are often underrepresented in academia which often generates a feeling of discomfort in these white dominated spaces. However, Vitae 2023 was so diverse that I for once did not worry about being the only ethnic minority person in the room, which was a nice feeling. I really appreciate that at least one person of colour was on each panel thus providing ethnic minorities with the opportunity to impart knowledge as well. 

I would love for every research development space to be as inclusive and diverse as the Vitae conference of 2023. These inclusive spaces are especially important for ethnic minority researchers and not only provide them with opportunities to shine but also make a firm statement that they rightfully BELONG HERE! 

In future conferences I would like to see more panels that focus on race and ethnicity within academia and research. What does this mean? As the most marginalized group in academia and research, it would be great for Vitae to arrange a session with an ALL-BLACK FEMALE PROFESSOR panel in which they talk about their challenges within academia and how they were able to overcome them. For context, less than 1% of professors in the UK are Black, which is absolutely shocking! You could also have an All- Black- British PGR panel that discusses the difficulties they face as they try to obtain their PhD. The same could be done with an ALL-international student postgraduate researcher panel as well as a panel consisting of non-British faculty. Listening to these kinds of panels will allow for rich discussions surrounding difficulties with regards to creating a pipeline for new Black and ethnic minority academics and what difficulties and obstacles they face. The same applies for BAME academics that already have their PhD but that are facing obstacles with regards to attaining professorship. I think it would be very beneficial for the audience to listen to the obstacles of these minority groups as well as gaining insight with regards to how they managed to overcome those obstacles or how they manage difficult situations within academia. 

Silvia Servietti, Talent Development Advisor, Research Office, Politecnico di Milano 

Silvia ServiettiSilvia is a Talent Development Advisor in the central Research office at Politecnico di Milano, Italy. This was her first time attending the Vitae conference.  

I attended the conference to exchange best practices, meet new colleagues and trainers, and learn new strategies for improving our support for researchers. As a result of attending, I now have more useful connections.  

There are two key learnings that I have taken from the conference. The first is about the importance of the Narrative CV for researchers in allowing them to demonstrate how they have contributed to the progression of research. The second is the importance of creating an inner circle or safe place for researchers where they can talk to one another about every aspect of their lives, not only work 

Over the next year and beyond, I would like to see the development of a united international community of researcher developers where we can find continuous support and feedback, clear definitions, and expectations for the roles of researchers and developers/managers.  

I would like to see Vitae contribute to the creation of new tools for improving researcher development, and to help develop more of a community of practice and network online to enable more frequent discussion, peer support and best practice exchange. I would also like to see more events during the year like the Vitae conference with a focus on different topics; the conference was useful but there were a lot of sessions, so it wasn’t easy to choose!  

Anna Pilz, Academic Developer and Trainer: Researcher Development, University of Edinburgh 

Anna PilzAnna ran a special interest session during the online conference titled ‘Precarity and Researcher Development’. Anna was interested in hearing the voices of the researchers and the sessions around equity of opportunities for researchers and researcher precarity. Anna was also shortlisted for the Newcomer Award in the Vitae ICE Awards.  

I joined the Researcher Development sector a year ago as Academic Developer and Trainer at the University of Edinburgh. Given Vitae’s international community of practice, I attended the virtual part of the conference last year and thought that it gave me good insights into the key themes and challenges across the sector, as well as enabling me to learn about projects and best practices from colleagues. In my role, I benefited from the opportunity for professional development via a Postgraduate Certificate in Academic Practice that introduced me to education scholarship. As I learned about threshold concepts, I came up with the idea of considering ‘precarity’ as a threshold concept in Researcher Development. As someone who has been on fixed-term contracts for ten years, this is a subject that’s very close to my heart and I’m keen to make a difference with my training and resources and speak to the lived experience of the researcher community.  

Vitae gave me the opportunity to share my ideas and there seems to be a clear urgency and sector-wide need to address not only the structural challenges of precarity but also how it affects feelings of belonging, access to training, and community building. With those motivations for attending in mind, the conference highlights for me were listening to the voices of researchers and hearing about projects and best practices that work towards equity of opportunities among underrepresented and marginalized groups and thinking about the intersectionality of precarity.  

Dr Francis Awolowo’s presentation will stay with me and has prompted me to think more about equity of opportunities and what I can do within my role. Conversations around equality, diversity, and inclusion have inspired me to reconsider the framing of workshop contents and to seek out opportunities for co-creation of content going forward. This requires more time and potentially resource investment.  

A more immediate step, for me, is to create more visibility for stories and best practices of allyship as part of my initiative on Researcher Realities as well as expanding discussions around sponsorship in the training I offer on mentoring.  

I was struck by Dr Jennifer Leigh’s point during her contribution to the plenary on Leveraging policy for positive change that we need funding to enable research into research culture and environments. I think this is a crucial point and can be expanded into the researcher development space. Much of education scholarship and research focuses on the postgraduate research context, but further research into careers and academic identities at postdoctoral level as well as challenges for mid-career scholars are crucial in understanding the needs for and effectiveness of training to tackle leaky pipelines. Funding opportunities across the devolved HE ecosystem is essential as well as a more diverse remit of the roles of researcher developers.  

Dr Jennifer Rao-Williams, Knowledge Exchange & Impact Trainer Skillfluence Ltd 

Jennifer Rao-WilliamsJennifer attended #VitaeCon2023 from the perspective of an exhibitor. The focus on equity, especially how it connects with first generation students, was a key takeaway for them. Skillfluence ran a networking session during the in-person conference, as well as an online workshop titled ‘Five Essentials for Creating Excellent Training for Researchers’. 

Skillfluence wanted to attend the Vitae Conference this year for a number of reasons. Firstly, we were successful in our submissions for both an in-person and on-demand session. We looked forward to the opportunity to deliver the in-person session, scheduled for the first day: Networking: Ditch the Small Talk & Find Common Ground as an opportunity to meet and network with attendees. We were also exhibiting at the conference as part of the Platinum Package as we wanted to build further engagement with the Researcher Developer Community. Skillfluence has attended the Vitae Conference since 2017, and we see it as a great opportunity to build our relationship with other attendees and exhibitors, and the conference organising committee members which we had a role in supporting this year (as part of the review and workshop committee).  

Personally, I found the conference really showcased the diversity of support that was available for underrepresented Early Career Researchers and highlighted some of the challenges on ideas around accessibility, ableism, and culture. I found the plenary Championing Equity During Career Transitions in Researcher Careers, to have provided the biggest learning, where I left with thoughts on how to apply equity-focused strategies to support access and inclusion, especially for first generation students. From a trainers perspective, I think this connects closely with how we at Skillfluence can build rapport with program attendees and also how training material might be designed to be more accessible (i.e. on demand etc).  

From a relationship perspective it was great to meet new and familiar faces in the Researcher Developer Community. It was awesome to celebrate the Vitae Impact, Culture and Engagement (ICE) awardees and I noted to follow up with both Sandra Oza and Saneeya Qureshi for potential input into new training material (i.e. storytelling for researchers connects really well with Sandra’s exemplary multidisciplinary work with comics).  

I have also reached out via Linkedin to connect with a number of the panel speakers and will, as a consequence, improve my news feed to continue to build my awareness on some of the above themes relating to EDI.  

Over the next year, more attention to the experience of researchers at different stages, i.e., ECR and Mid-Senior would be interesting from a career pathway perspective, particularly relating to access to funding and how issues around EDI are experienced. The launch of the New Deal for PG researchers is really positive, and I think improving our understanding of good practice relating to workload allocation alongside the demands / opportunities of the KEF would be insightful for how Skillfluence co-develops with the researcher community appropriate training. I would like to know more about how progressive university cultures support their researchers to access Knowledge Exchange and Impact opportunities in a way that is conducive to their workload balance? What KE+I is recognized and rewarded and by who, both at a university and larger academic culture level?  

In next year’s conference, further examples of researchers that work at the interface of research and industry to showcase the opportunities and challenges that this has brought them in their career progression would also be interesting, particularly relating to working cultural differences (e.g., four day working week, remote working, international mobility etc). This could be through a set session or specific call on KE+ I at the interface (this was included in this year's call). I see the Vitae ICE awards providing an opportunity to highlight these themes. Having space to reflect with other researcher developers on the capacity to support this kind of career progression as a kind of Community of Practice and would connect well with Skillfluence’s approach to creating relevant training material that is often accessed by both researcher developers and the researchers themselves. 

Key takeaways

Group of people discussing sitting in a circle of chairs

I have already taken forward some of the learning from the event, in particular around EDI...most immediately is thinking about culture and applying equity-focused strategies to target underrepresented individuals."  #VitaeCon2023 participant

Takeaway#1: Connection and community building are key 

Feedback from participants has demonstrated how valuable the Vitae conference is to the community as an opportunity to come together and connect, network, and learn from each other. This relationship building is vital for creating a culture of collaboration and progressing sector-wide work on improving research culture and support for researchers.  

Takeaway#2: Making the conference inclusive and accessible is vital to progressing work on equity, diversity, and inclusion 

We set an intention to make #VitaeCon23 our most inclusive and accessible conference to date and are pleased to see that these reflections highlight that some of the biggest takeaways and learnings from #VitaeCon2023 were in the areas of addressing equity, with attendees already planning to make changes to their practice as a result. There is still much work to be done in this area and we look forward to sharing what we have learned with the community and to making further progress in 2024.  

Takeaway#3: Listening to researchers and understanding their lived experience is important and impactful 

The inclusion of the researcher voice was highlighted as a valuable aspect of this year’s conference both here and in our conference feedback. This year we both heard directly from researchers and invited them to join us through researcher bursaries (sponsored by UKRI), and these researchers enriched conversations across the conference with their experiences and perspectivesFor 2024, we will look to build on researcher involvement and to provide opportunities to share practice on involving the researcher voice within researcher development programmes and projects.  

Thank you to our contributors for sharing their experiences with us.  

If you’d like to be the first to know about developments relating to the Vitae International Researcher Development Conference 2024, or you would like to help shape ideas for it, the register your interest form is currently open. We look forward to hearing from you. 

Of those who completed our feedback survey:

  • 95% of in-person and 90% of online attendees said they had an excellent or good experience overall.
  • Over 90% of respondents said that the initial objectives they had for attending were met through the conference
  • 95% of in-person attendees said that they plan to attend again