The Academic Woman Interview (3): Research culture

Third of a series of four posts reporting on my interview with Anatu Mahama of the Academic Woman magazine

Anatu Mahama, editor-in-chief of the The Academic Woman, interviewed me and asked me some great questions on four key themes: my career history & advice for juniorsmy past and current researchbuilding inclusive research cultures, and research mentorship. This post deals with the third key theme.

What progress has been made in developing inclusive cultures?

We still have a long way to go. At most universities, research cultures are individualistic, competitive, and focused on a very narrow set of metrics, rather than being collaborative, supportive and inclusive. Although some academics might enjoy being spurred on by a climate of competition, I don’t think this brings out the best in people, certainly not all people. In the past decade it has also led to increasing problems with research integrity.

I am not the only one who feels like this. Calls for more inclusive cultures have come from funding organizations such as the Welcome Trust and from Research England’s Future Research Assessment Programme. As another example, Middlesex University’s most recent promotion guidelines explicitly include collegiality, not just as an optional extra, but as a core criterion for promotion.

I have been in university management long enough to know that the devil is in the detail. Translating a strategy into positive change comes down to consistent and tireless day-to-day activities. Strategies and action plans are often mere statements of intent, mainly created to satisfy external demands. They frequently bear little resemblance to what academics on the coalface experience in their day-to-day realities. That’s why I am so happy with our new MDX 2031 strategy whose tagline is “Knowledge into Action”. My own work at MDX to support ECRs and create inclusive research cultures is very much guided by an emergent, incremental, and iterative type of strategy with practical, day-to-day, on-the-ground support.

But inclusive cultures also make “business sense” for universities. Although it is always hard to evidence a direct link between inclusive research cultures and improved rankings, Middlesex Business School has improved considerably in the international research rankings such as QS, THE, USNews and ARWU Shanghai. Most recently, it also showed an excellent performance in the REF 2021, doubling its 4* rated research and increasing its quality ranking from 52 to 37 and its power ranking from 38 to 32.

Tell me a bit more about your role at Middlesex? How did you arrive at this role? What does it involve?

I joined Middlesex in 2014 with a very specific intention in terms of my own career development. After 10 years in research and research higher degrees administration at the University of Melbourne, I was looking for a job that allowed me to spend more time with junior researchers and less time with paperwork and interminable meetings.

Fortunately, the Business School Dean agreed that my profile was very suitable for a position focusing on building the Business School’s research culture and developing ECRs. So, over the years I have crafted a job for myself as Research Mentor and Staff Development Lead and created an extensive staff development programme, which includes six key elements:

Time and money

This includes research allowances, research cluster leadership allowances and seed-corn internal funding. These are things that are available at most universities, but the key to the latter two activities is supporting junior academics. Research clusters were created through bottom-up initiatives and the research leads are almost exclusively junior to mid-career academics who can build up research areas they are passionate about.

Formal workshops & training

These are dealing not only with paper writing, research funding, external research impact, and specific research methods, but also providing academics with training to help them to improve their research profile. The longest running activity is our writing boot-camp. I have organised this eight times to date and more than 100 academics have benefitted from this.

Informal meetings

These are meetings such as research lunches and research receptions. They all have the aim to diffuse information and get people together to talk about their research and its challenges. But at the same time, they build connections for collaborative research projects or funding applications. It also includes meetings of our CYGNA women’s network which has nearly 300 members from all over the world. We celebrated our 8-year anniversary in May and will be organizing our 50th meeting in December.

Individual-level internal support

This is support that is provided internally at Middlesex. This might be documentary or recorded information, offered on the Faculty’s Professional Development Gateway that I created on our shared drive, or distributed through monthly Research Bulletins. Or it might be one-on-one support through meetings or emails, usually with me or someone’s department research lead or research mentor.

Individual-level external support

Support can also be derived from external sources. We are a member of CARMA and LinkedIn Learning and I provide a lot of resources on working in academia on my own website and YouTube channel. These resources are also accessible outside Middlesex.

General academic culture building

This is largely done through social media, by supporting individual academics in their careers through LinkedIn recommendations and sharing any positive news under the #Positive Academia hashtag.

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