Reflections on staff development

Provides an overview of my work in the area of researcher development

© Copyright 2023 Anne-Wil Harzing. All rights reserved. First version, 23 March 2023

My current role in researcher development at Middlesex University uses all my prior experience in research leadership and research mentoring. I was appointed in 2014 to raise the Business School’s research profile and transform the research culture at this post-92 university. This is achieved by improving research skills and capabilities and creating a supportive climate for junior academics.

Without you and your resilient character which inspired me, I would have given up! You told me not to give up and I haven’t. I think one of the really amazing things about you is that you don’t make people feel they are a failure! (Middlesex colleague, unsolicited email)

This white paper outlines my work in this area in detail, with a focus on advice for universities interested in creating a similar function. It is a long story, so you may want to skip to the sections that are most relevant to you.

Table of contents

Three key questions
What is this role about?
How do you do it all?
How to convince your institution?
- Hard metrics
- Soft evidence
Structured model of research support
Formal workshops & training
Informal meetings
Internal individual support
External individual support
General culture building
Back to campus - Faculty or University wide - In sum

This white paper is based on a presentation for Research Deans that I have given several times for the Chartered Association of Business Schools. It also draws on a presentation for the European Foundation of Management Development on supporting early career academics

These sessions invariably lead to three questions: “How is this role different from a normal Research Dean role”, “How on earth do you do it all?” and “How can I convince my institution to create such a function?”. So let me deal with these questions head-on.

Three key questions

What is this role about?

My role at Middlesex University was meant to be transformational, not simply delivering the occasional research training session, but instead providing a full programme of support (see below) and build an inclusive research culture. In the past few years, several Russell Group universities have created roles that touch upon these aims. Below is an excerpt from the 2021 “Realising our Potential” report by the Russell Group universities.

I identified three options for launching this role at post-92 universities, universities that typically have fewer resources (see below). For very small institutions the role could be included in the Research Director role. Another option would be distributed professorial leadership. However, ultimately, I suggest that to do the role justice, a separate position is needed. However, it would be beneficial for the incumbent to have experience with the Research Director role or at least a Departmental Research Lead role to appreciate the context and the constraints faced in formal reseearch leadership roles.

The current structure of research leadership at Middlesex University is shown below, with my role highlighted in purple. As you can see research leadership resides in many academics at many different levels.

At the Faculty level the DD RKE and myself both play an important role, but the emphasis of our respective roles is very different (see below). However, what is most important is that separating out the roles allowed both incumbents to focus on areas that suited their skillset and were of most interest to them. Personally, having held the PhD Director role for 5 years and the Research Dean role for 3.5 years, I was “done” with meetings, university politics, and dealing with difficult people 😊

How on earth do you do it all?

Well…, I have worked in academia for more than 30 years in different countries and in different roles. I have always been proactive in expanding my knowledge of the industry I am working in. So, I won’t deny that I am very efficient. I know where to quickly find information related to almost any topic in academia. I am also “blessed” with a strong “protestant work ethic”. However, I am convinced that this role can be fulfilled effectively by anyone who is truly passionate about it. Moreover, don’t forget that:

  • Beyond PhD seminars, I am not involved in teaching
  • I am involved in lots of project work, such as the REF submission, but carry no formal line management roles. So, no time-consuming meetings!
  • I work 25+ hours a week on this role alone
  • Much of my support is sector-wide, so I have more motivation to continue
  • Our Middlesex programme was built up over 7 years in a university with a good research base.

How to convince your dean/DVC Research?

So how do you convince your institution to invest in such a role? Depending on your superior’s predilection there are two routes that might be useful: hard metrics and soft evidence.

Hard metrics

First you can try convincing them with hard metrics. Since I joined Middlesex University has risen substantially in the international research rankings and much of this was driven by the Business School’s performance.

For instance, in the US News Global Universities ranking, we are one of only 34 universities in the UK to be ranked in Economics & Business and the only post-92 university to be in this position. We outrank three Russell Group universities and no less than two dozen non-affiliated universities. In the Greater London area, we rank eight; below LSE, LBS, Imperial, UCL, City, KCL, and Queen Mary, but above Royal Holloway, Birkbeck, SOAS, Brunel, and Goldsmith, as well as all Greater London post-92s.

This mirrors our performance on the 2021 REF (see: REF, rankings & reputation). Our staff development activities – and the eight writing bootcamps in particular – have led to well over one hundred successfully published papers, many of which in ABS3, ABS4 or ABS4* journals. They also made writing up the research environment statement much easier; there was so much material to draw on in the strategy, people, and EDI sections. Moreover, my role in the publication and research environment part of the REF allowed our DDRKE to focus on impact case studies, with stellar results. As a result, we:

  • Improved our GPA ranking from 51 to 37
  • Submitted twice as many staff; as a result our power rank improved from 38 to 32
  • Ranked #1 in the UK on research impact
  • Ranked #31 on research environment, on par with or higher than 6 Russell Group and 23 non-affiliated universities

Soft evidence

As researchers we all know that it can be hard to unambiguously link cause and effect, especially with quantitative data. However, qualitative data suggest that my role in staff development has certainly led to a boost in staff morale (see below).

Ultimately, I think this effect might even be more important than the “hard metrics”. Universities are only as good as the aggregate of their academics. Better staff morale increases the likelihood of staff retention. A good staff development programme can make it easier to recruit staff, especially for post-92 universities. It is my firm conviction that the UK is heading for a recruitment and retention crisis, especially in Business Schools. If they want to survive, universities need to change their perspective on all aspects of Human Resource Management and put talent management centre stage. Staff development can play a major role in this.

A structured model of research support

So, what does our research support look like? We have all the regular of mechanisms, such as research allowances, conference funding, time buy-out for funded projects and research leave schemes. In 2016, our new Business School Research Dean also introduced internal seedcorn funding and research cluster leadership allowances. Both initiatives have been instrumental in allowing junior academics to develop their funding and research leadership capabilities.

However, what really sets our research support apart is a very comprehensive, structured programme of staff development. An overview of the entire programme as of mid-2022 can be found in this video and this blogpost, whereas an update for the academic year 2022-2023 is included in this hand-out of my 2023 presentation for Research Deans.

Our staff development programme sees academic research careers as composed of a wide range of activities, broadly classified under the headings inputs, throughputs and outcomes. The model above explains how these three areas are related.

Most importantly, research funding and publications – typically the two of the most important metrics used to assess researchers – should not be seen as an end in themselves; they are input and throughput measures. All three areas are relevant for academic careers and promotions, but you can’t do all equally well, let alone all the time. So, the key recommendation is to design a researcher development programme that allows every academic to focus sequentially and find their best path.

There are multiple feedback loops between the three elements and different starting points. Some academics might start with research funding and research time/skills and then work their way through publications, research profiles, and external engagement to arrive at the various outcome indicators. Others might start with publishing and then receive more time for research which could lead to further throughputs and academic impact, which subsequently might lead to research funding success. Below I outline the programme of support we offer to help academics build balanced research careers.

Formal workshops & training

My role involves the organisation or facilitation of formal workshops and training on key topics such as publishing, funding applications, research impact, research methods, and research profile building. The format of these sessions has varied over the years. Some of these were presentation-driven with large audiences, others were more interactive with smaller audiences.

One key fixture of the year has been a writing bootcamp that is running over several days (see above). First run in January 2018, I have organised this event eight times do date, of which three times online during the COVID-19 pandemic. In July 2022, I organised the first on-site bootcamp in three years. The feedback below shows how much academics had missed face-to-face academic interaction.

It was a very well-timed event; I had not seen colleagues face-to-face in several years and was feeling disconnected from both my department and the university due to lack of meaningful contact. I was really evaluating my options. This weekend made up for this distance by enabling me to be in a positive and supportive environment.
I am the most motivated I’ve been in some time and that’s down to the mentoring and discussions from the weekend. My mindset has really shifted with respect to paper writing and funding and there were so many concrete takeaways and new connections.
I want to express my gratitude to you and other great research leaders for organising this amazing event where I personally received not only very good feedback, but also encouragement, motivation, and attention from our work family which I needed at this stage. Thanks for caring about us...

Informal meetings

Regular informal meetings are another important component of our staff development programme. These meetings allow for less structured interaction, information exchange, and relationship building. As attendance varies from meeting to meeting, they also ensure colleagues get to know each other. Once you get academics together they won’t stop talking, and they do very much enjoy the meetings. However, someone needs to take the initiative to organise these meetings. Without a dedicated staff development role this is unlikely to happen, certainly not on a regular basis.

In 2014, I started out with 6-weekly staff development group meetings. These 2-hour meetings were run in small groups of 4-6 academics. I would typically run three to five groups every 6 weeks. Depending on the need of the participants, these meetings could include anything from providing feedback on papers and funding applications (circulated before the meeting) to quick suggestions on initial new research ideas. Scheduled discussions on requested themes such as difficult co-authorships, revise & resubmits, PhD supervision, and sustainable careers were also a regular feature, as were quick ad-hoc questions. To set a positive tone, we always started these meetings with a round of sharing of good news, however small. The meetings have been suspended from March 2020 onwards, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, by then they had probably run their course anyway as other initiatives had taken their place.

Another early initiative was a monthly research lunch/tea/coffee, a 1-hour meeting – with catering – in which colleagues involved in research leadership (Deputy Dean RKE, myself, departmental research leads and cluster leads) provide information about upcoming events and open the floor to anyone with questions. These meetings were moved online during the pandemic and have remained virtual. During the pandemic, I briefly trialled research receptions that focused more on interaction rather than information transfer (as in the research lunches). The idea was to mimic conference receptions where you meet and chat with a lot of people in a limited time. Unfortunately, it turned out that the online format wasn’t conducive to achieving this goal.

Finally, for female academics CYGNA meetings (see above) are an important fixture on the staff development menu. We celebrated our fiftieth meeting of the network in December 2022 and are already planning our 10-year anniversary writing bootcamp for the Summer of 2024. Within Middlesex, I am also running monthly group mentee meetings with a dozen female academics.

Internal individual support

Internal individual support at Middlesex University is provided through career development meetings, in which I work with ten structured questions that allow me to establish how I can best support our academics. In these meetings I help colleagues to proactively engage with their own career development and – where needed – identify any academics in my own network that might be good research collaborators.

This is supplemented by quick-fire email support on any questions relating to academia.  I maintain email folders for well over 200 colleagues, allowing me to refer back to earlier interactions. Whereas some academics only choose to engage with me intermittently in response to a specific need, with others I develop a longer term mentoring role (see below).

Anne-Wil has been an extraordinary mentor during my time at Middlesex University and an ongoing source of inspiration, encouragement, and support! Having reconnected after she was my PhD Director at the University of Melbourne, I now have the opportunity to experience first-hand what is like to have the highest level of support and advocacy for our development needs. Anne-Wil truly makes me want to be a better academic! She also helps me face my own limitations and those of the system and reflect on what can be changed. Through her role-modelling, she has transformed us and the way we work and also laid the groundwork so that we are empowered to help others. Dear Anne-Wil, thank you for being you! [LinkedIn recommendation by Clarice Santos].

It is crucial to vary support depending on the level of need and desired type of engagement. Some academics may prefer to work on their own in building their capabilities. I therefore created a Professional Development Gateway with access to dozens of folders containing over 500 documents, videos, and Power Point presentations.

They cover topics such as publishing, impact, funding, and research profile building, but also more detailed topics such as theory development, networking, Open Science, reviewing, journal submission, quantitative and qualitative research methods, etc.

Four-page monthly Research Resources Bulletins with different “corners” – events, publishing, funding, impact, promotions, research skills, Open Science etc. – alert staff to new and important resources, whereas one-stop-shops provide a 1–2-page overview of key topics in academia (see below).

External individual support

Another important part of our staff development is directing staff to a curated offering of individual-level support provided outside Middlesex University. This includes support for specific research methods through membership of the CARMA research methods consortium and LinkedIn Learning.

General support on “all things academia” is provided through my own website and blog (an overview is provided on the Working Academia aggregator page) as well as my YouTube channel with more than 100 videos and more than 30 playlists on topics such as publishing in top journals, improving your research profile, supporting early career academics, Publish or Perish, social media, how to get cited, inclusive academia, proactive academia, Q&A on academia, Frontline IB and many more.

Finally, I have converted several of my multi-part blogposts into free-standing books in a series called “Crafting your career in academia”. Books are reasonably priced (print £8.95 and Kindle £5.95) to make them accessible for individual academics, as well as universities who would like to bulk-buy books for their staff members. Benefiting from my ability to buy even cheaper author copies, Middlesex University provides colleagues with free copies of any books they are interested in.

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General culture building

A final element of our staff development programme relates to building a positive, inclusive, collaborative, and supportive culture more generally. This is achieved not through big events or high-profile activities, but simply through little day to day acts of kindness. I have documented many of these suggestions here: Changing academic culture: one email at a time…

Some of the little things that can make a big impact are connecting with colleagues before they join and providing them with practical information before joining, especially if they are moving countries. New colleagues also receive a book on publishing in top journals as a welcome present.

General culture building also involves sending colleagues a quick congratulation email with a cc to their line manager when they have had a paper accepted or reached another milestone in their career. Supporting and amplifying their social media engagement makes a big difference too.

Finally, reassuring colleagues that what they are experiencing is normal and showing your own vulnerability is very important. If you seem infallible as an academic leader, it may be hard to get others to give it a go. This was the key reason for me to write up My little girl story. The slide below is part of a presentation I gave at a course for Faculty Deans on supporting ECRs for the European Foundation for Management Development.

Early in 2022, I introduced the #PositiveAcademia initiative on LinkedIn, supporting individual academics in their careers through LinkedIn recommendations and sharing any positive news under the #Positive Academia hashtag. I started writing these LinkedIn recommendations over the 2021 Christmas break and haven’t stopped. I now have written over sixty and am hoping to write many more.

Little gestures make a big difference to academics in your network. I expanded the initiative in 2023 by developing three strands: resources supporting #PositiveAcademia, LinkedIn recommendations, and initiating discussions on LinkedIn around core #PositiveAcademia themes (see below).

Back to campus

During the COVID-19 pandemic I had completely redesigned staff development offerings to suit the move online. Although this took some initial adjustment, it worked better than many of us had expected. Therefore, most colleagues expected online staff development to continue, online had become the “new normal”.

We accommodated this by keeping the research teas and many research seminars and research cluster meetings online, thus facilitating larger attendances. However, I also felt that face-to-face meetings were essential to restore the fraying levels of cohesion amongst our colleagues.

In the 2022-2023 academic year, I therefore launched a “move back to campus” with twice-monthly (half)-day events on campus (see slide below). The programme was created early in the academic year to allow academics to block the relevant days in their diary. Face-to-face interaction is essential for:

  • a healthy academic discourse
  • building a strong research culture
  • staff cohesion, especially for new staff members
  • meetings that need interaction rather than only information transfer

Most months feature a writing workshop and a meeting with a substantive topic. The writing workshops are unstructured events, they are basically “shut-up-and-write” sessions. The half-day meetings were carefully designed to achieve as much as possible in terms of:

  • expanded general knowledge on the topic (cognition)
  • practical strategies colleagues can apply in their daily work (behaviour)
  • becoming part of a supportive group of colleagues that participants can continue to interact with after the event (affect)
  • increased motivation to make progress in the area (conation)

We are still experimenting with the best format, audience, and frequency. However, feedback to date has been very positive.

This was very possibly the best staff development session I have attended in my 13 years at Middlesex University. I felt Anne-Wil unlocked a whole world that I had been struggling to access up to now. I will certainly be reading her books and accessing her online content. Thank you so much!
The very well-organised sessions, with very knowledgeable facilitators able to answer a wide range of questions from colleagues in very different stages of their careers and from different disciplines. Very impressed by the format: plenary, allocated groups and free allocation. It is obvious lots of work and expertise have been put towards this event, to make it feel like it was all flowing very easily. Sessions felt very short but at the same time, just enough.
I really enjoyed having the space to think how I can prioritise my research. The tips from more experienced/successful members in my panel were very useful. This has now given me the impetus to kick-start long-delayed research projects. Another benefit was networking and meeting new people.
Having a combination of early and middle-career researchers, together with more experienced colleagues was fantastic. Moreover, having various disciplines sharing their experiences encouraged colleagues to "lose" the fear for grant applications. This event increased the feeling of bonding and self-efficacy of many colleagues.
The networking with colleagues was really useful and I've made connections that I am following up with. The atmosphere was collegiate, open and friendly. The table facilitators were invested and helpful. It felt like there was a lot of expertise in the room and full of possibilities to collaborate.
It was great to get to speak to staff members who have been very successful in the funding sphere and learn from them. It also created a great networking opportunity for those less experienced with UK-based funding. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, I thought the event was inspirational. It was great to hear about the success stories, to be reminded of the opportunity to join forces and increase one's chances. But ultimately the biggest benefit to me was the opportunity to pause (from the daily focus of teaching and trying to squeeze some/any research in) and be allowed a few hours to think about the grander opportunities that are out there.

Faculty or University wide?

Should staff development be organised university-wide or should it be tailored to individual Faculties or even Schools? This is a question that will arise for many Research Deans and Deputy Vice Chancellors Research. For smaller institutions it might make sense to offer sessions university-wide, whereas for bigger institutions Faculty or even School-wide provision might be more appropriate.

Likely attendance is a big factor in deciding the level at which to offer events. The “catchment area” is simply bigger for events offered at Faculty or University level. However, for any academic skills that are  discipline-specific – such as publishing – university level events might in fact lead to lower attendance. Most academics are prone to thinking that any event designed to suit everyone isn’t going to suit their discipline, even if it would 😊.

What is most important though is that any decisions are made consciously. As an illustration, below is a proposal I recently created to initiate a discussion about university staff development at Middlesex university.

In sum

There is no one-best-way in designing a researcher development programme. Choices depend on the  your institution's research strategy, resources, staff composition, and staff needs. Priorities may also change over time depending on resources and the level of support needed.

That’s why my own work at Middlesex University has evolved over the past 8-9 years through “continuous improvement”. I hope that this white paper has given you some reflection points and useful ideas to consider in your own institution. Please just drop me an email if it has. I love getting feedback.

Middlesex seminars

Over the years, I have organised or facilitated a range of seminars at Middlesex University

Find the resources on my website useful?

I cover all the expenses of operating my website privately. If you enjoyed this post and want to support me in maintaining my website, consider buying a copy of one of my books (see below) or supporting the Publish or Perish software.

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