Saturday, 7 October 2017

The Highs of the Hybrid: Bridging the Researcher-Administrator Divide

Last week I emailed all staff about a change to the names of the teams in Research Services. The Funding Team was being rebadged the Research Development Team. Their role didn’t change, but it better reflected what they did, and fitted with what most other universities called those who worked at a very early stage with academics in developing proposals.

To be honest I felt a little guilty about the email. It was one of those messages that, if I was the recipient, I would have deleted immediately or perhaps rolled my eyes and wondered if they didn’t have anything better to do in the Registry.

I think that’s probably what happened with 99.9% of the staff. However, it was the 0.1% who wrote back. ‘How many of the Research Development Team are active researchers?’ asked the academic.

It was an odd question, but I could read between the lines and recognise the disgust with which it was delivered. The point was this: what right did those who don’t do research have to talk to those who do about ‘developing research’?

As ever in such situations, I took a deep breath before replying. I wrote back positively, pointing out that, in my team of five, one was an active researcher, two had backgrounds as researchers, and another was a mature student currently studying for a PhD.

I haven’t heard anything since, and hope that I either answered his genuine query, or brought his cynicism up short. However, it also made me pause and consider whether there was any validity in the thrust of his argument: does a background in research make for a better research administrator?

The answer, I think, lies between the extremes of outright denial and full acceptance. I think having  been a  researcher makes you understand the pressures and problems that academics face. The research process is no longer a mysterious dark art.

You can empathise with the academic, and sympathise with the frustrations of surveys or experiments that don’t go to plan, with the data that don’t correspond, with the serial rejection of an article. You can feel their pain and, by so doing, you can give realistic and informed support.  

Having said that, an argument could be made that distance is an equally important attribute. Those who have had no experience of research can bring both an objectivity and an experience from beyond the ivory walls of academia. They can bring an unflinching honesty to academic egos.

The ideal, then, would be for someone who has had both. They’ve done their time down the research mine, digging away for nuggets of gold, but they’ve also stepped out into the dazzling, dizzying world beyond, gaining alternative skills as writers, or communicators, or editors, or lawyers, or wonks, or managers.

The question of those who are still active researchers is a more difficult one. For those, they have a depth of understanding which is invaluable, particularly if they’re supporting academics in their own discipline. But, at the same time, there’s a danger of their attention being divided, and their focus being drawn more by research rather than administration.

And that’s quite natural. After all, most researchers have gone into academia because they love the subject. It’s a passion. To be diverted from that is both a pleasure and a pain: it allows them a little time off from the intensity of the research and the breathless pursuit of publication, but it also means they don’t have the time to engage more deeply in their research.

But to some, this hybrid is also a somewhat thankless and unrecognised position. An anonymous academic writing in the Guardian’s Higher Education Network highlighted their plight: they are neither one nor the other, and are frustrated by the inability get due recognition in either.

Surprisingly, there are relatively few people in this hybrid position. Initial findings from Research Administrators As A Project (RAAAP) suggest that only 4.1% of respondents fit this model. Much more common are those who have left research behind, or come from outside the sector.

This would not come as a surprise to the Guardian’s anonymous academic. If the hybrid model is thankless and frustrating why would anyone voluntarily have a foot in both camps?

And yet it works for some. I mentioned at the beginning that there was one member of my team who is in this position. I sounded her out about her thoughts on being ‘hybrid’, and whether the anonymous academic had a point.

‘No,’ she said, ‘I definitely don't feel undervalued in my current role but suspect that it's very dependent on the organisation, and I know that I am lucky to be a part of a highly regarded team here at Kent.

‘I feel that being both can be beneficial for three reasons. First, I perceive that academics relate better to you if they feel that you have experienced the same kind of challenges/frustrations that they do. So it’s easier to gain their trust.

‘Second, it benefits my research role as  I feel much more in touch with funding schemes in a way that I don't think I would if I were solely working in an academic role.

‘And finally I get access to a wider range of academics than I might otherwise. This then opens up possibilities for multi or  interdisciplinary research and the generation perhaps of more interesting research questions.’

‘And wearing both hats also means that I don't get too fixated on one thing over the other, although this also means that at at times that one role takes a back seat to the other as workload priorities change over time.’

Her responses were heartening, and confirmed to me that there isn’t a single template for the ‘ideal research administrator.’ Although I’m supportive of the professionalisation of the sector, I don’t think we should lose sight of the benefits of diversity.

I wouldn’t ever want to get to the situations where there was a standardised single path to our role and a need to jump through hoops of certification in order to get there. Our strength comes from having a range of backgrounds and ways of working, and long may that last.

1 comment:

  1. Really interesting. Perhaps like Mastermind, you need specialist as well as general knowledge to win the coveted trophy?!