What do research developers do?

Astroboy cake (Photo by Tseen Khoo; cake by Shayne Smail)

Astroboy cake (Photo by Tseen Khoo; cake by Shayne Smail)

Isn’t it brilliant when you learn something within a week of the new year?

When one of my academic buddies asked me in late 2013 what research developers are meant to do, I happily said, “Let me write a blogpost on that!”, and rubbed my hands with glee at the gift of an easy post to knock off in the new year.

I sat down to write this post, and was immediately bogged down in pondering the specificities and individualisation of the role. I realised that it wasn’t as straightforward as I’d thought.

Let me explain:

When I started this job three years ago (thank you, LinkedIn, for the congratulations), I was one of three research developers who were stepping into new positions. My Research Whisperer buddy @jod999 is another from this cohort. We each had responsibility for one of our institution’s colleges (similar to faculties). There was no-one there before us, and no standing expectations to fulfil.

There were expectations, of course, and these are otherwise known as our job descriptions.

As it turns out, though, each of us has cultivated different processes and priorities when carrying out our basic job of helping researchers find money to do their research.

What I’m talking about in this post is how I approach what I do, and the types of things I think of as part of my job even though they may not be stated explicitly on my job description. Below are two of the main threads of my job.

My job description says… What this actually means I do… What this requires…
Help researchers find funding for their research, particularly to diversify the range of schemes they might consider Get up to speed on as many relevant funding schemes as possible and target clusters or individuals about these opportunities through specific emails.When it’s a more widely relevant scheme, I break out the School mailing lists and put together regular funding newsletters.How red-hot the match is between funding schemes and researchers often determines how avidly I flag it. It took longer than I realised to gain a useful, nuanced understanding of who is working on what in the Schools I take care of.There’s the realm of university marketing about  research, and there’s the realm of everyday nascent projects that still need love and resources.There are the high-flyers who tend to score with top-level national grants, and those who have yet to secure their first competitive grant.

It is a constant, necessary learning process when trying to accommodate the different stages of projects and people’s track-records. More often than not, it’s a diplomatic coaching exercise.

Assist in the development and review of grant applications I discuss and review potential grant applications with the researchers.They send me drafts of their application, or we meet for chats about the scheme and their project/budget before they write it up.I review and return their drafts, usually tracking any changes and adding comments.

Depending on the scale of the application and the punctuality of the researchers, I might do this more than once for their drafts.

I sometimes also nut out the budgets for researchers after we’ve had a chat about what is needed. As I’ve said before, if you conquer the budget, you conquer the project planning.

I manage the review process, which means setting schedules for submission in line with internal and external (funding body) deadlines.

For some schemes, such as the Australian Research Council, we have an intensive, almost year-long process that involves many people across Schools. Smaller schemes may require just one review from me.

I create and streamline grant development resources (e.g. factsheets, scheme summaries, funding calendars, application strategies) to make the development and review of grants as smooth as possible. The Research Whisperer is such a resource.

This aspect can be a very organic. There are researchers who need minimal ushering through grant applications, and those at the other extreme who seek advice on every aspect of their application and feedback.Similarly, there are those who appreciate critical feedback, and those who do not.Finding the best way to approach researchers and their teams to garner the best results (in terms of strong grant submissions) is an arcane craft.

At the heart of a successful process is the building of trust: trust that I have the skills and expertise to give them the feedback and assistance that they need, and my trust in them that they will hear (and hopefully act on) the advice that I give them.

How much ‘review’ might mean editing or re-writing is a ‘how long is a piece of string’ question. As a compulsive editor, I tend to do more than I probably should. But then, how much ‘should’ I be doing?

I mentioned above that I work with a particular college. This means that the university’s central research office provides final oversight of grant submissions and institutional sign-offs. They are also the fonts of knowledge and uber-experts on all aspects of the applications’ compliance and eligibility. As much as I try to keep an eye on these elements as drafts are reviewed, there will always be things I miss. Having a central research office that has your back on these matters is gold.

I’ve been very particular about stating that this is what I do because I know that research offices and staff are organised differently from institution to institution. In addition, research development staff can have different approaches to the levels and type of assistance they offer. I am lucky enough to be working in a college where I’ve had the chance to get to know researchers and their work well, and connect with a community of scholars who value my experience and advice.


Other posts about research management and development roles: 

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About Tseen Khoo
Dr Tseen Khoo is a lecturer in research education and development in Melbourne. In previous incarnations, Tseen has been a research grant developer, and research fellow. She founded a national research network (AASRN), edited an academic journal for 5 years, and has been part of successful major competitive grants. Other than that, she can be quite normal.

5 Responses to What do research developers do?

  1. Sounds very similar to what I do here at the University of Victoria. I’m less than 2 years into a newly created position with the Faculty of Social Sciences, where my I support ~150 researchers across 6 departments (and representing at least half-a-dozen disciplines) by advising them on research funding opportunities and then assisting them in preparing and submitting grant applications. I describe my job as equal parts coach, cheerleader, editor, and strategic advisor. While my job description gives me a mandate, it’s up to me to figure out how best to carry it out. Seems like we have landed upon similar strategies through the use of research funding newsletters, factsheets, and Track Changes.

    • Tseen Khoo says:

      Thanks for that, Holland. It does surprise me at times how research development and grants officer jobs can vary in terms of scope of responsibility and level of engagement. These can be due to internal structures that divvy up workloads in certain ways, of course, and it can also make a huge difference depending on a person’s personality. I love the one-on-one ‘coaching’ aspects of the job, and seeing projects come into being / get funded. It can be very satisfying!

  2. Deborah Munns says:

    Worw I am so glad I stumbled on your post. Your job sounds very much like mine. I am two months into a newly created position for the Faculty of Business at Charles Sturt University. I am to advise researchers on research funding opportunities and preparing and submitting grant applications. I have been a bit bewildered and had come to the realisation that I need to take on a part coaching role, . Thanks to your post I feel I am heading in the right direction…..

    • Jonathan O'Donnell says:

      I think that coaching is a big part of what we do. I find it hard to tell an applicant that they need to lift their game. I’m very good at “Keep going. You can do it.” I’m not so good at “Actually, you can do better than this.” But I’m learning.

    • Tseen Khoo says:

      Welcome to the club, Deborah! The best way to tap into a ready-made pool of research grant development expertise is to dive into Twitter and find wise folk with similar roles. That’s what Jonathan and I did when we first started our jobs + cranked up Research Whisperer! Feel free to ping us (@researchwhisper or @tseenster / @jod999) if you join Twitter, and I’d be happy to recommend some fine grant dev. peeps for you. :)

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