How #altac research happens

kieranKieran Fenby-Hulse is the Researcher Development Officer at Bath Spa University (UK).

He is primarily responsible for delivering and developing research development workshops and online training materials to support both postgraduate researchers and research staff.

Kieran’s research interests include creative practice, cultural value, affective experiences, music, narrative, gender, and Hindi film.

He has a research blog, “Researching Music, Digital Media, and Film“, and tweets at @DrKFenbyHulse.

We were intrigued by Kieran’s profile apparent balance between his own research and role as a research developer, and asked if he’d like to tell us more about how he manages to find space for both.


When is a cat not a cat?  (Sourced from unsplash.com | Photographer: Ryan McGuire - http://www.laughandpee.com)

When is a cat not a cat?
(Sourced from unsplash.com | Photographer: Ryan McGuire – http://www.laughandpee.com)

The term ‘academic’ is often used as synonym for university lecturer.

A lecturing position is the expected career path for many postgraduates when they begin their PhD, and understood to represent the pinnacle of academic achievement; proof that it was all worth it in the end.

Times are changing. This is noticeable from the way in which funding bodies and national organisations such as Vitae, here in the UK, are offering advice and guidance to postgraduates on alternative career routes.

This is echoed by the appearance of the #altac and #postac hashtags on Twitter, which PhD students, postdocs, adjuncts, and other researchers are using to voice their interests and thoughts on pursuing alternative careers both within and outside of academia.

But do you leave academia behind when you leave the institution? Isn’t academia something that exists beyond bricks and mortar? And what of those that stay within higher education, but are not employed as lecturers or researchers? Are these people no longer academics? Have they become administrators overnight?

Should the title of academic be left at the gates of the department as you leave?

As a Researcher Development Officer at Bath Spa University, I am primarily responsible for developing and delivering bespoke training on a range of research skills for postgraduates, early stage researchers, and more experienced members of research-engaged staff.

As part of my job, I also contribute to and advise on research policy and strategy, and assist with the development and writing of funding applications. While I’m doing all this, I try as best I can to keep my own research interests ticking over. Although I am not required to deliver on research as part my role, undertaking research is important to the way in which I develop and deliver my training events, and formulate ideas for development sessions and workshops.

By adapting the research skills I acquired during my PhD, I have expanded my research interests to include new areas that are directly related to the work I am currently undertaking.

As research development is a constantly changing field and strategies and approaches for support are by no means set in stone, there are many opportunities for undertaking research into areas that are of pressing concern (such as open access, digital skills and tools, research-led teaching and research impact). For example, I am currently involved in a research project that explores why an arts-based/creative practice doctorate is not considered as a professional qualification. The learning from this project has the potential to directly inform the work I undertake as part of my role, and rethink skills-based training for our doctoral researchers.

With a background and passion for music and musicology, I also try to keep my interest in these areas alive. To ensure that I use my time effectively, I have moulded my interests so that my interest in musicology becomes embedded within my research development role. My exploration of how digital platforms have altered the way in which we listen to and understand music has, for instance, informed my thoughts on the role of digital technologies in research and higher education.

Connected to this digital work, I undertake research that explores the notion of cultural value and affective and immersive audience experiences. Again, while this could be considered purely academic, it also provides me with a direct means of considering current debates on impact (particularly within the arts) and how this is transforming the research landscape.

By connecting research development to research, I provide myself with a way to continue my research while meeting institutional targets and priorities. I tend to avoid disciplinary-specific conferences (or attend those in my own time), and focus instead on conferences that explore interdisciplinary connections, impact, or research development and policy.

Similarly, if I’m writing an article for a specific musicological journal that focuses on music theory or analysis, I would do this in my own time. Articles for research development journals, or those concerned with impact or creative practice, I might be able to factor into my weekly workload, but this is worked out on a case-by-case basis.

I still apply for research funding, particularly when the bid in question reinforces the work I am undertaking in my research role. There have been a number of bids announced recently in the UK that have explored ideas of open access, graduate training, and creative practice.

At this point, I would stress that I’m not arguing that all researcher development officers and managers should undertake research, as a research office requires a whole range of skills sets and expertise.

Embedding research into my role, however, is my way of optimising and utilising the skills I have acquired as a researcher to support my development and contribution to this role and the university.

The term ‘academic’ is problematic and can have a detrimental effect around the thinking about career paths for doctoral researchers and what might be considered ‘suitable’. It would also be useful to more thoroughly interrogate the way in which research and research degrees are understood by the wider world. We need to be clearer about what the various career paths and opportunities there are beyond the PhD, and we need to remove the stigma that surrounds those who opt for a non-lecturing position or an option outside of higher education.

Taking a job outside of academia, or within policy or professional services, does not mean that you have left academia behind. There is still the potential to contribute to research agendas, attend conferences, and write journal articles.

By valuing research as a skill that is applicable in a wide range of sectors, the value of the academy and research becomes clearer, and career routes for researchers more varied and permeable.

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4 Responses to How #altac research happens

  1. iastos says:

    This is an important insight because as the culture of the ‘developed’ world tightens and becomes more competitive with (1) more doctorates but also (2) a non-growth academic institution world, academic positions are becoming less a surety of tenure and more a ‘stop over’ to a good future of research, management and growth outside of academic institutional walls. Like ‘continuing education’ why shouldn’t there be a similar view and value placed on those who have spent 4-9 years in a ‘formal’ (read ‘traditional’) academic environment. One does not cease to be academically shaped after teaching and research.

  2. Miriam Goodwin says:

    None of my German family or friends would have thought when I finished my phd that I’d work at a university or research organisation. Look at the number of phd qualified people in German industry. The idea of a ‘stigma’ being attached to having a phd and not being an academic is nonsensical if you look from a different cultural perspective. I don’t just mean national cultures regarding academia but sectoral cultures. Look at economists, the public sector and finance for many examples of people who pursued doctoral qualifications without any intention of taking up academic work.
    If PhDs are portrayed essentially as a prerequisite for an academic career we will never get the intellectual depth we need for Australia to be competitive on its innovation capabilities.

  3. Thanks for your comments iastos/Miriam. I agree there are many cultural, sectoral, and disciplinary differences here. I think there is perhaps more of a stigma in the arts and humanities, and it would be great if we could learn from the science model on this. I have to agree that PhDs need to be seen to be professional qualifications, and not solely as academic. Kieran

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