Research Culture and Applying for Academic Jobs

Posted in: Academic Career, Advice, For PhDs

As the time of year is upon us when I spend quite a bit of time helping people with academic job applications, I wanted to address an issue that is very high on the agenda for policymakers, research funders and universities. It’s an issue which should be in the mind of anyone looking to pursue a career in academia and apply for academic positions: how can you contribute to the development of a positive academic research culture, and how can you communicate this in job applications?
In the last few months, I’ve worked with someone who was asked to write a ‘statement of research culture’ as part of an academic job application, seen increasing references to research culture in job descriptions and also heard of people being asked questions in academic job interviews such as: “how would you help to create a strong and inclusive research culture?” and “how have you supported others’ career development?”.

The Royal Society defines research culture like this:
‘Research culture encompasses the behaviours, values, expectations, attitudes and norms of our research communities. It influences researchers’ career paths and determines the way that research is conducted and communicated. […] Research culture impacts on a whole range of areas in the research system, including the integrity of research, diversity and inclusion in research, the career paths that researchers follow, reward and recognition, open science and the ethos of collaboration in the research system.’

For more information, see this web page and YouTube video. Other points to note from the Royal Society suggestions on improving research culture include ‘challenging highly competitive environments combined with very narrow definitions of success’; in other words, working towards more collaborative environments where a broader range of contributions to research are valued.

The emphasis on enhancing academic research culture is increasingly being integrated into job descriptions and person specifications for academic positions. From a quick trawl of academic job adverts, I’ve found references to: ‘actively promoting equality, diversity and collegiality’, ‘engaging in effective mentoring and support of colleagues’, ‘contributing to Research Ethics and Integrity activity and committees’, ‘experience of and enthusiasm for collaborative and team-based working’, ‘an ability to contribute to and develop interdisciplinary, collaborative research’, and ‘commitment to reducing harassment and bullying’. One job description wanted the post-holder to ‘make an active, independent and original contribution to a collaborative research culture and body of knowledge.’
So, how can you demonstrate that you are committed to, and actively engaged in creating, a positive and inclusive research culture? Here’s a 2-step plan:

Step One

Research the institution to see whether they have any explicit statements about the approach they are taking to improving research culture. Often these are organised into themes or principles (or, as at the University of Bath, pillars) or highlight specific projects the institution is working on. Think about how you could contribute to these and how you’re demonstrating them in your own research practice.
When reflecting on the ways you might have contributed to a positive research culture – perhaps even without realising it – think about:

- How you have demonstrated a commitment to research ethics and integrity (e.g. undertaking relevant training and what you learned from this, ethical considerations when designing research projects?

- How have you helped to make your working environment more inclusive and supportive to researchers with diverse needs? (e.g. direct involvement with EDI initiatives, taking diverse needs into account when working on team projects and organising and scheduling activities, ensuring that materials are produced in accessible formats). You can draw here on experience of teaching students with diverse needs and background. When have you worked with someone with a different perspective or background to yourself? What do you value about working in diverse environments?

- When have you supported others’ development and helped to foster a collegiate environment? You could reflect on experiences of mentoring other researchers – including informally, helping new colleagues to integrate into the team, creating opportunities for colleagues to get together and share their research and experiences e.g. setting up journal clubs, postdoc committees and research seminars. Again, examples from teaching and supervision are absolutely relevant here – think about when your encouragement of a master’s student led to them publishing their dissertation or deciding to do a PhD.

- When have you worked effectively in teams, including cross-disciplinary teams or with people outside of the University? How have you accommodated and adapted to different ways of working?

- How have you communicated the wider impact of your research and contributed to making research accessible to wider audiences? What commitment have you shown to open research?

- How have you contributed to the wider university and to your field more broadly?. This could include working with other research group or involvement with professional bodies or learned societies.

Step two: Writing and talking about research culture

So, how can you practically demonstrate the ways you’ve contributed to enhancing research culture in academic job applications and interviews? It’s all about providing concrete examples to show what you’ve done and the difference you’ve made to your colleagues and environment. You can use the formula ‘What, so what, now what?’ to provide more structure. If, for example, you were talking about creating a more collegiate environment, you could say specifically what you did and how you went about it, including the approaches you took and the steps involved (What?); what the impact of that has been (So what?); how you could take that forward into the role you’re applying for (Now what?). You could also articulate why something has mattered to you; so, for example, if you’re committed to developing others, why do you think this is important?

Finally, be aware that you can absolutely include questions about a Department’s research culture in questions you ask them in interviews and before applying for a job – and you’ll remember from my previous post that it’s always a good idea to contact the recruiting manager before applying. Questions such as ‘what is the culture of the Department?’, ‘how do you support staff wellbeing?’, and ‘would I have access to mentoring?’ may help to confirm whether this is the right environment for you.

Posted in: Academic Career, Advice, For PhDs


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