Evolving Door: Moving from Researcher to Research Manager

August 11, 2016 2552

Robert Dingwall

Robert Dingwall

This story was originally posted at MethodSpace, the convening place for the methods community.

Let’s deal with the bad news about becoming a research manager first. Research management is hampered by the old-fashioned approaches taken by many universities, great researchers don’t necessarily translate into great manages, and there’s not a lot of outside resources  to help prospective managers excel. But there is hope!

That was the message presented by Robert Dingwall in the recent webinar, “How to Turn Researchers into Research Managers.” Dingwall is a consulting sociologist, part-time professor of sociology at Nottingham Trent University, and a blogger right here at Social Science Space. He is also the co-editor — with Mary Byrne McDonnell of the Social Science Research Council — of the new SAGE Handbook of Research Management.

In the hour-long seminar, presented in an archived version below, Dingwall discusses the organizational requirements and the useful skills that can be built to support the individual who wants to be a manager and the ecosystem — in both social science and STEM settings — that will support such striving. The session included a number of questions from the audience that Dingwall addresses during the recording, but time ran out before he could get to many others. Happily, following the webinar he took the time to answer many of the additional questions posed, and those answers appear after the video.


On the Handbook

Do you deal with content issues in the book or is it mostly focused on how to manage research groups?

The book is designed to be neutral as to academic discipline so we do not deal with issues of research content. When it was first commissioned, we were asked to focus on the challenges for people creating and leading teams in humanities and social sciences, where there was less of a tradition of collective working than in laboratory disciplines. However, as the project developed and we discussed it with colleagues in STEM subjects, it became clear that the material would also be highly relevant for them. The issues around strategy, marketing, professional development and so on are just as important but STEM colleagues have lacked a way of discussing them, partly because the evidence produced by researchers in organizations and management has not been effectively translated for their communities.


Does the book address how to manage labs that only have undergraduate students? I’m at BA-granting institution so I don’t have graduate students who stay for more than a few years (and some I only have for a couple of semesters).

The book does not specifically deal with labs that only have undergraduate students. However, elements of the content would be transferable. If you are thinking about how to help people with career planning, for example, the process is not very different whether you are talking to undergraduates, postgraduates or postdocs – or indeed with faculty.


How much of the book focuses on research management and the challenges faced by those working with academia, as in Non-Governmental Organizations or independent think tanks or consultancy?

Most of the contributors are writing out of their experience in academia. However, as we explain, research groups are more like non-academic organizations than you might think. This is often a problem for them within the rather rigid corporate structures that universities have tended to adopt in order to serve their student markets and meet the audit requirements of external stakeholders. Successful research leaders are more like entrepreneurs running small and medium sized businesses. If you are trying to partner with them, the book will certainly help you understand what they are trying to do and what obstacles they are likely to face from their own organization.


Robert said his book was useful to graduate students wanting to go into research management.  I am interested in this area and am currently an unemployed post-doc.  How will his book help?

One of our aims in writing the book was to promote better understanding between researchers and the people in university administrations who are supposed to support, or manage, their work. There are inevitable tensions, especially where universities are trying to reduce the instability that research creates within their organizations. Central research departments dealing with issues like budget preparation, financial oversight, HR, marketing, ethics, and regulatory compliance may be perceived as a drag on the entrepreneurs who actually raise the money and do the work. However, we have also tried to stress in the book that these departments contain people with important professional skills and expertise that can make life much easier for research group leaders if they are recognized and used appropriately. We certainly hope that people in both functions could use the book, possibly in joint training activities, to think about how they could become effective partners rather than adversaries.


On Management

You said that it is important that your team has an intellectual respect for you. How is that achieved?

If you are in position to create and lead a team, you will almost certainly have established a prior scientific or scholarly reputation. Of course, one of the things we do acknowledge is that this alone is not enough to be a successful leader. The book is about the new portfolio of skills that you need to add in order to do this. Nevertheless, you should be starting from a point where you are already recognized. However, you do need to maintain this in the face of all the other potential calls on your time and energy. That does not necessarily mean that you have to publish personally at the same rate as before but that you have to demonstrate in your actions that you are engaged with the work the team is pushing forward. You need, for example, to be sure to protect time in order to be a regular attender at research seminars and to contribute to debates. You need to spend time with each team member showing that you are interested in their work and engaged with it, even if it is not in your own field. You try to ask intelligent questions that signal a serious desire to learn about new topics. You read and give feedback on the work that your team produces. It can be very seductive to spend a lot of time outside the team – and it is important to do that in order to collect intelligence on shifts in the funding market and to promote your group’s skills and resources to potential funders and sponsors.

There is a danger, though, of becoming an ‘absentee landlord’ who is resented by the team as someone who is getting lots of nice trips and good dinners on the back of their labours. You need to manage this risk, partly by educating the team about how this work is also in their interests – and they might have to do it one day, if they want to lead their own teams – and partly by ensuring that it does not cut you off from their scientific or scholarly life.

How can female entrepreneurs who are writers and no longer on campus approach research management as a business model? Many of us have all the characteristics you listed minus current academic contacts.

This is an interesting question – and I am not sure that it is exclusively a female one. Perhaps we need to distinguish two separate meanings of research management here. If you are thinking about how to build a research group as the core of a business, I think this is much like any other small or medium sized enterprise. In many countries, the shift in contracting out public services, even at quite a local level, has created a market for small-scale evaluation and market intelligence studies. Universities struggle to compete in this because of their overheads and independent entrepreneurs have an advantage. You might think that this is less true for STEM subjects but in fields like ICT, alliances of small-scale entrepreneurs with specialist skills can be quite important. The rise of ‘garage biology’ suggests that something similar may happen in biomedical research, although the regulatory barriers are much higher.

However, if you are thinking about becoming a specialist in the sort of management functions that universities are establishing to support, or control, researchers, I think it is more difficult to see how that becomes a business. If we are right that universities are developing this function in order to stabilize disruptive elements of their organizations, then they are likely to prefer to employ people on their core permanent staff, even if many researchers are kept on insecure and time-limited contracts.

In the UK, there have been some successful consultancies in the dark arts of securing EU funding, but my impression is that much of this work has now been brought in-house. There is also some higher-level consulting work in advising universities that want to strengthen this function or want an outside assessment of its performance. However, this is generally done by people who have already accumulated experience in that work. There may also be a niche for working with small-scale service providers – whether private, charitable or social enterprises – to help them select and manage evaluation researchers. As I noted above, they may need to show their effectiveness and efficiency to secure further contracts from local governments but lack the capacity either to do this or to manage it well. Their financial resources are, though, typically very limited and there may not be a business here.


How innovative should a research leader be? Should someone venture toward a different direction that could be contrary to his team? If so, how should this be done? Any recommendations?

A research leader who wants their team to have a long-term future must always be alert to the changing environment within which the group is working. This involves being aware of the scientific or scholarly work being undertaken by their main competitors, whether national or international, of shifts in fashion among funders, of the entry or exit of funders from the area in which the group is working, and of emerging demands from government, industry or NGOs for attention to be given to particular problems. Sometimes, this does involve quite radical shifts in direction, which some team members may not want to go along with.

I think there are two ways to deal with this. One is by being constantly open with your team about the potential need for change. As I stressed in the webinar, it is about having your PhD students and postdocs understand that they are people with generic skills that are applied to a particular problem for a particular part of their career. If you only want to develop a better widget, you will be left behind when someone re-engineers the whole system to eliminate the need for that widget. Where a team is made up of people on relatively short-term contracts, as most research groups are, there is an inevitable trade-off between flexibility and job security. You have to spell that out.

The second thing, though, is to accept that some of your team will not want to change direction or will have skills that are no longer required. The challenge then is to manage the parting in an acceptable fashion. Be civil, write supportive recommendations, look out for alternative opportunities – do everything you can to help good people move on in a positive way. Sometimes a whole line of work has been overtaken, as happened to one of my own graduate students, whose previous STEM PhD collapsed when their supervisor’s programme was scooped by a rival. In this case, you should be working with the team member to identify retraining possibilities or alternative career tracks. It is not their fault – and it is your responsibility to limit the damage to their futures.


Being both a manager and researcher is a way to mentor junior researchers. But the problem is that great researchers are often thought of as being more interested in having their names on a project than managing it. What you think about this position on senior researchers?

This was one of our real drivers for putting the book together. Between us Mary and I have seen a lot of good practice by senior researchers – and some really atrocious management. There is a real issue that the qualities that make for a great researcher are not the same as those that make a great research leader. The book is intended to draw this out and to provide a basis for addressing that problem. Some people may be more naturally gifted than others but many senior researchers could be helped to be more effective than they are, if they made use of the evidence about leadership that is available. Producing the next generation of great researchers is every bit as important as the research programme itself. It is the real legacy of any leading scientist or scholar. We still need to do more to spell this out – in the UK, higher expectations of PhD completion rates have helped to drive a lot of changes but there is still work to be done.


Do you expect that there’ll be a trend toward more team-based research in the social sciences in coming decades? If so, how and why?

In the social sciences and humanities, this is already an established trend. Although it is likely that individual scholarship will always be more important in these fields than in many STEM disciplines, there are a number of drivers at work here. One is the cost of creating and providing data resources, even if the team created to share this collaborates virtually rather than being located in a single site. Another is the greater efficiency with which training in generic skills can be provided to early career scholars. A third is the intellectual movement away from the strict disciplinary boundaries that were created in 19th century universities and the need to develop alternatives to the departmental structures that were created to give effect to that model. Finally, there is the twin pressure of reduced internal funding by universities in these areas and the desire of external funders to reduce their own overheads. Scholars need to get external funding to support their work but that funding is being given out in bigger chunks.


Given the research which has underlain the Q-Step Initiative (which showed how poor UK training in research methods in the social sciences has been), should research managers be widely knowledgeable on such methods?

The first thing to say is that we should not buy into the Q-Step identification of research methods with quantitative skills. There has been some quite dishonest propaganda about this, which has made it hard for those of us who are primarily qualitative researchers to support the programme. While I agree that UK social science students are often weak in quantitative methods and that their training should be improved, there is not enough recognition that the UK is among the world leaders in qualitative methods. We do not need to advance one group of methods at the expense of the other – but to look how to enhance both.

If you are leading a social science research team – and this is increasingly true for some areas of the humanities – then you certainly should appreciate and respect the contribution that different methods have to investigating different dimensions of the problems you are addressing. This does not mean that your team has to use all of them and that you may not specialize in one or another technique. However, you do need to understand how your contribution fits into the landscape and how your methodological choices constrain your possible contribution. If you are manipulating official statistics, for example, you should be familiar with the literature on the social construction of those data and the implications that may result from that process. Are your findings simply reproducing biases introduced by coding decisions?


Could you share some ideas on how to “move” more old-school departments into more contemporary work structures and practices? For example, moving from isolated professors trying to sustain small labs to creating research centers in which different professors pull resources, funding, students, etc.?

This is a big challenge. If you are trying to do this as a department chair, your first task is to make a careful assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of your professors. Are there people who would be more obviously attracted by this change and who could be encouraged to propose it to you? Are there people who it may not be appropriate to challenge because they are approaching retirement and you may just allow their labs to run down? Secondly, you need to think about the incentives you can offer. Can you get your Dean onside to make a case for investment in those groups who are willing to come together? Are you able to reconfigure and upgrade space, and invest in new equipment? What resources do you personally control that you can put behind an initiative? Very often, for example, old-school departments have formulaic allocations of funds for travel, consumables, RA time, etc. Can you identify who is and is not making effective use of these funds and move them around? In some cases, you might want to have a strategic retreat, preferably residential, to discuss a 5-10 year strategy for the department. What sort of place do people want to work in? What are their personal ambitions? It is sometimes helpful to bring in an external facilitator for this. It can also be important to have someone come from senior university management to discuss institutional goals. Will this department be left to decline if it is not on board for the university leadership’s goals? You may also need to reality check the department’s self-image. Who do your faculty compare themselves with? Are they really performing as well as their comparators?

The most effective changes are the ones that your faculty come up with for themselves – even if you have steered them by asking the right questions and providing the right data. Encouraging incremental change and rewarding those who embrace it can often be more effective in universities than big bangs and sanctions that just provoke resistance and undermine morale. Academics are very good at finding ways to obstruct innovations – you have to be subtle.


What’s the role of technology in the research management model? For example, is there any software that you would suggest we learn to work with?

I don’t think we should ever be Luddites – but nor should we embrace IT for its own sake. There are, for example, numerous project management packages on the market – but, in my experience, it is rare for a social science or humanities project to be large enough in scale to justify using one of these. I do remember discussing this with a professional engineer leading a major civil project who could not understand why I was not presenting him with output from a package as part of some consulting I was doing for his role in a professional association. When we looked at the actual complexity of the tasks involved, it was clear that I could manage these in my head, supported by some manual records, and my choice was an efficient one.

A common problem that entrepreneurial leaders face is that most university software is designed for central control rather than for local management information. I have always found it virtually impossible to get accurate and current figures on grant expenditures, for instance, because the accounting codes bore little relationship to local practice. This did lead to awkward underspends and overspends at the end of grants, which was the only point at which everything came together. In areas like HR, local management tended to be more about feeding the machine than doing anything useful with the information. The main skill was learning how to fill in reports in ways that minimized subsequent comebacks rather than expecting much benefit. If you have the skills and resources to maintain a parallel record system, it is worth doing – but often discouraged because you might come up with a different picture to the ‘official’ one!


Building skills

How can a non-native English speaker overcome language issues to be a good research manager?

There are really two separate issues here. Becoming a good research manager is something that you can do whatever language environment you are working in. Between us, Mary and I have observed universities in different parts of Europe (including the UK), the Americas, Australia and Asia. Of course there are specific institutional differences, but the skills of management are pretty much generic. What you need is competence in the working languages of the university and your group – which may not be the same. If you do not have that competence, then we come to the second point, which is that you own the problem and do something about it.

In practice, the only way to become truly fluent in a language is to use it as much as possible in as many different settings as possible. I was very impressed, for example, by a Chinese PhD student I met who had deliberately set out to limit their interactions with other Chinese students and mix with native English speakers. This was quite difficult, given the scale of the Chinese community in that university and the pressures from government representatives to remain within it. The particular individual volunteered for charitable work with a group comprised mainly of local residents rather than students and rapidly improved their language competence – more so than other Chinese students who only spoke English within the department.


What set of skills would you suggest to an HR professional to be a good research manager?

There are, I think, two key things that HR professionals have to offer – but rarely do, in my experience. The first is positive support in problem-solving. Many of the HR professionals I have worked with seem to see their role mainly as regulators, whose role is to keep the university out of legal difficulties in relation to discrimination and termination of employment. They ‘just say no’ and leave you either to live with problems or to take on all the risk of dealing with them.

What I have always wanted is the kind of HR support that can accept my goal and talk through fair and legal ways of achieving it. There often seems to be an implicit assumption that universities are ‘soft-hearted’ organizations that can tolerate individuals who are disruptive, performing poorly, bullying support staff or harassing students. It is not consistent with our self-image to set improvement plans in place and terminate the employment of people who do not deliver to the scientific and ethical standards that we have a right to expect. This is actually very damaging to research groups, who often have contracts with external stakeholders that must be delivered to an appropriate quality and who work together closely enough for morale to be badly affected by poor behaviour.

The reverse of this is my second point, that HR professionals could also be better advocates for investment in the human capital of the organization. Universities lag behind many similarly-sized private corporations or public agencies in structured professional and management development programmes for faculty and staff. This should be an opportunity for HR to take on a more positive role, other than just being the people who deal with recruitment and termination. Imaginative HR work should enrich an organization’s capability.


What advice do you have for someone that desires to become a research scientist geared towards health concerns?

I do not have any specific advice on this. Breaking into any field involves a mixture of acquiring the right skills and developing the right networks. You need to be sure that you have a solid base in a relevant area of science that you can bring to a team. You should obviously subscribe to the websites where positions are advertised but you can also be proactive. Send your CV to group leaders in the field with a covering letter explaining why you would like to join their team. Look out for them at conferences – and also try to talk to other team members who may be around. In a well-run team, everybody will be encouraged to look out for potential talent. If you want to work with entrepreneurs, you have to develop the skills of honest self-marketing.

Sage, the parent of Social Science Space, is a global academic publisher of books, journals, and library resources with a growing range of technologies to enable discovery, access, and engagement. Believing that research and education are critical in shaping society, 24-year-old Sara Miller McCune founded Sage in 1965. Today, we are controlled by a group of trustees charged with maintaining our independence and mission indefinitely. 

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