A total of 47 academics participated in the design research with a slight skew towards STEM (Science, Technology, Economics and Maths) subjects. The design research consisted of participatory shadowing, contextual interviews and human-centred design processes.

The following themes arose from our research:

Research vs Teaching Commitments

Academics’ roles are complex, extensive and diverse. They balance their own research, managing research groups, teaching and pastoral commitments. Working very long hours or at weekends is not uncommon. It is rare for academics to spend any significant time on their own research during term time, when they do they are often too tired to concentrate so they use that time for simpler tasks like checking and editing references.

Despite the trade-off between research and teaching, the majority of our participants really cared about their students. They put a significant amount of time into preparing for supervisions and lectures, often to the detriment of their own research work.

Research Groups

Managing a research group has been likened to being the Managing Director of a small company. Research group leaders put a lot of effort and time into recruitment, managing researchers, securing funding and managing funders’ requirements.

Researchers in groups tend to work independently on their own research, rather than working as part of a team. Researchers in research groups benefit from sharing resources and being in close enough proximity to bounce ideas off one another, ask for advice and guidance and, occasionally, letting off steam. They will informally review each others’ papers or grant applications and share articles they find online.

Research groups share papers using email and Dropbox when reviewing each others’ papers and grants. Sometimes chasing colleagues to provide feedback on papers in the pre-submission stage can take a lot of time.

The cultures within research groups can be quite varied and some are very competitive, others can be very supportive. Research groups are often geographically dispersed and not all research groups meet regularly due to lack of time.

Approaches to managing research groups are equally diverse and academics are provided with very little training or advice about how to manage a research group successfully.

Discipline Cultures

The cultures within academic disciplines can be very different. Physics for example is very open with papers being shared on the pre-print server arXiv before publication. Physicists will publish in arXiv to ‘mark their territory’ or indicate that they are working in a particular area. In contrast the Life Sciences are very secretive and nothing is published until a paper is accepted into a reputable journal.

The discipline culture depends on the need for external funding. Disciplines like particle physics that require large capital investment in equipment tend to have larger research groups and act more collaboratively. Pace also has an influence. Fast moving disciplines tend to behave differently to slower moving disciplines.

The format of scholarly discourse also has an influence on the discipline culture and this can introduce a source of additional pressure for academics, especially close to a Research Excellence Framework assessment.

Learning to be an academic

Early career academics are expected to have a lot of skills in order to progress their career, but feel there is a lack of support

and guidance. Early career academics are expected to be good at doing grant applications, recruiting, developing and managing PhD students, teaching, tutoring and time management. They are often not prepared for this – there seems to be an expectation that young academics will ask for help when they need it. Those who are less vocal or less savvy miss out on informal support within their department.

Applying Technology

Academics sometimes struggle to find the right technology to help them in their research and apply it to their discipline. Their needs are very diverse – some just need to be pointed at particular commercial software applications, others need complex bespoke software building. There are currently no readily available services at the University that help academics apply technology to their research in this way. Both computer officers and UIS (University Information Services) provide software and applications to academics but neither really help Academics find and apply technology specifically to their research. Other Universities have established Digital Scholarship Labs that fulfil this need.

Jenny Willatt
Modern Human