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Thing 7: Building and Being Part of a Research Culture

Professor Rachel Spronken-Smith, Higher Education Development Centre, University of Otago

When you hear the term ‘research culture’, what comes to mind? Is it journal clubs, seminars, research grants, lab groups, conferences or…? How do we generate a vibrant research culture? Your experiences of a research culture will be very dependent on your immediate environment, especially your supervisor and your department, and how proactive you are about being involved.

Still from The Mandalorian - figure in armour standing against a desert sunset. Photo credit Michael Marais, Unsplash.
This is the Way (to a productive and collaborative research environment)

Consider the questions below and be honest in your answers! You can click on this link to download the table as a Word file.

A table with questions to assess research culture.

NB: Some items are derived from the research culture inventory by Gerry Mullins and Neville Marsh, University of Adelaide.

Three people working at desks. One stares disbelievingly at her screen while her neighbour observes.  Photo credit Arlington Research, Unsplash
- Dude, our latest metrics show you had a 9% drop in collegiality last month. - Shut up, Jane!

In a blog by the UK Royal Society, they define research culture as encompassing “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”. It is worth checking out their short video on research culture, as well as other resources.

A vibrant research culture is characterised by equality, diversity and inclusion, with all members whether undergraduate researchers, graduate research candidates or postdocs through to professors, being respected and valued. Here at the University of Otago, we have an annual departmental Postgraduate Culture Excellence Award(disrupted by COVID but now coming back). Criteria to judge this include

  1. Pre-arrival and orientation practices

  2. Supervision and research support practices

  3. Student participation in research activities (e.g., publication, conferences, journal clubs, departmental seminars / forums), including student-led initiatives such as peer-support groups

  4. Social activities for students

  5. Evaluative data for the postgraduate experience

  6. Other evidence (e.g., celebratory activities, completion rates)

Hopefully you can see how the table you completed above might align with some of these criteria. You have an important role to play in building and maintaining a vibrant research culture. You can help this by:

  • Discussing your research with your peers.

  • Ensuring you praise peers when they have success .

  • Look out for your peers, and if you notice they are struggling with wellbeing and/or productivity, encourage and help them reach out to their supports and/or the supports services within your university (this means you need to know about wellbeing and mental health supports within your university).

  • Participating in journal and peer writing groups (or start one up if they are not already established).

  • Asking your supervisor or PI to include you in research activities e.g., you could ask to shadow them when they are writing a research grant.

  • Attending research seminars – even if outside your immediate area of interest.

  • Seeking opportunities to present your research – both to specialist and generalist audiences.

  • Participating in professional development opportunities to enhance your research skills.

  • Encouraging others to attend workshops on wellbeing and productivity, so you can get to know each other and network with other graduate students.

  • Trying to publish during your research journey.

  • Modelling a good study/life balance – this means not studying for long hours (except when absolutely necessary) and taking breaks and holidays.

  • Volunteering to keep the research section of your departmental website up-to-date by collecting (and updating) information from other members.

  • Volunteering for outreach activities that involve promoting research.

  • Volunteering to help organise research events such as seminars, professional meetings and conferences.

  • Volunteering to instigate social events within your department or university.

  • Joining a graduate student / early career research committee or being a representative.

Consider the bullets above. Which are you currently doing? What could you do in the future? Add your notes to a personal development plan and check progress in a few months!

For anyone wanting to take a deeper dive into research culture, a recent article by Felicity Callard may be of interest. It is available by open access here. Maybe I am drawn to it because of my geography roots; the article discusses how geographers can contribute to the debates about research culture and research environments.

To finish I will share a Māori proverb:

Nau te rourou, naku te rourou, ka ora te manuhiri

With your food basket and my food basket, the people will thrive.

A researchers scrapes at a red culture in a petri dish with a cotton bud. Photo Credit CDC, Unsplash
The research culture here sucks; I'm growing my own.

Rachel Spronken-Smith is a professor in higher education and geography and works as an academic developer in the Higher Education Development Centre at the University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand. Her research interests include doctoral education, graduate outcomes, and inquiry-based learning. In her spare time she enjoys walking, e-biking, gardening and baking.

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