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Things 4: Building and Being Part of a Research culture

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. Your guide today is Professor Rachel Spronken-Smith, Dean, Graduate Research School, University of Otago.

3 scientists looking at a screen
After years of searching, we have finally identified the collegiality gene for mice!

Always good to start with a quiz.

Consider the questions below and be honest in your answers!

A table of different aspects of research culture.
You can download a copy of this table below.

Table from Thing 4
Download DOCX • 15KB

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

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 (admittedly disrupted by the pandemic in the last few years). 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 and ECRs

  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 or collaborate 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

  • Trying to publish strategically during your research journey

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

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

  • 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 / ECR committee or being a graduate student 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!

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.

Professor Rachel Spronken-Smith

Dean, Graduate Research School

University of Otago

Researcher studying a set of petri dishes
The bottom right dish has its own ORCID id.

We'll share some local examples and resources from partner institutions on the forum - ad we'd love to hear about your own activities and ambitions! Perhaps you can also discuss with your pod how the links you're building through 23Things can impact your own research culture, even beyond the programme.

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