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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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Unknown member
Apr 14, 2022

I have realised how extremely lucky I am to have a supervisor who does all of these things, even down to encouraging me to have breaks and holidays!


Unknown member
Apr 04, 2022

This post was a handy read. I'm a Year 3 PhD candidate preparing a peer-to-peer seminar for June. Thing #4 helped me see this work in an expanded 'research culture' environment beyond the location of my university. I also enjoyed the video because I am now aware of The Royal Society and their Visions of 2035 project, a project aimed to produce data on 'ideal future research cultures' and how to achieve them. There is an open-access pack of resources for those interested in running a workshop. One of the items in the pack is The Museum of Extraordinary Objects, a discussion document produced by students at the University of the Arts London. To summarise, Thing #4 added value t…


Unknown member
Apr 04, 2022

I am a beginner and have always wanted to be part of a research environment. The quiz got me at the beginning with a NO for all questions and I realized, I need to be proactive and start volunteering or make requests. I wonder if anyone I approach is open to being shadowed, its always worth a try.

mike rose
mike rose
Apr 05, 2022
Replying to

There's a nice Dutch proverb of "You've already got a no, but you might get a yes". (In other words, you don't know until you ask.) Good luck!


Unknown member
Apr 01, 2022

I enjoyed reading this Thing because, as a novice PGR, I do have passion for acquiring a research culture, and wonder about it as an academic variable to be studies and defined by academics. The inventory is amazing and includes all relevant activities that one can assess against which his own engagement and participation with the research communities where s/he works and/or studies. I think research culture should be studied and taught as an academic course so that students, right from their very beginning research path, would develop a mindset for being research culturally active and engaged.


Unknown member
Apr 01, 2022

I'm very impressed by the mentioning of peers' well-being. A vibrant research culture should contain such elements because, first of all, we are humans, and second, we are researchers within a circle. Thank you for having these criteria ready for our pod to check.

mike rose
mike rose
Apr 04, 2022
Replying to

Strongly agree! (We have a Thing on wellbeing for researchers coming up later in the programme...)

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