By Jonathan Cooper, on 23 August 2019
In the weeks running up to the RSE Conference, myself and some colleagues will be providing our thoughts on the questions people have submitted for our panel discussion with senior university management about how RSEs are being supported within academia. (You can submit more questions and vote on the current questions on Sli.do.)
Question: If you have a central university RSE group do other staff working in RSE-like roles in academic departments have the same career opportunities as that group?
As research software groups grow, seemingly inevitably they start to acquire more structure and hierarchy, with more senior roles being created to help manage the group. This provides for career advancement opportunities within the group, although often this is with the caveat that an increase in grade requires more managerial responsibility and reduced time for technical work. The situation is more bleak for those employed directly in research groups, typically on a fixed-term postdoc style contract where typical academic advancement routes – dependent on a publication record – do not easily apply. How can universities ensure the same opportunities are available to all staff?
Several groups have tried to address this challenge by making their job descriptions and selection criteria available to the whole university, for instance at Sheffield and King’s Digital Lab. This promotes consistency of approach, and gives the potential to aim at senior roles with appropriate selection criteria. Sustaining posts beyond a single funding source still presents a bottleneck to supporting careers, however. Central RSE groups with a large project portfolio and successful track record can often offer permanent contracts to staff, whereas this is rarely an option for individual research groups. At UCL we are investigating the potential of establishing ‘satellite’ groups within academic departments. These would be able to offer equivalent terms and conditions to their staff, and collaborate closely with the central team. We are not there yet however!
It is also worth considering a broader perspective. For staff trapped in a succession of fixed term contracts, ‘career opportunities’ is often synonymous with getting a permanent post, ideally at senior postdoc or even up to professorial pay grade. There are however many directions of travel that could be considered. How do we allow university staff, wherever they may be based, to move flexibly between teaching, research and professional services roles (or a combination thereof!), into industry and back into academia, always learning new skills along the way? How can progression be linked to expertise in different technical areas, not just management responsibility?
This question is ultimately not limited to RSE roles, but affects the wider network of roles within academia. UCL’s career pathways initiative (aimed at professional services) and academic career framework provide hopeful first steps in supporting more flexible careers, but there is still plenty of work to be done!
Hear an expert perspective on this and a variety of other questions from a panel of senior institutional representatives covering roles in research, HR and research software at the Science and Engineering South panel on “Institutional Support for RSEs” at RSEConUK19 on the 18th September at 13:30. You can also read previous blog posts in this series by Simon Hettrick and Jeremy Cohen.