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A career in researcher development

By Sophia Donaldson, on 4 December 2019

Dr Rochelle Rowe-Wiseman has a PhD in Gender and Cultural History and is now Academic Development Lead in UCL HR. Rochelle likes to help you all develop – it’s her job! – so she kindly shared her career story with us.

What are you up to now?

As Academic Development Lead in UCL’s Organisational Development team, I am concerned with identifying and addressing gaps in support structures impacting the development and experiences of researchers, at all levels – from postgraduate research students to senior academic leaders. Like a consultant, I explore the issues that affect the experience of researchers and the environment we create for them, the research culture. I also sometimes get to do academic research again – mostly in my spare time.

Talk us through your career journey

My doctoral research produced a feminist history of beauty in the Caribbean and African diaspora which I eventually published as a monograph. One idea I dabbled in career-wise is museums and I worked for an oral history charity when I first graduated from my BA.  When I didn’t yet know I’d secured PhD funding, I was due to embark on a museum traineeship. Then fortunately I received funding which allowed me to concentrate fully on the PhD. I was keen to keep both avenues open, but it didn’t seem possible, the PhD required my full attention.

Coming up to the end of my PhD I didn’t know whether to stay or leave academia. I’m now far more aware than I was then of some of the barriers women of colour face in higher education, and at that moment there was such a scarcity of role models – especially in the arts and humanities. I don’t know if that influenced my ultimate decision to leave, but I was certainly aware of it. I felt I had a dilemma. I loved elements of academia and I’ve always had a love affair with history and writing, and yet the career of an academic didn’t look appealing.

So my first few steps were more cultural sector jobs. I worked in the cultural department of a local authority organising black history month, and I taught History at undergraduate level. Then I got a learning and development job, organising and running training sessions within a university. I was doing this alongside teaching and I found the L&D job preferable to the heavy weight of teaching I was given, with too much marking and too many seminars. The temporary 6-month L&D job became a permanent job offer, but I turned it down, instead moving to Berlin where I fulfilled a book contract to write up my thesis. It no doubt sounds more glamourous than it was…but it was actually quite lovely. Alongside working on the book I took on freelance work as a proofreader, and I went to German language classes. I’d been quite isolated as a PhD student so it was wonderful to make new friends, speak German and develop an identity in such a special place as Berlin, at the time. On reflection it was something of a career break, although I remained busy with multiple projects.

When I was nearing the two-year-mark in Berlin, I started to think about my career more seriously, and I was starting to miss the part of my identity that was fully capable! I loved speaking German, but I wasn’t able to be my full native-speaking self yet. I’d also had some advice from an ex L&D colleague who advised that after two years the gap on my CV might become harder to explain. So I saw a job in the UK and went for it – Researcher Development at Exeter university. At Exeter I ran lots of workshops and absolutely loved interacting with and collaborating with research students to develop a stronger programme for them. I was there for over eighteen months, and if the social side in the city had been what I was after I would have stayed, but Exeter is pretty quiet for someone who grew up in London. Ha! So I took a slight sideways step into Equality and Diversity work in higher education. Whilst I learned a lot, I found the role slightly limiting, and though I expanded it in some ways, after a year I gave myself permission to look for other roles. That’s when I joined UCL as the Doctoral Skills Development Manager, managing the huge programme of training offered to PhD students, which allowed me to draw on all of my past experience. The role was great, and also from a personal perspective being so centrally located in a large institution suited me more, and made a huge difference to my overall satisfaction levels. I was in that role for two years. Then a new Director proposed a re-shape of the entire Organisational Development team. In the restructure I decided to apply for a promotion to the job I’m currently in – Academic Development Lead, a move away from operational oversight of a large programme and towards finding innovative solutions supporting researchers.

I’ve also, perhaps surprisingly even to me, kept up some research and writing. Since leaving academia I’ve given talks here and there about my research. I have also occasionally been invited to write something. Usually I haven’t had time or it hasn’t been the right project. But recently I was approached to contribute to a really fantastic-sounding book and I felt much more established in my main day job, so I said yes! And it’s been a struggle but really life-affirming. Writing gives me such joy! I certainly want to write more, and to reach new audiences.

What does the new role look like on an average day?

It’s very project led. I’m interested in developing more inclusive research cultures, including in doctoral education, I lead a working group for the UK Council of Graduate Education that aims to improve our understanding of this area, and what’s possible. In that vein, recently I spoke at the Black in Academia lecture series to encourage prospective black research students into research and knowledge-based careers. My talk will be available as a podcast.

I am also working on a project to explore what hinders principal investigators and what development opportunities and support services they need; another to encourage and make provision for early stage researchers to dedicate more of their time to skills development and to track this skills development. Another big project is Postdoc Appreciation Week, an annual festival to celebrate and nurture early stage researchers at UCL: as well as saying a big thank you to them for their contribution to research and discovery, we are creating opportunities for researchers to influence positive change in their environment and focus on their professional development. My aim for next year’s festival is to introduce more co-creation and ensure – as far as possible – no barriers to participation, so for instance providing more help with childcare and encouraging leaders to release their staff from projects so they can participate.

What are the best bits?

I’ve enjoyed staying within the university environment. I love to be surrounding by brilliant thinkers and contributing my piece to solving problems, I’m just doing it in a different way now. UCL is a great place to expand beyond the apparent limits of your role, and become recognised for your expertise, including in professional services areas. I like the creativity inherent in the UCL environment. And I like that I’m still using my research skills: going out and establishing what the problem is, then working collaboratively towards delivering a solution. I like that the projects are contained and defined, so once something is done I can move on to the next thing – again, as would a more conventional consultant. I get a lot of satisfaction from helping and developing people. I also enjoy developing and leading others within a team setting.

The best bits of my day are meeting and collaborating with people across the university, dreaming up and then realising ideas, leading events, inspiring others, giving the occasional talk and polishing things off, reports, papers etc.

And the worst bits?

Working in a really huge airless open plan office isn’t my favourite thing! But we do have flexible working so if we really want to get our heads down and concentrate on something quietly we can work from home or off-site.

Is a PhD essential?

In recent roles it hasn’t been exactly essential, but certainly desirable (on the person specification) and an asset. I have gravitated towards roles where a PhD has been a recognised benefit. And in cases where the job/employer hasn’t required a PhD grad, I nonetheless beat the drum of all the great things they’re getting because I’ve had that doctoral research experience. So it’s been an asset, in terms of ways of seeing, ways of approaching problems, and in this role in terms of building empathy with researchers.

What’s the progression like?

Increasingly I believe Researcher Development is a recognised area of expertise within a plethora of careers for Higher Education Professionals.  Certainly at UCL there are many educators and developers situated around the university with a range of valuable experience and expertise. People in Researcher Development may move into wider Learning and Development roles in literally any organisation, whatever the mission of that organisation. They might also choose to rise through the ranks of Doctoral Training or indeed senior leadership in Higher Education.

Top tips?

It may be an obvious thing for me to say, but nevertheless true: people don’t realise the transferable skills they’re acquiring in academic practice: in research, teaching, admin, project management, leadership, problem solving, public engagement. And after seeing a huge project like a PhD through, the sense of responsibility and commitment you’ll have, which you can bring to everything you do, is invaluable to employers. Really recognise the wealth of diverse skills you’ve likely accrued. For example, if you’ve done a tiny bit of budget management by organising a conference, you need to value and sell that skill. Because that little bit of experience will set you up for any role that requires you to do more of the same, and once you’ve had a taste of something you can scale that experience up. Also PhDs can be excellent at taking calculated risks. Having known nothing at the start of your PhD and just got on with it, you’re likely to throw your hat in the ring for lots of things that might worry others!

Also, I hear a lot about having the awful sensation that you’re breaking up with academia. But it’s important to remember that if you like the university environment, there are great ‘alternative’ careers you can forge within a university. It takes a lot to create a thriving university environment and there are many different roles you can play.

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