Recruiting for Research in Academia

Published: 22 May 2014

On the face of it, the 2020 Research Excellence Framework (REF) is a long way in the future.  However, the increased demand for senior academics to undertake research management roles indicates that many institutions are thinking hard about their submission and recruiting accordingly.  This of course plays to the laws of economics.  As demand increases, supply is outstripped and the subsequent price of talent rises.

This is a hard truth to swallow.  For many reasons, improving and augmenting research is a central tenet of most institution’s strategies. As such, if talent cannot be home-grown and going to the market might not yield the results required, then what is the solution?

For some Universities, considering the exact nature of their demands might enable them to appeal to a broader group of candidates than originally anticipated.  This can work in a range of ways, but it does require lateral thought about the exact nature of research management roles and how they might fit in any given Faculty, School or College. 

The first and potentially most obvious consideration is the stipulation that the candidate should already be a Professor.  It is apparent that professorial requirements vary hugely between institutions.  There is always the possibility that an individual who has not yet been appointed to this level would easily qualify elsewhere; not least because he or she will not be carrying the baggage of pre-existing politics. 

Another area is the extent to which individuals’ personal research interests complement those of the Faculty.  There is perhaps a tendency to assume that the best way for an external individual to assume credibility within the designated academic community is for there to be high levels of crossover and potentially a mutual history of working with members of the Faculty.  Aside from the fact that this shrinks the talent pool significantly, it can often cause consternation.  Partially because it invites accusations that one discipline may be favoured or more particularly because familiarity with the subject matter could well draw the individual into the detail rather than remaining at a strategic level.  Clearly the individual appointed will need to understand the nuances of the subject matter and he or she will require the sort of credibility that is normally afforded by a connected discipline, yet to broaden out which disciplines this could include might pay dividends. 

Finally, when the domestic market for talent is stretched, then international recruitment is always an option.  This does bring its own challenges; not least because academics in other countries are often paid significantly more than those who work in UK institutions.  There are also the vagaries of the UK funding system to contend with.  As monies become ever tighter, being unfamiliar with our infrastructure is often seen as being high-risk.  Similarly, the need to demonstrate research impact is a critical consideration.  An international appointee will not necessarily have their own networks locally or the appreciation of the nature of domestic commercial partnerships and how to extrapolate them.  Yet neither of these things are insurmountable - merely learning curves to contend with. 

In conclusion, it is clear that the demand for research management talent is not about to decrease.  In fact, it looks set to increase.  Therefore, out of necessity, the traditional profile of Assistant Dean for Research will have to change.  The list within this blog is not exhaustive, but we feel that it offers a good place to start the discussion. 

Elizabeth James is a Consultant in the Education Practice at Berwick Partners specialising in recruiting academic appointments.

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