What research administrators need to know about researcher development: towards a new conceptual model.

Author:Evans, Linda


To promote it effectively and contribute meaningfully to its success in their institutions, research administrators need to understand what makes for effective researcher development. They are, however, severely disadvantaged in this respect, for the scholarship of researcher development is relatively underdeveloped and its knowledge base scant. This is unsurprising, since it is an emerging field of study: not quite embryonic, but certainly in its infancy, with an identity that is still evolving.

Yet there are signs that it is beginning to be recognized as a field of study--or certainly a sub-field--in its own right. Indeed. Tight (2008) identifies higher education research as "a developing field of study," which "'could be conceived of as a partially explored territory through which a variety of tribes traverse. (p. 596)" We may think of the narrower, more recently emerged and hence more "'developing," researcher development as one such tribe--or, to be more precise, the focus of the "tribe" of researchers for whom it represents a shared interest: its territory.

Specific critical incidents, as well as economic and social trends and shifting policy contexts, have kick-started and accelerated its emergence. In the UK. the publication in 2002 of the Roberts Report served as one such catalyst (Roberts, 2002). A literature-based study of the work-related training, development and employability of post-graduate researchers in science, engineering and technology, the report highlighted researchers' inadequate preparation for the world of work. prompting the UK government to invest 20 million [pounds sterling], over five years, in higher education-based researcher training and development.

Criticism directed at the quality of research in specific subjects--such as that directed at educational research in the UK and the USA (e.g., Hargreaves, 1996; Hillage, Pearson, Anderson, & Tamkin 1998; Kirst, 2000; Lagemann & Schuhnan, 1999: Levin & O'Donnell, 1999: Tooley & Darby, 1998)--was another contributor towards identifying a need for examining more closely researcher development, whilst the rise in the uptake of doctoral programmes worldwide has sharpened higher education institutions' (HEIs) loci on researcher development, partly as a customer service measure and partly as a mechanism for coping with a diverse student clientele. Added to this, in countries where they are applicable (most notably the UK and Australia), nationally imposed institutional research performance accountability and funding allocation measures have pushed researcher development high up on the list of strategic institutional priorities.

Such is the context within which this new field of study has been, and continues to be, defined. Researcher development now consists of enough commonly linked issues, questions and foci of investigation--its "bits and pieces"--to warrant its own drawer in the big chest of sub-fields of study that make up educational research, and the launch of its own journal, the International Journal of Researcher Development, in 2008, represents a significant marker of this stage in its development.

Having begun to shape an identity of its own, the scholarship of researcher development is ready to move up a notch. Indeed, it must do so if the field is to gather momentum and be taken seriously as a focus of academic study in its own right, for as Chapman (2005) observes, "the academy judges by the theory and scholarship emerging from a particular field and discipline. Can't be helped, that's the nature of academic discourse and its self-construction. We stand or fall by the weight others attribute to our scholarship. (p. 310)" Branching out from examination of issues--such as: who needs to be developed, how, by whom, and for what purpose, and what are the implications of the answers to each of these questions?--it is time to widen the field's investigatory foci to include a more introspectively directed dimension. (or rather, a closer scrutiny of the field, since the purpose is to delve deeper into its essence.) It is time to turn the spotlight on researcher development itself and examine more closely its constituent "bits and pieces," for doing so will shed more light on the issues identified above and on the process whereby researcher development occurs. This, in turn, will serve to augment the knowledge base upon which research administrators, as well as research leaders at all institutional levels, may draw. Indeed, research administrators' professionalism and, by extension, their professional credibility, will be determined, at least in part, by their familiarity with and contribution to the developing knowledge base, as well as their application of it to their practice.

As noted below, enhancement of researcher development scholarship involves breaking new ground. It requires not only greater analytical depth than has typically been applied to the field, but also a focus on hitherto neglected and unexamined issues. Such unexplored territory lies within the conceptual landscape, for researcher development as a concept is un(der)-examined. Yet conceptualisation is fundamental; it holds the key to enhancement of knowledge about process(es), policy and practice. Only when we understand how researcher development occurs can we develop effective policy for the improvement of practice. Yet this understanding is dependent upon clarifying, first, what researcher development means, and then, within the conceptual framework that this creates, what researcher development is. This article intends to make inroads into this landscape.

The article constitutes a conceptual and quidditative examination that addresses the question: what is researcher development? (Quiddity, a little-used term, refers to the 'whatness' of something: what it is.) It is not intended as a processual model and therefore does not explicitly address how researcher development occurs. Gaps and omissions are highlighted in relation to how researcher development is defined, and a range of interpretations is outlined, before a stipulative definition is presented. An original conceptualisation is explained and a theoretical model of the componential structure of researcher development formulated from conceptual analysis is illustrated. The potential of this propositional knowledge as an analytical framework is demonstrated through qualitative data found in the literature.

The following outline begins to describe where the field currently stands, in relation to conceptualising and defining researcher development.

What is Researcher Development? Conceptual Clarity and Definitional Precision

What is researcher development? Does it refer to developing researchers (as or into professionals), or to developing people (professionals, practitioners or students) as or into researchers? There is clearly a difference between each in relation to the development involved, between the point of departure and the intended destination, as well as in the experientially acquired and epistemologically influenced mindsets of each of the potential constituencies of "travellers" (Bulterman-Bos, 2008; Labaree, 2003). Each interpretation has different developmental processual implications, and herein lies a key rationale for conceptual clarity, for, as implied above, the value to the knowledge base afforded by much of what is said or written about researcher development--whether it takes the form of reasoned observation or theoretical perspective--will be dependent upon its credibility and potential for furthering understanding of how people develop. This understanding is--or ought to be--the bedrock of institutional research strategy, policy and practice.

Yet interpretational and definitional precision are important also because they are essential to construct validity (Evans, 2002). Since construct validity involves consensual acceptance and understanding of specific terms, it is (or ought to be) a key rigour-related concern in research design and execution. It is threatened not only when different understandings of key concepts, or of the terms used to refer to them, occur between researchers and research subjects (LeCompte & Goetz, 1982), but also when such conceptual and terminological incongruence occurs between researchers and those to whom they disseminate their findings and conclusions: fellow researchers, practitioners and policy makers (Evans, 1998). The issue is not that everyone should agree on how something is understood or conceived, but that each person's understanding is conveyed accurately to other interested parties. Construct validity is about accuracy of communication, not unanimity of interpretation. Though its attainment can never be guaranteed, its pursuit involves conceptual clarity.

Since conceptual clarity and definitional precision greatly reduce the likelihood of misunderstanding and of different parties communicating with each other at cross purposes, they are essential elements of the development of any field of study. They are key to delineating the parameters that mark out the conceptual, ontological and quidditative territory of a field of study and of where that territory overlaps with that of other fields. They underpin the categorisation and classification that inform views about whether something should be located in this or that field, or whether it sits on the boundaries, or contributes towards blurring them. Yet, in relation to the field of researcher development, conceptual clarity and definitional precision are underdeveloped.

Definitions and Interpretations of Researcher Development: Gaps and Omissions

The concept of researcher development, particularly using this precise terminology, is relatively unexplored. This is hardly surprising since, as with all emergent fields, its literature base is limited. Yet the evident lack of conceptual clarity and definitional precision has implications for practice and scholarship. What...

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