• Fri. Aug 5th, 2022

It’s time to rethink the gap between academic and support staff

ByJulie J. Helfer

Apr 14, 2022

Old distinctions between “support” and “academic” staff are becoming increasingly obsolete.Credit: ND/Roger Viollet/Getty

Professionals in research organizations are generally divided into two categories: “academic staff” and “support staff”. As professionals working in research environments in the Netherlands and Australia, we have straddled the dividing lines between these conventional divides.

We have also met many other professionals who have operated across this gap. And we have all worked as “conventional” academics.

In recent years, we have seen “support” jobs become more prominent in research organizations, including roles such as data managers, research software engineers, science community managers and data managers. program. We have seen how a diversity of roles and contributions drives progress and success in research and innovation.

We have come to view the sharp distinction between ‘academics’ and ‘support staff’ as a barrier to effective research, as it discourages a culture of collaboration and appreciation of a diversity of roles and contributions.

As professionals, we make a significant contribution alongside conventional academics. Like many of our colleagues in “support” roles, we are well connected with the academic community. We work in partnership with researchers, bringing unique expertise and skills. We have university degrees. We write articles, books, grant proposals, reports and manuals. We train students and academic staff; manage projects; organize and present at conferences and workshops; and lead developments in our areas of expertise. We are knowledge brokers, able to translate generic infrastructure, tools and policies into practical solutions that make research more effective.

As a young researcher, MC was asked about her decision to play a supporting role, even when it involved coordinating the development of a strategic plan for European astronomy. And MT was actively discouraged from starting a career in research data support and was instead invited to become a senior researcher in academia. Some of their colleagues viewed these career choices as tantamount to demotions or a waste of their skills and potential, when in fact MCs and MTs were making important contributions to their fields and institutions.

We’re not the only ones who think dividing academic staff is pointless. A UK Association of Research Managers and Administrators survey found that some young researchers feel “failed” if they change careers to a professional services role. Some respondents called for a culture in which everyone is recognized for their complementary skills, not just “star scientists”.

This aspect of research culture is attracting more and more attention. In 2019, for example, a position developed by five academic organizations in the Netherlands called for a rethinking of the academic system of recognition and rewards. Focusing on the need to diversify the career paths of academic staff, the document, titled “Room for Everyone’s Talent”, pays attention not only to individual performance but also to team performance. Our colleagues in the United States also recognize that to tackle the big questions and address the complex social challenges of our time, research teams need diverse talents and skills.

Well-functioning teams rely on shared responsibility and credit. For research to move forward and progress, a diverse workforce must be able to contribute their talent and skills without being too constrained by conventional hierarchies.

In our experience, the structure of many academic institutions limits how professional support staff can contribute to the research process. Here are some of the steps the industry can take to change that culture.

Enable support staff to host and supervise scientists

Even when they themselves hold a PhD and are considered world leaders in their field, professional support staff are not always allowed to supervise scientists and students, a role that can provide much needed transferable skills. This has repeatedly been the experience of DK, who has not been able to directly supervise graduate students due to institutional academic affiliation requirements, although he has been approached on several occasions.

Unify visa and compensation regulations

Visa and compensation regulations are often different for academic and support staff, even when their qualifications and experience are equivalent. This creates barriers to building teams with diverse skills and solving problems. Additionally, some funders place lower maximum limits on salary scales for support roles than for academic roles, with the result that some projects cannot recruit the skills and talent they need. It can also lead to difficulties in retaining talented staff.

Enable support staff to apply for grants and do research

When providing support services, it is essential to innovate and do regular research to acquire evidence on the type of services that are useful and appreciated by end users. However, support staff are strongly discouraged from applying for grants or doing research. The majority of funding calls are open to academics only; support staff are not eligible to apply. Additionally, fundamental aspects of research practice, such as obtaining ethical clearance for a project, can be difficult to support staff when not associated with an academic unit.

Research institutions should foster collaborative environments that enable problem solving and build mutual trust and respect for skills and expertise, regardless of perceived job titles, rank and status.

Research teams should not have to struggle to appoint competent support staff if their skills and experience could improve the quality or efficiency of the research process. Likewise, support units should not be prevented from doing research and hiring researchers where this would lead to evidence-based improvement of the services they provide.

Bridging the divide does not mean that research institutions should not have professionals responsible for doing research and supporting researchers. There are a myriad of job profiles corresponding to the very specific roles and tasks involved in running a research institution effectively. What hinders the quality of the search process is not the existence of distinct job profiles and varying responsibilities, but the constraints imposed on different types of professionals. Removing these arbitrary divisions and promoting collaboration and exchange between academics and support staff are essential to ensuring the success and efficiency of the research process.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.