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Tim - research support officer
Name: Tim
PhD discipline: History/American studies
Area(s) of work: Academic research support administration
Year of graduation: 2000
Date of Interview: 19/06/2008

Now Playing: Tim - research support officer
Tim describes his role as a research support officer in HE, highlighting the advantages, but also the dilemmas of working in a university setting but in a non-academic role. He also considers the value of his PhD, both personally and professionally.

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What is your current position? 

I'm a research support officer with particular responsibility for arts and humanities researches so the idea is to help people's grant applications, acquire information on funding opportunities, that kind of thing. I've been in this institution for about a year, but I did a similar role in another institution for three and a half years before that.

Can you tell me in detail exactly what you do from day to day?

Okay. Well I say we look for opportunities for new funding opportunities, that sponsors come up with, or disseminating information about these, and reminding people about existing opportunities. So that's one of the main aspects, to try and raise awareness within the academic community, cos people are aware of some major sponsors but obviously there are lots of smaller sponsors that are less well known, and lots of new schemes coming through all the time, schemes being amended so we try to keep on top of that, to avoid – I think really the main idea is to try and take as much of the mundane burden off academics so they can concentrate on actually doing research and doing the interesting parts of it, so it's a very supportive role in that respect.

In terms of the application process again, primarily it's about information that the sponsors are looking for in different aspects of the form. Advising on content. Providing costings and those kinds of things. So that's the sort of main day to day bit of what I do. Also providing some advice to more senior members of staff - so Deans, Vice Presidents, Researchers - these kinds of people, on the sort of overall funding environment, what's going on in the faculty, that kind of stuff

How autonomous are you?

It varies. My previous incarnation of this role I probably had an awful lot more responsibility because the line management was much looser there was sort of almost a layer missing, so there was nobody there who really knew what I did. And so by necessity we became fairly autonomous whereas now it's perhaps a bit less autonomous because of the way the office has evolved, I think.

What is the physical environment like that you work in?

It's a reasonably small HEI in the South of England, three faculties. I'm responsible for one of them, the arts faculty. Its one of the main strengths of the institution, it's a research intensive university, reasonably well established. The office environment -  again it's fairly similar to most pre 92 universities, the research office it covers research and enterprise, that sort of thing, and there's business development where I work in research support side of the office with three other colleagues. We all have slightly different areas of responsibility. Increasingly we're moving to the system of faculties specific, support to try and provide relevant support for academics, so get away from this idea that we're a sort of faceless branch of the university bureaucracy so – and two of my colleagues also have PhDs in the subject areas that they work with which helps to a certain extent to try and get the message across that we are there to help. And we are sort of part of the academic environment rather than finance or anything like that.

Is it crucial to have a PhD to do the job that you do?

It's not crucial but I think it helps. I mean there's only so much that's directly relevant that you can do. I mean the story of my background, so the whole 'oh that's not my period' is a very important thing in history I think. So I think in terms of having an understanding of the environment and what people have gone through and how people work I think is quite useful because I think one of the frustrations that academic staff have is when they come up against people who come from a very different background who don't understand the way they approach research, sort of the administrative nature of research, the fact that it changes and it doesn't necessarily fit into the boxes so the fact that I can understand that, and will empathise with that, even if in fact I change everything, but at least try and make – match up what they're doing with the realities and the boxes that need to be ticked. I think that's quite important.

And sometimes I mean its quite a trivial thing but people do pay attention to you in a way that they wouldn't do otherwise, which is completely inappropriate I think and I find it very offensive that people will think what I'm saying is more important because I have a PhD than if I didn't but it's the reality of the situation I think. It just gives you a bit more kudos within the environment.

Which leads me to ask then how do you feel your PhD is regarded by your colleagues?

My colleagues in this office? I think its fine here. Its – those people didn't get it, this is one of the reasons why the job is developing as it is, not just here, but in lots of institutions, this idea that having a PhD is useful. Because lots of people are coming from a business environment and they don't necessarily understand how arts researches work. So I think they sort of see me as the link between the business and the bureaucratic side of things, in the academic community.

I mean I have been in environments where people have sort of resented it, that we almost have this elevated status. We shouldn't. So it can create problems I think and resentment because, I think because we get people from quite diverse backgrounds coming to it from different routes so its – I mean universities are kind of quite class ridden I think and without being part of the academic community we're perceived perhaps as 'wanting to be' or as sort of setting ourselves up as being a slightly higher status. Not to say that I was doing this consciously at all really but there is a perception that could be what you're doing because you're setting yourself up as being research support and working with the academic community much more than other people are.

Do you feel that you're between two stools as somebody who's come from an academic background and you have a PhD and you're working with academics, but you're not fulfilling the same function as the academics in terms of your remit?

Well I think it's very different. I personally feel closer to the administrative side than the academic side in terms of what I do on a day to day basis, so perhaps that's not what one thinks when one comes into it. And it does vary from institution to institution. I think it's one of those roles that's developing and I think there are people who are quite happy for me to work with them more on an academic basis and there are times when people will value your input. But I think it is essentially an administrative role so I think you need to remember that and realise that there are functions that need to be performed and they are essentially administrative and then everything else is on top of those and it's a bonus really.

Did you know that it was going to be administrative when you came to it?

I think so. I suppose, its perhaps got more so because the funding mechanisms have got more complex in the last few years so the emphasis has perhaps gone the wrong way, from my point of view in that respect. I mean it's not a huge problem all the time but just sometimes it does feel that you're bean counting a little bit more than would be ideal. That's one of the challenges I think, to also try and make time for the more interesting aspects of it because you do need to be competent and numerate and these sort of things as well.

What would you say are the more interesting aspects of your job?

Well talking to people about their research projects. I mean lots of people don't want to talk to you about their research projects because they keep them very secret until the last possible minute and then stick it under your nose to try and get everything signed off. But some people are more open about it and are interested in talking about their research.  And its nice when you get a chance to think about it, not in a panicked last minute way and see how people turn up with ideas and think about where they can go and how they can develop a project in a way that could attract funding, which would make it easier for them to complete it. So those sorts of aspects are quite interesting. And then trying to help people match what they want to do with schemes that are produced by the research funding councils because they have these increasing emphasis on strategic priorities where the topics are determined at the top and then you have to try and fit in with that, so I think trying to fit in with that without compromising too much is the key really.

What would you say HE as a working environment is like?

I don't have an awful lot to compare it to, to be honest. As I say I've worked in shops and things like that, but it's a long time since I've worked other than in an HE environment in various different capacities. And in general I think it's a pretty good environment, talking to other people in different sectors. And there's people – probably a lot – people who are working in universities, but there is a reasonable amount of flexibility even within administrative roles. People are reasonably sympathetic and so the kind of ethos of an HEI does spread throughout the various different functions I would say.

Does your job have any connection with the subject area of your PhD?

Occasionally it does. I mean in the broad sense I work with people in the Humanities which a little bearing to my degree subject. But only in a very broad sense I think in terms of the kind of conversations I have and in terms of what people are talking about, its kind of conversations I would have had with my peers in the post grad common room in the Arts Faculty when I was doing my PhD, so understanding what people are talking about to that sort of level you can have a reasonably intelligent conversation, and ask some reasonably intelligent questions but its sort of direct rather than – its quite limited.

And do you feel that you're using your PhD experience in your current job?

I think indirectly I'm using it. It would be – again its just an understanding of how long research can take and things like that and the fact that its not straight forward and it doesn't necessarily fit with the same sort of time scales that organisations work on, where everything's fairly sort of steady with deadlines that one has to meet. Research is much more of an ebb and flow about the way it works. So I think that's – its useful in that respect just in terms of understanding that sometimes there is no progress for a week and its not because people aren't doing anything, its just that there's some sort of sticking point. So I think that's quite useful.

Do you feel personally or professionally affected by the prestige of the PhD?

I don't know, that's a tricky question actually. Because I mentioned there is this sort of class system, you know, having a PhD puts you in a certain box but at the same time you're not in that box because you're not forming an academic role, or a research role. So its strange there is a kudos thing there and people do say 'oh Dr' and treat you differently which is again not necessarily appropriate I don't think to the role always, but it can be useful and it does give you a train to different conversations that other people perhaps wouldn't have, so it can be useful in that respect. And again it's not the way it should be but it's the way it is a lot of the time.

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