When I started out in business, I was certain I had no formal preparation for the processes, procedures, and actions necessary for success. Yes, I know what I wanted to do, and what I wanted to sell. But the other stuff. The business stuff – I was sure I lacked that. And I did. I think the same is true for people transitioning from PhD to PostDoc, and PostDoc to research group leader/manager.
For me, early attempts at bookkeeping and accounting, contract development, employee hires and management, were all pretty poor. And that is really no surprise. All of my training and experience was in the doing of the work. Not in the background stuff. Throughout my PhD I had learnt aspects of technical science and research communication (e.g. journal article writing, PhD research and poster presentation to informed audiences). I had also learnt to manage my time, and projects.
As I moved beyond my PhD and into my first job, my writing and communication skills broadened to include more general communication and communication of science and research to less-informed audiences. I also picked up grant and proposal writing. And I further developed and formalised my project management experience and training.
But I still had limited experience with managing people, money, websites, and contracts. And, other than Facebook and LinkedIn, there was no social media to speak of.
The more I work with researchers and PhD students the more I realise that the training and experience necessary to be successful lacks a focus on the non-technical aspects of research. Even skills such as project management are often picked up via osmosis rather than formal training, with little to no ongoing support or encouragement to use the processes taught.
I also see that overseeing a research group is almost identical to running a small business (and I wrote about that previously). Although the university provides support in the form of legal, website, HR, and finance; the support is focused on compliance, not on success. For example, finance make sure you allocate spending to the correct account/grant. They do not help you set and maintain a budget for the grant, project or research group. Similarly, HR ensures you use due process when recruiting a new staff member, but they do not ensure the new recruits are a good fit for the research group. Legal ensure you comply with university rules and regulations, but not necessarily what is best or good for you or the development of your grant, product, service or IP. The web team help you post your content, but not what will make you more likely to be found on the web.
Are you focused on the small, and marginal
gains of improved research skills? What
about developing your non-research skills?
So, as you think about your research and growing your team – think about the small business skills that could also contribute to their successes. Perhaps you are building technical research skills amongst your team for small and marginal gains, when you could be building more generalist skills for large and leverageable gains.
But how would you know? The answer is a skills audit. And it is as simple as it sounds. You can do one on yourself or for the entire team. If you’re doing one on yourself having someone independent look it over and assess you will be helpful in making sure you’ve been truthful.
There are lots of different tools out there that can help. Here’s one from Queensland University of Technology .
The process is essentially seven steps:
- List the skills necessary to perform the role(s) being audited.
- List the skills you or your team have.
- Review the two lists to make sure they are complete (ask someone else for their advice if necessary)
- Rate each skill (out of three for example) for the level of competence needed for success.
- Rate yourself for each skill (also out of three) for the level of competence you have. Again, asking someone for their views on your self-rating will provide objectivity. And/or you can ask the team to exchange self-reviews. Doing so anonymously will help with truthfulness. However leaving the reviews identified can help build trust and rapport amongst the team.
- Compare the two lists. Check if you are over or under skilled in particular areas. If you are over skilled in an area you might consider increasing the difficulty, complexity or volume of what you are doing. If you are under skilled in an area you should consider additional training, coaching or mentoring to achieve the base needed.
- Make a list and associated plan of the actions you will take along with their timing and cost. Make sure you include how will measure your progress. And, of course, don’t forget to do another skills audit in the next 12 months.
Dr Richard Huysmans is the author of Connect the Docs: A Guide to getting industry partners for academics. He specialises in delivering high quality strategic advice to the education, research and government sectors. He is driven by the challenge of helping researchers be commercially smart, making academic ideas practical; the art of the #pracademic. Richard’s clients appreciate his cut-through approach. He knows the sector and how to turn ideas into reality.
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