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 Capacity building resources

Understanding researchers' career development

Alan Brown

Alan is a Professorial Fellow at the Institute for Employment Research at the University of Warwick.

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Aims of this resource

In 1994, I wrote an article on ‘Being a researcher' that reflected on some aspects of the management of a career as a contract researcher over most of the previous twenty years, excluding a career break following the birth of our first child (Brown, 1994). The issues raised at that time still have a resonance today: the importance of maintaining personal networks that span organisational boundaries; how the research team ‘is at least implicitly presented as a united, cohesive group working in a purposeful and coherent way' (p. 32); what makes for cohesive teams; and being able to live with a high degree of uncertainty. If the tensions in these issues can be managed, then ‘the resulting autonomy, control and discretion over significant aspects of work may be highly prized' (p. 49).

In order to help understand researchers' career development we could look at:

•  What researchers do (typically represented by ‘natural histories' of research projects)

•  How contract researchers make sense of what they do

•  Contrasts with academic researchers' perceptions of research

•  Supporting researchers' careers development.


Brown, A. (1994) ‘Being A Researcher', in R. G. Burgess (ed.), Studies in Qualitative Methodology , Vol. 4, London : JAI Press.

What researchers do: ‘natural histories' of research

One way of understanding what researchers actually do can be gleaned from reflexive accounts of how research was conducted. Martyn Hammersley (2004), for example, has produced a guide to natural histories of research . ‘Natural histories' of research or ‘research biographies' ‘provide accounts of how particular pieces of research were done, what problems were faced, how they were dealt with, etc. Sometimes research biographies can take the form of a methodological chapter or an appendix. Thus, one of the founding texts of this genre was the methodological appendix written by William Foote Whyte to the second edition of Street Corner Society , reprinted and extended in later editions (Whyte 1981) (Hammersley, 2004, p. 1). Natural histories of research may also emphasise their reflexivity, ‘where the researcher must recognise that he or she is part of the world being studied, must reflect on the implications and effects of this, and must incorporate this process of reflection into writing up the research report (see Hammersley 1983; Hammersley and Atkinson 1995; Ball 1990)' (Hammersley, 2004, p. 2)

Hammersley argues that natural histories of research may be used to facilitate assessment of the validity of a study's findings, inform others so they can help anticipate and deal with problems in their own research, or have a pedagogical function in teaching about research methodology. However, they could also be used for the insight they provide into researchers' careers and developing identities.


Ball, S. J. (1990) ‘Self-doubt and soft data: social and technical trajectories in ethnographic fieldwork', Qualitative Studies in Education , 3, 2, pp157-72.

Hammersley, M. (ed) (1983) The Ethnography of Schooling , Driffield Yorks., Nafferton.

Hammersley, M. (2004) Guide to Natural Histories of Research , Resource produced for TLRP Research Capacity Building Network Building on Research Expertise Resources , accessed 6 th August 2008.

Hammersley, M. and Atkinson, P. (1995) Ethnography: Principles in Practice , London , Routledge. (First edition published by Tavistock in 1983.)

Whyte, W. F. (1981) Street Corner Society , Third edition, Chicago ILL , University of Chicago Press .

Sources that can be used for accounts of what researchers do – books and edited collections that contain some relevant research biographies

Berreman, G. (1962) Behind Many Masks: Ethnography and Impression Management in a Himalayan Village . Monograph No. 4. Ithaca , New York : Society for Applied Anthropology, Cornell University .

Cesara, M. (1982) Reflections of a Woman Anthropologist: No Hiding Place , Academic Press, London .

Vered Amit (ed.) Constructing the Field, Ethnographic Fieldwork in the Contemporary World , London , Routledge, 2000.

Colin Bell and Howard Newby (ed.) Doing Social Research , London , George Allen & Unwin, 1977.

Colin Bell and S. Encel (eds) Inside the Whale: Ten personal accounts of Social Research, Pergamon, Rushcutters Bay NSW Australia, 1978

Diane Bell, Pat Caplan and Wazir Jahan Karim, (eds.) Gendered Fields: Women, men and ethnography , London , Routledge, 1993.

Alan Bryman (ed) Doing Research in Organizations, Routledge, London , 1988.

Alan Bryman and Robert G. Burgess (eds) Analysing Qualitative Data , Routledge, London , 1994.

Robert C. Burgess (ed.) The Research Process in Educational Settings: Ten Case Studies , London , Falmer Press, 1984

Robert C. Burgess Autobiographical Accounts and Research Experience, Robert C. Burgess (ed.) The Research Process in Educational Settings: Ten Case Studies , London , Falmer Press, 1984

Robert G. Burgess (ed) Field Methods in the Study of Education , London , Falmer Press,1985.

Robert G. Burgess (ed.) Studies in Qualitative Methodology: Conducting Qualitative Research, Volume 1 , JAI Press, London , 1988.

Robert G. Burgess (ed.) Studies in Qualitative Metholology: Reflections on Field Experience, Volume 2 , JAI Press Inc., London , 1990.

Robert G. Burgess (ed.) Studies in Qualitative Methodology: Learning About Fieldwork, Volume 3 , JAI Press Inc., London , 1992

Robert G. Burgess (ed.) Studies in Qualitative Methodology: Issues in Qualitative Research, Volume 4 , JAI Press Inc. London , 1994.

Keith Carter and Sara Delamont (eds) Qualitative Research: The Emotional Dimension Avebury, Aldershot , 1996.

How contract researchers make sense of what they do

There are many accounts of what researchers do when carrying out research, but these mostly relate to what happens in particular research projects, so a wider question remains of how do researchers make sense of what they do over a period of time longer than a single research project. Jacquelyn Allen-Collinson (2000; 2002; 2004) investigated s ocial science contract researchers' perceptions of their developing craft knowledge. Her paper (2000) for Work, Employment & Society focused upon the researchers' perceptions and understandings of the knowledge and skills they acquired via contract research. As well as needing substantive formal knowledge, researchers also needed to mobilise other informal or ‘tacit' knowledge ‘with the aim of continuing employment in an insecure occupational realm. For example, researchers learned how to ‘hustle' for research funds in order to prolong their employment (Allen-Collinson and Hockey 1998). The application of this combination of formal and informal knowledge constitutes the contract researcher's craft, developed and refined within an environment often characterised by sustained pressure. The nature of most social science contract research forces researchers to work to tight deadlines. The completion of a timely and adequate report is, understandably, a pervading concern, firstly in order to meet the requirements of the sponsor, and secondly, but no less importantly, with an eye to continuing their employment. Failure to produce competent output may well result in damage to the researcher's own reputation and also to institutional relationships with sponsors' (Allen-Collinson, 2000, p. 162)

This focus on pressing concerns related to a current project were very common and ‘it became apparent from the interviews that the element of predictability in terms of the immediate future, let alone a distant ‘career' pathway, is often sadly lacking in contract researchers' occupational lives' (Allen-Collinson, 2000, p. 164). Research was viewed as having very strong interactional, technical and analytical dimensions and the ability to manage these was perceived very much as a process of becoming skilled .

Interviewees with professional or occupational experience in areas such as education brought a combination of practitioner experience and theoretical knowledge to the research domain. One of the principal motives for becoming researchers was the desire to bring about social and political change, with occupational identity being linked to a concern for social justice. ‘Contract research was perceived as an opportunity – practically and positively – to influence the fields in which these researchers had originally trained, and offered a vehicle for engagement with specific policies and practices identified as in need of improvement or transformation' (Allen-Collinson, 2000, pp 164-165). As a consequence, the acquistion of research craft skills was seen as empowering and part of a process of upskilling .

In contrast, other researchers from the humanities and social sciences with a strong disciplinary attachment were more ambivalent towards the development of contract research craft skills, as this could undermine their disciplinary identity and attachment. Hence learning of contract research craft could be seen as involving both processes of skilling and deskilling . Researchers could also become frustrated at having to move between projects, if this led to a consequent loss of subject expertise.

Allen-Collinson (2002) extended this analysis to a consideration of Occupational Identity on the Edge: Social Science Contract Researchers in Higher Education social science contract researchers has having occupational identities ‘on the edge' of the higher education landscape. Some ‘practitioner researchers' still had a commitment to practice-oriented research and frequently identified themselves in opposition to an ‘academic' role or orientation. Other researchers who had entered research via ‘unorthodox' routes, without high level academic qualifications, often perceived their role in terms of technical skills and competencies. ‘For example, one Research Associate explained:

When you get into research as I have, it's on the back of doing lots of the technical donkey work on lots of projects…crunching out the data on big data sets, sorting out software problems, all that sort of stuff. I don't have the academic background that the Research Director has, or even most of the researchers, but I am good at sorting out problems! So I suppose I am here as a problem solver, that's okay, because that's how I see myself really. Allen-Collinson (2002, p. 8, emphasis in the original).

Researchers with a formal academic background and socialisation in the social sciences and humanities but without practitioner training were more likely to have occupational identities that reflected their prior disciplinary socialisation (compare Delamont et al 1997a, 1997b). The researchers mentioned above had clear understandings of their roles based on their current or former identities, but there were also those who became contract researchers without such ‘committed' motives, for example, ‘confessing to essentially opportunistic motives, such as: being ‘glad to get off the dole', ‘happy to work like this because it fits in with childcare', and ‘fairly satisfied with doing this as I needed a stopgap between real jobs' ( Allen-Collinson 2002, p. 9). Part-time researchers in particular were also likely to give precedence to self-identities external to research work. Some fulltime researchers also acknowledged that ‘the contract researcher role represented a temporary occupational phase, a brief episode before seeking more permanent employment outside of academia. These individuals were invariably on their first or second contract, usually of short duration, and had accepted the work out of financial necessity rather than real ambition or interest, primarily due to happenstance or serendipity (Miller 1983; Hodkinson and Sparkes 1997)' (Allen-Collinson (2002, p. 10).

Occupational identities are developed in context, and the different contexts in which researchers worked had a significant and differential impact upon them. One key factor was the extent to which researchers were able to participate in collegial support networks. Such networks facilitated ‘the peer transmission of ‘tacit knowledge' (Polanyi 1983; Gerholm 1990; Delamont and Atkinson 1995) central to the effective practice of contract research' ( Allen-Collinson (2002, p. 12). Even where researchers had developed a confident occupational identity this could often be in tension with her/his position of institutional marginality. ‘Frequently reminded of their inferior position within the hierarchy of the institution, contract researchers found the validation of work identity rested primarily on feedback from peers and research directors, and their own self-evaluation of competence. Marginality, both in material and symbolic forms, had the capacity to erode a confident occupational self, and it undoubtedly required periodic ‘identity work' (Goffman 1961; Snow and Anderson 1995: 253; Prus 1996: 152) in order to prevent such erosion ( Allen-Collinson 2002, p. 15).

Overall then, although contract researchers may share many concerns their orientations towards research sometimes differed sharply as did the extent of their (initial) commitment towards being a researcher. Contract researchers are, however, not the only people engaged in research in HE and it may be helpful to contrast contract researchers' views of research with those of academics.


Allen-Collinson, J. (2000). ‘Social Science Contract Researchers in Higher Education: Perceptions of craft knowledge'. Work, Employment and Society 14 (1):159-171.

Allen-Collinson (2002) Occupational Identity on the Edge: Social Science Contract Researchers in Higher Education , accessed 6 th August 2008 . Resource produced as part of the Universityof Exeter Open Repository. This is a pre-print, author-produced version of an article accepted for publication in Sociology. Copyright © 2004 BSA Publications Ltd. The definitive version is available at:

Allen-Collinson (2004) Occupational Identity on the Edge: Social science contract researchers in higher education. Sociology , 38(2), 313-329.

Allen-Collinson, J. and Hockey, J. (1998). ‘Capturing Contracts: informal activity among contract researchers'. British Journal of Sociology of Education 19 (4): 497-515.

Delamont, S. and Atkinson, P. 1995. Fighting Familiarity: essays on education and ethnography . Cresskill , NJ : Hampton Press.

Delamont, S., Atkinson, P. and Parry, O. 1997a. ‘Critical Mass and Doctoral Research: reflections on the Harris Report'. Studies in Higher Education 22 (3): 319-331.

Delamont, S., Parry, O. and Atkinson, P. 1997b. ‘Critical Mass and Pedagogic Continuity'. British Journal of Sociology of Education 18 (4): 533549.

Gerholm, T. 1990. ‘On tacit knowledge in academia'. European Journal of Education , 25: 263-271.

Goffman, E. 1961. Asylums: Essays on the Social Situations of Mental Patients and Other Inmates . New York : Doubleday Anchor.

Hodkinson, P. and Sparkes, A.C. 1997. ‘Careership: a sociological theory of career decision making'. British Journal of Sociology of Education 18 (1): 2944.

Polanyi, M. 1983. Personal Knowledge . London : Routledge.

Prus, R. 1996. Symbolic Interaction and Ethnographic Research . Albany : State University of New York .

Snow, D.A. and Anderson, L. 1995. ‘The Problem of Identity Construction Among the Homeless', in N.J. Hermann and L.T. Reynolds (eds) Symbolic Interaction: An introduction to social psychology . New York : General Hall, Inc.

Contrasts with academic researchers' perceptions of research

Åkerlind (2008) provides an integrative review of academics' ways of understanding research and here details of four particular studies she summarises are given. Bruce, Pham, and Stoodley (2004) found that information technology (IT) academics varyingly experience their research projects in terms of the extent to which they:

  • contribute to the attainment of personal goals (interests and/or career goals);
  • generate positive outcomes for the research team (providing funding to employ researchers or for the continuation of a research centre);
  • are academically sound and of high quality (contribution to knowledge);
  • provide benefits to end-users (beneficial impact on the world);
  • address real-world problems (directed towards finding solutions to problems).

Bowden et al. (2005) found that academics varyingly experience success in research projects in terms of:

  • personal satisfaction or enjoyment;
  • how well they have managed the project and brought it to completion;
  • extent to which further research and career opportunities are created for research group and institution;
  • the number and prestige of publications;
  • extent to which research outcomes are useful and make a difference to the world.

Brew (2001) found that senior academics varyingly experienced research in terms of:

  • a series of separate tasks and ideas that are synthesised to solve practical problems or extend understanding;
  • a social marketplace where the products of research (publications, grants and networks) are exchanged for money, prestige or recognition;
  • a process of discovering underlying meaning and having ideas;
  • a personal voyage of discovery for the researcher, possibly leading to transformation in personal and/or theoretical arenas.

Åkerlind (2008) emphasised that there was not only variation between the studies but also in each case there was considerable variation of academics' understanding of research within these studies. Additionally, Bills (2004) identified a number of dimensions in supervisors' discourse about research, with university research having a number of characteristics, including:

  • being rigorous and methodical;
  • situated within a theoretical or conceptual tradition;
  • moving knowledge further;
  • involving explaining, arguing and conceptualising; and
  • theorising, thinking deeply and developing insights.

Åkerlind's (2008) own research highlighted f our ways of being an academic researcher:

  • fulfilling academic requirements, with research experienced as an academic duty;
  • establishing oneself in the field, with research experienced as a personal achievement;
  • developing oneself personally, with research experienced as a route to personal understanding;
  • and enabling broader change, with research experienced as an impetus for change to benefit a larger community.

With category one, being a researcher as fulfilling academic requirements , there is an external focus on satisfying requirements and producing outcomes, while emotionally, ‘there is often limited engagement in the research process, primarily involving the possibility of a sense of satisfaction arising from the perception of a job well done and anxiety over the possibility of not fulfilling requirements' ( Åkerlind 2008, p. 28).

While category two, being a researcher as establishing oneself in the field , also has a primarily external focus on the experience of being a researcher, but ‘there is more emotional engagement in the research process, in the sense that the academic's self-esteem seems to be involved' ( Åkerlind 2008, p. 28).

With category three, being a researcher as developing oneself personally , there is a stronger internal focus, and there is ‘an associated emotional engagement by way of personal interest and enthusiasm for the research' ( Åkerlind 2008, p. 29).

With category four, being a researcher as enabling broader change , there is a strong focus on altruistic aims and outcomes of research, often underpinned by ‘a strong ideological commitment to such change, which leads to passionate engagement with the research activity' ( Åkerlind 2008, p. 29).

Probably the key finding from Åkerlind's (2008) study and literature review is the considerable variation of views between researchers at similar stages of their career and within the same types of institution. There are clearly many ways to be a researcher and variations in understanding of purposes, quality and who should benefit from research.

Now the interesting contrast with contract researchers is that for academic researchers there are presumably greater possibilities of seeking alignment between their attitudes and behaviour in the sense of achieving a degree of career congruence. Some contract researchers might be able to achieve this, but many are driven by more pragmatic concerns.


Åkerlind, G. S. (2008). An academic perspective on research and being a researcher: an integration of the literature. Studies in Higher Education , 33 (1), 17-31

Bills, D. (2004). Supervisors' conceptions of research and the implications for supervisor development. International Journal for Academic Development 9: 85–97.

Bowden, J., P. Green, R. Barnacle, N. Cherry, and R. Usher. (2005). Academics' ways of understanding success in research activities, in Bowden, J., and P. Green, (eds.) Doing developmental phenomenography, 145–55. Melbourne : RMIT University Press.

Brew, A. (2001). Conceptions of research: A phenomenographic study. Studies in Higher Education 26: 271–85.

Bruce, C., B. Pham, and I. Stoodley. (2004). Constituting the significance and value of research: Views from information technology academics and industry professionals, Studies in Higher Education 29: 219–38.

Supporting researchers' careers development

Now what are the implications of the above for the type of actions that could be undertaken to support researchers' career development. First, it is clear that to be effective it is necessary to master the interactional, technical and analytical dimensions of carrying out research and the ability to manage these dimensions on a continuing basis was an essential part of the skill development process . Research biographies offer some guides to action, but the process has strong experiential and contextual dimensions and strong collaborative peer support networks could be crucial in this respect. Much HE research takes place in a pressurised contexts where there are considerable time pressures and a preoccupation with pressing issues, hence practical guides and staff development tend to focus upon techniques for improving planning, prioritising, time management and so on. The Balanced Researcher: strategies for busy researchers is in this genre and contains practical information on Strategies to be more effective in your work; Strategies to balance work and other parts of your life; and Specific actions that will have a big impact on your work and life. However, the authors of the booklet use the principles of Cognitive Behavioural Coaching and in related work have produced Kearns and Gardiner (2007) Is it time well spent? The relationship between time management behaviours, perceived effectiveness and work-related morale and distress in a university context . This article highlighted how having a clear sense of career purpose was most important for perceived effectiveness at work, followed by planning and prioritizing. So if an essential aspect of any staff development is to reduce stress, then researchers need to learn to identify the central purpose in their career and then plan their time accordingly.

Now occupational identities can and do change over time, but it would seem that the global label ‘university researcher' is probably too vague to give a clear sense of career purpose. However, reflecting on the type of ‘university researcher' you are and wish to be may be helpful in this respect. For contract researchers, Allen-Collinson (2000) identified five ‘ways of being a contract researcher' with work orientation and commitment being linked to:

  • a practitioner perspective
  • a disciplinary perspective
  • a focus upon solving problems and technical competence in the current role
  • precedence being given to other life roles and identities
  • a recognition you are only ‘passing through' before finding a job elsewhere.

Similarly, Åkerlind (2008) highlighted f our ways of being an academic researcher:

  • fulfilling academic requirements, with research experienced as an academic duty;
  • establishing oneself in the field, with research experienced as a personal achievement;
  • developing oneself personally, with research experienced as a route to personal understanding;
  • and enabling broader change, with research experienced as an impetus for change to benefit a larger community.

Now reflection on current and prospective roles is important because it can help give direction to those parts of the job that may be discretionary and lead to greater role congruence both in the present and the future, particularly for those considering a career in research. One obvious reason for considering both types of research above is that about a third of contract researchers aspire to obtaining a job as an academic and may therefore think that it is important to go in a particular direction, for example, by aiming to publish in particular journals or undertaking some teaching activities, even though this overlooks there are different ways of being an academic too and other activities may give better alignment for a possible future.

However, many researchers may also be considering shifts away from research and they may require the most support. One way forward for this group may be to consider how expertise, professional relationships, responsibilities and skills develop within and across organisations as a career progresses through different stages and they may wish to engage with resources explicitly designed to help with Managing your career . Career management is about the long-term commitment to building your skills and experience to meet the requirements of current and future roles. Purcell and Elias (2006) in research for ESRC on Employment of social science PhDs in academic and non-academic jobs: research skills and postgraduate training showed that there are multiple possible exit points for researchers, but in fields like Educational Research there are multiple career entry points too.

As well as researchers requiring support for technical skills development, the development of ‘project management skills' is an area where there are often requests for support, and TLRP researcher Anne Edwards gave a presentation on Managing Large Projects at an RDI event in 2006. At a TLRP RCBN event Rosemary Deem (2003) presented Building a Research Career in which she offered advice and guidance on how to build a successful research career. The RCBN Building Research Capacity Journal Issue 9 (May 2005) focuses exclusively on ‘Contract Research Staff and TLRP' following a major conference on researchers' careers.


Åkerlind, G. S. (2008). An academic perspective on research and being a researcher: an integration of the literature. Studies in Higher Education , 33 (1), 17-31.

Allen-Collinson, J. (2000). ‘Social Science Contract Researchers in Higher Education: Perceptions of craft knowledge'. Work, Employment and Society 14 (1):159-171.


How to reference this page: Brown, A. (2007) Understanding researchers' career development. London: TLRP. Online at (accessed )

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