Describing Research Development (Part 2)

Genevieve Clark and Anita Sharma, University of Saskatchewan and Thompson Rivers University


Research development (RD) helps research grow. It builds capacity in the research enterprise and accelerates reputational and societal impact. It also helps institutions and researchers keep pace with a competitive and ever-changing research landscape.

In Part 1, we noted that RD is rooted in grant facilitation but extends to other developmental domains such as research communications, collaborations, strategic positioning, and faculty career development. Here, we look at its made-to-measure nature.

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to developing academic research. RD practices depend on an institution’s strategic goals, research culture, and available resources. Practices also need to be flexible to be responsive to funding trends and social currents shaping the research itself. To this end, the restructuring and growth of research offices and staff positions is not uncommon. For instance, in recent years many larger universities have adopted central RD or strategic initiatives offices; a departure from multi-functional centralized research offices combining pre- and post-award services.

Generally, the more research intensive an institution, the broader the scope of its RD services and spread across campus. Larger institutions tend to use a hybrid model of RD support with centralized services (located in the institutional research office) and decentralized services (embedded within academic units) that complement and build on each other. Mid-sized or smaller institutions tend to house their services centrally. Still, institutions that lack the critical mass to staff a research office may have decentralized supports for their research clusters.

The nature of RD positions is tied to institutional needs but not necessarily location. Some professionals are specialists, such as in grant development. Others are Jills-of-all-trades – generalists with responsibilities spanning several of the mentioned RD domains. There may also be hybrid positions, involving accountabilities unrelated to RD.

Fitting the description of an alt-ac career, one outside the professoriate but inside the university, RD is a career that people with research backgrounds, women mostly, tend to stumble into rather than study for. Knowledge is gained on the job and through self-directed professional development. As an emerging profession, there is a dearth of professional credentials on offer in the RD domains. Nevertheless, it is still for many a professional identity.

Unlike research administrative functions that are guided by institutional policy and standard procedural frameworks, the made-to-measure nature of RD across and within institutions makes it difficult to get a clear and full picture. RD involves an array of services, a variety of job titles and profiles, and diverse reporting structures. The picture is further muddled by our own perception of what the practice looks like from where we work. In this regard, studies about RD professionals such as the ones referenced below are helpful to answer the enduring question “And what is it you do exactly?” and build an evidence base for the profession.   

Selected Studies about Research Development Professionals

  1. Ross, R., Reeves, J., Scarpinato, K., Pelham, M. (2019). Success Factors for University Research Development Offices and Activities. Journal of Research Administration, 50(3):107-124
  2. Acker, S., McGinn, M.K., and Campisi, C. (2019). The work of university research administrators: Praxis and professionalization. Journal of Praxis in Higher Education, 1(1)
  3. Preuss, M., Eck, K., Fechner, M., and Walker, L. (2020). Research Development and Its Workforce: An Evidence-Based Compendium for Higher Education and Other Environments. International Journal on Studies in Education. 2(1)
  4. Loi, W.Y. (2021). Tampere University. Understanding the Role of Professional Staff in Supporting Academic Researchers at a University. Masters’ Thesis. Danube University Krem, Austria.