Spotlight on the RDF: “Intellectual risk”

In one of our occasional series of “Spotlight on…” posts, we take a closer look at a specific descriptor from the RDF. Each one of the sixty-three descriptors in Vitae‘s Researcher Development Framework (RDF) is a characteristic of an excellent researcher, and we’ll be looking at how UoB PGRs can develop these characteristics.

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Many PGRs embark on a research programme having excelled during their studies as an undergraduate and taught postgraduate. It can therefore be uncomfortable to enter the world of research where criticism and debate are the norm, and where that criticism can be harsh or ambiguous. There’s also a transition from being primarily a consumer of primary research to being a questioning, critical, and contributing member of the research community. Taking intellectual risks is, however, crucial to effective research and discipline breakthroughs.

The RDF puts intellectual risk in domain A (knowledge and intellectual abilities) and sub-domain A3 (creativity) and the phases of development for this descriptor are:

1. Tests the boundaries, is willing to expose ideas to a critical audience and to critically appraise other research.

2. – 3. Challenges the status quo in thinking within discipline/research area.

4. – 5. Pioneering; takes intellectual risks appropriately.

As PGRs, we can’t expect to be pioneers just yet, but phases 1 and 2 are well within reach. They will require leaving our comfort zone and challenging ourselves to get stuck into the debates in our disciplines. Here are some ideas for how you can develop your skills and confidence in this area.

  • Your supervisory team is a key source of feedback and criticism for your own work. Discuss with them the type of guidance and comment you find most helpful (see para 6.1.4 of the Code of Practice on the Supervision and Monitoring Progress of PGRs – view your cohort legislation). Explore the Feedback and criticism section of the Working effectively with your supervisor Canvas module.
  • Be critical of the literature you are reading. Identify strengths and weaknesses. What questions does this item raise? Engage in (or set up!) reading groups to explore how others critically engage with the literature.
  • Take every opportunity for feedback and criticism on your own work, even (or especially) when you think it’s “not ready yet”. It is important to receive criticism from a wide range of people including peers, and those within and without your immediate discipline.
  • Participate in Departmental, School, and College seminar programmes, as well as discipline-specific conferences. You can present your own research, but also make the effort to engage with others’ work and ask questions. For every presentation you watch, think of at least one question you might ask (and sometimes, ask one!).
  • Find a safe space within your discipline (maybe with your peers, your supervisor, or an online community) to challenge some of the norms of your discipline or local research culture. What could be done differently?
  • Become a peer reviewer for a journal. The Web of Science Academy has some useful courses to get you up to speed.

Taking intellectual risks can be uncomfortable, but also highly rewarding in feeling like an active contributor to your field. Start small, and you’ll soon build your confidence and intellectual insight to the benefit of all.

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Helen Kara

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