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Straight talk: Professionalising the imposters

In his monthly column for Funding Insight, Phil Ward, research funding blogger and deputy director of research services at the University of Kent, shares his fears of being exposed as a fraud.

Last week, a colleague at another institution asked me to be their professional mentor. This came out of the blue and shocked me. I was flattered but bewildered, because I’ve always felt like a bit of fraud. What right do I have to mentor anyone?

Of course, such feelings are common in higher education. Ruth Barcan wrote in Times Higher Education earlier this year about this sense of fraudulence among academics. “Many of my colleagues (especially women) gave out subtle signs that they did not feel they were up to the job—almost as though they had been employed in error and would sooner or later be found out.”

This, suggested Barcan, was because of "work intensification". The job has become bigger and more complex, the boundaries of knowledge are expanding, and the student base is increasing. “In such a context,” claimed Barcan, “it is easy to think, as I did, that one does not know enough.”

Research support suffers from the same imposter syndrome, but I think the reasons for it are somewhat different. Our profession is comparatively young. Although there have always been administrators dealing with students and finance, research management only started to coalesce into a profession in the UK in the early 1980s with the formation of RAGnet, a precursor to the Association of Research Managers and Administrators.

Initially, this was little more than a self-help group: a way for administrators in centres funded by the Economic and Social Research Council to share their problems and find answers. Joan Hughes, the instigator of the group, put her finger on the problem: “We have no in-service training, no formal association, no professional meetings and, perhaps most damaging of all, we work in isolation from our colleagues.”

By the end of the millennium, the initial band of eight had swollen to 350. The growth in numbers was a reflection of both the increasing profile of the group and the growth of higher education. However, the profession was still largely unregulated and there were no clear entry expectations, training frameworks or routes to progression.

In 2009, the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the Medical Research Council commissioned John Green of Imperial College London and David Langley of the University of Bristol to try to rectify this. Their report, Professionalising Research Management, called for a more comprehensive framework for research managers, and Green was quoted as saying: “Research management is one function that helps keep universities afloat and gives them a competitive edge…It is critical that we recruit people with the right expertise, but without a clear professional structure we will struggle to do so. At the moment this is a career that you are more likely to fall into than actively choose."

Since then, ARMA has launched a Professional Development Framework and created Certificates in Research Administration, Management and Leadership. The structure is there, but the profession is still, by and large, a career that you fall into.

And it is this that makes it ripe for imposter syndrome to take hold. Even as ARMA membership tops 2,000, we still have to prove ourselves, or feel that we do. I know that my work makes a difference, has increased the quality and quantity of research applications at my university, and has developed the research culture across the campus more broadly. However, in the dark of the night, there is still a niggling voice that whispers: "Imposter."

Perhaps—as with academics—that voice will always be with me, but I hope it will fade over time. Taking part in training, engaging with mentoring, sharing good practice and raising expectations will all help to professionalise research management, and it will eventually come to resemble the well-established and respected career it already is in the United States. However much of an imposter I feel, I should overcome my bewilderment and step up to play my part. And where better to start than by saying yes to being a mentor?