Becoming a researching higher education professional

Research output: Contribution to conferenceConference Abstractpeer-review


UK higher education institutions (HEIs) as workplaces are highly structured and hierarchical, with a clear distinction contractually between academic positions and professional positions. Whilst some have called for a ‘third track’ of career routes (Whitchurch, 2023), there is not yet a clear space for higher education
professionals who actively engage in research related to their practice. Despite this, many individuals on professional contracts within HEIs are undertaking professional doctorates in education. I am one of those individuals, having completed a part-time professional doctorate in education between 2013-2022.
In this presentation I reflect on my own personal experiences of being an early career educational researcher in the field of higher education.

Professional doctorates are designed to develop ‘researching professionals’, a distinction from traditional doctoral programmes that intend to develop ‘professional researchers’ (Bourner, Bowden and Laing, 2001). Students undertaking professional doctorates are typically already established professionals in their field, have acquired a masters degree, are already employed, and as such they are simultaneously experts and novices – experts in their own professional context, yet novices in research (Taylor, 2007). The experience of simultaneously being an expert and novice in the field of higher education is one that resonates with me.

My experience of becoming an expert in my area of higher education administration was characterised by opportunities, where I was able to build a strong professional network, portfolio of successful projects, breadth of experience in the sector, and a toolkit of management and leadership skills. In contrast, my experience of being a doctoral researcher was characterised by challenges. Like many part-time doctoral students, I found challenges with balance and support (Gardner and Gopaul, 2012), with unexpected personal and professional pressures, and I struggled with the experience of being a novice. Fear of failure, and of damaging my professional credibility, slowed my doctoral journey considerably.

I will share examples of how I have tried to harness my experience and expertise in leadership and management, to complement and offset my experience as a newer researcher. In particular through convening peer research networks, joining a journal editorial team, receiving a small grant from a professional organisation, and designing research activities around my professional projects and institutional challenges. I will draw out the opportunities and challenges that I face as I try to combine research and practice, and try to map out a new career path as a researching higher education professional in the UK.


ConferenceBritish Educational Research Association Early Career Researcher Annual Conference
Abbreviated titleBERA ECR
Period5/06/24 → …
Internet address


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