Summer Vacation Research Competition (SVRC)

The Summer Vacation Research Competition (SVRC) enables postdoctoral researchers and professional services staff to run an independent research project with an undergraduate (UG) intern and thus to gain additional research project and management experience. Successful UGs work on a cutting-edge research project and learn first-hand about research careers whilst being paid a living wage. The SVRC is part of Kent’s combined strategy to support the professional development of all staff and to enable UGs to participate in and be inspired by research.

What kind of an organisation are you in the context of the Concordat?

Kent is a large, multi-campus, high research-intensive and broad-discipline higher education institution (HEI). We have c.237 research staff and c.690 research and teaching staff among a total population of c.1200 academic and research staff.

What challenge were you trying to address with this initiative?

The idea behind the Summer Vacation Research Competition was two-fold: to provide opportunities for both postdoctoral research associates/assistants (postdocs) and undergraduates. For the postdocs, the competition models grant writing and application processes, allows them to design an independent research project, gain a mentor (which we know is beneficial to developing a successful academic career), receive training and be involved with shortlisting, interviewing and managing a research assistant, project and budget. The undergraduates have an opportunity to apply for a research-orientated position, to engage with Careers and Employability Services to get feedback on their application form and interview(s), and, for winners, to be part of cutting edge research whilst earning a living wage. Applications from undergraduates are targeted at those who are flagged as widening participation (WP) students and part of Kent’s Work Study Scheme, but the competition is open to all (home and international) second years and third years who are continuing at Kent for another year. It has been operating successfully since 2018 and, for the first time in 2023, professional services (PS) staff were invited to submit project proposals in addition to postdocs.

What did you do and how does this align with the Principles and keywords you have selected below?

This innovative opportunity is part of the University’s combined strategy to support the professional and career development of all its staff. This has led to the Academic Career Map and routes for progression for those on contracts that focus on education, research, or combine them both, and to the University becoming a signatory to both the Researcher Development Concordat and the Technician Commitment. Furthermore, Kent is keen to explore and develop comparable models to encourage progression and career routes for PS staff. The University is committed to supporting the research environment at Kent and values the work that staff do in this regard whether in highly skilled PS teams or as early, mid-career and senior academics and researchers. The competition was designed to be developmental at every stage, contributes to the University’s dual-intensity strategy and enables students to participate actively in research. In practice, staff (postdocs or PS) apply for £2500 to work with an undergraduate on a research project for 4-7 weeks, who is paid at a living wage. For postdocs, the project has to be independent and stand-alone. For PS staff, it can be a team application and associated with ongoing work. For all projects, the undergraduate has to be offered a research opportunity that will benefit their future studies and/or work.

What were the challenges in implementation and how did you resolve them?

The initial challenge was in securing resource. Since 2018, the competition has developed from a pilot within the Faculty of Sciences offering 3 competition prizes to securing centralised funding for 12 prizes for postdocs and 2 for PS staff in 2023. There have been challenges in the timing of the competition. For example, applications have to open early enough to allow postdocs time to develop their application; however, they must continue to be employed at Kent through the summer. The short-term nature of many postdoc contracts means that some are ineligible as they will have left the University, whilst others miss the opportunity because they join too late. The timing has to be balanced with the need to advertise opportunities for undergraduates in good time. At present, we aim to have undergraduates shortlisted and interviewed by the end of the Spring term. Another challenge is that the balance of undergraduate opportunities is not evenly spread across the University, which reflects the variable numbers of postdocs across different disciplines. Demand from undergraduates is consistently higher than that from postdocs: the numbers of applications from postdocs have averaged 10 per year, but the demand for opportunities to be part of a research project have been consistently high, with applications from undergraduates for individual projects as high as 50. Finally, one of the main challenges for the competition team is that running the competition is not in anyone’s job description and hence time spent organising it is not formally resourced. (The competition was initiated and developed by a single academic, Dr Jennifer Leigh, who wanted to address the lack of support for postdocs and she is now supported by a team of six from different PS teams and academic divisions across the University).

How did you evaluate the impact of your initiative?

The competition is evaluated in a number of ways. During the summer vacation, as the projects are running, there are regular meetings to which all postdocs and undergraduates are invited. At the end of each year, each postdoc is asked to submit a short written evaluation and all postdocs and undergraduates are invited to complete a short feedback survey. In addition, the Careers and Employability team keep in contact with all previous competition winners who are invited to stay in touch and update them on their progress. Similarly, the postdocs are encouraged to keep in contact, and, if still at the University, are invited to speak to their peers about the competition and its benefits. One example of this was as part of a ‘Valuing, supporting and developing our postdocs‘ event on 21 September 2021, during which previous winners spoke about their very positive experiences of the competition (although, unfortunately, the recording is only available to Kent staff).

Were there any surprising or unexpected consequences?

Although we had hoped that the competition would be beneficial to the competition winners, we had not anticipated the demand for research internships from undergraduates or the quality of the WP undergraduates. Credit for this can be given to Hannah Greer and the Work Study Scheme team, as well as to the students themselves. We are currently exploring the data to see if there is evidence to back up what we have heard anecdotally, which is that the competition has been life-changing for many of the undergraduates who have taken part. In addition, we looking to see whether there is evidence that applying for the competition and being unsuccessful but having the opportunity to receive feedback has increased engagement with the Careers and Employability Team and/or led to future developmental and/or career opportunities.

What advice would you give others wanting to do this?

Logistically, it is vital to have support for the competition from across the University. For example, the Graduate and Researcher College currently handles communications and publicity, advertises the competition to postdocs and administers postdoc applications. Central and Divisional Research & Innovation Services teams provide developmental advice and support to the postdocs. The Careers and Employability Services handle the undergraduate side from job adverts to undergraduate applications. They also advise postdocs on shortlisting and provide or signpost them to unconscious bias training, as well as arranging and supporting interviews, and providing feedback to successful and unsuccessful applicants. They also manage timesheets and finances so that the students can get paid and the academic divisions support the competition by handling other expenses. Logistics aside, it is imperative to have support and buy-in from senior leaders. The competition’s initial pilot was funded by the Associate Dean for Research & Innovation in the Faculty of Sciences, supported by the Careers and Employability Services and the Graduate and Researcher College, and driven by Dr Jennifer Leigh and Dr Helen Leech, then in Research & Innovation Services. The competition is now supported by the Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research & Innovation who chairs a panel to assess postdoc applications which consists of the Directors of Education, Careers and Employability Services and the Graduate and Researcher College, and members of the competition team.

More information about this practice example:

Beneficiaries: Research staff Professional support staff

Stakeholders: Researchers Managers of researchers Professional staff Senior/executive team

Concordat principles: Professional and career development

Keywords: Equality, diversity and inclusion Research culture Research integrity Wellbeing Researcher voice Training Working conditions Career progression Professional development Leadership development Widening participation