The University of Liverpool Research Staff Association Buddy Scheme

The University of Liverpool’s Research Staff Association (RSA) Buddy Scheme is open to all research staff (those on research-only contracts) at University of Liverpool. It provides a structured space/activity for these staff to meet new colleagues, build their networks and share their experiences of working at the university. It was designed as a way for research staff to meet peers at similar career stages across different faculties and create informal support networks. The scheme is a researcher-led and -owned initiative by the University of Liverpool RSA.

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

The University of Liverpool is a research-intensive university, with approximately 1500 research staff (this includes 920 staff on research-only contracts, such as postdoctoral researchers, research assistants and early career research fellows. There are also 550 principal investigators (PIs) who are/ have been in receipt of grant(s) within the last 5 years. This number does not include staff who are considered academics/ lecturers/ research and teaching only staff), approximately 1000 Research and Teaching staff (There are a number of cross-overs between this number of research and teaching staff, and those PIs in receipts of grants), and approximately 700 technicians (The University has a cohort of highly skilled specialist research technical staff who are essential to the support of our research, such as developing methodology, technology and research facilities. In 2017, the University became a signatory to the Technician Commitment. Recognising that research technical professional expertise and contributions did not necessarily fit the traditional progression route for academics, in 2023, we were the first university across the sector to introduce a comprehensive, dedicated promotion pathway for specialist technical (technologists) colleagues, known as the Research Technical Professional (RTP) Career Pathway. Employed in a wide range of roles, including potentially, some colleagues on research-only contracts, this pathway has been developed to enable the University to reward, retain, provide the recognition and grow our own talent and to give a clearer route for those whose aspirations may not fit the traditional academic career pathway).

What challenge were you trying to address with this initiative?

Research staff often report finding it challenging to integrate into the wider research community when they join universities, and this was magnified during COVID19 when more informal local activities, such as coffee mornings, were halted. Our CEDARS 2021 data showed that a third of our research staff did not feel integrated into the wider research community.

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

Research Staff-led and -owned Initiative
The Buddy Scheme is promoted as an opportunity for postdocs and early career researchers to enhance their professional, research and social frames of reference. The RSA Steering Committee organised the advertising of the buddy scheme through their weekly e-bulletin and in their local faculties and department networks. Research staff were invited to apply within a 3-week window and then grouped with three-to-four research staff and invited to meet within a 3-week window, with RSA Steering Committee members in each group to retain momentum and engagement.

Since the first round of this scheme, based on feedback, it has expanded to be a key part of the induction experience for new researchers supported by the RSA. The RSA Steering Committee take the role of lead buddies for the groups. This enabled more experienced researchers to connect with new researchers, make them feel welcome, answer questions, and help them navigate the university’s culture and ways of working. All groups have a mix of disciplinary areas, to support the formation of cross-institutional networks.

Over the 3 rounds of the Scheme between 2022-2023, 92 research staff participated, including:
44 from the Faculty of Health and Life Sciences
18 from the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences
29 from the Faculty of Science and Engineering

Aligning the Buddy Scheme with the Concordat Principles
Environment and Culture: The Scheme enables research staff to actively contribute to the development and maintenance of an inclusive and enabling research culture and be a supportive colleague, particularly to newer researchers. It provides support for researchers in developing a healthy working environment, by encouraging them to take care of their own wellbeing.

Employment: The Buddy Scheme is part of an effective induction process at the university for research staff, by providing an informal way for new researchers to learn about the university processes and ask questions to peers in a safe environment.

Professional and Career Development: The Buddy Scheme helps research staff to build networks cross-institutionally and with individuals who have different development experiences and career aspirations. This enables researchers to recognise different opportunities for their own professional development or career pathway.

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

The main challenge was relating to researchers joining the scheme and then not engaging with the buddy group. This was addressed by formalising the role of the RSA Steering Committee member as a 'lead' buddy for each group, who had formal responsibility for contacting any researchers who were not engaging to offer support. Further, a reminder email was sent by the RSA Steering Committee after the first week of the buddy scheme launch in rounds 2 and 3. Further feedback in Round 3 mentioned the introduction of more informal opportunities for research staff to meet - from this, the RSA have planned and hosted in-person monthly Coffee Mornings since September 2023.

How did you evaluate the impact of your initiative?

The Impact of the Buddy Scheme – Enabling Researchers to Feel More Integrated
Following each round of the Scheme, research staff were invited to complete an evaluation survey which informed the planning for further rounds of the scheme. On average, 80% of respondents reported a good or very good experience of meeting their group. Some of the common highlights of the scheme for the participants were meeting people from other parts of the University at similar career stages and exchanging views on life of as a researcher. They found learning that they have similar challenges/concerns reassuring. Other participants enjoyed taking time out of their day to have a chat with someone new.

“The highlight was to meet buddies who are at various stages in their academic career, share my experience of being an early career researcher and learn about their career paths.”

“It was amazing to connect with someone who could say, let me know if you need anything for your research from my end!”

Were there any surprising or unexpected consequences?

A Success Story: Fostering an Inclusive and Respectful Research Culture
In response to research staff expressing their keenness to contribute more actively to fostering a positive research environment at UoL, the RSA has recently initiated opportunities for research staff to be lead buddies for PGRs in a one-of-it’s kind PGR-Postdoc buddy scheme, collaborating with the UoL Postgraduate Researcher Development Network.

The PGR-Postdoc Buddy Scheme has just completed its first round, with 15 research staff and 97 PGRs taking part. Feedback to date indicates that all research staff who took part felt that the buddy group meeting was a good or very good experience. In particular, the research staff enjoyed provided support on PGR-related topics and facilitating conversations between the PGRs. They also appreciated this scheme as a way to develop their own skills in leading group meetings.

“It was nice to hear that everyone feels the same on their first year and to provide insight/tips. I also enjoyed that I was able to facilitate a meeting without feeling anxious or nervous and was able to use it as a way to improve my own confidence and skills.”

In all, the RSA Buddy Scheme continues to be a valuable part of building an inclusive research culture and environment for our research staff, from their induction where they can hear from more experienced research staff to their own development, after which they have the opportunity to pass along their own insights to new and emerging research staff.

What advice would you give others wanting to do this?

This can be most effectively delivered with the support of a research staff network, especially if they are engaged enough to drive this initiative forward. Additionally, limiting the scheme to only one contact in groups (leaving the option for the groups continue to meet to them to organise) reduces the administrative burden and helps boost engagement.

Contact if you would like to discuss this initiative further.

More information about this practice example:

Beneficiaries: Research staff

Stakeholders: Researchers Professional staff

Concordat principles: Environment and culture Employment Professional and career development

Keywords: Equality, diversity and inclusion Research culture Wellbeing Induction Research identity