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Research Support Services Conference: Reflections and learning

Laura Cockram, Head of Engagement and Communications, shares learning from her experience as Conference Facilitator for our annual Research Support Services Conference, here at the University of Edinburgh. 

I had a very rewarding conversation last week. I shared what I and a group of enthusiastic and dedicated colleagues had done to bring an idea to life. 

I realised it was the fourth time (that I know of) that I or the team have been asked to share what we did and how we went about it. So, inspired by conversations with peers from places as varied as Kentucky, Southampton and Dunedin, these are my reflections from leading on the conference. 

Research Support Professional Services people work very hard to enable the amazing research our talented academics do. Day to day, we help ideas to grow – in myriad ways. The Conference, for us, is a chance to celebrate that work. It’s an opportunity to create a space for people to learn, to share and to build connections with colleagues. 

Number one outcome

Mine is to co-create a conference that is by our research support community and for our research support community. What’s yours? 

By and for the community

That means, in practice, that we try to co-create at all points. We set up a cross-University organising group and open applications to the Programme Lead and Programme Coordinators roles to all colleagues in the University research support community. It means that we run an open call for content, inviting all teams and colleagues to come forward with ideas of what they could share – that could be an experience, expertise in a specialist area, learning gleaned from a service improvement or something else we haven’t thought of. We offer a variety of ways to get involved – curating content under a theme, leading a session, being on a panel, helping out on the day. It means experimenting with how to create opportunities for connection – last year we tried a Human Library where colleagues offered their time for a half-hour conversation. We’ve made it available year round. This year, we’ll be undoubtedly be experimenting with different formats.  

Last week, I also appointed our 2024 Programme Lead and we have picked our team of Programme Coordinators this week – we have people who bring experience from teams across the University. We’ll be reaching out to colleagues in the coming weeks, encouraging them to step forward (and be brave) to share their expertise and experience. Maybe people will think “I have nothing to share”… but it’s easy to underestimate the value of your own work and what you learn in doing it. What would you share? 

Start small and grow

More than one person who contacted me said something along the lines of “we’ve wanted to do this for ages”. Sounds like there is a need there. Research support roles can be intense. University structures are often siloed. People are looking for ways to connect. 

At our 2023 conference we had 300 participants attending 30 sessions, offered by 65 colleagues. We ran parallel sessions under 3 themes. We had a keynote from our VP Research and Innovation on the new University Research and Innovation strategy and we had a keynote panel session with 3 researchers whose ideas we have helped to grow in our enabling roles. It was energising and inspiring! And they did an amazing job in the dangerous post-lunch slot. 

But we didn’t start there. Our 2022 conference was smaller and needed more of a directive approach. We used it as a way to seed the idea of an annual event. If you are thinking about how to get started, this might be the year you do. Start where you are, and grow from there. What’s your first step? 

Find out more

If you’d like to talk to me or one of the team, please get in touch. We are happy to share what we’ve learned. 

2024 conference

If you are a research support colleague at the University of Edinburgh, our 2024 conference is on 29 October  Research Support Services Conference.

What could you share with your research support colleagues? Get in touch if you’ve an idea you’d like to discuss 


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