A Reflection on Working at Research Consulting

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Dr Christina Mellor | Research Consulting

Senior Consultant Dr Christina Mellor joined the Research Consulting team in July 2022.

Here she describes how her extensive background in HE – and her forensic analysis of research impact – is benefitting our projects and allowing us to expand our consultancy services into new areas of work.

My PhD in Computational Chemistry gave me the strong analytical skills and attention to detail which have become the foundations of my career. I have broad knowledge of the higher education research landscape having worked across doctoral training, research policy, research and business development, research impact, and the planning and delivery of university-wide research and knowledge exchange strategies.

Having supported the University of Nottingham’s School of Pharmacy with their submission for the Research Excellence Framework (REF) in 2014, I got a reputation on campus for being the ‘go to’ person for demonstrating research impact.

The Pharmacy Head of School had meetings with peers across the university who wanted to know the secret to the School’s REF outcome success – we had achieved the highest possible ratings for our impact submission. I was honoured that my work was held up as an essential contributor to the School’s success, and even more delighted to then be recommended to help other School’s understand their REF impact outcomes and plan for future REF submissions.

After a slight shift in focus to work on research and business development within the School of Pharmacy, while keeping a watching brief on all impact activity, I took a two-year break away from the University to undertake an international role.

Working for Universitas21 as Researcher Engagement Manager, I supported a global network of universities with a shared vision for collaboration and internationalisation. I developed programmes of activity that enabled doctoral and early career researchers to expand their research networks and develop their transferable skills.

During workshops, we would often ask participating researchers to use the Pecha Kucha method to present their research – telling a story using images in a timed format. Researchers can talk for hours about their research and trying to get them to be concise was a challenge! However, these were enjoyable and engaging sessions; we moved them out of their comfort zones and built meaningful, productive relationships.

My remit also covered the policy and strategy elements of global research, facilitating 28 research-intensive universities working together around a common internationalisation goal. I split my time between Nottingham and Birmingham but also travelled to partner universities in South America, North America, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea and Singapore; this gave me a real insight into different academic cultures and research approaches.

My time with Universitas21 also gave me fascinating insights into the challenges of collaboration across borders. We had a specific group set up to promote collaborative research across the network and to help resolve some of the issues faced, such as the different legal positions on IP (of which there are many) and which funders would allow international partners on grants (there are not many). International research is often promoted as the way forward to solve global challenges, and studies have shown that journal articles with an international authorship are more highly cited, but there are still many barriers that don’t make this easy!

It took a special job to prise me away from the interesting international challenges I was working on, but I couldn’t resist the opportunity to come back to the University of Nottingham to oversee their REF2021 impact submission. I was tasked to do ‘exactly what I had done for the School of Pharmacy’, but this time supporting the REF2021 submission process across the entire university. It was a privilege to be asked to lead this work, but it was somewhat relentless! In the three years up until submission, I oversaw internal reviews of around 300 impact case studies from all areas of the university, including reviewing them all personally, as everyone wanted my views.

It was a thorough process; I analysed and edited each one, ensuring it satisfied the criteria and forensically marking up areas for strengthening and identifying where additional impact indicators were needed. It was a huge analytical and co-ordination piece, but also incredibly rewarding because I got to know about all the amazing impact stories from across the university. I wrote a blog reflecting on the process following submission.

The final 135 case studies submitted make me very proud to have been part of the process. They showcase a wide variety of impacts across areas such as health, environment, policy, and culture, and I can safely say that every person in the UK will have been touched by these impacts in some way. The REF2021 results reaffirmed the University of Nottingham as among the best in the UK for research, which made all the hard work worthwhile.

Being part of the REF preparations at the University of Nottingham gave me a wider understanding of research strategy and how everything fits together across research management. Following the REF2021 submission, I was invited to support the planning of a new Research strategy and help with the delivery of the Knowledge Exchange strategy, where I gained even more insights on the inner workings of a university.

Being able to use my wide-ranging experience, while at the same time learning even more about research, was what attracted me to the Senior Consultant role. Working with Research Consulting provides the opportunity to partner with any number of institutions, learned societies or commercial enterprises on a range of different topics.

I’ve already used my impact expertise within one project analysing REF2021 impact case studies and am part way through a second. I suspect by the time we conclude this project I’ll have read and critiqued well over 500 impact case studies, across varying disciplines and universities. In the short time I’ve been here, I’ve also worked on projects covering research culture, partnership working, evaluation, research intelligence and research marketing. I used to worry that my meandering career path might be somewhat limiting but it turns out the possibilities are limitless and that’s very exciting.

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