What does a researcher do all day?

Recently, Paul Jervis-Heath* came to speak to Cambridge Libraries staff about work he had done as part of the Cambridge Libraries user centred design programme during the previous academic year.

This project was trying to establish how Cambridge University administrative services would manage the RCUK block grant provided to the University to support the RCUK Open Access policy. The end goal of the project was to design products and services, so the team of six working on the programme needed to start by trying to understand what academics did and what services they needed.

Information gathering process

During the project the team worked with 56 academics including contextual interviews with 34 academics. Paul noted however that it was also important to see the environments they were working in to ‘get into the headspaces’ of who they were designing for.

To this end the team shadowed 10 academics over a 48-hour period. They followed them through their day, literally sitting next to them. They watched lectures, sat in supervisions and took notes. As researchers did tasks the team asked questions about how they felt about the task – whether it was worth their time for example. The number was small because of the time intensity of this approach, however the process revealed good insights. Paul mentioned that they looked at the workarounds academics have for tasks and were able to determine how academics know what is succeeding and what ought they be doing.

The information gathering phase also included 12 co-design sessions looking at research and publishing tools, where they invited a group of participants to act as a designer. These were one on one co-design sessions. The academics were asked to design the journal they would like to publish in. As part of the process they took notes about how the participants talked about the publishing process.

This process is referred to as ‘bootstrapping’. The project was not pretending to have the full picture of what academic life is like. However the findings are robust enough to form an idea of what academics are doing to then create something and take it back to the participants to be refined  based on feedback.

Wearing lots of hats

Academics have lots of roles and they get split both between the University and their College and between their teaching and research roles. Paul noted that being an academic is really three or four jobs – each person needs to decide what they will be very good at. He observed that academics have to discover things that are new to the world as well as all of their other administration and work.

Many of the academics observed had between six and eight, sometimes 10 different roles. Some of these come with a job title, and others are unofficial because the academic wants to be a good supervisor, tutor, or a good colleague. The longer someone is around, the more roles they collect. The team started trying to graph people’s job titles as part of the project but this proved challenging because academia is not like a company where people have a fixed job title. Paul described it as more like a series of badges where an academic gets new things ‘pinned on’.

Academics are both teachers and researchers. Paul noted it is always interesting to see which one the participants mentioned first, their teaching role or their research role.


Teaching takes up most of the term time and there is no time for research other than, say, putting together reading lists. For most researchers, about 20 minutes is the time length they have available for anything. This is how they carve up their day.

Everybody teaching at Cambridge is a University Teaching Officer – which has four levels. People start off as a Lecturer, then Senior Lecturer, then Reader, the Professor. There are additional roles like the Head of Department, which typically rotates as a two year position. Then there are people who are Director of Studies both within a department and in the Colleges. Tutors look after the pastoral element of life in the College. And that’s just teaching roles.


The other side of the coin is the research roles. People start as Research Associates where they are hired for a specific research project which means there is nothing to move onto, so the person might have to move to a new university. Postdocs often don’t have anywhere to go they tend to use libraries, coffee shops and working from home. For many people the College is their office.

Gaining a Junior Research Fellowship is an important step because the University is funding the research in some way, however most positions are a fixed length. Having your JRF means they know where they are going to be. The next step is a Senior Research Fellow, then Principal Investigator. In science research happens in groups and the Principal Investigator leads the project.

Many people likened running a research group as running a small company while remaining research active. The Principal Investigator is similar to managing director of a small company. Some of these activities they don’t have any real training for. No-one has told them how to manage expenditure of a research project, or how to interview people. Several people noted that the hardest thing is recruitment not least because often candidates are abroad and interviews happen over Skype and Google Hangout. There is a big element of doubt about who they have employed.

Often collaborations are across time zones so researchers are fitting in calls in the early morning and evening to allow for time zones.

Academic roles in detail

The academic roles tended to fall into the following areas:

  • College role – Supporting students, Public relations administration, research, consultancy teaching
  • Personal administration – Travel arrangements, updating diary, updating CV and publication lists
  • College administration – committee meetings and reading papers, reviewing and interviewing candidates for the college, selecting the admissions.
  • Supporting students – both academic and pastorally, for example providing information about the college or problems with students not coping with work or taking students to hospital.
  • Teaching
    • Lectures (including preparation and planning curriculum, getting lecture rooms, sorting out timetables.
    • Putting slides and demos and reading list up in the course Moodle.
    • Writing the exam papers, preparing materials they will need.
    • Final issues like meeting the lab technicians, marking the exams.
  • Research
    • Applying for grant funding involves obtaining quotes from suppliers and partners to go into applications, creating budgets meeting funders, writing applications, research project management.
    • Setting up experiments, and gathering data and analysing results.
    • A large amount of writing to tell people about it and published – it doesn’t count unless it is published in a good journal. Lots of work in formatting and editing and the reviewing.
    • There is informal work – peer reviews. For journals official peer review is usually predicated by informal peer review – people will review each other’s papers to increase chances of getting accepted.
    • Managing research groups – running meetings setting goals, managing expenditure, writing job descriptions, recruitment, approving leave
    • Once published all the outreach – including listing the work in Symplectic, seminars, going to conferences and doing speaking engagements. Going to London to be interviewed.
  • Consultancy – meeting collaborators

Disciplinary differences in research

Disciplines differ immensely from one another but not necessarily in the ways traditionally thought of. Rather than there being a Science versus Humanities divide, a more accurate way of thinking about types of research relate to whether the work is being done in a group or by a solo researcher.

The size of the research group is partly determined by the expense of the equipment. Research such as that done by CERN is very expensive and requires grants. In AHSS there is less of a need for external funding (or possibly less money available funding). Note that Junior or Senior Research Fellows tend to be funded by the University but Principal Investigators are often funded through grants.

The pace of the discipline changes how people publish – in fast disciplines there are shorter units of publication, and slower disciplines have longer ones. Physics is very fast discipline so they upload pre-prints to arXiv.org. For example the role of journals in physics is not as important as biology.

Transparency changes across disciplines as well. For example physics is very open and biology is secretive – even colleagues often don’t know what others are working on. Transparency can be measured by the competitiveness of the discipline. It can affect the discipline of the research groups – some are open, others are secretive.

The structure of research groups

Research groups were a surprise to Paul. Members do not work together like you do on a project team. Research groups manifest as a set of researchers following their own interests but generally working in the same area. The researchers share methods and equipment but otherwise they are doing their own thing.

Some groups are supportive with mentoring but others are really competitive. Sometimes this comes from the research group and other times it comes from the people in the group. This appears to be led by the discipline culture of where they come from. It is worth noting that while anecdotally Cambridge people have more freedom, in Cambridge there is a cultural tendency not to show any weakness.

Day in the life graphics

Paul then took the group through the ‘day in the life’ diagrams created out of the shadowing done in Michaelmas Term 2013 (October to December). The graphics he discussed included:

The vertical axis reflects how happy the academic was over the day. High points tend to coincide with having contact with people and talking about their discipline such as discussions with PhD students, or with a research group. However lecturing is not a high point because there is no two-way communication – all the students sit at the back, the lecturer only gets feedback get at the end.

What causes one of the greatest emotional lows for a researcher is being rejected for a paper. They have often put all of their effort and knowledge into a journal paper. If it is rejected after peer review they are being told they have wasted two years of their life. Paul noted that some reviewing boards are brutal and the feedback given is, frankly, rude.

There is a similar low point if an application for grant funding is unsuccessful – it is similar to a rejection. Grant funding applications are worse than a paper as the researcher has to argue why the work is important and why the funder should fund it. Generally funding bodies are not as brutal but they are awarding funding to competitors – so it is a double blow.

Research and publishing experience map

Paul also talked the group through the Research and Publishing Experience Map. As part of the project the team was looking to see if the University was involved in the publishing process in terms of helping it. However the team found that there is no contact with the University during the process of research and publishing. There was no official checkpoint where academics had to tell the University about what they were doing. While there might be a discussion between the person and their supervisor, it is not recorded anywhere.

The research group will know where articles have been submitted, but the information is not captured anywhere – except in their inbox. But in research groups people move on so even a shared memory is lost. So there is no way to collect data, and no place to archive the administration for researchers. While the Research Office knows about the research grant, what a researcher does with the money is up to them. There are not many official touch points with the University.

The result of this work was a need to artificially engineer a touch point with the academics to ensure that they are able to meet their compliance requirements. The www.openaccess.cam.ac.uk upload system is the result.

* Paul now works for a consulting company Modern Human

Published 1 February 2016
Written by Dr Danny Kingsley
Creative Commons License

3 thoughts on “What does a researcher do all day?

  1. Just wondering:

    I don’t see 1) information seeking (e.g., searching in bibliographic data bases) and 2) reading among the listed activities.

    Did I overlook something?

  2. As a librarian and administrator, the “day in the life” graphics provided an immensely helpful view into the demands and priorities of researchers at various career stages. Great work.

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