Lynn McAlpine

  • Research students as ‘becoming' academics: preparing for academic work

    Lynn McAlpine
    McGill University

    Gerlese Akerlind
    Australian National University

    Nick Hopgood
    University of Oxford

    Session 4d

    Tuesday 4 September 2007, 16.00-17.00

    Conceptual paper

    Themes: Employability, Skills development, Better practitioners, The teaching-research nexus

    In this session, participants will explore with us the potential of two recent conceptual frameworks for thinking about the nature and development of academic practice -- in terms of how they might better inform approaches to the development of research students.

    Many universities want to find ways to better support research students as ‘becoming’ academics, particularly following the Roberts’ agenda. To achieve this, we need a rich yet serviceable way of representing the complexity of academic work and what it means to be an academic. In this seminar, we present two frameworks to address this need -- one focused on academic practice and one on academic development -- and ask participants to examine the combined usefulness of the frameworks as analytic tools for considering research student development towards academic employment.

    The first framework uses five lenses to provide distinct ways of analysing the nature of academic practice (McAlpine & Hopwood, 2006), considered as:

    1. a bundle of competencies academics may use in skilful ways;
    2. a series of activities academics can engage in to varying degrees;
    3. the production of knowledge;
    4. identity and membership in a community;
    5. the embodiment of academic values.

    Each lens highlights distinct and complementary aspects of academic practice, and in the process highlight gaps or emphases that may lead to miscommunication about the nature of academic practice in preparation for academic employment.

    The second framework uses six categories to represent different foci in academics’ experience of development as an academic (Åkerlind, 2005):

    1. becoming more productive and efficient;
    2. achieving credibility and recognition;
    3. improving the quality and effectiveness of one's work;
    4. accumulating personal knowledge and skills as an academic;
    5. increasing one's own understanding of one's field;
    6. contributing to disciplinary growth or social change.

    Since research students, as ‘becoming’ academics, could collectively be expected to hold the full range of views of the purpose of the development/learning they are engaged in, and the academic practice that their learning is intended for, provisions to support their development should incorporate the full range of ways of understanding development. In other words, just as with any learner, we need to be attentive in our provisions for research students to the underlying assumptions that they, their supervisors and their department hold about the learning/academic tasks and outcomes they are trying to achieve.

    Although independently constituted, combining the two frameworks helps to highlight different aspects and purposes of academic practice -- performance and productivity; knowledge and understanding; identity and recognition; contribution and academic values. It is hoped that making these different foci or lenses explicit may reduce the chances that some foci might dominate students research candidature to the exclusion of others.


    • Åkerlind, G. (2005) Academic growth and development: How do university academics experience it? Higher Education, 50, 1-32.
    • McAlpine, L., & Hopwood, N. (2006). Conceptualizing the research PhD: towards an integrative perspective. Paper presented at the annual conference of the Society for Research in Higher Education, Brighton, England.