Download the King’s Digital Lab Career Development document here.
King’s Digital Lab (KDL) was established in late 2015, an outgrowth of the Department of Digital Humanities. The Lab benefits from decades of work in digital humanities at King’s College London but was set up to resolve several issues generated over the years too. Those issues will be recognisable to many teams across the digital humanities (DH) and wider Research Software Engineering (RSE) communities: technical debt related to heterogenous and unfunded systems; lack of cohesive software engineering processes; lack of clarity about operational expectations with University administration; a complex relationship with University IT; inadequate processes for archiving, sustainability, and research data management. Many of us were involved in work that contributed to that situation, so are not inclined to apportion blame: it is more a matter of natural technical and operational - but also methodological and epistemological - evolution. We are involved in the development of a new research community and shouldn’t expect it to be easy! Our issues were largely a result of approaches to HR at an institutional but also national and international level that relied on grant funding and temporary, project-centred contracts (together with restricted opportunities to establish a career in that area of work) resulting in high staff turnover as projects finished and/or employees were attracted to better pay, conditions, and opportunities outside academia. Managers had limited options to support staff properly, greatly exacerbating the problems listed above.
KDL was established to help resolve those problems, working at the intersection of research, technology, economics, and human culture. As I have written elsewhere, digital humanists are entangled with our infrastructures, tools, and processes in fundamental ways.1 As a team we’re only just starting to come to terms with the fact that we need to fix ‘bugs’ in more than just our code. We spend a lot of time fixing bugs in our processes, attitudes, and culture too. We devoted a significant amount of time in 2018 to improving our approach to career development, which had plateaued and wasn’t moving forward. The team had moved to permanent contracts when KDL was established, and we’d produced new role descriptions, but there was no clear pathway for career progression, no alignment with industry, and no alignment with the wider UK and international RSE community. To complete the process we looked outside the Faculty of Arts & Humanities to the newly established King’s eResearch initiative, IT, and HR. Our intention was to use KDL as a test case for a University-wide RSE role definition and career development strategy capable of eventual adoption in other departments, and able to inform the wider national and international conversation happening in other institutions. KDL staff – boldly in my estimation – agreed to act as guinea pigs in a career development trial that would iteratively develop the guiding document made available for download here. The trial ran from March - November. Drafts of the document were circulated to the UK RSE community, and described at the RSE UK conference in Birmingham.
The document was used to define a baseline for KDL RSE roles, resulting in a greater number of Senior roles than we initially had. The big outcome of the KDL trial was a recognition of how important it is to understand where any given RSE or RSE team sits on the ‘RSE continuum’ (see below), and to implement promotions processes aligned to them. In the case of KDL we realised we needed a ‘holistic’ approach, where the Director produces a business case based on operational as well as financial considerations (including recruitment and retention alongside workflow and planning needs). Our senior roles were approved quickly after moving to this approach, and the production of a robust evidence-based business case. The parallel issue of whether RSEs need a third mode of contract, between academic / research and professional services, has reduced in importance because of this: the career development document and role definitions complement the base Professional Service (PS) contract and could just as easily be applied to academic or research contracts. The important thing is understanding the financial and procedural mechanisms by which career progression can occur in KDL.
This has solidified our sense that although the KDL team are by no means a simple service unit, most of the team aren’t primarily motivated to produce research outputs, either. We do act as Principal Investigator or Co-Investigator on grants, but it isn’t feasible to do that for the ~35 grant submissions we’re involved in each year. We position ourselves differently (as research enablers and co-conspirators) on 70% of our work. The Lab sits in a boundary area of what we might term the ‘RSE career continuum’ between the research-intensive activity of full time academics and post-docs, and technical roles supporting High Performance Computing and other resources.
Our solution to RSE career development is by no means perfect. We’re very happy with our role definitions, division of labour, and industry benchmarking, but have defaulted to what might be best described as an ‘industry start-up’ model to career progression: as Director I know that labour is in very short supply (so am motivated to retain quality staff), the team know budget for senior roles is only available if we perform well as a team (so are motivated to continuously improve our systems, processes, and research outputs), and we manage things year to year in a holistic fashion. It might be that this is the optimal approach for KDL and many other RSE teams, but it is unlikely to work for everyone. At best we can only hope that our HR trial and resulting career development document are useful to the wider community and contribute to sector-wide improvement over time. We will certainly keep updating it and experimenting with new approaches as required.