Dr Shelda Debowski is a Lead Advisor for our forthcoming programme Advancing your Research Career: Strategies for Research Leadership, an update of Professional Skills for Research Leaders. Shelda joined academe early in her career, attracted by the opportunities to make a difference. After completing her PhD, she moved to a business school as a mid-career academic. She came to see the immense challenges facing researchers and academics in building their research capabilities and escalating their productivity, and that traditional institutional support strategies needed improving to help build research capacity. This concern led to Shelda’s next appointment as Professor of Higher Education Development at the University of Western Australia (UWA), a central leadership role that supported the development of all academics and researchers (and professional staff) across their different functions. Working in partnership with deans and senior leaders, Shelda built innovative programs and workshops that better supported embedded learning, with programs focused on early-career, mid-career and senior leadership levels. After Shelda’s time at UWA, she spent some time as Deputy Vice Chancellor at the University of Notre Dame Australia, gaining a rich perspective on the broader leadership context from the top-down, and the various disciplinary complexities that need to be managed in researcher development. For the last eight years, Shelda has been an international consultant across the sector.
What do you consider your career highlight/s?
I really enjoyed my time as a Professor of Higher Education Development. This was a very entrepreneurial role that enabled me to be quite experimental in my approaches. I loved the capacity to boundary span and build innovative solutions to help our academic community.
I also served as President of HERDSA, (the Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia) for six years. My work with that and allied groups provided a lovely platform for looking at the national and international development space, and how we could better support our academic and research communities. I also led an international network for two years, which offered additional insights into the different approaches and dilemmas that operated in other nations.
My Churchill Fellowship focused on research development, and enabled me to travel to the UK, US, and New Zealand to map best practice in that area. It was a pivotal experience in building my insights to a higher level of thinking and understanding, which I have since applied to my work and my writing.
Successfully transitioning to my current consultancy work has also been exhilarating. I love the chance to build deep relationships and partnerships with my clients and learners. I have all the best parts of my old work, but without the administrative and political complexities when working within an institution. It is keeping me very engaged and still thinking deeply about the academic world.
Why did you decide to collaborate with Epigeum on Professional Skills for Research Leaders and Advancing your Research Career?
Over my time as a professor, I identified the need to focus our attention on research development more intensively. The Roberts Review in the UK had highlighted the challenges of research capacity building, and we explored this across my Australian network. I led a review across the Group of Eight (G8) universities, mapping the support we each offered in developing researchers. In 2007 we gained $1million in funding from the federal government to develop an online training program for researchers, focusing on research project management. The Future Research Leaders Program (FRLP) was a blended delivery program of eight modules that was implemented across the eight universities, and then licensed to other universities in Australia and New Zealand. It clearly demonstrated the desire of researchers to build better capabilities and expertise. It also taught me a lot about blended learning. But I was aware that the program, while worthy and content-rich, was very clunky in its design and delivery. I wanted more than a PDF-based program.
This led to my discussions with Epigeum about their programmes. I loved the quality of the online delivery. I got involved with two Epigeum programmes: writing two modules on university leadership, before helping to conceive, design, and develop Professional Skills for Research Leaders. I really loved co-leading this programme and helping it grow. The opportunity to come back on board for the second edition is very pleasing. We know so much more about how busy researchers learn, and the ways we can guide their growth in an efficacious way. My intensive work as a consultant and coach has added new dimensions and insights that I hope to help embed through our course design.
What was the most satisfying part of working on Professional Skills for Research Leaders and Advancing your Research Career?
There are two parts that are really satisfying. First, my research focuses on academic and research capacity building. I have explored this area for nearly twenty years, and I am really keen to build better learning support environments for researchers based on our knowledge and experience. The integration of our latest thinking on research development makes these programmes cutting edge in terms of their reflection of the real needs of our research community. I know from experience that many of the themes covered in these programmes will be missing from the offerings that are traditionally found in universities.
Second, I am very focused on designing innovative learning experiences that keep learners engaged and encourage learning transfer. The opportunity to work with, and learn from, world leaders in the online learning space has been an important motivator. The exposure to the latest design approaches and methodologies keeps me abreast of the most recent thinking. I recognise the challenges that researchers face in finding time to learn and grow. The capacity to engage in just-in-time, authentic learning that is also enticing and intellectually challenging is an important feature of these programmes.
Finally, I see these programmes as filling a critical gap in the support base many researchers experience. I see many early and mid-career researchers and academics who have not been getting the guidance they need. Mentoring, sponsorship, and effective supervision can’t be assumed for each researcher. Instead, they may be largely floundering, trying to intuit how to progress their careers. These programmes fill a critical niche in offering those insights and tools to help them be strategic, successful, and assured.
What are you currently working on outside of Epigeum?
I work as a full-time consultant for the sector, mostly across the UK and Australia in more recent years. I have three core foci:
- I design and deliver intensive programs and workshops that support career advancement, and research, teaching, and leadership strategy enhancement.
- I coach many researchers and academics on their career or leadership strategy, seeking advancement or work challenges.
- I provide workshops and consultancy services to universities that wish to evaluate their practices, or promote systemic culture shifts in capability enhancement. Some of my work is commissioned by faculties who wish to address equity gaps or provide more targeted support.
What do you do in your free time?
Travel and family have always been my two primary foci. This has been somewhat affected over the last year as we grapple with lockdowns and border closures, so I have been developing new artistic hobbies to keep me busy. I am starting to feel the desire to put some more thoughts on paper too.
Join us to collaborate on the development of Advancing your Research Career: Strategies for Research Leadership, an online programme to support early and mid-career researchers in taking a strategic and reflective approach to advancing their research careers. As a member of the Advancing your Research Career development group, your institution will be able to inform all aspects of the programme via a collaborative workshop and rigorous review process – ensuring that it truly meets researchers’ needs – before receiving an institution-wide, unlimited subscription to the finished resource upon publication.