Launching a new training and development programme for early career researchers

July 5, 2024

This post is part of the series Perspectives on Research, commissioned as part of the Early Career Research Fellowships in Cultural and Heritage Institutions programme, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and coordinated by the V&A.

What does it mean to be at the start of your research career in a cultural or heritage organisation? How do you navigate the complex web of processes, policies and procedures – as well as perhaps miles of museum galleries? What does a research career in the cultural sector look like? And what skills do you need to thrive in this kind of environment?

These are some of the questions we have been asking while launching a new pilot programme of early career research fellowships in cultural and heritage institutions, generously supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). Early career fellowships are long established in a university context, as a way for researchers to start their professional lives after a PhD. But despite the fact that research is part of the core mission and purpose of cultural and heritage organisations, and although some such organisations, including the V&A, have hosted early career fellows before, there hasn’t been a consistent approach to this across the sector.

Navigating the Institution workshop led by Ashish Ghadiali and Katherine Natanel, Fellowship Launch, March 2024

Thanks to the AHRC, we are now able to start to address this gap and pilot new ways to support researchers at this early stage. Each of the eight fellows in our pilot cohort is pursuing an independent research project that has been developed in partnership with a host cultural or heritage organisation, ensuring that it is relevant to their collections or practices. You can find out more about the fellows’ projects here: Early Career Research Fellowships in Cultural and Heritage Institutions · Research Project · V&A (

However, what’s particularly new about this pilot scheme, and what we’re excited to be leading on from the V&A, is a training and development programme that we are designing and delivering for our cohort of fellows alongside their research projects. We know from previous experience that it can be challenging for early career researchers to navigate and thrive in our kinds of organisations, especially if they have come straight from a university environment where research and teaching are the primary focus. In cultural and heritage organisations, there are many and varied priorities at play, from collection needs to diverse audiences to commercial imperatives. Former Head of Research at Tate, Emily Pringle, has written about this in detail in her book Research in the Art Museum. The sources that we work with, the kinds of outputs we produce, and the public impact of our research can all be quite different from what researchers may be used to. The skills and experience that they gain by doing it can be incredibly rich and varied, not least in the direct communication with members of the public that being embedded in one of our organisations can involve.

In March, we officially launched the training and development programme to our cohort, with a two day event held at V&A South Kensington. In addition to hearing from each of our fellows about their research, colleagues from each of the host organisations, and the AHRC, spoke about their hopes and aims for the programme. We also organised two sessions to kick off what is now a regular programme of online workshops, seminars and masterclasses. At the launch, an afternoon seminar focused on the cultural and heritage sector and its networks, with presentations from colleagues at the V&A, Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh and Historic Environment Scotland that sought to unpick some of the different relationships, stakeholders and wider policy contexts that are relevant to our sector and important for our fellows to become familiar with. A half-day workshop, organised by our Steering Committee Chair Ashish Ghadiali, addressed the challenge of navigating the institution, taking our fellows and their hosts through a series of activities that sought to help them identify what an institution is, how to navigate its complexities and build relationships within it, and how to challenge it constructively.

Awarded Fellows, IROC hosts and V&A Coordination Team, Fellowship Launch, March 2024. Photo Sarah Lloyd

Since then, we’ve organised a workshop on research project management, with contributions from colleagues at National Museums Scotland and the National Trust, which got right into the nitty-gritty of budgets, time management and setting achievable and realistic plans – and what to do when things don’t quite work. We’ve also delivered a session on what has sometimes been termed ‘Museum as Method’, a phrase coined by Nick Thomas, Director of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Cambridge – essentially focusing on some of the characteristics of doing research in and with cultural and heritage organisations.

As this is a pilot programme, we are keen to share insights and to develop a set of resources that can be useful to researchers, to those supporting them and to those thinking about doing research in or with a cultural or heritage organisation. We’ll be featuring blog posts from each of our fellows sharing some of their research. And we’ll be publishing a series of blog posts focused on particular aspects of research, written by a range of invited contributors. We’re calling this series Perspectives on Research – look out for upcoming posts on research ethics, networking and more.

Perspectives on Research aims to shine a light on different aspects of research in cultural and heritage organisations, with contributions invited from a range of practitioners with experience of working in or with the sector. Through this series, we aim to develop a set of resources that may be helpful to researchers working in or thinking about working in cultural and heritage organisations beyond the programme itself.

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