Skip to main content

Applying for Senior Fellowship as a Researcher Developer

21 Apr 2022 | Matthew Sillence Following a recent successful application for Senior Fellowship, Lecturer in Postgraduate Education and Training, Matthew Sillence, reflects on his own journey and sources of support for those who develop postgraduate researchers and supervisors.

My background in researcher development

There are many staff in HE who contribute to the learning and development of postgraduate researchers and research staff. Sometimes termed ‘researcher developers’, ‘academic developers’, or ‘third space professionals’ (Guerin 2021), we often work across academic departments and university services. My own role as Lecturer in Postgraduate Education and Training began in 2012, based in the Faculty of Arts and Humanities at the University of East Anglia. This overview of departments gave me a unique vantage point from which to view the needs of novice researchers and their supervisors, but I worried that I had no disciplinary ‘tribe’ (Becher and Trowler 2001).

This started to change in 2015, as I completed a Postgraduate Certificate in Higher Education Practice and received Advance HE Fellowship. Learning from colleagues in the Centre for Staff and Educational Development and School of Education and Lifelong Learning, I slowly came to realise that I had to look both inward to understand what I most valued, and outside my institution to find a community of practitioners whose academic home was the whole sector, not a single department.

Senior Fellow Writing Retreat: 12 October 2022 (Virtual)
The online Senior Fellow Writing Retreat is an invaluable opportunity to have the time and space to progress your application to become a Senior Fellow, receiving expert analysis and feedback in the process. Held over one day, the retreat offers you the chance to transform your notes and thoughts into an application that matches Advance HE’s criteria for Senior Fellowship. Find out more

The path to supporting and developing colleagues

My path to Senior Fellowship was slow at first. In 2017, I completed a Master’s degree in Higher Education Practice, which allowed me to investigate the work of academic colleagues first-hand, and identify areas of need for postgraduate researchers in my faculty and those who supported them. I realised that supervisors also needed to feel part of a community and wanted space to reflect on their practice. Working together with the newly formed Doctoral College and School of Education and Lifelong Learning, I developed our first postgraduate module on supervision and examination of research degrees.

Although I had spent five years training research students, I was now supporting their supervisors across the whole institution. I was nervous at first – lacking the supervisory expertise of senior colleagues – but the more I read about doctoral education, the more events I attended run by Vitae, Advance HE, the Society for Research into Higher Education (SRHE) and UK Council for Graduate Education (UKCGE), and the more I witnessed a culture of openness and generosity, the fear of isolation began to disappear. In 2019-20, I began drafting an academic promotion application, but quickly abandoned this with the outbreak of the pandemic, still concerned that my ‘Jack-of-all-trades’ role did not really fit with the progressions criteria.

The value of coaching

Fortunately, that perception was wrong. I just needed help to see it. During the first lockdown, I had several weeks of support from a staff developer in our university’s Coaching Scheme. She helped me find and articulate those values that I had glimpsed a few years earlier, recognise my strengths and weaknesses, as well as challenge some of my assumptions; and move towards achievable actions. The coaching ‘TGROW’ model is incredibly helpful for this, and I would really recommend this as a first step if you are lacking confidence at the start.

I resolved to write an academic progression case and the Senior Fellowship (SF) application at the same time. This was a chance to focus on the impact of my work and have it recognised either internally or externally. Although I had always felt promotion was a distant possibility, as I spoke with existing Senior Fellows in my institution (some of whom kindly shared their applications with me), I was fascinated by the range of work and influence that colleagues had evidenced. I realised that the SF application process provided the scope to capture the kind of role I held. In October 2020, I completed the Fellowship Category Tool online, and was surprised to see that much of my activity could map to a SF.

Writing the application

In conversation with my line manager and our Associate Dean for Postgraduate Research, I planned for the SF journey. Setting the first milestone for May 2021, when I attended an internal workshop on Senior Fellowship applications and learnt more about the process. The next step on the path was an online writing retreat with Rajesh Dhimar, Advance HE Fellowship and Awards Adviser, in June 2021. With support of the Associate Dean, the Faculty agreed to fund my attendance. The chance to speak to fellow applicants and have focused time with, and guidance from Rajesh, highlighted the importance of making the evidence count and helped me to clarify the two case studies.

The advisor’s feedback on the first draft was vital in deepening my writing of the most influential activities, as I tended to scatter evidence from a range of projects in the Reflective Account of Practice. I also needed to draw on my network of colleagues both within and beyond my institution. Their positive and encouraging e-mails and reflections, as well as supporting statements, finally convinced me of the value of my contributions.

For colleagues in researcher development roles, who exist outside or between departments, the path to Senior Fellowship may sometimes seem unclear. It is perhaps paradoxical, given that we support the professional journeys of others. I spent a long time searching for an academic ‘tribe’, but what I found was so much more than that: a community of practitioners, and the power of coaching. If you are seeking help, you only need to ask.

Oh, and if you are wondering, I also secured that promotion to Associate Professor.


Dr Matthew Sillence is a Senior Fellow of the Advance HE. He is currently Lecturer in Postgraduate Education and Training, providing academic development modules for postgraduate researchers and their supervisors. He researches doctoral education policy and practice and the enhancement of digital literacies in the arts and humanities. 


Becher, T. and Trowler, P. (2001) Academic tribes and territories: intellectual enquiry and the culture of disciplines. 2nd ed. Open University Press (SRHE and Open University Press imprint).

Guerin, C. (2021) ‘Researcher Developers Traversing the Borderlands: Credibility and Pedagogy in the Third Space’, Teaching in Higher Education, 26(3), pp. 518–524.


Professional Standards Framework Review 2022

The Professional Standards Framework (PSF) has become a globally-recognised framework for benchmarking success within HE teaching and learning. Since it was last updated in 2011, the learning and teaching landscape within HE has changed considerably making a review necessary to ensure the framework continues to be relevant to higher education now and in the future. As custodians of the PSF, we committed to this review on behalf of the sector in our Strategy 2021-24. Find out more


We feel it is important for voices to be heard to stimulate debate and share good practice. Blogs on our website are the views of the author and don’t necessarily represent those of Advance HE.

Keep up to date - Sign up to Advance HE communications

Our monthly newsletter contains the latest news from Advance HE, updates from around the sector, links to articles sharing knowledge and best practice and information on our services and upcoming events. Don't miss out, sign up to our newsletter now.

Sign up to our enewsletter