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South Africa: Celebrating Two Decades of Excellence – UCT’s Emerging Researcher Programme

The Emerging Researcher Programme (ERP) was established in 2003 in recognition of the urgent need to nurture early-career academics. Over the past 20 years, it has served as a robust conduit for the transfer of vital research skills from seasoned academics and the researcher development team managing the programme, to those staff beginning their academic and research journey at the University of Cape Town (UCT).

When it was launched, the ERP was confronted with the impending retirement of a cohort of established (mainly white and male) researchers and the urgent need to change the demographic profile of UCT’s academic staff. This also aligned with the national mandate handed to higher education institutions. That imperative was to increase the ratio of staff with PhD qualifications and to develop the pipeline of the next generation professoriate while focusing on nurturing black and female scholars and enhancing research capacities. With such a strong emphasis on answering both internal and national imperatives, the ERP stands as a testament to UCT’s unwavering commitment to transformation, capacity building and excellence in academia.

Over the past two decades, the ERP has reinforced UCT’s strategic goals and steadfastly championed a nurturing environment that transcends departmental support, providing academics with the tools necessary to thrive in a research-intensive university setting.

“The ERP looks forward to contributing to UCT’s research excellence for the next 20 years and beyond.”

“This year, we are proud to celebrate our 20 years in existence. Since its inception, the ERP has evolved alongside its members, their needs as well as the research practices at UCT, nationally and internationally. We remain committed to supporting our incoming ERP members, while staying relevant to and serving our long-standing members who’ve stayed engaged with us. The ERP looks forward to contributing to UCT’s research excellence for the next 20 years and beyond,” said ERP manager, Dr GaĆ«lle Ramon.

Today, the programme remains true to its original purpose and is dedicated to the transformation and retention of talent at UCT by providing early-career academics and researchers with ongoing opportunities for professional development. Attendees can expect seminars, which are typically two-hour sessions, led by experts in various fields. These sessions guide researchers on specific themes including advice on planning their research journey and career, ad hominem promotion, presenting and networking at conferences, knowledge production and dissemination.

Workshops and retreats, lasting between one and two-and-a-half days, provide a deeper immersion into diverse topics such as postgraduate supervision training, grant writing, completing higher degrees, and developing an engaged scholarship profile.

Growth and impact

While the ERP training sessions are open to all academics, there is also more specialised and dedicated support available to permanent academic staff who are enrolled into the programme. They – the ERP full-time members – benefit from added support, like one-on-one mentorship and funding. Since its inception, the programme has experienced steady growth, a testament to its efficacy and appeal to the academic community. Beginning with just 45 permanent academics in 2003, the programme has today provided personalised support to over 1 140 permanent academics since its launch.

The ERP’s dedication to fostering diversity is also noteworthy. Among its ranks, the representation of black South Africans stands at 61.2%, a marked increase from the 37.3% representation on the UCT staff. Female ERP members also boast a healthy majority, accounting for 61.2% of members, exceeding the overall 51.4% representation of female academics at UCT. In terms of financial support, 57.1% of all research development grants were awarded to black South Africans, reinforcing the programme’s commitment to inclusive support and development.

Meeting the challenge

When the ERP was initiated two decades ago, the challenge was clear: newly appointed and long-standing academics with little research experience needed a significant boost in building their research capacity. Many were stepping into academic roles from a variety of backgrounds, with some better equipped than others to face the demands of a research-intensive institution.

Recognising these diverse needs, the ERP was specifically designed to provide a structured, nurturing environment, offering a plethora of tools to address these challenges. A key element of the solution is mentorship. From the outset, the ERP brought onboard a group of senior academics to share their research experience and skills, providing a blend of seminars and one-on-one consultations. Gradually, the mentoring and training duties shifted to the programme’s research coordinators with the academic and training experience that enabled them to step into that role. They offer customised guidance, assessing each member’s research status, helping to identify developmental needs, and assisting in drawing up a personalised roadmap to reach the academics’ research goals.

Enduring influence and success

ERP alumni hold senior positions at UCT and other universities around the world, a testament to the programme’s enduring influence and success. These individuals continue to influence academic discourse, institutional development and research excellence. Professor Suki Goodman, the dean of UCT’s Faculty of Commerce, is proof of the lasting impact of the ERP on the careers of academics.

“These learnings … have helped me to think both creatively and strategically about how to enable and support the research endeavour as HoD [head of department] and now dean.”

She remarked, “I have reflected previously on the substantial and substantive contribution the ERP made in supporting me to complete my PhD. I have also previously acknowledged the technical and functional formative learnings instrumental in helping me establish an academic identity.”

Reflecting on her career at UCT over the last 20 years, Professor Goodman sees deeper and broader benefits, which have matured with time and experience.

“My ERP mentor, Dr Lyn Holness, modelled a whole host of subtle but powerful relational skills that underpinned our work together. She made me feel seen, had faith in my potential to succeed, appreciated the whole person in me. These latter learnings have informed the various academic management roles I have occupied; learnings which have helped me to think both creatively and strategically about how to enable and support the research endeavour as HoD [head of department] and now dean.”

The ERP has contributed significantly and impactfully to the professional development and progression of early-career academics and researchers while reinforcing the university’s commitment to diversity, inclusion and academic excellence. Today the ERP remains steadfastly committed towards realising the purpose of UCT’s Vision 2030, which is to “unleash human potential to create a fair and just society”.

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