Some advantages of being small

Whether you are a researcher, lecturer, administrator or research support team member working for smaller institutions can often feel like being at a disadvantage. Now, clearly there are some challenges but it isn’t all bad as I have discovered over the last year. As a smaller institution there are some things we can do better than large ones and these strengths and opportunities should be exploited wherever possible. So don’t despair, we can do the following:

  1. Get decisions made more quickly: Getting access to senior people is much easier. Senior academic and administrative staff have a good handle on the needs, priorities and resources of the institution and can say yes/no much more quickly. Getting a contract signed or proposal submitted can be quick and (relatively!) painless. It can be that the culture is a little more ‘Can do’ and less ‘there are rules we need to follow’.
  2. Share intelligence and research across the university: Being small makes it easier to share information. It doesn’t mean there aren’t challenges but making sure people know what is going on is easier as there is often just one place to go for information or you will always bump into the right person in the corridor on the way to get a coffee! This can help us to respond quickly to changing conditions or new opportunities.
  3. Learn from each other and identify and use skills promptly: It is always useful for people to know what skills other people have. It can help to build research collaborations, enable the sharing of good practice and helping to transfer skills and knowledge either informally or through formal training. We can always do better at formally recording people’s skills and affiliations but even without a formal record by talking to each other we can usually respond quickly. Research days that involve most of the academic community really help here.
  4. Provide support across disciplines: Small institutions tend to have smaller departments. Whilst this can at times mean there isn’t a critical mass to make things happen if one or two people are not around it does often mean that we can get a range of disciplines in a room together to talk research, hear about each others research and provide feedback or ask questions in an engaging and supportive way. It also makes my life more interesting! I’m not restricted to supporting academics in just one discipline so I learn so much and am exposed to a range of ideas and funders. I believe this makes it easier for me to support a range of academics, hopefully they agree!
  5. Know who to go to for advice: You will almost always know who you need to go to to get answer or to get help. In larger institutions in can be confusing to navigate your way around various support services or internal structures to find the right person or answer to your question.
  6. Stand out and show off our strengths and expertise: People tend to notice you if you have a big win or success at a small institution. This recognition is not just internal but can be amplified externally. Shouting about your strengths isn’t always easy when you are small but with the right promotion and internal support it can have a big impact. The successes can rub off on others too. Even small successes can help create vibrant research cultures in smaller institutions.

Some of these advantages do have their downsides (for example with number 5 if the right person is out of the office it may be harder to get things done!) but on the whole I think that with positive management and leadership these can all help to shape positive research cultures. Small institution know they may not have the same levels of support or infrastructure when compared to large universities but having worked at both ends of the spectrum I’m aware that small can indeed sometimes be beautiful. Are there any other advantages, or dare I say it, disadvantages?

Lachlan Smith

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