First woman at USB to obtain sought-after research rating
Dr Lee-Ann Steenkamp, head of the University of Stellenbosch Business School’s (USB) Postgraduate Diploma in Financial Planning, was the first female academic of the business school to acquire the National Research Foundation (NRF) rating. The NRF is an independent government agency and the rating system is a useful tool for benchmarking the quality of South African researchers against the best in the world.
It’s really an honour to join the ranks of other rated researchers.
“I am very proud, but at the same time incredibly humbled, to be the first female academic at USB to receive an NRF rating. It’s really an honour to join the ranks of other rated researchers, especially the precious few (men and women) at the Economic and Management Sciences Faculty of Stellenbosch University,” says Steenkamp.
Prof Mark Smith, USB Director, added: “I am delighted that Dr Steenkamp has obtained this prestigious status. It is a sign of the quality of her research and the impact she has. Furthermore it demonstrates the fruits of the investment the School has made in building our research capacity over recent years. Like all pioneers, Lee-Ann is the first but will not be the last – she has paved the way for other women to follow.”
The process explained
The NRF rating is an onerous and very competitive process to go through, but ultimately it gives recognition to those researchers who constantly produce high-quality research outputs. The application process itself takes about a year, as the university has many internal deadlines to do various quality checks and help guide you. There are different rating categories which are allocated by an independent panel of local and international scholars. This is based on your research output of the previous six years, which includes papers in peer-reviewed journals, conference proceedings, and masters and doctoral students supervised.
Says Lee-Ann: “At the time I submitted my application, I was 36 years old and was therefore considered young enough to obtain a Y-ranking for promising young researchers under 40 who have held the doctorate or equivalent qualification for less than five years at the time of application.”
She says after the application it takes about another year to get the NRF’s formal feedback. “This process is repeated every six years to maintain or improve one’s ranking. It’s one thing to get the initial ranking, it’s quite another to keep it!”
This rating means a great deal, as it is a stamp of approval that I’m on the right track with my research.
The ranking system is independent and objective. “There is no special treatment based on personal demographics (for example, gender) – the panel only evaluates the quality and quantity of your research output. Being a researcher requires a tremendous amount of patience and endurance, which are not personality traits that come naturally to me. So this rating means a great deal, as it is a stamp of approval that I’m on the right track with my research and that many years of hard work is starting to bear fruit,” she says.
Steenkamp says the support she received from the Early Career Academic Development (ECAD) programme of Stellenbosch University was a real game-changer from which she benefitted enormously.
Having this accountability partner keeps me motivated and focused, and inspires me to reach even higher.
“When you join the programme as a mentee, you are partnered with an experienced academic who mentors you on your journey to become an established scholar. I’m very grateful that Prof Stan du Plessis agreed to be my mentor (although I have no idea how he manages to fit our regular meetings into his schedule).
“It makes a big difference to have someone to bounce ideas with and who understands the rigours and demands of research. Having this accountability partner keeps me motivated and focused, and inspires me to reach even higher,” she says.
Prof Leslie Swartz, academic coordinator of the ECAD programme, expressed the programme’s delight and admiration at Steenkamp’s achievement. According to Swartz, the aim of the ECAD programme is to support the university’s new academics as best they can, and, as Swartz put it, “it is extremely gratifying for us when our academics do well. The achievement is all theirs, and we are lucky to play a part in supporting them. We could not do this without the work of the mentees themselves, like Dr Steenkamp, or without the mentors, like Prof du Plessis in this case”.
Her research focus
Steenkamp’s PhD was in climate change law and her research focus for the next five years will be on carbon pricing mechanisms and ‘green taxes’ (environmental taxes). “South Africa enacted the Carbon Tax Act 15 of 2019 last year, so there are many opportunities for conducting comparative analyses with other countries who’ve either implemented a carbon pricing mechanism or adopted an emission trading system.
“From a business school perspective, it’s quite interesting to supervise MBA students who study the impact of the carbon tax on their own companies or sectors and develop strategies to mitigate for this,” she says.
“My goal is to work towards the next NRF rating opportunity in six years. This requires sustained and cohesive output as you need to demonstrate that you have built a focused body of work. I’m excited about building research partnerships and have embarked on numerous collaborative research projects with colleagues and graduates from the business school,” she says.
Dealing with criticism
Steenkamp says criticism is an integral part of the peer-review publication system. “Over time you learn to separate constructive from negative criticism. The former is a helpful and necessary component for developing one’s research ideas and enhancing the quality of the final product (be it a thesis, conference presentation or article in a journal). I serve as a peer reviewer for several academic journals and appreciate the time and effort that goes into providing this sort of feedback,” she says.
“I still haven’t developed a thick enough skin for the negative criticism, though. But I’m getting there. I’ve recently read an excellent book written by Cal Newport, wherein the key message (and title) is to be “so good they can’t ignore you”. I believe this is the best way of dealing with setbacks and criticism.
I think every researcher has a curious mindset and it’s the endless possibilities of learning and discovery that keeps you going.
“I think every researcher has a curious mindset and it’s the endless possibilities of learning and discovery that keeps you going. Ultimately, it’s knowing that your research is making a positive impact and that you are playing a small part in advancing knowledge in service of society,” she concludes.