Yesterday I was delighted to have the opportunity to give a plenary talk at the UKSG annual conference in Telford. UKSG is an organisation connecting the scholarly communications community, and the annual conference brings together over 900 delegates from sectors including publishing and university libraries.
My talk was in a session titled “Sleepwalking into the future“ and I focused on “How publishers and librarians can support early career researchers in a changing publishing landscape”. I spoke primarily about the changing context of higher education and the pressures that this places on early career researchers, and how this impacts the environment in which they are publishing and researching. I offered some initial suggestions as to how publishers and librarians can – and indeed are already – provide support. Some examples of best practice that I gave included web resources from Wiley, Palgrave MacMillan, and the Royal Historical Society. My slides from the talk are here.
As a newcomer to this conference I was unsure as to how my talk would be received but was really heartened by the warm and enthusiastic response; it struck me (and, I think, many in the audience) that much more dialogue is needed between researchers and publishers, librarians, and others involved in scholarly communications, and that there is real value in understanding the pressures on all sides. I’ve previously had the opportunity to be part of similar discussions hosted by Wiley and Taylor and Francis, and have similarly found these to be productive forums in which to develop understanding of the broader and intersecting contexts. Many thanks to UKSG for inviting me and I hope this will be the start of more conversations.
This post provides an update to my previous blog post on “REF 2021 and ECRs: the current situation” in which I outlined the key decisions and remaining areas of uncertainty (mostly the latter) surrounding the next Research Excellence Framework.
Today, quite a few of those uncertainties have been clarified by the publication of “Decisions on Staff and Outputs“. I will soon update my earlier post to reflect this latest document (and offer a few more interpretations of the ECR implications), but in the meantime here is a brief summary of the key points of relevance for ECRs that have been announced today:
Staff eligibility: this latest document confirms that the Stern recommendation that “all staff with significant responsibility for research” are returned will be implemented. 6.a of the document outlines the core criteria (which broadly follows that of REF 2014), but there is more detailed guidance this time on what constitutes “significant responsibility” in paras. 11-13: “those for whom explicit time and resources are made available to engage actively in independent research, and that is an expectation of their job role.”
100% of staff defined in this way are expected to be returned. Meanwhile, teaching-only contracts with no research element won’t count as returnable under these guidelines; neither will RAs employed on project work (see Independent Research, paras. 14-15) nor those without a “substantive connection” to the submitting HEI. This seems to accord with what was suggested previously (see section 3 here); although I’d add that, while the intention here is to offer a more rigorous approach as to who is submitted, there does still seem to be a large amount of flexibility as to how “significant responsibility” will be determined.
Decoupling: the proposed decoupling of staff from submissions (see my previous explanation of decoupling in section 4 here) is going ahead, as described in paras. 25-29, with the numbers of outputs now confirmed: a minimum of one per researcher; a maximum of 5; an average of 2.5 per FTE, across the submitting unit. That means that as an ECR you will need at least one output, and more than that would be beneficial as the submitting unit will be looking for 2-3 per person.
The big change here from REF 2014 (although it is one which we’ve been expecting) is that there is no “ECR discount” that would be deductable per person; instead, the average and min./max. figures account for this across the whole submitting unit (as previously the expectation was 4 per person, so the average is lower). There are guidelines to account for exceptional individual circumstances (paras. 30-32), thus addressing earlier concerns that circumstances such as substantial periods of parental leave/ illness etc would not be acknowledged; deductions for individual circumstances will be applied to the total number of outputs required of the submitting unit as a whole. ECRs without exceptional circumstances, however, need to work to the minimum/average figures.
Portability: (background context in section 5 here). After much talk of the non-portability of research we have clarification as follows (paras. 33-36):
We will implement a transitional approach to the non-portability of outputs in REF 2021, whereby outputs may be submitted by both the institution employing the staff member on the census date and the originating institution where the staff member was previously employed as Category A eligible when the output was demonstrably generated.
*Added note: see para. 34 for the definition of “demonstrably generated”: “for REF 2021 ‘demonstrably generated’ will be determined by the date when the output was first made publicly available.”
This means that if you publish while at institution A, and you move to institution B, your output can count at both institutions. This has been a big area of concern for many ECRs and I’m relieved to (finally!) see a clear decision on the issue, and one which recognises and prevents the potentially disastrous consequences for ECRs that non-portability may have had.
Open Access: the latest guidance (paras. 37-40) seems to align with what has been suggested for a long time now about Open Access requirements for REF 2021: “The policy will require outputs to be deposited as soon after the point of acceptance as possible, and no later than three months after this date (as given in the acceptance letter or email from the publication to the author) from 1 April 2018.” There are some further exceptions outlined in the next paragraph (39). As I’ve mentioned before, if you’re at all confused about OA requirements then I would suggest that you familiarise yourself with your institution’s OA support and get in touch with the relevant team if you have any queries and concerns about the process.
A couple of final points: the census date is now confirmed as 31st July 2020; and more detailed guidelines on the above are expected mid-2018.
That summarises most of what I’ve read so far; I’ll potentially add to / clarify these points in coming days and if helpful, offer further guidance on ECR implications and what to do next; but for the moment, it looks like the outline framework is fairly clearly in place and ECRs can now start planning accordingly.
This is based on a talk that I gave at an event on “Publishing and Research Strategies for ECR Classicists” at the Institute of Classical Studies on 20th September 2017. If you want to cut to the chase, the slides are here, full notes of my talk below.
It is a slightly tricky time to be writing this post: there have been a host of announcements about changes to the REF policy in recent months, weeks, and even days, but much remains undecided, making it difficult to offer advice of the kind that was possible for REF 2014. That said, ECRs (and especially those currently on the job market) are very much living through this uncertainty, and can’t simply wait it out until next summer to make decisions that impact upon careers.
With that in mind, this post is intended as a reflection on the current state of affairs. While I can’t offer anything too concrete, I have tried to clarify, or at least clearly set out, the main areas of uncertainty relating to ECRs, and to give pointers on where to find information and what to look out for as further details are released. I’ve also offered some preliminary advice for ECRs based on what I think can be inferred thus far.
All of this comes with the (big) disclaimer that these are my own opinions only, some areas are still open to interpretation, this is by no means definitive, and this may well yet change: and n.b. that none of the information that has been released is final policy – that will come next year.
REF2021: an overview
The Research Excellence Framework is the system for allocating research funding in UK HEI; it is based on assessing 3 factors with :
impact (25% – an increase from 20% in 2014);
and environment (15%)
The focus of what follows is on research, although impact may be of relevance to ECRs (see paragraphs 19-26 of the Initial Decisions document for the latest on impact).
The timetable indicates that draft guidance will be published next summer, with final guidance and criteria in winter 2018-19 (see Initial decisions, paragraphs 49-51). Based on the approach thus far, I think we can expect that until then there will be this ongoing slow-release of pieces of information as they become available which is helpful, but also means that there will be a lot of discussion and changes to keep track of.
2. What we know so far
The broad parameters of research assessment will stay the same: “outputs” (broadly, publications) will be submitted to the REF by HEIs and sent to subject panels who assess by peer review; quantitative data will be used in some disciplines where appropriate (see Initial decisions, para. 6). Peer reviewers will rank submissions on a 1-4* basis:
The timeframe for publications that can be submitted will be 1st January 2014 – 31st December 2020.
A key change from the last round will be the newOpen Access policy, which states that from April 2016 journal articles submitted to the REF must be available in an Open Access form, i.e. an institutional or subject repository (n.b. “early deposit”, i.e. within 3 months of acceptance, is crucial; if you aren’t already, then get in the habit of submitting to your institution’s repository as soon as your work is published. If you have any doubts about embargo periods/ potential conflict with your journal contract, get in touch with your institution’s OA team who will be very used to dealing with this and know what to look for). Note that OA does not apply to monographs for REF 2021, but it is expected that it will for the next cycle (post-2021).
Another change that has been announced is the move to better accommodate interdisciplinary research: each sub-panel will have at least one dedicated panel member to oversee and assess interdisciplinary research, there will be an “interdisciplinary identifier” for outputs, and support of interdisciplinary research will be considered in the environment template. (for more on interdisciplinarity, see Initial decisions, para. 15).
There are also moves for improvements in equality and diversity considerations, particularly in terms of improving the representativeness of panel appointments (i.e. those assessing work) and there have been announcements thus far as to how this will be approached (see Initial decisions, para. 44, and p. 19)
So far, I think there are some encouraging moves in what has been announced. However, much of what is still to be decided impacts substantially on ECRs and I’ve outlined the three key areas below.
3. Staff submissions
This concerns who “counts” as a researcher and is submitted to the REF. In REF 2014, eligible staff were defined using core eligibility criteria but institutions did not need to submit all of those meeting these requirements. This ran into a number of issues, which REF 2021 aims to address through the proposal of 100% return: i.e.
“all staff who have a significant responsibility to undertake research”
will be submitted; alternatively, HEIs can decide not to return all staff but must draw up a code of practice as to how the decision is undertaken.
The proposal of “significant responsibility” works to core eligibility requirements which are essentially the same as REF 2014:
academic employment function of ‘research only’ or ‘teaching & research’
are independent researchers [i.e. not research assistants unless ‘demonstrably’ independent]
minimum employment of 0.2 full time equivalent
have a substantive connection to the submitting institution
RAs on projects won’t be eligible, and further guidelines being produced around the definition of “independent researcher” (see Circular Letter, Annex A, para. 3-8)
While the principle of all-staff submission has been broadly accepted, uncertainty remains as to how eligible staff will be identified – there were initial suggestions of using HESA contract data which have been ruled out, and it now looks as though it will be up to HEIs to determine who has “significant responsibility” and meets the above criteria. While there is a lot of discussion around this, and some of it confusing in the terminology, I don’t think ECRs need to focus too much on the finer details at this point in the cycle – this is fairly high-level policy, and while it will impact upon you depending on what role you are in towards the cut-off point, at this point I would work to the assumption that if you are going for academic teaching & research (T&R) posts, then you will be expected to be REFable.
Which takes us onto the next uncertainty.
4. Number of outputs
A key change from the last REF is the announcement of “decoupling”. The outline premise of this is that staff and outputs are less directly associated with one another so that the exercise is about institutions, not individual performance.
This means that instead of having a portfolio of outputs attached to each individual (4, with reductions for ECR status and other staff circumstances), the number of submissions required will be an average across the whole department, with a minimum and maximum number of submissions per individual. The proposed no. of submissions is:
Minimum of 1 per staff;
Average and maximum tbc; so far, a suggested multiplier of 2 outputs per staff, and a maximum of 6.
Decisions are ongoing around measures to promote equality and diversity in staff and output selection, including drawing up codes of practice on applying criteria for identifying staff, HEIs’ approach to output selection, and reductions for individual staff circumstances (see Webinar slide 9/ roughly 20 mins into the presentation) – from what I can see, it isn’t clear if an ECR reduction is being discussed (see here for what ECR reduction meant in REF 2014) although the minimum/average system makes this a little less crucial than previously.
In principle, decoupling seems to be a good thing and potentially reduces some of the pressures and competitiveness that ECRs experienced in the last REF. However, as things stand there is still uncertainty as to what the number of submissions will be required – although I think we could fairly safely assume that for an ECR, 1-2 will be the expectation. Perhaps more uncertain is how this will play out on the job market, both in terms of individual hiring decisions, and the impact on hiring cycles more broadly of the kind of impact that we saw last time.
The proposal of non-portability of outputs has been the key concern for ECRs, and is still by far the most uncertain.This proposal put forward that
“outputs should be eligible for submission only by the institution where the outputs were demonstrably generated”
That is, outputs would essentially “belong” to the institution where the work was carried out and not move with you when you moved institution. The aim was to prevent the hiring poaches of “REF stars” that occurred towards the end of last cycle.
However, clearly for ECRs this has huge consequences given the level of job mobility in the current market where fixed-term contracts are on the rise (not to mention that, given the number of teaching-only contracts, a huge amount of research is undertaken in unpaid time). This is reflected in the latest documentation, which states that
“we also recognise the significant concerns raised about this proposal in consultation responses, including the unintended consequences for staff mobility (particularly for early-career researchers) and publication behaviour, and about burden, practical implementation and retrospective application.”
There has been recognition of the cost/burden of implementing the hybrid model, and the simplified model will be much more straightforward for ECRs, but at this point we don’t know which way this will go – I’d like to assume option A, but who knows. It does look like there has been enough discussion of the negative effects of non-portability (not just on ECRs – staff mobility is necessary at all levels, for many reasons), that hopefully outputs will be portable at least up to a certain date, but this will be the key area for ECRs to follow in coming months.
6. What can ECRs do?
Based on this assessment, my take on this would be to assume:
that if you are aiming for an academic job you will be in a REFable position;
that a minimum of 1 and average of 2 submissions will be required;
that portability will potentially apply to current outputs but you may need to stay informed about further changes and especially the cut-off date if the hybrid model is adopted.
Again, this is only what I can infer from the current documentation and this could all change quite quickly, but I think these assumptions are fairly safe in that they will allow you to work to a few pointers I’ve suggested below, while leaving you open to any subsequent changes.
7. Publication strategy
So to finish, some suggestions of what to do if you’re soon to be or currently on the job market or in a fixed-term position:
Focus on quality not quantity: fewer, high-quality publications is better than lots of lower-ranking pieces. This has always been true, and it will probably be more so in the new system where a lower number of outputs per staff are being submitted: institutions will want to make each one count. I have written more on quality in this post on publication strategy (the REF info is clearly out of date, but the pointers on quality apply). The quality not quantity rule is also time-efficient if you are stretched for publication time as an ECR; make everything you can publish count for as much as possible on your CV.
Timing and portability: at this point, I would probably not hold back on publishing articles that you have ready. If you are on the job market, you need publications on your CV (we spoke a bit yesterday about how you are playing 2 games as an ECR: the hiring game, and the REF game, which are entangled but also slightly different from one another).
However, looking ahead to the future (and I’ll update on this in due course): if a deadline for non-portability comes into play then you may want to start thinking strategically later in the cycle; if you are on the job market late in the cycle and have something ready for submission then it may be worth holding off on hitting the submit button until you are newly employed in a REFable post. I would consider having an unpublished “safety piece” that travels with you on the job market until you are in post (the exact piece might change of course, but the principle is to have one piece held back).
8. Stay informed
The final guidance is expected in winter 2018-19. In the meantime, keep up to date with any changes: HE news outlets, blogs, and the HEFCE website will have all the latest, and I’ll be doing my best to keep up to date with the changes and writing on ECR impacts.
It is hugely time consuming (and stressful) trying to keep up with all of this if you’re an ECR on the job market, so to those in more senior positions, please help with dissemination, either to the ECRs within your direct reach and/or at an institutional level. A lack of and mis-information around the REF was cited as a huge contributor to the pressure of the REF 2014 in my study of its impact on ECRs, so please help with this if you can. Which brings me onto my final point.
9. The REF and ECR mental wellbeing
My final piece of advice is around the mental health impact of the REF on ECRs, particularly during this period of uncertainty in which the very thing that for years you have been told your employability depends upon is now up in the air (and it may well feel as though the pack of cards deciding your future has been thrown up in the air, and we’re waiting to see where they land).
My 2015 report showed an overwhelming detrimental impact of the REF upon ECR mental health and wellbeing: respondents both in secure early-career positions and on the job market noted that the REF exacerbated feelings of anxiety, insecurity and precarity, and some experienced substantial mental health impacts of this. ECRs also said that they felt isolated and unable to admit to these impacts in the highly competitive workplace environment that REF created.
I don’t want to place undue worry on ECRs at this point: there is still much to be determined, and once decisions are made, this REF could well play out better for ECRs. But I do think it’s important to acknowledge that many ECRs are feeling incredibly anxious and even more precarious as a result of the current uncertainty, and that if you are, you’re not fretting over nothing or worrying unduly before the final policy is announced; if anything, this period of uncertainty before the policy is decided is, I think, going to be the hardest time for ECRs on the job market. The job market has been pretty horrendous in terms of mental health impacts over the last few years (and I have another post coming up with more thoughts on this), and I can only imagine that the last few months have been even more stressful. So if you’re feeling like this you’re by no means alone; and again, if you’re in a position to do so, then please offer any support, advice, and reassurance that you can to ECRs.
By way of conclusion, a round up of the works cited in this post:
Today I spoke at “Researching our Futures“, a student-led conference on career options post-PhD. My talk was titled “Digitising our futures: early career professionalization in the digital sphere” and I spoke about how an online identity can help you develop as an ECR. The slides from my talk are here. For quick reference, I’ve listed below the websites and resources from the end of the slides.
I am looking forward to speaking at the Researching our Futures, a student-led careers conference taking place at Newcastle University on 16th March 2017. The topic of my talk is “Digitising our futures: early career professionalization in the digital sphere“, and I’ll be talking about using online and social media as an early career researcher in relation to issues of professionalization, identity and career development.
On 5th December I spoke to PGRs in Surrey’s School of English and Languages about getting the first job post-PhD. I talked through my career path, from the messy immediacy of the post-PhD stage through to the permanent job I started 4 months ago, and drew out some (potentially) useful things I learned along the way. Below are my notes and slides from the talk.
What jobs are available post-PhD
I focused on the academic route post-PhD, while my colleague Joanna Gough gave further insights into industry in her half of the talk. Going the academic route, I assumed that the end goal is a permanent lectureship combining teaching, research, and admin.
To get there, though, may take several years via the following:
My experience has covered most of these at some point – a brief summary of my career path is as follows:
PhD, University of Warwick 2007-2010 (viva 2011)
1.5 years of hourly-paid teaching, marking, invigilation, academic writing and 1-1 tuition, A-level tuition, short term research fellowship, research assistant on project bid, work on University projects supporting ECRs, freelance proofreading, etc… (Jan 2011 – Oct 2012)
1 year as 0.6 FTE research project fellow at the Institute of Advanced Study, University of Warwick; plus hourly-paid teaching (Oct 2012 – Sept 2013)
2 years further in this position FT with research time (Sept 2013 – Sept 2015)
In what followed I talked through this in more detail, drawing out a few things I learned along the way about how to make the most of what has been a highly unpredictable, precarious, and varied career path.
The first 1-2 years
This, for me, was the hardest in terms of managing multiple jobs. Like many others I found myself in the double bind of the post-PhD landscape: teaching is what pays, but research publications are (typically) the key experience needed for permanent job. Unless you are very lucky to secure a research post straight away – and some are, of course – you will likely find yourself with a heavy and unpredictable teaching load while trying to write publications. At this point my key aim was finding a way to stay in the game by any means possible. The key things I learned in this period were:
Be flexible: some jobs might not always look like the ideal positions in terms of research time or teaching experience, but there can benefits of roles that offer the development of other skills, building networks and connections (such as my public engagement post).*
Stay affiliated: a library card and institutional affiliation are key, and various University positions should keep you in with these. At Warwick an Associate Fellow status was created which granted 3 years affiliation post-PhD.
Support is everything: work with, not against, your peers for advice, moral support, and help each other with applications and interviews – talk to people who have been to interviews, ask what questions they had and what their experiences were like, build up knowledge of the sector. Your supervisor(s) will hopefully remain a valuable source of support at this point, but you may also seek out others who can mentor you – advice from a range of people across career stages is especially valuable, from early career colleagues who are a few years down the line to more senior professors who have been on interview panels. (Not sure how to find a mentor? This ECRchat has some good advice).
Plan: have a 1, 2, and 5-year plan. This is far from easy when you are living month to month, but keeping in mind long-term goals and objectives is crucial to making the most of the time you do have and, importantly, keeping your morale and long-term focus going in difficult times. Be strategic and prioritise publications, as well as identifying CV gaps to fill; and be realistic, recognize that plans will change and you need to review, revise, readjust periodically.
I have also spoken more about the challenges of navigating the post-PhD years in this talk (slides only) “Money and a Room of One’s Own” from a professionalisation event at York University last year. This also includes more detail on applying to research fellowships.
3-5 years: finding (some) stability
After 2 years of precarity I took up a 0.6 position at Warwick’s Institute of Advanced Study. I was nominally a Research Fellow but employed to work on public engagement strategy, launching Warwick’s first Book Festival. There were some less than ideal features about the post, not least that I had to make up the remaining time from hourly-paid teaching, and while in theory I had 1 day a week (unpaid) for research, in practice I was working every spare hour on teaching, marking, and applying for jobs.
I also wasn’t in a strictly academic post as my remit was public engagement. However, there are strong advantages in alternative paths such as this: I gained valuable skills and experience in public engagement which became a unique selling-point on my CV. I learned a lot about the higher education landscape and relationships between universities and the public sector, and was able to build up networks of contacts around the University and beyond which became useful in my academic work. It was also immensely enjoyable and refreshing, if challenging at times, to work on something completely different but related to my academic work.
I also tried to be as proactive as possible in making the most of the project I’d been given, and following the success of the pilot Festival in 2013, funding was secured for my job for a further two years. At this point I was extremely lucky: my post was extended to full-time and this included some research time, which was exactly what I needed to write my monograph which in turn, I hoped, would help me get an academic post. Although the job didn’t started as the ideal position, a combination of luck, hard work, and being proactive meant that it came to work to my advantage in the long-term.
By March 2015 it was 4 years since my viva and my monograph had been contracted, but getting long- and short-listed for jobs was still tough. At this point, I referred to the statistics published by Professor Andrew McRae, Head of the English Department at the University of Exeter, on the recruitment of a typical permanent lectureship and the number of applicants that had monographs at various stages of publication:
While these figures are a stark reminder of the realities of competition on the job market, I raised these not to prompt worry but rather as a reminder of the importance of both being realistic, and staying on top of this kind of information. Reading about the job market and the state of HE in general may not be the most cheering topic, but it’s much better to know what you, and universities, are up against. Going to professionalisation talks, reading HE news, and talking to others about this, is as important to your career development as what goes on your CV and will not only help you focus your goals but also speak to these better in interviews.
One particular challenge for ECRs has, and will continue to be, the Research Excellence Framework. My work on the REF 2014 is fast becoming outdated as the landscape changes ahead of the next REF, but this post on my talk at the Westminster HE forum in 2015 and my detailed post on the REF for the New Academic will give an idea of what last time involved, some of which will likely remain relevant.
Other places you might look to read up about the current state of HE and its impact on ECRs include the THE, Guardian HE Network, Taylor & Francis blog. If you’re on twitter then check out the #ecrchat and #phdchat threads and consider joining the fortnightly chats for more on particular topics.
The final stage of my career journey was relatively straightforward – not withstanding the small issue of moving 300 miles across the country at 2 weeks’ notice for a 10-month job. This position was one that I very (very!) nearly didn’t apply for: the logistics seemed entirely unfeasible for a short-term post, and the quick lead-in time from application close to job start date was such that I assumed there were ideal candidates already in mind. Many of us have been to an interview where another candidate looks sure to get the job – and yet for every experience like this, I have heard another story that ended in success, if not with that job then with future applications to the same department. Although it may not seem like it when you’re faced with a folder full of rejection letters, going for the job you don’t expect to get is always worthwhile: if nothing else, interview experience (and the opportunity to get feedback – something you should always ask for) is always valuable. The experience of going to an interview with a feeling of “nothing to lose” can also be highly liberating – gone is the stifling anxiety of expectation.
And so it was that a couple of weeks later I found myself commuting across the country, and balancing the trials of a new teaching load, panicked flat-hunting in a city I barely knew, and living out of a suitcase in budget hotels for a month (not only soul-destroyingly dull, but 3 fire alarms the night before your first seminars is not the most ideal start).
Even though this was a fixed-term position for 10 months, I had a feeling that this job would be the stepping-stone I needed to get to a permanent position and my instinct was right: I gained useful teaching experience in a new department, built up new networks of contacts, and had incredibly valuable research and career mentorship from senior colleagues, as well as support from fantastic peers. It was the final push I needed to be ready to apply for permanent positions in the spring, securing my current job in late May.
This weekend, I finally faced the horror that is my applications folder and did some sums. Over the course of 5 years, I had applied for a total of 35 jobs, plus 4 attempts at early career fellowship schemes.
I know people who have done many less, and people who have done many more, applications. It varies. There is no golden number, because just like the infuriating advice that something you’ve lost will be in the last place you look, you just never know until the final phone call which application will be the last.
In retrospect it is easy to make some observations about this pattern: I wish I had been more strategic early on and focused on getting published rather than the huge amount of time spent on those unsuccessful applications; I am also aware that I was extremely lucky that the one application I focused my time and energy on this year was successful (there were others advertised at the same time that I decided against going for, for reasons including the vague and not-entirely-advisable “gut instinct”). It is tricky to advise when to start going for jobs as everyone’s preparedness is different at every stage, but hopefully this post has given a few pointers to consider and I am always willing to answer questions in the comments or via email.
* “being flexible” in other terms, e.g. location, is of course hugely dependent upon personal circumstances such as children or other caring responsibilities, which weren’t a factor in my own experience described here.