Tag Archives: Early Career Researchers

Preparing for academic interviews – a few resources

This post is a follow-up of resources for those who attended The Voice of the Academic: Vocal Training for Academic Success at the University of Surrey on 22nd September, although the links may also be helpful to others preparing for academic interviews.

 

Please feel free to leave further suggestions in the comments and I’ll add them above.

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REF 2021 & ECRs: the current situation

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 :

  • outputs (60%);
  • 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 previous (and first) round of the exercise was run in 2014 and raised some areas of difficulty, including a substantial impact on ECRs as my earlier work documents. A period of review and consultation has therefore been in progress, starting with the Stern Review in 2016, a Consultation exercise on the findings of the Stern Review held in March 2017 (for which the summary of responses was published last week), and some Consultation events. The Initial decisions on the REF were published at the start of September 2017, along with a Circular Letter. There have also been a series of webinars over the summer, most recently this one in July on Developing staff and outputs, not to mention several blog posts by David Sweeney on various topics. (yes, I’m exhausted just writing all of that).

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.

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:

ref
Quality profile from REF2014

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 new Open 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.

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.

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.

(for more on this, see the Developing policy on staff and outputs webinar).

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.

Portability

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.”

(see Circular letter, paras. 16-17)

The proposal now being put forward in the current round of consultation (see Annex A, paras. 9-11) is that for this cycle, transitional arrangements are put in place, with 2 options being proposed:

  1. The simplified model, whereby outputs would be eligible for return by the institution where research carried out as well as by the newly employing institution.
  2. The hybrid approach, with a deadline (to be determined), after which a limited number of outputs would transfer with staff, with eligibility otherwise linked to the originating institution.

 

refnp

(Source: Developing policy on staff and outputs webinar: 19 July 2017, slide 14)

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.

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.

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).

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.

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:

 

 

Early Career Professionalisation in the Digital Sphere

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’ve also written on this topic for the NU Women Blog, Creating an Online Identity as a Researcher.

My other ECR work may also be of interest.

Books and articles

Mark Carrigan, Social Media for Academics (London: Sage, 2016)

LSE Guide to Twitter

PhD Life Blog, University of Warwick

Emma Cragg, Beginning Blogging. Available at blog.piirus.com/2015/05/07/beginning-blogging-guest-blogger-emma-cragg-writes-about-how-to-combat-your-fears/

Piirus Digital Identity Health Check for Academics. Available at: blog.piirus.com/piirus-bonuses/

Raul Pacheco Vega 6 Twitter Tips for Busy Academics. Available at www.raulpacheco.org/2015/11/6-twitter-tips-for-busy-academics-based-on-my-own-strategy

Twitter networks:

#ecrchat #phdchat #withaPhD  #socphd – career-stage networks

#scholarsunday – recommended scholars to follow

#acwri and #suwtues – academic writing advice and fortnightly chat group

Upcoming talk: Researching our Futures, Newcastle University, 16th March

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.

Publishing Strategies as an ECR @ PhD Publishing workshop 5th July 2016

This workshop hosted by Newcastle University’s International Centre for Cultural & Heritage Studies focused on publishing and peer-reviewing for early career researchers. I presented on publishing strategies – how you can make best use of your time to get the most out of your research in the hectic post-PhD years. My slides from the event are here and below are my notes from the session.

“From publish or perish, to publish and thrive”: developing a publication strategy as an ECR 

This talk aims to you thinking about how you create a publishing strategy in the later and post-PhD stages in order to make the most of your time, get the best out of your publications, and make yourself employable as you do so.

“Publish or perish” is an oft-cited phrase in academia; you need to publish to get ahead. But there’s a sense of negativity implicit in this phrase, and talk of publishing often imbues a sense of anxiety. So I want to reframe this as “publish and thrive” and suggest that by creating a publishing strategy you can put yourself in control of your publications and, to some extent, your developing career more broadly.

The 3 core things to keep in mind with publication strategy is the balance of:

Quality; quantity; and timing

Framing this is the wider context of academia that you are working within, and particularly the REF: the REF provides both a temporal cycle for publication patterns, and influences how we think about issues of quality and quantity. Related to this, you will also need to be thinking about the end-goal of your PhD/ECR years, which for this talk I’m assuming is a permanent, research & teaching academic job (not, of course, the only option but for the purposes of simplicity this is my focus here). In what follows I start with a brief outline of the REF; then think in more detail about quality, quantity, timing; and finish by outlining how you draw this into a publication strategy – what this looks like and why it’s going to be useful to you.

A brief introduction to the REF

What is the REF?

The REF – Research Excellence Framework – is the system for assessing the quality of research in Higher Education institutions in the UK. It’s used to determine funding distribution to universities from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE).

The last round was carried out in 2014, for which the deadline for submissions was the end of November 2013. The assessment evaluated: research outputs (65%); impact (20%); and research environment (15%). “Research outputs” are of most relevance here: these are the pieces of research that every full-time research/R&T academic submits – typically books and journal articles.

A submission for a full-time R/R&T lecturer = 4 outputs; there are discounts for ECRs depending upon number of years in post, and also discounts for factors e.g. maternity leave (see here for more detail on ECR discounts). At this stage the details of the next REF remain uncertain: it is anticipated that it will be in 2020/2021, but issues of who is included, what discounts will be applied, etc remain unspecified at the moment.

What we can fairly safely assume at this stage is that all lecturers in FT, permanent R&T academic post will be expected to be submitted, and therefore hiring committees for these jobs will be looking for candidates who can make a strong submission. It’s therefore important as you start on the job-hunt that you have a broad contextual understanding of the REF, and keep up-to-date with the ongoing developments and discussions as they unfold.

However, because there is so much uncertainty in the HE landscape, the best advice you can take at this moment is not to get too caught up in worrying about the specifics of the next REF determining what you do. The best strategy that you can adopt is:

  • to focus on producing the best research that you can in the time available to you;
  • aim for fewer, high-quality publications;

Keeping this key message at the core of your publication strategy will serve you well whatever happens in coming years. The issues of quality, quantity and timing outlined below give you a guide for putting this approach into practice.

Quality of research

What counts as a “good” publication? Different types of publication have different merits and uses within your overall publication strategy.

  • Monograph – a single-author, substantial (80-100k words) piece of original research; in some arts subjects they considered are the gold standard to aim for irrespective of the REF, whereas in others will be less important. In the REF, monographs were double-weighted to count as 2 outputs in some institutions to account for the relative length of the work, but this was not always the case in some institutions (n.b. as career mobility is likely in the post-PhD years, you need to keep in mind that institutions can have different approaches to the REF submission guidelines).
  • Peer-reviewed article – typically 8-10,000 words, an article in a peer-reviewed, well-established journal in your field, also represent a strong core submission.
  • Chapter in an edited collection – these are often shorter than an article (typically 5-7000 words) and still peer-reviewed, although this may not be as rigorous a process (often not blind reviewed), and the reach of an edited collection is not always as strong. Opinions on edited collections vary across fields but the length in particular means that they aren’t always the strongest REF submission and shouldn’t be the core focus of your publication profile.
  • Book Review – a book review would typically not be long enough (1-2000 words standard) or represent original research to count in the REF; the only exception may be a review essay of c.8000 words in which you review several books and integrate this with original research to make a case for the state of the field, but this is less reliably sound than an article. By all means do book reviews as they are useful in other ways but don’t consider these as significant publications in their own right.
  • Edited book – editing a book is not in itself original research unless it is accompanied by a substantial original introductory essay and/or chapter by you, so does not carry the same weight as a monograph for the REF. Editing can have many other advantages but it is a lot of work for the added value to your CV, so think carefully about taking these on and prioritise other forms.

As you create a publishing strategy you will want to think about how you balance publications. The key here is that it’s ok to include different types of publication and publish things that aren’t REFable, but for a strong portfolio your focus should primarily be on articles/monographs and take on other commitments only if you have time.

Quality is also determined/indicated to some extent by where you publish.

Journals: what is “high impact” is not straightforward. Quality can be linked to journal ranking and impact factor; however, the message from REF panellists at recent events I’ve attended is that in the REF peer-review process, the quality of research was fundamental and this did not always correlate with journal ranking. Wherever you publish, peer review is essential. Talk to your supervisor and colleagues about where represents the best fit for your work. <remember also that there are new guidelines on Open Access publication which will factor into journal choice>

Books: with monographs, the key is a respected publisher that represents a good fit for your work. There various University presses (Cambridge, Edinburgh, Oxford) as well as respected commercial academic presses (Palgrave Macmillan, Routledge), and various advantages/disadvantages of each – it is worth talking to colleagues about their experiences of publishing with various presses. Peer review is essential and may vary hugely in terms of timescale; the level of editorial input will differ across presses. In terms of good fit, one way into determining this is to look at your bibliography for the books you refer to most regularly and use this as a basis for exploring different publishers. (see here for my experience of choosing a publisher for my book).

 

Quantity

There is no golden rule on “how many” publications you need.

When applying for jobs you will find that typically there is an expectation of “a publication record commensurate with experience”; i.e., if you’ve just finished your PhD it would not be expected that you have 4 top-quality articles in print. At the same time, you can expect that for very competitive posts the number and quality of publications may – although not always – impact upon hiring decisions and, despite the ECR discount for the REF, this may not factor in.

Again, as a general strategy think quality not quantity and aim for fewer, high-quality publications; intellectual rigor provides a sound basis for your career development, quantity comes with time.

Timing and scheduling publications

In terms of timing and pacing your publications, there are a couple of ways in which you can potentially benefit from being strategic to work with and around the REF cycle. In the survey of ECRs and the REF that I did in 2014, a key message to emerge was that many ECRs were thinking strategically about timing in order to maximise the use-value or their portfolio.

The first way to do this is to “rush out” publications to get as many as possible into the REF cycle. Here, you need to keep in mind that this means getting everything published in time, and particularly factor in the long lead-in time to publication.

  • Journal articles: from when you send off the first version through to publication can take anything from 6 months to 2 years (it’s worth noting that special issues can be much quicker)
  • Monographs: also vary substantially, the peer review and revisions process can be longer but final production relatively quick (in my experience with Palgrave Macmillan, c. 6 months).

 

This links back to where you decide to publish and you may want to go with presses/journals that have a reputation for quicker publication. Again, talk to others in your field about their experiences (one department I know have a shared word document where colleagues input their experiences of various journals).

When you come to making a publishing plan, you’ll need to keep in mind 2 deadlines: yours for finishing the work, plus the lead-in time to the piece getting published.

While rushing out lots of publications is one strategy, as the REF deadline approaches you may also want to consider holding back work for the next cycle. This was my strategy with my monograph: in my last institution I wasn’t in a REF-submitted post/department, and therefore my pre-2014 publications wouldn’t have REF value. Having realised this, I took longer than I might have done to complete my monograph as I wanted it to be published within the current, post-2014 REF cycle. This needs to be weighed up with the importance of a monograph in getting an academic job, but can work out beneficial in the long-run. For my next project, I am aiming for monograph publication post-2020 so that the book will fall into the next REF cycle.

Writing a publication strategy

All of these factors can then go into informing how you create a publication strategy, i.e. a plan of the what – where – when of your future publications. Some key things to keep in mind:

  • Be specificwhat you will write, where you will target it (journal/ presses), when you will do it (be realistic!);
  • Look at the overall balance of types of publication to weigh up quality and quantity;
  • Keep in mind external factors that may impact upon your plans e.g. will you need funding to complete a piece of research;
  • Check requirements of journal/presses, especially for length of submissions;
  • Remember that the final send-off isn’t final – work can come back requiring reasonable input for revisions, it’s difficult to anticipate when this will be but you can at least allow some space around the edges of your plans;
  • Check back in to review and revise your plans regularly: there will be uncertainties in your career impacting especially upon how much time you will have available for research, and short-term posts make it difficult to plan far in advance. Review and adapt, but don’t abandon the plan altogether (see here for my notes on balancing teaching and research).

Given that there are so many uncertainties in your career/HE more broadly, why plan? I think there are a number of clear benefits:

 

  • Allows you to prioritise and make best use of the time that you do have available to really focus your energies in the best areas;
  • Ensures that you remain attentive to balancing issues of quality and quantity;
  • Deadlines help to give structure and focus to your post-PhD time; they may have to change, but having clear research goals can help with the uncertainty of post-PhD life and keeps you focused on the longer-term;
  • Gives you a basis from which to get feedback and advice from supervisors/ colleagues about your publication plans;
  • Having a plan means that you can track your progress and gain a better sense of how long some tasks take you, and how you can adjust future plans accordingly.
  • Finally, it will help when you go to job interviews: hiring committees not only want to see what you’ve published to date but will also be looking for a defined publication strategy going forward, and to see that you understand the current HE context and how your plans fit into this. Having a publication strategy underway means that you’ve already done some of the work towards this and will be able to articulate clearly, concisely and with specific details what your future plans for publication look like.

 

Early Career Academics in English Studies discussion day

On Thursday 2nd June I attended Early Career Academics in English Studies discussion day at King’s College London, hosted by the English Association and University English, looking ahead to the English Shared Futures conference in Newcastle next year. I was pleased to be invited to introduce a session on “Balancing Teaching and Research”, in which I focused on the challenges, strategies, and benefits of balancing teaching and research, with a few thoughts looking ahead to the next few years. I post these notes below and would be interested to hear others’ thoughts on these issues.

As I see it, the core issue that ECRs face in the current environment is that of building up a profile of publications that makes them competitive for permanent Research & Teaching lectureships, while working on teaching-only/teaching-heavy contracts (often balancing multiple jobs).

The challenges of these contracts are well-known: heavy teaching-loads; career mobility (time spent moving; start-up investment in teaching new courses and/or teaching across 2+ institutions); lack of research time, as well as access to funding for research and conferences, and mentoring; and the difficulties of long-term research planning while on fixed-term contracts. This can quite easily lead to a vicious cycle of getting stuck on T-only contracts because the research profile can’t be given the time and attention needed to break into the permanent posts.

Strategies: even small improvements can aid this. At institutional level there are small but significant steps that can vastly improve a T-only contract: speaking from my own experience this year at Newcastle University, having a research day, access to a research budget, participating in professional development and research progress reviews, and the guidance of a mentor, have all meant that in my 10-month post I’ve been able to advance my research profile in very beneficial ways.

At an individual level, ECRs can help themselves: creating a sound publication strategy and some degree of long-term planning, i.e. making sure that what is published is of the highest quality, will have maximum effect in REF cycles, and keeps a 5-year goal in sight in order to ensure that there is a clear trajectory to and rationale behind publications. I say “ECRs can help themselves”, but mentoring, be it formal or informal, is absolutely crucial here to advise and support ECRs on how best to focus and achieve these goals. For me, mentoring was especially beneficial in keeping the long-term view in sight (not easy when you’re caught up in the whirlwind of new modules) and made sure that I could really strategise my energies in the best possible way.

Benefits: it’s easy to focus on the negatives, but balancing teaching and research can be hugely beneficial; the best teaching is informed by being research-active and, I think, the opposite is also true. Having moved from a public engagement (admin-heavy) and research role to my current teaching and research role, I have found it much easier to switch between the two in the latter: teaching keeps my mind in the same intellectual zone, stimulates new thoughts about research, in a way that I didn’t find with my admin post, which required more of a mental switch between the two.

Challenges going forward: the situation isn’t getting any easier with increasing casualisation and my work on the impact of the REF 2014 on ECRs showed that the teaching-and-research balancing act became particularly acute for many around the time of the last REF. There have been recent proposals that all staff including T-only should be submitted to REF. I am in two minds about this. In some respects this is excellent: it prevents the two-tier structure that can keep ECRs trapped in the t-only cycle, it encourages beneficial links between T and R in ways that are beneficial for both staff and students, and if done well it would ensure that all ECRs are supported in being active researchers. At the same time I truly worry that for those on unsupported T-only contracts this will be yet another pressure in an already highly pressurized system, that it will create unrealistic standards and expectations for those already at breaking point. I think this is a real and pressing danger that needs to be well thought out before any such proposals are seen through.

Further thoughts reflecting on the day

In light of this, it was especially interesting to hear Professor Clare Lees address the issue of the REF, speaking from her experience as a panel member and how this differs to much of the perception of how the REF peer review process works. Hearing more about this is really reassuring and helpful for ECRs (and I imagine others in the system); as I mentioned today, the key issue my work on the REF raised was that of communication, or the lack thereof, about the REF to ECRs and how this creates much anxiety and misperception. Hopefully the issue of communicating to and with ECRs can be better addressed in the next cycle.

I also wanted to add a further point about the long-term plan noted above; there was a lot of agreement with the idea that this is impossible on fixed term contracts, while I had (briefly) suggested the opposite can be true. To qualify that: I agree that it is impossible to make a plan in terms of where or what type of job one will be on in several years time, and a largely pointless exercise to try and strategise in this way; much is luck and right place, right time.

I do, however, think that it is possible to forge a plan of where you want to be intellectually- your ambitions for where you see yourself positioned in the field, what kind of critical advances you want to be making – and to strategise about how you might get there through publications, funding grants,  and so on. Of course this will change and evolve over time. But I think that doing so helps create a clear sense of direction and ensures best use of your time: making sure that you focus your energies on going to the right conferences, writing the best articles, and applying for the most relevant grants. Not only is this strategic but, I think, can be hugely important to your sense of identity as an ECR, helping to keep in view an idea of who you are and what you want to achieve as a researcher – something so easily lost within the flux of short-term contracts, but so integral to keeping focused on the end goal that will make the fixed-term years worth it.