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.
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.
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).
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.
Journalarticles: 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 specific – what 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.
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.
Following today’s Google+ hangout on Research Impact and Public Engagement for Career Success (which you can watch again here), I’ve pulled together a few links and tips on the questions I discussed.
Impact and Early Career Researchers – my PhD Life guide on Impact and ECRs in the context of REF (2014, but with some ongoing applicability as we head towards the next REF; confused about the REF? My ECR guide is here). This write-up of a talk at Warwick is also highly illustrative on some of the issues around PE/impact. More recently, I spoke about the changing responses of ECRs towards impact in my talk about the REF.
Impact in the humanities – I highlighted the Celebrating Dickens project as a good example of an impact project that is interdisciplinary, uses multiple digital channels, and drew on a range of expert advice. ECRs might find this case study of an ECR working in an impact role helpful. “Apps and maps” is also a subsection of some of my work on Dickens and the bicentenary, and in this post I pulled together a range of digital Dickens projects.
Getting started as an ECR – a post I wrote previously about tips for ECRs getting started on public engagement.
The Northern Nineteenth Century Network’s Victorian Studies Professionalisation Day, held at the University of York on 26th May 2015, aimed to give postgraduate Victorianists insights into various aspects of academia and careers. I was invited to speak on postdoctoral career paths – funding, fellowships, and some general advice on navigating the difficult post-PhD waters when you don’t go straight into a permanent job or fellowship. My talk was titled “Money and a Room of One’s Own: the transition from PhD to Postdoc” and the slides can be downloaded here:
This week I attended the Westminster Higher Education Forum on “Next Steps for the Research Excellence Framework“, having been invited to speak on “the Impact of the REF on Early Career Researchers”. I felt very fortunate to have the opportunity to put forward the perspectives of ECRs in this setting, and especially encouraged by the highly positive response to my paper – if my talk was, overall, a sobering reflection on the status of ECRs in the current HE landscape, then it was heartening to hear that many people were interested in taking these issues seriously.
I include below a brief outline of my 8-minute talk, with a few added notes resulting from the event. There is now much more work to be done on analysing the nuances of the survey data presented below, and I aim in due course to write a more detailed piece on this.
A Culture of Publish or Perish? The Impact of the REF on ECRs
In this talk I aim to highlight some of the ways in which the REF has impacted upon early career researchers, using this as a spring-broad to think about how the next REF might better accommodate this career group.
In my role at the Institute of Advanced Study at the University of Warwick I work closely with a community of early career researchers and have experienced first-hand the many impacts that this REF has had on my peer group; but I wanted to ensure that this talk reflected a broader range of experiences across UK HE, and therefore in preparation I distributed an online survey asking ECRs about their experiences and opinions on the REF 2014.
– 193 responses collected between December 2014 and March 2015
– responses gathered via social media and email from across the UK
– 81.3 % had completed PhDs within the last 8 years
– 41.5 % were REF returned
– 18.7% were currently PhD students
– 10.9% had left academia since completing a PhD
5 main points emerged as most significant from among the responses:
Provision of information about the REF to ECRs
I asked ECRs how well informed they felt about the REF, e.g. through training, university advice, or other sources.
Over 50% felt that they were well/moderately well informed, but 40% of respondents felt that they had little or no information. Those who felt ill-informed about the REF included both those ECRs who were returned – and didn’t know why or to what effect – and others who were not submitted, because they were didn’t have enough outputs or were in a sessional or non-REFable position. Although information about the REF wasn’t deemed relevant to this second group, lack of understanding about the REF is nonetheless problematic for the career mobility of these groups.
Of the 25% who were very well informed, about a third of those noted excellent information provided at institutional level through training events, departmental discussions, and mentoring or other support. However, many were informed only through independent research: reading educational supplements such as THE, Union publications, and using social media to gather information.
There was also much noted about the lack of information specifically targeted at ECRs: some noted confusion, even at institutional level, as to how ECR was defined, or how the career-stage discount applied. This information was in the REF guidelines, but not especially accessible to ECRs: better institutional training around the particularities of ECR status is needed and, judging from many of the survey responses, this would significantly ease some of the uncertainty that this group face. [ note: see my REF for ECRs guide here]
As I mentioned in the Q&A, a clear issue that emerged to me throughout the surveys was the need for better communication, at every level: in the REF guidelines, at the level of university management, at departmental level, and between mentors/supervisors and ECRs themselves.
Publication strategy was the primary area ECRs felt the REF impact, and the main point to emerge from respondents was that, like other academics, ECRs are well aware of the need for strategic targeting of publication: focusing on those areas of research that have most strategic importance, aiming for 4* publication outlets, and holding back or rushing out publications to fit the REF cycle. ECRs have learnt to play the game.
However, some respondents noted strong concern that the value and quality of their research was becoming restricted within a narrow criteria that doesn’t allow for innovative pursuits, or that they were under pressure from supervisors or mentors to neglect areas of research that might otherwise be beneficial but that wouldn’t produce strong REF outputs. The issue of research restrictions seemed particularly troubling in the case of interdisciplinarity, towards which ECRs have otherwise been driven in recent years [although the subsequent talk by Tim Hall aimed to dispell the ‘myth’ that the REF doesn’t accommodate interdisciplinarity].
The intense focus on publication had a huge impact on ECR job applications: among respondents there was an overwhelming sense of an increasingly competitive job market in which hiring committees focused on solely on REFable publications, creating the pressure to therefore be REF-able straight out of PhD. As a consequence, the REF dangerously intersects with the increasing trend towards casualization: un-REFable ECRs become stuck in a limbo of casualised contracts; but these precarious, short-term and typically teaching-heavy workloads further preclude having the time and resources to work towards 4* outputs that would get them better jobs
The casualization of ECRs is further exacerbated by the hiring cycles that the REF creates: long dry spells followed by a hiring spree. This can work in favour of those who finish PhDs at the right time in the REF cycle; but as several respondents made clear, even those hired for excellence are still at risk of the precarity of casual contracts, hired only for duration of the REF cycle and then let go when it’s over.
The connections between the REF and the casualization of HE seem, at least to ECRs, intricately bound up and this is perhaps the most troubling change it has driven in recent years.
I also asked in the survey an open-ended question about any other impacts that the ECRs wanted to express, and this is where many noted the wider cultural shift in academia. ECRs overwhelmingly felt that the REF created a huge amount of pressure and anxiety which impacted particularly on those at the bottom rung of the career ladder. At departmental/ collegiate level many noted a culture of aggression and bullying, as well as the creation of a two-tier hierarchy between teaching and research which is used to inhibit career mobility of those in teaching positions. Comments about the effects on individuals’ mental health were prevalent: words such as ‘insecurity’, ‘pressure’, and ‘anxiety’ occurred numerous times throughout the survey responses. There was also a clear sense of a high level of disillusionment and dissatisfaction at the profession, and cynicism focused around the REF. In some respects, “the REF” has become a byword for a wider culture shift in academia – a shift driven by processes that extend beyond the assessment exercise itself – but it is nonetheless a focal point around which ECRs see very real, material impacts. If that is so, then perhaps with some work, the REF also has the potential to drive more positive changes in coming years.
One final point emerged about the potential positive of the REF:
Public engagement and impact
68% of respondents felt that the REF had changed their attitude towards impact, and were thinking more about public engagement from an early stage of their research. While there have been problems raised with the measurement of impact, it is perhaps encouraging to see a trend shift in this direction coming from those starting out on their careers, and it is especially encouraging looking ahead to the REF2020: if the weighting of impact does (as expected) become more significant then ECRs will be well-placed to address this remit as they progress into the next stages their careers.
The original survey that I undertook in preparation for this talk is now closed, but my work on this topic is on-going and I would welcome further comments; please get in touch via email if you would be interested in participating in follow-up work.