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The timetable indicates that draft guidance will be published next summer, with final guidance and criteria in winter 2018-19 (see Initial decisions, paragraphs 49-51).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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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:
I spoke at the TECHNE doctoral congress on the subject of the “balancing acts” required early career researchers as you start on academic career paths. The slides from my talk are here, and I also wanted to signpost a few other blog posts where I’ve written more fully about some of these issues, and direct you to some related resources on other websites.
Teaching – some great resources on the Royal Historical Society ECR pages (obviously aimed at historians, but more widely applicable).
Digital identity – my colleague Allan Johnson gave an excellent talk about social media as an academic, and I spoke a bit about my experience of this in the questions. I’ve written about this here and have lots of related resources compiled here. For online communities, #phdchat and #ecrchat are great hubs for careers discussion, and for Arts students, @wethehumanities is a brilliant place to start networking with other arts researchers, whether you’re new to twitter or an old hand.
The subject of ECR wellbeing came up in one of the discussion sessions; I recently spoke about this and slides are available here, full post coming soon. I’d recommend the excellent academia and mental health resources on Nadine Muller’s blog.
I am delighted to be running this workshop for PhD students, thanks to funding from the TECHNE Training and Development fund. Full details of the day and information on how to sign up are below (places are limited and going fast!).
The voice of the academic: vocal training for academic success
A one-day workshop for PhD students
22nd September 2017, University of Surrey
The use of the voice is crucial to academic work: whether it is in teaching, giving talks, broadcast and media work, or in job interviews, a large proportion of an academic career depends upon public speaking. Training in using the voice effectively will enable you to make the most of your academic expertise in the public-facing scenarios which count towards your career.
This one-day event teaches you vocal and presentation techniques, and gives you practice in applying them in a job interview scenario. In the morning you will participate in two workshops that focus on improving the use of the voice, practicing the Alexander Technique to relieve tension in the body and make full use of the breath, and working with a vocal practitioner to learn about the effective use of the voice. In the afternoon you will put these skills into practice in an academic job interview workshop, learning more about what is expected at an academic interview and giving a 3-5 minute “job pitch” talk making use of the techniques you have learned.
By the end of the day you will have gained practical skills in vocal technique, built up your confidence in public speaking, and understand how to prepare for academic interviews. We will conclude by discussing self-reflective techniques and give you a resource pack to help you to continue working on these skills after the workshop.
To attend this workshop
The event is open to doctoral students affiliated to TECHNE institutions, with priority given to TECHNE funded PhD students.
To register for a place please complete the booking form by 8th September.
Due to the participative nature of this workshop places are limited to 20 students. A waiting list will be created from additional registrations; please inform the organisers if you are no longer able to attend so that we can release your place to someone else.
Attendees will be asked to prepare a short (3-5 minute) talk about your research in advance, to be used for the afternoon workshop; further details will be emailed to participants closer to the date.
A short introduction to the day and what you hope to get from the sessions.
10.15-11am: Alexander Technique workshop
The Alexander Technique teaches how to relieve tension in the body and use muscles correctly to allow for improved posture and full use of the breath when speaking. This session with a practitioner from the Reve Pavilion in Guildford will give you some basic techniques to prepare your body for good vocal techniques.
11.15-1.15pm: Vocal workshop with Guildford School of Acting
In this session students will learn about care of the voice, and develop techniques for effective speaking with Chris Palmer, Head of Voice at Guildford School of Acting. Chris Palmer works with University academic staff and PhD students on voice projection, accent softening (elocution), breath support, articulation, volume and clarity and preparation of presentations.
1.15-2pm: Lunch (provided)
2-4.15pm: Academic job interview workshop, led by Dr Allan Johnson and Dr Charlotte Mathieson
In this session we will put into practice the techniques you have learned in a workshop focused on academic job interviews. We will begin with a discussion about what to expect from an academic job interview, led by the workshop leaders who have extensive experience and training expertise in this area. Participants will then be split into two groups to give a short “job pitch” talk (3-5 minutes) to their group, receiving supportive and constructive feedback focused on vocal and presentation skills. In the concluding discussion, we will give you some top tips for interview preparation, including sample questions to prepare.
4.15-4.30pm: Closing discussion: Reflective techniques for future success
The day will conclude with suggestions for self-reflective techniques and provide you with a resource pack to help you to continue improving your skills after the workshop.
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.