Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad REF?

By our Academic Uncles, Glen O’Hara and Andrew Dilley

This year, as the census, or report date, for the Research Excellence Framework (REF) draws near, universities will go into organisational overdrive. They will be gathering evidence of ‘outputs’ (books, articles and the like); ‘impact’ (any changes academics have wrought in society more widely); and ‘environment’ (research funding, seminars and the graduate student ‘culture’—and successful completion of doctorates—are the most relevant points under this heading). All for a shot at money that’s called ‘quality-related’ funding —billions of pounds that have been relatively protected in the present government’s successive spending reviews and budget cuts. It is a source of revenue that is declining in real terms, but that is still ‘ring-fenced’ in cash terms. At a time when Vice Chancellors face significant uncertainty as to what is going to happen to their income from teaching, QR money looks like a pot at the end of the rainbow.

What does this mean for graduate students nearing the end of their studies, or for post-doctoral researchers and early career colleagues in temporary first teaching jobs? Well, first the good news. If you’ve got something to say, if it’s sharp, coherent and above all published, right now you’re gold dust. So long as you’re in post by the end of October, you can be entered as part of this competition, and the more you have written, and the better it is, the more money your new host university will make from your endeavours. The mantra here, from anyone who’s ever served on a recruitment panel, would be: read the rules, and publish under the rules. The REF allows institutions to submit fewer publications for those in the first four years of their research careers. So, right now, if you have never had a research job (the doctorate does not count), one or two really well-researched and well-presented academic articles could make the difference between professional life and death. Find out how many publications you would need to be entered and, if you have any power to affect the timing, save some for the next cycle and indicate that on your C.V. This will make you more attractive because, as well as delivering in this REF, you will already be on your way to contributing to the next REF as well.

Now for the bad news. There’s likely now to be a recruitment lull: a relative hush inside the sector that will partly reflect exhaustion after all these efforts to write up a really strong REF return, and which will also be caused by uncertainty as to that exercise’s results. Not many faculty and university committees will release much-needed cash to departments whose future funding is uncertain: they will prefer to wait until the results of the REF are crystal clear before deciding where to target precious resources. So expect those jobs pages to get thinner and emptier for the next eighteen months or so—only to fill up thereafter, as Vice Chancellors and Pro Vice-Chancellors for research decide who to back up and reward for strong achievements in this assessment cycle.

Not that this should mean losing hope. UK universities are enormously successful in almost all respects, and they punch well above their financial weight in the world: but they are not very good at linking up the end of courses and employment. Careers services are very pressed for time, and perhaps inevitably sometimes focus on undergraduates’ needs. We all know that some PhD supervisors are much better than others. And continuing in an academic career can owe more to chance – a grant awarded, a part-time teaching contract secured – than to really strong planning. But there is still lots you can do to make yourself much more employable even as this REF, and its attendant opportunities and dangers, wind up to a close. We would pick out three rules for early career researchers that might help them make the best of an inevitably flawed system: make sure you publish; ensure that you have teaching experience; and, above all, learn the virtues of clarity in covering letters, CVs and interviews.

At this stage in the cycle, there is probably little to do to alter the research element of your C.V. For those looking to the next REF, and beyond the likely freeze in hiring, our next blog will provide further advice.

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2 thoughts on “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad REF?

  1. Some really sound advice here for people seeking that elusive first academic position. For those caught in that post-REF lull, there’s one more option worth considering. Take another job, but keep publishing. And find some way of teaching, possibly with the OU or in adult education, and learn from it. It isn’t an easy path, as I know from experience, but there will be jobs before the next REF – not least because of retirements.

  2. Pingback: What is Research? « Dr Tracey Wond

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