Come on, REF

21 March 2012 by Pete Etchells, posted in Uncategorized

To a post-doc or PhD student, at first glance the upcoming Research Excellence Framework (REF) might be something that preoccupies your supervisor or PI for a bit, but not something that is of direct relevance to your working life. That’s what I thought, anyway, up until recently.

What is the REF, anyway?

Very basically (and correct me if I’m wrong), it’s a time-intensive administrative exercise in figuring out whether your research is of any value. You put forward your best papers, from which departments and institutions are ranked according to perceived awesomeness. This then dictates how much funding you get for the next few years, and according to the HEFCE website, “provides benchmarking information and establish reputational yardsticks.” Prof. Dorothy Bishop wrote an excellent piece on her blog yesterday, outlining in realistic terms what the REF means for tenured academics – essentially it gives you the same rank ordering of institutions that you would get if you all went down to the pub and had an argument about it. Except there’s more paper work.

So why’s it bad for students/post-docs?

It’s not been an easy few years for early career researchers. Funding dried up pretty quickly after the economic downturn, and post-doc positions and lectureships became few and far between. Then, all of sudden, about 2 or 3 months ago, lectureships – even junior lectureships! – started quietly being posted on academic job sites. Quite a few, actually. While at first it seemed like things might actually be starting to get brighter, after applying for a couple now, it seems instead like things couldn’t be harder for those early on in their research life. Why? Because the REF has caused a transfer-season-esque scramble to grab as many ‘REF-ready’ people for these positions as possible. Don’t get me wrong, I know I’m not exactly REF-ready myself at the moment. I never realistically thought I’d get any of the jobs I applied for; I mainly thought it would be great to put together an application and CV so that when an attainable position did come up, I’d be in a decent position to apply. No, what shocked me was how far away from any of these positions I actually was; some of the competition for some of these posts included Readers. It honestly feels like there’s no hope at the moment. Fellowships? Not a chance either. But maybe there might be a glimmer of something new on the horizon. Soapbox Science is hosting a series of articles this week on how new models of funding are emerging, and I’ll be reading with interest to see how these might help those like myself who are starting out in the grant-getting business. So maybe it’s not all bad news. In the meantime, it’s back to writing as many papers as possible, trying to get involved in grants being written, and keeping a look out for post-doc positions. Such is the transient life of a researcher.

How about you? Have any other students/post-docs felt a similar way about the REF exercise? Am I being completely unrealistic? What do tenured staff think? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

3 Responses to “Come on, REF”

  1. Andrew Wilson Reply | Permalink

    The REF is a problem for any early career researcher just now. Hell, our Centre has a lecture post going (one temporary) and the job description includes the phrase ‘you will have a successful record of obtaining external research funding’.

    And you’re right about competition; the people applying for lecturer positions right now are far too qualified. It means there’s no such thing as an actual entry level lecturer position any more, and it’s a disaster.

  2. Craig Aaen-Stockdale Reply | Permalink

    In the last five years the quantity of lectureships being offered in the UK has reduced dramatically and, as far as I can see, the current REF-driven uptick in quantity is counterbalanced (see what I did there?) by a corresponding decrease in the quality of positions on offer. It’s really dispiriting to have concentrated for several years on building up a strong portfolio of research – after having it drilled into me how important it is to have a good research profile – only to be turned away from even crap lectureships on the dubious excuse I don’t have enough teaching experience! How, pray, does one get that without a lectureship? Basically, I’ve got so sick of applying/interviewing for 12-month “teaching slave” lectureships only for somebody far less qualified than me to be hired (presumably because they’re easier to push around) that I’ve left the country in search of work and am considering turning to [shudders] the private sector…!

  3. Mike Fowler Reply | Permalink

    Craig, can you outline a bit more what you mean by the “decrease in the quality of positions on offer”? Are you referring just to the temporary positions you mentioned, or something else?

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