Come on, REF
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.