Postdoc Appreciation Week: Look for potential, rather than looking for track record

Posted in: Academic Career, Advice, For PhDs

As part of our blog series celebrating Postdoc Appreciation Week, Dr Amy Birch, Researcher Development Manager at the University of Bath, has written a guest blog post with her reflections on Vitae Connections Week 2020

A key theme in researcher development this year has been how to create a research culture fit for the future, and in the time of COVID-19. However, these discussions are not new – research staff, particularly those on fixed-term contracts, have been voicing their frustrations about a system that seems to actively discriminate and disenfranchise emerging talent for many years. Nonetheless, there seems to be a sense of building urgency and call to action over the last 12 months that is very exciting. For example, the Director of Wellcome, Jeremy Farrar, talked very honestly last year about how the current funding structure and drive for ‘research excellence’ has created a “culture in modern [research] that cares exclusively about what is achieved and not about how it is achieved.“ In addition, UKRI released their Concordat Action Plan earlier this year and the Department of Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy have released their UK Research and Development Roadmap, both of which put people at the heart of their vision for the future.
Last week, academics, industrial partners, funders, and professional services staff came together for the annual Vitae conference with this theme firmly on the agenda. All the plenary sessions from the week are available on the Vitae website (free register/login with your bath email address). I would encourage you to listen to these if you get a chance over the coming weeks.

One thing that I want to highlight in Postdoc Appreciation Week is a change that I believe creates a fairer and more appropriate system for awarding funding. UKRI have committed to implementing is a change in the way grants and fellowships are assessed that goes beyond the ‘tick-box’ metrics of being judged by publications and funding awards. This will work towards building a system that is investing in potential, not looking back at track records.

So, how will this be done? Interestingly, Royal Society were the first major funder to tackle this question in their annual conference in 2018. From this, they created a 2-year programme on tackling research culture. This includes a proposal for a résumé for researchers that shows the full range of an individual’s contributions to excellent research. UKRI are adopting this tool as a model to roll out in place of the CV on fellowship/grant applications. This is exciting news as it ensures that the full range of an individual’s contributions to excellent research will be evaluated, including these 4 sections:

1. Their contribution to new knowledge/research & all those that have contributed in the research team
2. Their contribution to researcher development (w/ focus on their roles as mentors/supervisors/tutors); including their contribution to ‘team science’, i.e. how did the researcher ensure that the team worked together to deliver new knowledge
3. Their contribution of new knowledge to the wider education system/research community, i.e. academic collaborations
4. Their contribution of new knowledge to the wider system beyond education, i.e. knowledge exchange; there will be increasing prominence to assess work with stakeholders that are currently considered adjacent to academic system/collaborations

Using this type of résumé is one step of many that are required to create a better research culture. Going beyond this, I would like to see institutions adopting a more transparent and equitable promotion process that mirrors the changes from UKRI. Individuals need to be incentivised and rewarded for all the value they bring to an institution, which goes way beyond individual output.
This change is one of many that were discussed at Vitae – I hope to keep you engaged with further information about other topics in the upcoming weeks. Finally, if you have a great idea that can improve research culture – you can still have your say here; Wellcome are collating these and will be producing a report in November with further plans.

You can find out more about the development opportunities for research staff at Bath here.

Posted in: Academic Career, Advice, For PhDs


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