Fear not little fish in big ponds

October 7, 2005

Susan Bassnett has a word of advice for all those at the bottom of the research food chain

Recently, two encounters have made me reflect on the vast difference in attitudes to research between academic generations. We hear a lot about different research cultures in institutions: there are now teaching-only places, there are those with a small percentage of research-active staff and there are universities, such as Warwick, where the teaching-to-research ratio for all staff is expected to be 50:50. You have to think through your research plans accordingly. But the generational difference raises important questions.

A senior professor rang me in mid-September and apologised profusely for "disturbing me during the vacation", which made me realise that he was one of those academics who shuts up shop the day term ends and does not reappear until the day the next term starts. Such academics are able to spend weeks over summer on their own research, while somebody else does the chores that keep the university running - admissions, examination resits and so on. "Somebody else" is likely to be a younger, newer member of staff; precisely the kind of person who needs time for research.

The second encounter I had was with one of those very people: I was sitting on an interview panel and was asked questions about the availability of training, the provision of mentoring and the possibility of occasional research time. It struck me that the senior professor had probably never had a day's training in his life, nor any mentoring, so probably did not realise its importance to young colleagues. I pondered the difference in expectations between the two academics.

. As we embark on another academic year, the vexed question of the research assessment exercise is increasing in significance.

The deadline for submissions of December 2007, which seemed a long way away before summer, appears threateningly close. Many academics will find themselves under pressure during the coming year to deliver promised publications. Those who have not had the benefit of months away from their institutions will be particularly vulnerable.

I loathe the whole RAE charade. It was useful when it started, but has now exceeded its shelf-life, and the latest set of criteria seems daft and unduly complicated. But since we have to live with it, it seems only sensible to try to find ways of minimising the anxiety. Stories of young academics being bullied by managers abound, and if you feel you are being subjected to this kind of treatment, the first thing to do is to find someone to talk to, ideally a senior colleague. These days we are all supposed to understand the value of positive feedback, so if you are one of the unfortunates who has to work with a petty tyrant, don't suffer in silence. Whistleblowing is important, and you should not be deterred by fears of a negative reference being the result of your complaint. You have the right to see references written about you. Besides, in my experience, such fears are generally groundless. By giving in to hypothetical worries, you prolong the problem.

It is important to remember that the RAE submission is a team effort.

Professor X may be a star, but the panels will consider the research culture of a group. Even if you are a new recruit, your contribution will be important. So if you feel you are being treated like the lowest creature in the food chain, reflect that this is unjust. Don't stay silent: you will help yourself and others by having the courage to complain. You can turn the RAEto your advantage once you see it as a collective effort and stand up for yourself.

Susan Bassnett is pro vice-chancellor at Warwick University with responsibility for campus life and community affairs.

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