Young researchers face RAE exclusion

December 1, 2006

Efforts to reward early-career staff in the research assessment exercise may be failing, reports Anthea Lipsett

Young and less experienced researchers face having their careers blighted before they have even got off the ground because universities believe it is too risky to submit their work to the next research assessment exercise.

The assessment criteria for the 2008 RAE, presented in January, set out special provisions to ensure early career researchers were not excluded from the exercise, to enable their developing careers to be properly supported.

But many institutions are ignoring the guidelines or do not believe the panels will adhere to them. They plan to submit only the work of more established staff, according to evidence given at the latest meeting of the National Conference of University Professors.

Ann Heilmann, vice-president of the NCUP and an English professor at Hull University, organised the RAE 2008: Mentoring and Supporting Early Career Researchers conference. She said: "Many departments or managers are ill-informed or don't really believe what the panels are saying.

"A year before the RAE, most universities believe they can't afford to include early career researchers, even though the guidance says they will be looked at differently in the submission, and the panels encourage departments to show they develop researchers."

The situation was worse in arts and humanities where the competition to be submitted was more intense, she said. "It's not enough to have the full four papers for a submission. They are simply being deselected by their university."

Mark Llewellyn, a postdoctoral researcher at Liverpool University, told The Times Higher : "The guidance that filters down from the top in some universities doesn't necessarily match what the panels are saying about their approach to early career researchers. More could be done to give individual academics a sense of ownership of the RAE submission an institution makes."

Liverpool has guaranteed a permanent post for Dr Llewellyn when his research project finishes, but he said his peers were not so lucky. "Many of those I did my English PhD with are still looking at job ads. Institutional support for researchers from PhD onwards could make a major difference to cover planning."

The conference also heard that postgraduate and postdoctoral researchers feel there should be more recognition of the contribution they make. They want more focused training in essential aspects of academic life such as conference organising and running a research team.

Professor Heilmann said: "Supervisors are often torn in many directions and many feel they don't have time to give attention to preparing people for a position in the academic world."

She added: "It's essential to advise research studentsJaiming for an academic careerJon how to get published early on. Building a researchJcareer takes years and it'sJtoo late if research students find out about the RAEJand the role of publications in an academic's lifeJafterJthey'veJsubmitted their thesis."

Susan Castillo, member of the Anglophone Area Studies RAE panel, said: "It's tempting to think of the RAE as a disembodied villain but we're just academics trying to judge each others' work as fairly as possible."

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