Career advice: how to ace your annual review

Robert MacIntosh and Kevin O’Gorman explain how to negotiate your annual performance and development review

May 18, 2017
John McEnroe arguing with umpire. Tennis
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You cannot be serious! Prepare if you want your review to go smoothly

Do the paperwork

If you set out with the misapprehension that your reviewer will complete the paperwork for your annual review, it simply isn’t going to end well.

The ability to put one bit of paper on top of another, in the right order, by a specified time is still a much undervalued skill in academia. Sadly, most academics seem incapable of achieving this, especially for their annual review.

Perhaps their performance is so stellar that they see such mundanities as beneath them, or maybe they know that the review is going to involve an awkward conversation. Either way, not filling in the paperwork is a common flaw.

Seek advice from colleagues

Many people in your own department have already been through the process on an annual basis, most probably with the same reviewer that you’ve been allocated and certainly with the same set of guidance notes and criteria.

If this is your first review, get advice from colleagues with experience of the process. Learn the format and the procedure of the meeting as well as how long the discussion will last and what tends to happen afterwards. An annual review won’t be a patch on your PhD viva or your job interviews; nevertheless, a little inside information helps to set expectations and demystify the process.

Curate some evidence

You’d have no compunction in criticising a student for failing to map their answer to the learning objectives or for not answering the right question. Don’t be fooled into thinking that this ethos won’t apply when your fellow academics “mark” your annual review paperwork.

The categories of teaching, research, knowledge exchange and some variation on leadership will all be in there somewhere. As well as presenting simple student feedback and evaluations of your teaching, make explicit which papers you have submitted, which have been published, which are still under review and which have been rejected. Note which grants you have sought and received, and demonstrate evidence of industry engagement.

Think about how your activities have delivered improvements, particularly lasting ones that go beyond your own courses.

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Do some self-evaluation

Impersonating an ostrich won’t really help, nor will a delusional claim to world-leading status.

If you submitted an outlandish promissory note in last year’s review, check whether you have delivered against the objectives you set. If you haven’t delivered all of them, it isn’t necessarily bad news. Are you still doing the same job, have you taken on some other substantive administration role, did you undertake any extra teaching to cover for a colleague or experience personal circumstances that affected your work life in unforeseen ways?

Be as honest and as open as you can be with your reviewer.

Use the time wisely

If you are nervous or in any way concerned about how things might go, there is always the temptation to attempt a filibuster. You could talk incessantly for the duration of your review, but this would probably just disgruntle your reviewer.

Look on your annual review as an opportunity for career consultation. Embrace the idea that this isn’t a lecture but rather a conversation – use your reviewer’s expertise and experience to help figure out both next steps and medium-term goals.

Don’t take it personally

Welcome the positives and take pleasure in them, but hear the negatives and make sure that you get some agreement on how to develop. If there are areas that are unsatisfactory that you are hearing about for the first time, don’t worry; your employer is there to support you where improvements are required.

There is a great deal of support available to you in many different forms, from mentoring to training and coaching. It is better if you have thought about what you might need to help you in advance. For example, if you find teaching large classes a particular challenge, find someone who loves them and has the best reputation for teaching them. Use your annual review to negotiate permission to observe them in action to see if you can pick up some of their tricks.

Negotiate your score

Be prepared to answer the question: what would you give yourself? Some objective realism might be required. 

Did you really receive excellent teaching feedback, have you published papers in the very best journals in your field, have you landed a larger research grant than might reasonably have been expected or engaged in some other kind of knowledge exchange or impact? If you did these things or similar, you truly are excellent; hold your ground and expect a bonus.

There is nothing wrong with being good or very good; however, if you are really unhappy, know what to do. There is normally some form of oversight involved in the process, and you can avail yourself of a second opinion. But bear in mind that the person you appeal to might be even more critical than your reviewer, so make sure that your evidence is good.

Robert MacIntosh is head of the School of Social Sciences at Heriot-Watt University, where Kevin O’Gorman is professor of management and business history and director of internationalisation. Both regularly write about academic life on the Heriot-Watt blogs It’s Not You, It’s Your Data and

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Reader's comments (4)

1. Do the paperwork Bear in mind that neither the performance criteria, nor the appraisal process nor the self-assessment form will bear any resemblance to last year’s. Check through your deleted mail in the last 3 weeks to find what it is they’re demanding this year. 2. Seek advice from colleagues But be aware that everybody gets treated differently. It’s probably a good idea to adopt a stance of concealed menace towards your assessor if you want to get through this unscathed. 3. Curate some evidence Are you kidding me? This is academia – nobody gives a rat’s ass about your evidence. And anyway, see 1 above. 4. Do some self-evaluation “If you submitted an outlandish promissory note in last year’s review” then you’re an idiot. Never include anything in your action plan for next year you haven’t already completed. 5. Use the time wisely Look, your assessor has 20 other people to see and she’s already missing the Wimbledon semi-finals to fit you in. Just keep it short. 6. Negotiate your score You can bet your assessor bought all the bragging vomited up by the last unashamed self-promoter they interviewed. You don’t want to seem like an under-performer, so this is no time for modesty. You have a mythology and a brand to create. How do you think your assessor got there? Liz Morrish
Generating a spirit of "concealed menace" can, of course, cut two ways. As you rightly imply, there is more going on in any person to person interaction than that which is apparent on the surface. Individuals are at liberty to treat their annual review as a largely ceremonial ritual, the sophisticated negotiation of socially constructed "truths", an outright waste of time for all concerned ... or indeed, some combination of them all. Knowing how you want to treat your annual review, and knowing how your reviewer plans to treat your annual review are probably key to making the process run smoothly.
When it comes to writing up their annual performance review, Robert MacIntosh and Kevin O’Gorman (Higher May 18 2017) claim that most academics seem “incapable” of putting “one bit of paper on top of another, in the right order.” Given their ability to write books, publish refereed journal articles and raise research grant revenue, it seems unlikely that most academics lack these essential skills. A more likely explanation is their disinterest in –indeed disdain for –the whole “performance”.
As a reviewer, it is notable that "disdain for the whole performance" does come through loud and clear sometimes. Of course, performance has more than one meaning. There is the sense of the performance of the task of reviewing ... there is the more theatrical sense of putting on a performance (which applies both to the reviewer and the reviewed) ... and then there is the managerialist sense of assessing the adequacy of performance. In annual reviews these interpretations each resonate for different audiences and it is the matching of expectations that matter. If reviewer and reviewee agree that it is important to be seen to have performed the task of reviewing, a certain expediency of effort might be in order. If the reviewer and reviewee have differing views on whether outcomes are meeting performance expectations then a trickier conversation is likely to ensue ... hence the advice offered.

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