REF 2021: update for ECRs

This post first appeared on Charlotte Mathieson’s blog on November 21, 2017.

This post provides an update to my previous blog post on “REF 2021 and ECRs: the current situation” in which I outlined the key decisions and remaining areas of uncertainty (mostly the latter) surrounding the next Research Excellence Framework.

Today, quite a few of those uncertainties have been clarified by the publication of “Decisions on Staff and Outputs“. I will soon update my earlier post to reflect this latest document (and offer a few more interpretations of the ECR implications), but in the meantime here is a brief summary of the key points of relevance for ECRs that have been announced today:

Staff eligibility: this latest document confirms that the Stern recommendation that “all staff with significant responsibility for research” are returned will be implemented. 6.a of the document outlines the core criteria (which broadly follows that of REF 2014), but there is more detailed guidance this time on what constitutes “significant responsibility” in paras. 11-13: “those for whom explicit time and resources are made available to engage actively in independent research, and that is an expectation of their job role.”

100% of staff defined in this way are expected to be returned. Meanwhile, teaching-only contracts with no research element won’t count as returnable under these guidelines; neither will RAs employed on project work (see Independent Research, paras. 14-15) nor those without a “substantive connection” to the submitting HEI. This seems to accord with what was suggested previously (see section 3 here); although I’d add that, while the intention here is to offer a more rigorous approach as to who is submitted, there does still seem to be a large amount of flexibility as to how “significant responsibility” will be determined.

Decoupling: the proposed decoupling of staff from submissions (see my previous explanation of decoupling in section 4 here) is going ahead, as described in paras. 25-29, with the numbers of outputs now confirmed: a minimum of one per researcher; a maximum of 5; an average of 2.5 per FTE, across the submitting unit. That means that as an ECR you will need at least one output, and more than that would be beneficial as the submitting unit will be looking for 2-3 per person.

The big change here from REF 2014 (although it is one which we’ve been expecting) is that there is no “ECR discount” that would be deductable per person; instead, the average and min./max. figures account for this across the whole submitting unit (as previously the expectation was 4 per person, so the average is lower). There are guidelines to account for exceptional individual circumstances (paras. 30-32), thus addressing earlier concerns that circumstances such as substantial periods of parental leave/ illness etc would not be acknowledged; deductions for individual circumstances will be applied to the total number of outputs required of the submitting unit as a whole. ECRs without exceptional circumstances, however, need to work to the minimum/average figures.

Portability: (background context in section 5 here). After much talk of the non-portability of research we have clarification as follows (paras. 33-36):

We will implement a transitional approach to the non-portability of outputs in REF 2021, whereby outputs may be submitted by both the institution employing the staff member on the census date and the originating institution where the staff member was previously employed as Category A eligible when the output was demonstrably generated.

*Added note: see para. 34 for the definition of “demonstrably generated”:  “for REF 2021 ‘demonstrably generated’ will be determined by the date when the output was first made publicly available.”

This means that if you publish while at institution A, and you move to institution B, your output can count at both institutions. This has been a big area of concern for many ECRs and I’m relieved to (finally!) see a clear decision on the issue, and one which recognises and prevents the potentially disastrous consequences for ECRs that non-portability may have had.

Open Access: the latest guidance (paras. 37-40) seems to align with what has been suggested for a long time now about Open Access requirements for REF 2021: “The policy will require outputs to be deposited as soon after the point of acceptance as possible, and no later than three months after this date (as given in the acceptance letter or email from the publication to the author) from 1 April 2018.” There are some further exceptions outlined in the next paragraph (39). As I’ve mentioned before, if you’re at all confused about OA requirements then I would suggest that you familiarise yourself with your institution’s OA support and get in touch with the relevant team if you have any queries and concerns about the process.

A couple of final points: the census date is now confirmed as 31st July 2020; and more detailed guidelines on the above are expected mid-2018.


That summarises most of what I’ve read so far; I’ll potentially add to / clarify these points in coming days and if helpful, offer further guidance on ECR implications and what to do next; but for the moment, it looks like the outline framework is fairly clearly in place and ECRs can now start planning accordingly.

Charlotte Mathieson is a Lecturer in English Literature at the University of Surrey, and has been at the forefront of giving guidance to ECAs on the impact of REF, publishing, public engagement and social media. More of her work can be found on her website, where she shares many of the resources for ECAs she has created.Charlotte Mathieson II


Academic Administration for ECAs: From Surviving to Thriving!

by David Hitchcock

flowchart Pixabay



This is how I imagine the reaction of most academics to the labours of organising and administering things. The third rail of intellectual life, administration is thought to kill the teaching and research of those who touch it. Starting from our days in PhD programmes we absorb an understanding of academic administration as a series of things that full-time staff do reluctantly, in rotas, via meetings and using terribly designed spreadsheets (this last one is definitely true). When the PhD ends we enter the realm of the early career academic, where precarity, uncertainty, job applications, and adjunct teaching posts combine with the occasionally better outcome (say, a postdoctoral fellowship) to produce the conditions in which we must publish and hopefully get hired full-time.

Yet, when we do get to interview, almost inevitably there will be a considerable number of questions about, you guessed it, administration. These questions will be couched by hiring committees first and foremost as about collegiality, i.e. the things you, applicant, are willing go ‘above and beyond’ to do for your potential new workplace to ensure the smooth functioning of the team. But as a recent graduate, or as an independent scholar or sessional lecturer, how the heck are you supposed to have obtained experience in this realm without doing loads of unpaid work? And in a worrying development, fractional hires and short-term contracts are now often include significant administrative burdens which presuppose a fair amount of institutional knowledge; such as module and programme design, and even responsibilities for entire year cohorts and pastoral care. These commitments are nebulous and difficult to quantify, and there is little doubt that folks in precarious positions who undertake these tasks are paid appallingly poorly for doing them, if they are paid at all.

When I went through this period I was lucky to have a short-term fellowship pretty much solely about preparation for the job market, and when I was hired I was asked very quickly to take on a (ever increasing) range of administrative and eventually leadership responsibilities. I thought it might be useful to write about some ways that early career academics can make administration work for them, rather than finding themselves worked over, as it were.

  1. It is OK to see everything that is not about in-classroom teaching or research as ‘administration’ and ‘doing administration’ is not a bad thing

This first one is about the category itself. I think most of us got into academia with the idea of teaching at university and of pursuing research, and we identify ourselves very strongly with those two well-defined tasks. To our chagrin we quickly learn that these activities often make up less than half of our day-to-day work as academics, and we tend to resent time ‘taken away’ from our two core purposes. This tip is about treating administrative work as meaningful work. Where possible, I think it pays to see those committees, roles, and responsibilities as opportunities to make it easier to teach well and research well. Resenting administration tends to accomplish very little other than eating into the wellbeing we know we need in order to even be good teachers and good researchers in the first place. This attitude also tends to privilege those activities over the reams of meaningful work that people of all persuasions constantly do to keep departments and programmes running. It’s self-evidently elitist to look down on administrators. We all know how indispensable departmental administrators are and how important their work is to a functioning programme, why should the administration we do be any different? Continue reading “Academic Administration for ECAs: From Surviving to Thriving!”

An Anxious Mind

This post first appeared on Nadine Muller’s blog on October 2, 2012

We all worry. Some occasionally, some more often than others, some rarely. Being a worrier, or an anxious person, is not necessarily a problem. It becomes an issue, however, when you find yourself unable to switch off, feel content, or focus; when your head is permanently filled not only with thoughts but with worries about what you need to do next and what you have (not yet) done, and what the consequences of this are. From the moment you wake up to the second you fall asleep, your head spins with daunting fragments of task lists, personal worries, and the imagining of bad things that have not happened, and are not likely to. The result of this state of mind can vary between at least two behaviors; some people experience both in turn, some only encounter one throughout their lives.

Edvard Munch, "Anxiety" (1894)

The first is a sort of hyperactivity, or mania. There is no task list, no breakfast, perhaps not even time for a shower. The next best computer is still switched on from a late night, or rather an early morning, of work and is the first object on which your focus turns (next to, perhaps, the kettle or the coffee machine). Things get done in no particular order. Anything and everything you can think of is approached with the same tense energy and urgency, from emails to rushed writing jobs. The physical manifestations of this manic state are a pounding heart, a permanent frown, constantly tense shoulders, and an inability to sleep (or rather to sleep peacefully and sufficiently). You are irritable (to say the very least), become angry and frustrated with others who do not do as you would do, or not at the pace at which you would like them to do it. Most of the time this is not their fault. Lessons learned from this state of mind: never, never respond to or write an email during this period without waiting at least half a day, especially if the email concerns some sort of dispute or touches on anything about which you do not feel entirely positive. The good side: it can make you look pretty efficient, and your task list certainly becomes (temporarily) a lot smaller.

The second possible outcome of an anxious mind, and the state with which hyperactivity can sometimes alternate, is complete exhaustion and detachment, both mentally and physically, bordering very often on depression. You don’t get up. Often you feel you cannot get up because you’re unbearably tired, both in body and mind. If you do get up, it tends to result in a distracted stare at your computer screen or out of the window. It’s difficult – perhaps, at the time, impossible – to snap out of that distractedness, that emptiness, that tiredness, and distance. You think about everything and nothing, though in quite a lot of depth, but it seems as though you’re not part of the world. Instead, you stare at it in disappointment, deeply involved only in its worst aspects. You live, more than you usually do, entirely in your own mind. The positives of this state are difficult to identify. Sleeping, no matter for how long, brings nothing but more tiredness; your task list does not become shorter; you’re unable to engage with anyone in a genuine or meaningful way, simply because they cannot match or follow your thoughts.

The sometimes punishing and multiple pressures and schedules of academia can foster these behavioral patterns, at least for those of us who are prone to them. It can also lead to or – perhaps more often – stem from a lack of confidence, and a lack of belief in your abilities or the worth of your work. Unfortunately, the current job market (not just, but particularly) in academia also encourages unhealthy work patterns and attitudes. While working on your thesis, you are trying to meet the various other requirements you spot in the person specifications of the academic job adverts you dare cast your eye on. Conscious that you should be publishing, teaching, giving papers, organizing events, and trying to capture external grants, the question arises how you will produce a passable doctoral thesis next to the workload associated with all these various activities which *may* (or, for that matter, may not) secure you an academic job after your Ph.D. If you are self-funded and a part-time student, with a job on the side that pays for your fees or a family to care for next to doing your research, this question becomes, on all accounts, ridiculous. Of course, there are voices that promise you that you merely need to show the “promise” of being able to do all these things, but how will you even make the shortlist if there are Ph.D. graduates out there who have all this and more already on their CV, not least because they have been on the job market for a year at least? The task seems impossible, quite frankly, and even more so if your funding (if you have it) ends once you submit your thesis, and you have no family support to fall back on; only one or more hourly-paid teaching contracts or a job that gives you little towards your academic CV. The pressure is incredible, and there is not a day you don’t remind yourself of it. (Yet, it’s not impossible, and I and many others are living proof of this.)

10743744_lAll you can do is try your very best and hope for the best, which often isn’t a very comforting mantra to fall back on. Instead, you work yourself into the ground, internalize the negativity and the ruthless critique of your work on a personal level, and your self-worth only witnesses occasional peaks when students leave you lovely feedback for your seminars, or when your supervisor tells you your latest chapter draft was excellent. But even in those moments there is that doubt: does your supervisor mean “excellent” when they say it? Are they too close to your work to see all those “obvious” flaws? Are they just trying to be nice because they can see that your confidence is seriously failing you? Perhaps the students pity you, or they can’t spot the last-minute, flawed prep you did in the last two weeks. These thoughts feed your anxiety. They feed your physical and emotional lack of wellbeing.

imenoughYou tell yourself that things will be different once you have that holy grail, that first permanent academic job, when you can relax on a decent salary, traveling to only one place of work, being an integral part of your department and a permanent good colleague. But if you internalize the behavioral patterns described above now, during your Ph.D., they won’t ever go away. Not on their own, not without you recognizing that you are the one who maintains them, feeds them. You will continue to feel insecure, you’ll feel unfairly threatened by colleagues, you will beat yourself up because not everyone in your department likes you, because you can’t please everyone, because you do everything wrong, always. While academia can be challenging and punishing in itself, don’t underestimate the effect your Ph.D. studies can have on you. Depending on your subject, spending three years on your own and largely in your head is bound to throw up the good, the bad, and the ugly, especially if you have struggled with mental health issues before.

Academia can be a tough environment. The current neo-liberal structures that dictate its activities and processes make it more competitive, less friendly, and often isolating. As difficult as it may seem, you must not give into the thoughts and behaviors these structures breed, or you will never be happy with who you are, or with what you do. There comes a point – hopefully sooner rather than later, perhaps when you’ve finished reading this post – that you must change your thinking about yourself and your work. The sooner you learn to be happy with yourself – your flaws, your quirks, your strengths – the sooner you will become the researcher that you’ve always aspired to be but have always felt like you may never become. If you don’t change the way you think, you won’t be able to enjoy that first job, that first salary, that sense of being part of a department for longer than a semester, because all you’ll do is just carry on what you’ve always done, and it will make you unhealthy on so many levels.

7828965_sIf you feel you need professional, medical help because of your depression or anxiety, then seek it. I don’t advocate medication for these issues, but when you are in a truly difficult, bad place, they can sometimes give short-term relief while you’re getting ready to see your problems constructively and honestly. You needn’t suffer your challenges on your own, either. There are colleagues and fellow Ph.D. students who will be happy to provide honest, open dialogue about the problems we all face – some of us more severely and more often than others. Constructive action instead of pathologization seems, to me, the way forward. No matter if you give your state(s) of mind medical name or not matters little, at least to me. Medical labels can be unhelpful, or they can help you rationalize your issues.

14568033_sWhat’s disturbing is that it’s so easy, for those of us who are prone to worrying and to being anxious (especially those on an academic pathway), to remain entirely ignorant of just how much we internalize, accept, and indeed comprehend as ‘normal’ the state of stress and anxiety under which we (are conditioned and force ourselves to) operate on a day-to-day basis for extensive periods of time, from weeks through to years. Of course some, or even many, of you may say that all this is (easily) controllable, or that I dramatize perfectly normal periods of academic stress. However, it’s exactly the thought that this is ‘part of the job’, or even the idea that the ‘really capable’ ones do not encounter these issues, which I find frightening, and which, I suppose, I ask you reconsider. Our work means a lot to us, but the world didn’t end when I last said “no” to an opportunity, or when I decided to finish a task tomorrow and give myself an evening off for once. Most importantly, it’s only when you are happy with yourself that you can teach others to do the same, that you can help change the structures that encourage us to feel inferior, and that you can be at your best, as a researcher, a teacher, a colleague, and a friend.


Nadine Muller

Dr. Nadine Muller is a Senior Lecturer in English Literature & Cultural History at Liverpool John Moores University, and an outspoken advocate for early career researchers, creating and developing The New Academic blog. She has been a BBC New Generation Thinker and most recently has been awarded a British Academy Rising Star grant for her latest project, War Widows’ Stories.