I was recently asked to have opinions. Apparently I’m known for them now. I have no idea whether this is a good thing or not. More specifically I was asked to have opinions on the UKRI choice to adopt the Royal Society Résumé for Researchers format. So in my corner of the blogosphere (eurgh) I shall endeavour to outline the purpose of this change and ponder on whether it might be beneficial or detrimental to the ECR community.
Let’s start by looking at why this change may have come about.
Whenever you apply for UKRI funding you have to append a CV to the application. Usually this is limited to two pages, or sometimes even one, but sometimes a full CV is encouraged or allowed. I recently saw a 75-page CV, which is frankly ridiculous. But CVs are a very traditional way of demonstrating your achievements and they can also be really easily manipulated. For example, I recently reviewed a CV where the applicant put down all the grants they were involved in, but did not mention whether they were a named post-doc, a principal investigator or co-investigator. Without this information you have no idea what their real contribution is and could come away thinking they were much more successful than they actually are.
And the UKRI has recognised this. They state that traditional CVs ‘often emphasise positions and publications’. And here is where we come up against some age-old problems. How do we define success in academia? And does the University model of ‘research’ actually work?
The first question is the easiest to address because the answer is ‘we don’t know’. In the same way that nobody really knows how we define ‘impact’. How do you judge between two researchers at the same career stage when one has worked in a multi-million-pound lab with twenty people, and one has worked in a lab running on fumes with a PhD student and a string of undergrads? These people are unlikely to have had the same opportunities, so their outputs are unlikely to be the same.
But the second question is more interesting. Academia, according to the internet, is defined as ‘the environment or community concerned with the pursuit of research, education, and scholarship’. Many UK Universities are now so large that they have entire departments dedicated solely to research. Staff at these departments often have no interaction with what could be considered the heart of the University – its students. But again, how can you judge the impact, output and success of someone who has also taken on a teaching role, in addition to their research, when compared to someone within one of these purely research departments.
And the Royal Society and the UKRI have recognised this. The UKRI have specifically said that it is often ‘difficult for assessors to consider these achievements’. So how have they changed things? Well let’s go through the suggested résumé format and see what we think of each section. You start by introducing yourself and some of your standard CV things, like education and job history. That part’s dull and easy so we’ll skip over it and leap straight into…
Module 1 – How have you contributed to the generation of knowledge? This section allows you to essentially put in whatever you like. Papers, patents, software, open data. It also encourages you to highlight why these contributions might be important in the generation of knowledge. For me this is actually important. I’ve been asked on a number of occasions to highlight my five best papers and why I think they’re the best. This makes you really think about how your research fits within the wider context of the field, as well as potentially discouraging you from just churning out papers because you can. The module also suggests you demonstrate how you communicated this knowledge, allowing you to bring in things like invited presentations and conference talks. I actually like this section. It’s extremely broad and could go horribly wrong if you’re not a good, succinct writer but I like the idea behind it. Let’s see how they fare with the rest of them…
Module 2 – How have you contributed to the development of individuals? I actually really like this one too, but I’m biased. I’ve had two official PhD students and one unofficial one and can genuinely say the things they wrote about me in their acknowledgments almost made me cry. And that’s as braggy as I’m ever going to get. I like the fact that I helped shape the way they think and the way they do research, I helped them learn how to write well and I helped them to teach their own younger students. I’ve also had undergraduates bring in actual piles of cake after finishing their projects. And this is important for the same reason good mentoring is important. The next generation of researchers are not going to just miraculously sprout from the ground, they need to be nurtured. And none of this ‘if you can’t be a good example, you’ll have to be a horrible warning’ business. So another tick for module 2.
Module 3 – How have you contributed to the wider research community? Again, this is a nice question. It’s important to review papers and grants, to help on committees, to organize conferences and networking events. It’s important that we help change the research culture we don’t agree with. That we reduce gender bias, that we improve ethnic diversity in our institutions. And by demonstrating that you’re doing that you’re also showing you’re a good team player. I’ve said elsewhere in my rambles that the age of the gentleman scientist is over, but it is true – we do science as a team now, whether we’re introverted or not, and so we need to be able to work with others and this section allows you to show that you can do that. Thumbs up for module 3.
Module 4 – How have you contributed to broader society? OK this one I’m not personally a fan of but we’ll get into the details of why in a minute. But this section allows you to – again – think about your research in the wider context. Is your work clinically relevant? If so, how have you engaged patient groups? Have you influenced local or national policy?
Now…here is my main issue with this. All the questions start with the phrase ‘how have you…’. This implies that you have and should be able to say something. The reason I don’t like Module 4 is because my answer is probably ‘I haven’t contributed to broader society’. And potentially this might be a good thing, it highlights to me things that might be missing in my wider CV and things I might like to think about focusing on.
But here’s the other issue with this. Quite a lot of these questions still depend on opportunity and context and require the person reading them to be a good judge. And what people judge as worthy or successful will be entirely personal, and therefore not very objective. For example, I like the idea of contributing to and inspiring the next generation of scientists so for me, someone who fell down in Module 2 might not do as well. But they might be in a non-teaching department. They might have a selfish PI who doesn’t let them share supervision of PhD students. They might not want to supervise students. And this is the kind of thing that’s missing from these CVs at the moment, the ability to say ‘no I haven’t, but here’s why’. So in order for these résumés to be effective, we need to help younger academics write them, but we also need to educate older academics to value them. A bigger challenge, I feel.
And this brings us back to the Catch-22 of what these institutions, and the people who run them, actually want. Do what the UKRI want, and what the Universities want, really agree with each other? The UKRI seem to want a nice, rounded individual who has time to do research, supervise, influence policy and take part in science communication. The Universities want someone who can bring in money. But that means we can’t bring in money unless we’re nice, round individuals capable of doing all these different jobs really well, all at once, to a totally unspecified standard.
I was recently told a story by a friend who said they had been told they were rejected from a job because they didn’t have a paper in one of the Big Three journals (Nature, Science, Cell). The institution had ended up hiring nobody because none of the applicants had one. This wasn’t explicitly stated in the job advert so nobody knew it was an ‘essential’ criteria. And it’s because, according to the San Francisco agreement, you can’t explicitly state that someone needs a high impact paper. But it’s an implicit expectation. An unspecified standard.
And it’s these implicit expectations and unspecified standards we need to discourage. Don’t advertise for a teaching position in a department if you really want a researcher with two massive grants. Advertise for a researcher with two massive grants. We need to discourage them at the level of the funders and at the level of the institution. Whether that means the shape of Universities changes, or the shape of how research at Universities is funded changes, I don’t know.
Universities as a whole are ranked in five categories, similar to those on the new résumé: teaching, research, citations, industry funding and international outlook. But, like our original CV, it’s possible to fudge the outcomes. More Nobel Prize winners? You must be better at teaching so you get more points. So we can see that ultimately it comes down to how you read the résumé, not necessarily how you write it. The onus falls on the senior researchers. Busy people who often still value high impact and money over other contributions, like teaching and communication.
Clinicians have a points-based system for jobs. It has all sorts of problems associated with it. For example, a 5-minute talk at any conference gets you more points than 15 papers, but it’s still a metric system and perhaps academia should consider a similar approach. With the tenuous nature of current academic careers this might put pressure on researchers to try and do four jobs in one, but it also might make the wider institutions around academia alter their values. Who knows. But hopefully by starting these kinds of conversations we can help instigate some change.
Dr Yvonne Couch is an Alzheimer’s Research UK Fellow at the University of Oxford. Yvonne studies the role of extracellular vesicles and their role in changing the function of the vasculature after stroke, aiming to discover why the prevalence of dementia after stroke is three times higher than the average. It is her passion for problem solving and love of science that drives her, in advancing our knowledge of disease. Yvonne has joined the team of staff bloggers at Dementia Researcher, and will be writing about her work and life as she takes a new road into independent research.