Insecurity and anxiety in the REF

Ella Rhodes on a survey of early career researchers and the Research Excellence Framework.

A survey into the effects of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) on Early Career Researchers has shown that many feel that it creates pressure and anxiety which largely impacts on those at the ‘bottom rung’ of the career ladder. Many also reported a culture of aggression and bullying, at a departmental level, as well as a two-tier hierarchy between teaching and research which they say is used to inhibit career mobility of those stuck in teaching positions.

Dr Charlotte Mathieson (Institute of Advanced Study, University of Warwick) carried out the survey and presented her results at Westminster Higher Education Forum’s Next Steps for the REF conference. Of the 193 researchers who responded a majority were within eight years of their PhD submission.

Many of the respondents felt an increased amount of pressure in the job market, with an intense focus on ‘REFable’ publications. Mathieson also said that those researchers who did not have REFable publications were stuck in casualised contracts which were short-term and teaching-heavy, giving them little time to work towards getting published. 

Mathieson said she asked participants an open-ended question about other concerns they may wish to express and found high levels of disillusionment, dissatisfaction at the profession and cynicism around the REF, as well as comments about the effects on individuals’ mental health. ‘Insecurity and anxiety were the watchwords of this survey,’ she said.

She added, in her presentation: ‘In some respects, the REF has become a byword for a wider culture shift in academia – a shift driven by processes that extend beyond the assessment exercise itself – but it is nonetheless a focal point around which Early Career Researchers see very real, material impacts. If that is so, then perhaps with some work, the REF also has the potential to drive more positive changes in coming years.’

On a slightly more positive note 68 per cent of those who filled out the survey said they felt that the REF had changed their attitude towards impact, and were thinking more about public engagement from an early stage of their research. Mathieson said that while there have been problems raised with the measurement of impact it was encouraging to see a cognitive shift in this area coming from those starting out on their careers. She added: ‘This is encouraging looking ahead to 2020, if the weighting of impact does, as expected, become more significant then ECRs will be well-placed to address this remit.’

- Are you an early career researcher in psychology with a view on the REF? Send your letters to [email protected] or tweet us @psychmag.


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