Read the Question

One of the first things we tell children as they start to do exams is ‘read the question’. As they get more sophisticated we go further, and say think about what the examiners want and how to express key points clearly – or at least we can say that if they are doing more than multiple-choice questions. As examiners we have all read scripts including seemingly endless pages of irrelevant and possibly also incorrect answers, because the student has not bothered to scrutinise the question carefully enough to know what was being asked for. However, it seems that as academics we are not necessarily very good at heeding our own advice. Having spent another weekend reading committee paperwork, this time for an internal university promotions committee, I realise that quite often really rather senior people are shooting themselves in the foot by failing to read the instructions and answer the questions as posed. (Incidentally, I find it depressing that whereas most bloggers get to spend their weekends reading interesting books and then posting thoughtful reviews, I merely get to present ‘reviews’ of committee work!)

Now there are certain types of ‘getting it right’ that are just tedious. In this category I would include the boring requirements that research councils now have of specifying the font and its size on their forms. Although, having read plenty of these, I understand the desirability of being able to read the typeface of a case for support without a magnifying glass, whether someone uses Calibri or Arial doesn’t really matter very much to me. The BBSRC is however going to get tough about this. Its recent revised guidelines say:

Too many grant applications are received with faults and errors, mainly because applicants appear to be leaving insufficient time to check them before the deadline. Iterating with applicants to rectify errors in the forms reduces the time available to obtain peer review assessments and diverts staff effort from properly completed proposals. In future, the privilege of being allowed to correct mistakes may be withdrawn from individuals who repeatedly submit faulty applications, or from departments submitting them in significant numbers, in which case the corrected proposals will need to be submitted to a subsequent round.

This is part of their ‘demand management’ strategy, but also has been introduced because they suspect that some errors are not eradicated quite deliberately because then the PI can gain a few days more to sort out other problems (crucially, maybe, a few additional days to hone the case for support) while the identified error is also sorted. Would academics be that Machiavellian?

However, this weekend was not devoted to BBSRC paperwork, so I will leave that debate and return to the issue of academics failing to ‘answer the question’ when it comes to submitting paperwork for promotion. It might be thought that the prospect of a substantial salary increase would focus the mind sufficiently that the applicant would not exceed the word/page limit. But no, unbelievably, about 5% of the applicants couldn’t even get that right. Perhaps surprisingly the university kindly allowed these individuals to rework their submissions so that they did comply. Future generations should perhaps watch out in case the university follows the BBSRC and gets tough, rejecting out of hand any applications that don’t comply with the regulations. To be honest, I don’t think it would be unreasonable. We expect no less from our students when it comes to coursework or indeed thesis word limits.

There was another way in which some of the applicants managed not to do themselves justice. A few just didn’t seem able to organise their paperwork to play to their strengths. I was particularly struck by the individual who had received some notable prize which they hid away right at the bottom of their CV in a particularly unnoticeable corner. I would have failed to appreciate the award of the prize completely if one of their referees hadn’t remarked upon it. Since nearly all the submissions we see have an impressive list of publications and talks, the award of a prize is the kind of thing that stands out in the mind – if it’s visible to the eye. Other submissions simply failed to address one of the key criteria about ‘progression since the last promotion’. It is all very well to have had a stellar career back in the 90’s, but what the committee wants to know is what sort of trajectory the individual is on now. Unfortunately many of the referees weren’t much help on this front either, failing to address this criterion and merely providing a long eulogy about early work.

One of the things WiSETI (Women in Science Engineering and Technology Initiative) offers in my own university is what we term ‘CV mentoring’: the opportunity to have a senior professor, ideally one who has sat on relevant promotions committees, look over your CV and advise you both whether the time is right to apply and how to present your case to make the most of your track record. It seems to me that it is something that should be offered across the board because clearly individuals are not always being well advised, or are themselves able to stand back and look with an objective eye upon what they have written.

I’ll finish this overview on a positive note. This year, as I remarked in an earlier post, we have amended one particular part of the promotion forms to allow applicants to note any ‘additional circumstances’ that may have affected their performance. Examples given in the guidance include bereavement, ill health or other family circumstances. I have been delighted to see a number of individuals setting out cogent cases, nearly all of which have affected their ability to travel. As it happens these have all been from male applicants. The more men feel comfortable doing this, the better for everyone. I have heard too many stories in the past of women who haven’t felt comfortable declaring anything about their personal circumstances in case it was held against them: ‘ you mean you took time off to have a baby? Shocking!’ is the message that has previously been received (explicitly or implicitly) by some. Acknowledging that academics can be serious professionals and have a family is important, and it would appear that this rather small change on the forms is having a positive impact. And that has to be for the good of the individuals, their families and ultimately the institution.

The moral of this post is much more general, however. That if filling in forms – for jobs, promotions or grant applications – it really does pay to concentrate on both the literal wording of questions asked and the underlying reason for those particular questions. If I find answers – even in something as simple as a CV – which make my life harder I am going to get irritated; sorry, but that’s human nature for you. I may (and do) work hard at scrutinising each and every case equally and fairly. However an irritated reader is far more likely to exhibit bias, conscious or otherwise, against the writer because they are basically fed up at being made to struggle to find that useful nugget of information that should have been made obvious.

 

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8 Responses to Read the Question

  1. cromercrox says:

    I understand the desirability of being able to read the typeface of a case for support without a magnifying glass, whether someone uses Calibri or Arial doesn’t really matter very much to me

    Up to a point. In my humble opinion, anyone who uses Comic Sans in any communication outside a mother-and-toddler group should be shot.

  2. @stephenemoss says:

    Having recently fallen foul of ‘failing to read the question’ on an internal university staff appraisal/assessment, I argued in my defence that i) the question had not been clearly stated, and ii) there were no staff training courses (add irony) on ‘how to fill in that particular question’. The question specifically asked for details of ‘prizes and honours’, which I later discovered was intended to include ‘awards and fellowships’. To me, As and Fs are quite different to Ps and Hs, and we scientists can be quite pernickety when it comes to linguistic accuracy.

    Colleagues with ‘friends’ in high places (HR) somehow avoided that semantic banana-skin, whereas I will have to go through it all again later this year. Not pleased.

    • Sorry about that, Stephen, I can see why my ‘advice’ might irritate you under the circumstances since you were trying to answer the question as posed. I suppose the moral in cases like promotion is always to ‘over-promote’ yourself (much though I hate that in general). In other words, if there is no obvious box to put an ‘award or fellowship’ , which is clearly something worth pointing out, force-fit it into somewhere vaguely plausible. What I was trying to say applied more specifically to the free-form of a CV, where people do have freedom to write things the way they want, and yet still managed (in the specific case I mention) to hide their light under a bushel.

  3. David Dobbs says:

    Nice post. But I’d say if the BBSRC wants people to change their behavior, they should ask them in cleaner language than they use in the paragraph you cite:

    Too many grant applications are received with faults and errors, mainly because applicants appear to be leaving insufficient time to check them before the deadline. Iterating with applicants to rectify errors in the forms reduces the time available to obtain peer review assessments and diverts staff effort from properly completed proposals. In future, the privilege of being allowed to correct mistakes may be withdrawn from individuals who repeatedly submit faulty applications, or from departments submitting them in significant numbers, in which case the corrected proposals will need to be submitted to a subsequent round.

    That’s one of the ugliest and most opaque paragraphs I’ve read in some time. If their entire memo is like that, little wonder that people would ignore them.

    • David, I take no responsibility for BBSRC speak – that was just lifted from their update last month about changes to procedures. However, if people choose to ignore the intent behind said ugly paragraph, they have (however crudely) been warned and may find their grants being thrown back at them. I suppose BBSRC were trying to warn people without being as crude as the EPSRC regulations, and that leads to what may look like weasel words.

  4. Frank says:

    I guess the corollary of applicants being required to follow instructions properly and fill in forms properly is that those instructions and forms should be well-designed and coherent.

    Regarding fonts, choosing small fonts can give yoh more space to fill with words. That is not just down to point size but also the actual font chosen. Try comparing Verdana (quite big) with Gil Sans (smaller).