Appraising the Future

Back in those distant days of the Thatcher Government, various changes to the way academics worked were introduced, whose details are rather lost in the mists of time (or at least lost in the mists of my memory). One consequence was the formal disappearance of tenure in new contracts, for instance. Another change was the requirement for some sort of appraisal process to be introduced, although the unions successfully prevented this from being anything as concrete as a performance review, and it was explicitly decoupled from pay and progression. So, ever since, appraisals have languished in a sort of no-man’s land, in which they are not infrequently carried out, but often with little sense of purpose:  a great shame, in my view. They can and should be a crucial part of supporting young researchers and recently appointed faculty. Even successful professors may welcome an opportunity to let off steam and compare notes with another such, though one should be sure that it is steam and not bile that is let off.

However, although professors might welcome the chance to chew the cud with a peer under the guise of an appraisal (or as Cambridge now terms it ‘staff review and development’), I see no logic in the reality which is that, nationally, faculty are more like to be appraised than postdocs, as revealed by the ASSET2010  survey: around ¾ of faculty said they were appraised as a matter of course, whereas only ½ the postdocs said the same.  It is the early career researchers who need advice, not least about whether they should stay in academia or seek pastures new, as several of my recent posts (here, here  and here) have discussed. But we appear to have a system where giving such advice in a formal way is patchy, to say the least, lacks any sort of quality control (which would not be tolerated in industry I’m sure), and is also not necessarily valued by the organisation but can be seen as a chore that is part of the ‘centre’s’ requirement to tick boxes.

I feel very strongly that a decent appraisal, if only a chat of one human being with another at an earlier stage in their life, should be a valuable experience, something of a sanity check. It might even be enjoyable for both partners in the dialogue. Having just completed my annual allocation of appraisals my belief in their potential value has been reaffirmed, boosted by receiving a heartfelt thank you from one of those I appraised this year.  But there is no doubt that not everyone – on either side of the process – view it so positively. Part of the problem is that the appraisers themselves are often unwilling to take these interviews seriously. Does it help with their own progression? Almost certainly not, which is why I suspect not all appraisers are prepared to invest much time, thought or energy into the process; without that the dialogue is bound to falter.  And yet, to my mind, it doesn’t seem that challenging or disagreeable to be asked to offer assistance to someone on a lower rung of the academic ladder. We are supposed to be wise and experienced, even if perhaps sometimes also uncertain about how we got to where we did. Nevertheless, it is often easier to see things that are wrong – and point them out in a nice way – than to be sure of a uniquely correct way forward.

One of the things that I always look at carefully – particularly for those who have already had several years as a postdoc or progressed beyond that to some degree of independence – is the CV. I make sure I get this well in advance so I can look not only to see what is there, but what isn’t. It is all too easy to fail to put down in black and white things that, as soon as they are pointed out, seem obviously to be missing.  Things like neglecting to list the conferences talks you’ve given, or students that you’ve had responsibility for or formally supervised. Or, for more senior individuals, a complete omission of grants won or invited presentations at internationally meetings. It seems so evident these things should be written down, and yet I’ve seen examples of these very gaps in CVs of appraisees.  There is no single right way of putting your life’s history down on paper, but there are clearly things that are crucial if you are to sell yourself effectively.

However, beyond the mere paperwork, there is plenty more that an appraisal should look into. Are there problems? Access to equipment satisfactory? Any training accomplished or needed? If something is needed, where can they turn to get it? Have they been playing safe for too long and now need to break out into pastures new and diversify? Are they getting any external visibility and if not why not? Do they feel they are getting the local advice they need on a day-by-day basis, and what can be done to improve things on that front? I have occasionally asked a pointed question that has opened up a can of worms, or called for the quick production of a packet of handkerchiefs.  But that, to my mind, is all well and good because it opens up the dialogue.

The whole point of checking things through, like CV’s, is because of course it really matters for future progression. And for anyone trying to progress further up the academic ranks – it still matters.  So I’ll throw in at this point an idea we have introduced within Cambridge. Initially this was something WiSETI (the local Women in Science, Engineering and Technology Initiative) introduced, specifically for women in the STEM subjects.  A group of us – who have sat on promotions panels – have come together to offer to look over the paperwork, CV’s included, of women considering applying for promotion, in advance of when they need to submit the stuff.  That way we can identify lacunae and provide objective advice about whether the time is right to apply.  Initially we were paired up with those seeking support based on discipline area, but left it to the women to contact us  they were simply given the contact details of one of us. We rapidly worked out some did not have the confidence to make that first contact, so now we make the approach ourselves, to make it clear we really do mean to offer assistance. This process has seemed to work well, and now it is intended to roll out this process across the entire university for the next promotions’ round (we are still setting up our cohort of experienced CV readers to make this happen). Of course women, and men, should be getting this sort of mentoring and advice from their local working environment.  Nevertheless, sometimes they clearly are not, for all kinds of reasons including, but most certainly not restricted to, timidity.

Appraisals and such ‘CV mentoring’ procedures are something experienced professors should feel proud to be able to offer the stars of the future. It is regrettable some colleagues seem to think it is beneath their dignity to do anything other than further their own cause by selfishly looking neither to left or right to see who might be in need of assistance.

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10 Responses to Appraising the Future

  1. steve caplan says:

    Athene,

    I sympathize with the idea of “appraising” post-docs (and even senior graduate students). Truthfully, though, I doubt that this can actually replace or even offset poor mentorship. The sad fact is that a student who starts a Ph.D. in a lab with poor mentorship is destined to fail 98% of the time, unless somehow he/she pulls up by the bootstraps and gets into a good post-doctoral lab.
    The sadder fact is that even the most determined and brightest post-doc will treadmill and “ellipticize” to nowhere in a lab with a mentor who is not properly supportive.

    In my view, rather than appraising, it seems as though it would be better to concentrate on teaching students about how to go about finding a good Ph.D. mentor–so that they get off to a healthy start in their careers.

  2. As a postdoc I’ve been appraised a large number of times and by multiple individuals, but no one has ever looked at my CV or helped me analyze what I needed for the next step. It tends to focus on “what have you done in the lab this past year and what should you try to achieve in the lab in the next?” On occasion I have been actively discouraged against pursuing an academic career – which just made me go out and find mentors who were more willing to look beyond my non-traditional career path, actually inspect my CV and track record carefully and see my potential. And I’m glad I did, because if I had followed some of the advice I’d received at appraisals, I might well have given up.

    To me, it seems the luck of the draw. Not every PI is going to be good at appraisals, or indeed even general mentoring as Steve points out. I always encourage younger scientists to seek out their own informal mentors if they’re getting no joy with the boss. Even an older trusted postdoc can be a helpful resource.

  3. Jenny Koenig says:

    I agree with Jenny Rohn and go further to say that a bad appraiser is actually worse than no appraisal at all. In my experience appraisers just want to get it over and done with and shy away from anything “difficult”. It’s too easy to say “yes everything’s fine”.

    I too try to help younger scientists to look around and try to identify one or more people who could give them useful advice and constructive feedback even if it’s not an official appraisal or mentoring relationship.

  4. Jenny and Jenny
    I’m sad to hear you being quite so negative, but I have heard enough other unsatisfactory stories of appraisals to know that you are not alone. One of the things I’d really like to see, indeed am trying to push for locally, is for appraisals to appear in a work-load model as part of the ‘general contribution’ professors are supposed to make to the department/ university. That way, people who are good at it, but perhaps less wonderful at some other task, could ‘specialise’ in appraisals, releasing others who are perhaps the charismatic lecturers, the wonderful committee members or whatever to do what they do best. But currently, as I said, appraisals are just seen as a chore which gets you no kudos, so (if you lack enthusiasm for the process or an appropriate sense of duty) there is no motivator and you end up doing a lousy job – the sort of people you have encountered. But just because it doesn’t work yet, I don’t think is a good reason for giving up on them. I do know some people who feel they’ve been helpful after all.

    Stephen
    If the mentoring is bad, it’s going to be hard work. But if the appraiser says ‘time to get out’ it might just be the impetus a frustrated postdoc needs – to get out either to a different postdoc position, or into something which suits their skills better. I am not convinced it would work for graduate students, and I haven’t heard of appraising in the way I meant being used for them (more often it would be a ‘second supervisor’ giving an opinion I think).

  5. Jenny Koenig says:

    Athene, I like your idea of having certain people specialise in appraisals. I worry that if the appraiser is not aware of things like unconscious bias or if they haven’t really thought about it at all then the end result is likely to leave the post-doc worse off than if they never had an appraisal at all. One of the functions of an appraiser could be to help the post-doc to identify informal or formal mentors who could give alternative perspectives.

    Sorry to be negative but I think the system we have at the moment needs some fixing so thank you for writing a post on it!

    • I think people who were motivated to do a good job when appraising people would also be motivated to learn about potential barriers to achieving that aim. Institutions would, of course, have to ensure that they have the means to do so. People don’t spontaneously think about unconscious bias – that’s what unconscious means. Having appraisals recognized as part of an academic’s work load would be good. If they aren’t that sends a pretty clear message about the importance an institution attaches to appraisal.

  6. stephenemoss says:

    Athene – regarding the use of appraisals for academics by other academics, I think there has been concern/resistance among some staff at some institutions because of the blurring with ‘performance management’. This may not be the case in all universities, and perhaps not in Cambridge, but one can understand some cynicism and skepticism of appraisal if it is hijacked by HR and turned into a tool for quantifying performance.

  7. Option A: Appraisal if your appraiser is someone you get along with and respect, who is broadly knowledgeable about your discipline, and who is genuinely interested in you, your career and your progress
    = useful

    Option B: Appraisal if your appraiser is someone you don’t know / don’t like / from a different discipline / going through the motions/ticking boxes
    = worse than useless.

    However, from an HR box-ticking perspective of being able to say:

    “LOOK! We have a proper appraisal scheme! Mentoring and support! We can apply for Investors in People status.”

    …B would be as good as A…

    …and therein lies the problem.

    So an appraiser who is a mentor is definitely useful, but if they are not, and not a potential mentor either, then the usefulness is dubious, to put it mildly.

    I say the above, BTW, having been appraised a good number of times in my career. Most have, thankfully, been more Option A than Option B, though to distinctly varying degrees, and none what you’d call life-changing. And if I was expecting Full-On Option B (and you can usually hazard a good guess how it will pan out once you know who the appraiser is) then I probably wouldn’t bother going at all.

    • Austin
      I agree someone you don’t like is unlikely to be particularly helpful, but I actually think having someone a bit removed from what you do has advantages. They can be objective, and ask questions which someone closer to the area might think they knew the answer and so didn’t have to ask – and by asking all kinds of things can emerge (what I meant by opening a can of worms). So, a mentor is brilliant and should be doing a lot of stuff anyhow, but someone further removed can also do a good job – as long as they are capable of it and interested! So, don’t entirely agree with you.

      Stephenemoss
      Academics most certainly don’t like performance review. Sometimes this is a mistake. Some individuals might do better if someone occasionally sat down with them and told them some home truths. But I agree that resistance is there. In Cambridge, certainly in my department, performance review doesn’t come into the academic appraisal (it may do for other groups of staff) and so there is no blurring of the sort you mention. The potential is there for the process to be useful, particularly for early career researchers.

      • I reckon someone more removed from what you do might sometimes be useful early-career (postdoc) and perhaps late (Professorial, when as I understand it is usually is someone from another Dept or Faculty), but I don’t really see it at the non-Professorial PI level, which is where I’ve spent my career.

        One example of ‘useful distance’ I did come across for early-stage people was postdocs who really didn’t want to stay in research but couldn’t bring themselves to tell their supervisor/boss that. I have known a couple of people like that who found a more detached observer useful in crystallizing the decision to move into teaching, or out of science. I think it would have been less helpful, though, had they wanted to stay in – as they would likely just have been told “Well you’ve got to publish a Nature paper if you want to make it.” So perhaps the point is that you need a different appraiser if you want to stay ‘in’ the biz than if you want to get out.

        At the non-Professorial PI ‘lifer’ level, I find it hard to see how a Professor of Molecular Antibody-ology (a totally random example) would be particularly useful as an appraiser for me, other than the argument about their not being someone I directly interact with.

        But in all seriousness, none of it helps if the appraiser and appraisee don’t have at least some degree of mutual respect/rapport. Which is not always the case.