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.