Career progression and promotion require that you tick all the right boxes when panels scrutinise your CV. If you are trying to optimise your chances of advancing up the greasy pole, this requires that you know what the boxes are and the relative weightings of the different categories of activities that may be under consideration. However, as early career researchers go about their daily tasks, are these the first things on their mind? Almost certainly not. Does anyone provide advice at the right moment? Again the answer is probably not.
These issues came up when I visited Leicester University last week to take part in their Athena Swan event Going for Silver. Leicester, like many other universities I’m sure, is very aware that the funding climate has changed since the announcement from Sally Davies last summer: the NIHR’s requirement is that clinical schools must achieve an Athena Swan Silver award if they are to be realistically considered for future BMR and BMU awards. At the time of the announcement I blogged about how I hoped other funders would follow suit. Although none have, as yet, it is a topic of ongoing dialogue within BBSRC, EPSRC and the Royal Society to my certain knowledge, and probably at other funders too. So, Leicester and other universities are wise to consider what steps they can take within their university to move on from simply holding a Bronze Athena Swan university award to having multiple departments with individual awards, at Silver or Bronze level. (You can find the slides I gave in my presentation at Leicester uploaded through the University of Leicester Athena Swan site here.)
Consideration of career progression, and the relative rates for men and women, ought to be one of the items of investigation for a department wishing to submit an application. The ASSET2010 survey showed that systematically across the country, women still feel they are less aware than men about promotion criteria, less likely to be invited to apply for the next level up and less likely to be appraised, a time when they might learn about how promotion works or ask if the time is right to put in an application. But it isn’t just a question of making sure that women (and men) know the formal rules that matters; they need also to understand what that means and be given advice, over time, about what opportunities they should accept and what it might be less wise to take on.
The ASSET2010 survey did not specifically ask about outreach activities but, anecdotally in general and certainly it is specifically true in my own department, women seem to do more. Is this wise? As one one attendee bluntly put it at the Leicester
How many school visits equate to one Nature paper?
Pertinent question though that may be, it is like comparing apples and pears. One would like to think in practice people do what they do at least part out of love for the subject rather than merely to tick boxes for promotion criteria (or a Pathways to Impact statement), but nevertheless it is worth asking oneself from time to time whether what one is doing is wise. But beyond that, departments ideally should have some transparent form of workload model which indicates the totality of tasks (as opposed simply to research) performed, with some indication of the volume of the work involved. In reality, by no means all departments do. This means that one individual who carries out many school visits a year, or is responsible for admissions or pastoral care, may get just the same teaching load as someone who does nothing else beyond their research. It may also mean that where departments/universities are seeking to ensure that women are represented on key committees, the same few women may get very overworked.
This potential overloading was an issue raised at Leicester, and it is a tricky question. To my mind one solution is to increase the cohort who are looked at for a particular committee by broadening the categories of people who might be considered, and also to make sure that if women are in short supply, they are invited to serve on the really key committees, and those where a different voice might be crucial, not simply some of the more workaday ones. However, if there is a transparent workload model, which is easily accessible, then individuals can make up their own minds more easily if they are taking on an absurd amount of ‘stuff’, and then try to work out which bits of this are things they really enjoy and care about and/or are things that might further (or hold back) their career. If also they can get to the bottom of promotion criteria (including any weighting between research, teaching and ‘general contribution’ excellence) they may also be able to make well-considered decisions, ideally in consultation with the head of department, mentor or appraiser.
This may still beg the question of how some of these tasks are weighted in any such model. How many hours are attributed to the work of any given committee may be somewhat subjective (how long do you assign to reading the paperwork, for instance?). Do you factor in committees outside the department let alone outside the university, such as associated with a professional body or funding agency? If dealing with outreach work, is a visit to a local school given the same ‘credit’ as one many miles away that takes a day out of one’s life in total to deliver the same talk? But, if the rules of how the workloads are calculated are known, even if the methodology is crude, there is some kind of framework to get a handle of when doing personal calculations.
I don’t have any answers to these questions about which particular bits should be assigned how much time, but I do think the questions ought to be aired occasionally. Some people have spectacular research careers, assisted by sufficiently dire teaching skills that they are relieved of much of a standard load. This might raise the suspicion that their apparent incompetence is judiciously cultivated. Other individuals slave hard over every task they are assigned, doing a sterling job so that they simply get asked to do more. They are known as the reliable ones amongst a department of flakier people whose ability to deliver on time is seriously in doubt (recall Professor Workhorse and Professor Last Minute?). Hence, without some record being kept of who does what, the reliable ones slowly disappear under an increasing workload, whereas the endless procrastinators can get away lightly. Who is likely to do better at finding time to perfect that paper for Science? And hence whose career is likely to flourish?
Academics may not like line management, they may not wish to have their every move scrutinised by some Big Brother in the ‘Centre’, but goodwill should not be abused and reluctance to say’ no’ ought not to be presumed upon. The suspicion may be, taking a stereotypical view of the ‘average’ female lecturer, that without something approximating a fair workload model, women may be being disadvantaged in ways that lie beneath the surface. If there is no quantification done, if there are no appraisals when the person concerned can vent their frustration with their ever mounting workload, the playing field may be less level than intended.
So how hard do you work?