How Hard Do You Work?

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?



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9 Responses to How Hard Do You Work?

  1. From my, perhaps limited, view of industry the workload issue is handled via good line management, and it really isn’t about “Big Brother in the ‘Centre'”. Your line manager is rather Big Brother’s representative on earth and is responsible for transmitting the Line to you but also absorbing and handling your complaints, rather than transmitting them onwards. Whilst target setting and time allocation can go over the top sometimes, it does provide an explicit framework in which you can highlight you workload and “what’s in it for me”. Looking back it’s struck me that academics often feel the need to exhibit “presentee-ism” because their output is measured in relatively few, inadequate ways.

    Academics seem to attract quite a lot of un-renumerated/un-recognised work such as EPSRC and journal reviewing. I no longer do EPSRC reviewing, the last request I received I pointed out they never funded any of my proposals during my time as an academic, and they weren’t planning on paying me for my time so they could get lost (I paraphrase slightly)!

  2. Tony Ryan says:

    We are in the middle of implementing (Big Brother style) a workload model across the Faculty of Science in Sheffield. The crucial points are how the tarifs are set – and by whom. We have a group of HoDs and other staff negotiating these tarifs to that the system is fair and transparent. The model is a bespoke piece of software that can collect data from existing sources (e.g. timetables and grant/bibliographic databases) so minimise the workload of the workload model. When we’ve got it running properly I’ll show you it!

  3. Nice post Athene – I am an early career researcher and ticking boxes is definitely on my mind as well as doing good research; but then you have to do good research to tick some of the boxes?
    But maybe this is because my job isn’t stable (yet) and I know if I want to stay I have to do stuff. Which seems to boil down to raise money, get research out … But I am in a very early stage of PI-dom so I am aware this will change and should change. I have good mentors where I am, I feel and for this I am lucky.

    Its a great question to pose, for instance blogging comes to mind. Is blogging part of outreach? It must be in some ways. Is it a place that is part of communicating with others?

    This topic reminds me of the REF coming up, where it is not so clear what many of the criteria are, like you say our Pathways to Impact. What I mean is it often seems that the criteria aren’t formal but really rather vague, not just in how academics are assessed moving up the greasy pole as you put it, but even by the government. Its not always straight-forward to assess or have definite goals in university research positions, it seems anyway…

  4. “Not hard enough” would seem to be the standard answer.

    My own boss, a molecular biologist of some repute, probably has the lowest hourly wage of anybody in his group of ~80 people, if you take into account all of the hours he puts in outside of “work”. I’m not tenure track or even an academic per se, but it’s rare that I don’t do some work in the evening.

    In between reading blog posts, of course.

  5. Ian
    For academics, as you will recall, line management is a pretty alien concept, which is why it has to be a ‘big brother’ in the centre, as it were. It also is why no one quite knows what is expected of them – as Sylvia points out. Moving towards transparency ought to help, although no doubt there will always be an element of subjectivity remaining.

    In the twittersphere, the comments about my post seemed to amount to Jobsworth people will always be able to use the system, whatever it is (in this case a workload model) to their advantage by ‘playing’ it, so there is little point in introducing any such model. To my mind, that is a very defeatist argument. I feel one key advantage (which probably does have a gender dimension) is that by having a transparent evaluation process, those who feel they are overworked can both check if they are and have ammunition to say ‘no’ more often if they are correct in their evaluation. That way people will be less inclined simply to become submerged because they don’t like to look unhelpful. However, as Richard says, there is always work to be done ‘outside’ which may not be counted in.

    Tony, certainly be interested to see what happens in Sheffield. It doesn’t sound as if external work (editing, research council or whatever) will be quantified in your model. It is an interesting question as to whether it should or shouldn’t be. Martin Humphries (again through twitter) pointed out Manchester faculty of Life Sciences operates what he calls ‘contribution mapping’, as described here

    • Wot Richard (Wintle) said.

      The ‘contribution mapping’ approach Manchester has used starts with a kind of self-estimated pie chart of what activities you think your what percentage of your time actually goes on. I’m not sure that that addresses the ‘how big is your personal pie’ question, though, which several people have alluded to in various ways.

      Related to this, one of the things that characterises many of the people I’ve seen rise in the academic system is being prepared to work way beyond ‘normal’ working hours. Of course, being very time-efficient is also an overlapping part of the Venn diagram, but I struggle to think of many (any?) ‘Made It’ scientists I’ve come across that I would recognise as nine-to-five-types.

      Which is fine in terms of it being a personal choice… but does present an obvious danger of colouring ‘what you need to do to get on’ discussions, and even, dare I say, ‘what is expected’, since inevitably managerial roles will tend to be filled disproportionately by people of this ilk.

      • Austin, that’s interesting because that version of ‘contribution mapping’ seems to me to miss the heart of the problem – in just the same way as research councils believing we work 37.5 hour weeks. What matters is how many hours are actually taken up on explicit tasks – lecturing, committee work, mentoring or whatever – because that dictates what is ‘left’ for research. Those who do very little of the ‘tasks’ obviously have the benefit under most promotion schemes of having a lot more time for research, almost regardless of the total hours they’re prepared to put in. Surely, therefore, what matters is the absolute number of hours over a year each task takes (which is how the workload model I’m familiar with tackles things, albeit there may be huge errors bars on these numbers) not the proportion of some notional week.

  6. steve caplan says:

    There is no question that reliable people who do a good job definitely get asked to do more…of everything: grant reviewing, chairing grant reviews, reviewing papers and then becoming an editor, teaching, committees, you-name-it. I think each individual has to take the time to really set reasonable goals about how they see their academic position, what they want to achieve, and then come up with a plan for how much to take on of each type of “work.” Obviously this is a complex task, since so many things are related–reviewing manuscripts and grants often helps one to write good grants (for example), and accepting invitations for seminars around the country certainly can help promote one’s research (collaborations, recognition, etc.). However, it is important to make certain limits and not stretch oneself too thin. A senior person can often be helpful for advise on whether to accept new duties or not.

  7. Pingback: Warwick, BioIndustry, JISC and outreach | Professor Douglas Kell's blog

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