Just recently at a dinner for heads of the Cambridge colleges the issue of the toxic culture some research students find themselves in was raised. We all know the issues exist and, in this context, the question was what could our colleges do to assist. Where it is the relationship with the supervisor that has gone wrong, and the student is willing – by no means guaranteed to be the case – to raise it with the college, there are steps that can be taken. Every student (undergraduate or postgraduate) will have a tutor to whom they can turn. However, not all students feel safe raising these matters even informally let alone making a formal complaint. These facts are well known.
This discussion reminded me of other aspects of our research culture that equally urgently need addressing. One is the vexed question of what excellence looks like. This question is as hard to pin down when it comes to a research proposal as when discussing a job applicant. We may all believe we know it when we see it but, as the evidence builds up about bias we must recognize our judgement may not be as objective as we might like. This issue is more likely to be an issue when it comes to individuals, but since it is individuals who write grants it can indirectly impact on assessing proposals too.
In the context of a job application – at whatever stage, be it for a postdoc or a professorial position – the CV is likely to be the first documentation read. How that CV is written will colour our perceptions, probably just as much as the facts it contains. Facts might include names, thereby immediately bringing into question of whether a woman’s or an ethnic minority’s name will thereafter affect the lens through which everything else is read. Blind (removing the name) reading of the application may be able to solve this problem at the postdoc level; it would be much harder at the most senior levels where the applicants will often be personally, or at least anecdotally, known.
But there are many more subtle ways in which our reading may be impacted by style of presentation. While I was part of the ERC Scientific Council I learned to my surprise that the ‘Anglo Saxon’ style of CV was much more prone to hype and hard-selling than the Mediterranean version. It seems northern Europeans are much more cocky collectively about what we’ve done and liable to market ourselves more than those from warmer climes such as Italy or Spain. Restricting how many publications, prizes or awards can be listed may partially offset some of these cultural differences, so for funders or employers to use a standardised form which doesn’t simply require an entire life-history’s worth of publications may have advantages.
In this spirit, the Royal Society has proposed a rather different sort of CV, which will not lead to a judgement simply based on the collected weight of publications or total grant funding. Instead it requires the applicant to provide a narrative and reflective version of their work up to the point of application. There are various sections to be completed, giving scope for discussing achievements in a more holistic way. The sections covered are
- How have you contributed to the generation of knowledge?
- How have you contributed to the development of individuals?
- How have you contributed to the wider research community?
- How have you contributed to broader society?
These four sections are then followed by a Personal Statement in which the applicant is asked to provide a statement that reflects on overarching goals and motivation for the activities in which they have been involved. At different career stages one might expect very different types of answers: a postdoc is unlikely to have had an opportunity for international conference organisation, but they may have been responsible for the logistics of their group’s away day. An early career researcher may have gone into schools to enthuse the youngsters but is less likely to have talked at the Hay Festival or been on national radio or TV. Nevertheless, the topics are broad enough that most people will be able to find something to say about each of them.
Undoubtedly there is still plenty of scope for the cocky to hype their life story, but if they can only answer the first bullet point above, and give no account of mentoring, outreach or conference organisation, or can’t explain why what they are doing is making a contribution to their peers or society, then they probably aren’t ‘excellent’ after all. This format of CV makes it much easier to include the citizenry aspects of a person’s life, the things that make so much difference to how a research group or department run but which typically don’t garner much kudos. It is, as I say, more holistic.
What I don’t know, and I hope the Royal Society is collecting evidence on this, is whether people are taking advantage of this format, tweaked as may be according to circumstance, and if so what their experiences are – be it as applicant or reader/judge. I feel just emphasising there is more to a job applicant than a pile of papers in some disciplinary-relevant top-notch journal is a step forward; as more and more universities are signing up to DORA, I hope the panels in those institutions know never to rely on impact factors as a proxy for quality. I hope listing that they run a research group of 65 but can’t explain how they mentor them properly will be ‘scored’ appropriately (maybe they barely recognize some of the team). We should be seeing excellence in the round: bright ideas, clever skills, good mentoring, appropriate good citizenship, success in winning grants and/or giving plenary talks, concern about the impact of their work, involvement with outreach – delete as appropriate according to career stage and discipline.
I hope refocussing of attention on excellence of an individual in all that needs to be brought to getting good science done both today and, consequently, also for tomorrow will remove the need for college heads to worry about the toxic environments that some researchers currently experience. However, I fear we are still a long way from that happy state.