How REF can help PhD applicants

For Mark Bennett, REF results - appropriately qualified - can help PhD applicants understand the departments they are considering applying to

Mark Bennett is Director (Audience & Editorial) at FindAUniversity Ltd.

We are, as I write, nearing the end of the first wave of REF 2021 analysis.

The results are out, the coverage has happened, and the various celebrations are making their way around press releases and social media.

My personal favourite so far has been the alumni society at my undergraduate alma mater emailing to tell me how good the research it did ten years after I left has been rated fifteen years after I left.

Other uses

And this is fine, actually. Whatever you think of the work that goes into the REF, it is a lot of work and it is right to celebrate success. If we’ve learned that every UK university is doing substantial amounts of world-leading research then we should let them shout about that. It’s certainly better than ranking them.

But what next? What do we do whilst universities wait for the announcements of QR allocations and hypothesise what they might do with all that non-hypothecated funding?

And what do we do with all this data that’s been painstakingly gathered? Is there another audience that can use all this information?

Well, yes, there is.

REF as application guidance?

Whatever you think of conventional university rankings, they do a pretty poor job of evaluating how good universities are for PhD study – and, in fairness to them, they don’t really claim to do this well.

There are proxy metrics for research productivity and citations, and some analyses do take a tilt at measuring how research intensive a university is, or how many of its staff hold doctorates. But these typically account for small percentages and, in any case, it’s not obvious that they tell you how good a university is at research or whether it’s a good place to do research.

For that, most “major” league tables are arguably of less use than the esteemed Wonkhe car park ranking; this at least tells you how likely you are to find a space at the end of a three-hour drive to South Wales and still have time for a coffee and trip to the loo before leading a second-year seminar on Bleak House (true story).

And REF would be no better if all it did was take various university or unit of assessment GPAs and stick them in an absolute order indicating that university X was 37 better than university Y. But it is a lot more useful than that.

Explain it to me like I’m five minutes into writing this research proposal

Here’s what the REF does do if you’re thinking about where to do a PhD in the UK:

For a start, it tells you about research output: the stuff you want to be doing – and outputting – during your doctorate. And, because it does this through peer review it tells you what other academics think, specifically, about that research, right now.

Chances are you want to be an academic doing research in your field and it is probably useful to know what other academics in your field think of the research you might be doing. This matters for networking and introductions (rocking up at your first conference and seeing others eyeball your badge). It probably also matters for publication, though it probably shouldn’t.

Then there’s research impact. This matters in academia, but also matters If you one day sit in a non-academic job interview and have to say something about the years you spent studying topographical lyric poetry. That’s a lot easier to do if you can point to the heritage organisation using your research to enhance the experience at its sites, and further explain how you project managed and worked with stakeholders to achieve this.

The research environment requires little unpacking – paragraph 350 of the REF panel criteria clearly explains how the exercise seeks to measure the recruitment, support and progression of doctoral students.

None of these are perfect, but they are, I think, a better resource than the alternatives. To paraphrase Wonkhe’s coverage, if the REF didn’t exist then it would be worth inventing something similar for PhD students to use.

Impact and inclusivity

It isn’t particularly hard to explain the REF results in a way that’s useful to prospective PhD students and the benefits to doing so are mostly obvious. It’s a legitimate way for a university to talk about – and talk up – the research they do.

But I’d humbly call for marketing and recruitment departments not to simply use the REF as a metric kitemark – yet another way to be in the top X per cent of something. Instead, we should think about the stories there are to tell about the work of PGRs (and the early career researchers many of them aspire to be) in producing those outputs and their impact and in creating that research environment.

This doesn’t just create compelling content (though, trust me, it will); it’s also in the spirit of the REF itself and the kinds of conversations we should be having about its importance for all researchers. The REF and its link to QR funding is, after all, about ensuring the sustainability of UK research.

Because, whatever REF 2028 looks like, surely we all want it to represent (and celebrate) the early work of some of the people who are now reading about REF 2021?

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