We often blame university managements for imposing ever more unattainable research KPIs on us, year on year. Although it is undeniable that publication standards and the amount of grant money that we are expected to bring in have risen—nay, skyrocketed—over the years, I’m not convinced that nefarious academic administrators are always to blame. If you want to know who the real culprit is, you should look in the mirror.
When I got my first tenure-track job at the University of Manchester back in 2006 (the same year I got my Ph.D.), I had a couple of obscure publications in what were at the time second-rate journals. That was “enough” back then. I had demonstrated that I could publish as a doctoral student, and therefore could be trusted to publish as an early career researcher.
Fast forward 15 years to the present. If I tried to enter academia today with the same CV that I had then, I wouldn’t stand a chance of getting shortlisted, at least not at a research-intensive university. The fact that I had a couple “B” level publications, though an asset in 2006, would have been seen as a major liability in 2021. “B” level publications today indicate mediocrity—never mind that I have since published in a number of A* journals.
Let there be no mistake. Every year, the requirements for entry into academia, as well as for promotion once in, have noticeably gone up. Today’s PhD students have multiple publications in the world’s leading journals, and even they struggle to find a tenure-track position.
One of the biggest sources of job dissatisfaction in academia is the mismatch between the number of publications we expected we would need to get tenure at the time of hiring versus the actual number of publications we need to get tenure at the time we go up for it. What was enough in our mind six or seven years ago isn’t even close to enough today.
“One of the biggest sources of job dissatisfaction in academia is the mismatch between the number of publications we expected we would need to get tenure at the time of hiring versus the actual number of publications we need to get tenure at the time we go up for it.”
It is rather too easy to lay the responsibility for these rising standards on your Head of Department (me!), Dean, or even Vice Chancellor or President. Whilst they certainly play a role as performance managers, the real culprits are, well, you and I. We do this to ourselves. Think about it. We are the ultimate gatekeepers of performance, as peer reviewers. We are the reason why “A*” journals have five percent acceptance rates. We are the reason a vast majority of grant applications are rejected outright. We play the game. We are the game. Our performance managers are reacting to the system we have constructed for ourselves.
What this means, I think, is that we have the power to change the system, if we can get beyond the proverbial collective action problems associated with such a change. Maybe there is a better way to “do” science than the way it is currently done. But to effect this change, we need to start taking responsibility for ourselves.
Professor Andrew R. Timming
This article is published under a Creative Commons 4.0 License.