The CROS – and questions of time…


And so begins the analysis of CROS… which will take some time. Especially since, this year, we’re not just trying to report numbers, but rather trying to draw the data together with what we know from the staff survey, with themes and evidence from a range of other engagements that we have with research staff, and then work with research staff Reps and with units like HR and RED to work out what the data means, and then what doing better actually looks like.

Over the summer, I’ll be pulling together some ‘thought pieces’ on aspects of the data.

These have two aims:

The first is for you to see where our thinking is going as we analyse what you’ve said. Please read, and respond… Note, I’m not sure how we’re going to do that yet, so bear with us as we try out comments, or something more anonymous. 

The second is so that we can start to share thoughts with the rest of the sector. Something that is very clear from CROS is how (despite there being comparatively little researcher traffic between them) the Russell Group data profiles are very similar. So these are sector issues, and not just ours.

So, this is the first of those thought pieces, and concerns some of your responses about..



Your working time, and your career development

First, your time…

It probably doesn’t surprise you to learn that nearly 80% of you are working more hours than you’re contracted to. The average is about 6 or 7 hours extra a week, with just under half of those worked at the weekend.

The main reasons given are that you’re not as productive as you’d like to be. You’re beset by things that eat into your time – mainly distractions: “need quiet” (lots of those), “less admin”, “doing other people’s jobs for them”, “inefficiencies elsewhere”, “surveys” (yes… sorry!), “interruptions”, “other people’s emergencies”

Because of these distractions, it’s taking you longer to complete your contracted research. You’re also trying to fit in a multitude of legitimate tasks… but in fragmented ways.

“with the science, and then the peer reviewing, grant writing, supporting students, teaching, outreach… my time is fragmented.”

And then, of course, a postdoc isn’t always just about doing the ‘work’. For many of you, it’s a stepping stone in a growing, increasingly autonomous, academic career… so you’re also trying to add in tasks that will promote your own career progression and finding that very hard to achieve. Three-quarters of you say that you don’t have enough time to write applications for funding or fellowships, to plan your career, or to write additional publications. And nearly 80% of you say that you don’t have time to develop opportunities for secondments or placements.

Tackling that fragmentation of time is key for many of you. Many of you asked for support in managing time both in terms of training and techniques. Some of you have discovered things like writing retreats, or are able to block out “chunks” of time to focus on “priority tasks” like writing.

“I recently attended the writer’s retreat day and found it invaluable. I would really benefit from more opportunities like this”

These are things that we’ll keep offering, along with more training and guidance.

But also, your career development…

But some of you identify that, even if you can find that time, it’s not easy to decide what the priorities are.

“We are valued primarily on grants and papers… However, if we don’t teach or perform [other] citizenship activities, we cannot be promoted.”

And sometimes guidance in that area is really polarised. While I’ve heard one senior academic say

“Find out what you need to do to be promoted, and focus only on those things – say ‘no’ to everything else”,

I’ve heard another say

“do EVERYTHING – grants, and papers, and articles, and peer reviewing, and teaching, and public engagement, and supervision, and mentoring, and sit on committees, and … and… and…”

And, of course, any extra work that you do on your core research is always gratefully received. Over half of you appear to be voluntarily doing ‘more’ on your core work than you strictly need to. And 13% are accepting additional work set by your PIs.

If that contributes to you achieving ‘success’ in whatever shape that comes, or building a CV for future success, then that’s great.

But what if it doesn’t?

And what if we’re not doing enough to support you in making choices about what does and doesn’t?

And what if you’re (then) not able to make choices, and take ownership of your time, and – therefore, also – your own future careers?

Postdoc-ing is not, in most long-term cases, a career (Elvidge et al. 2017). And so The Concordat for the Career Development of Research Staff says that we (the UoB) should provide a clear structure to help you understand and plan your career development.

It also says that you (research staff) have a responsibility to engage in pro-actively planning your careers. But it’s unreasonable to expect you to do that without good guidance and support.

It would appear from CROS that many of you are struggling in this, and we will be looking at how we can support you better.

CROS – How?

OK, so how do I fill in CROS? Filling in CROS requires your university email and some kind of online device. It’s very easy… because if you are eligible (which you are, if you are Research Staff at Bristol) then on or around the 1st May you’ll be sent an email directly from the Online Survey system. The email will contain a link which is individualised for you (1). All you have to do is click on it, and you’ll be taken directly to the online survey, which you then complete.

How long does it take? The survey is a bit of a beast, but shouldn’t take more than about 25 mins.  If it’s any incentive to finish it, remember that we only ask you to do it every two years, and that the questions put in there by Research Staff at Bristol are towards the end (!).

So I’ve filled it in… Once you’ve filled it in, you shouldn’t hear from the survey tool again. Although you might want to subscribe to the blog, or follow us on Twitter, or check the regularly Friday Bristol Clear Bulletin, as we’ll be releasing data that we get throughout the month.

And if I don’t fill it in… If you don’t fill in the survey from that first email, then you’ll get regular reminders throughout the month. You might also be encouraged in a more global sense by your Head of School or your School Research Staff Rep. We’re giving them completion rates for each School (although, anonymous, obviously).

I’m not sure I’ll have the time… We know time is tight, so we’re asking all Heads of School to make sure that PIs are aware of the need to complete the survey, and to allow their staff time to do so. We’re also hoping that some Schools will organise a ‘CROS hour’ at the same time where all researchers can stop and complete it. We’ll also be feeding (anonymous) response rates back to Heads of School throughout the month so that they can see how much harder they need to work to give you the chance to share your views.

Oh, and if bribery works for you, then we’re also giving away a new iPad 5 mini, and some Swoon Gelato giftcards to randomly selected completers of the survey, after it closes.  

(1) – We individualise the links so that we can use the online survey system to send out reminder emails to those who haven’t completed the survey. To be able to do this, we have to store some information about you, like your name and your email address. We *never* release this information out of the survey system, *never* allow anyone else to have access to the system, and *only ever* work with data that has been fully anonymised, so you can complete the survey safe in the knowledge that your answers will never be linked to you.

CROS – Why would I fill it in?

CROS is your chance, available every two years, to tell us your experience of what being a researcher at Bristol is like, and what more we can do to support you.

It’s not the only chance – you also get to fill in things like the Staff Survey – but it’s the only survey that is aimed specifically at research staff, and research staff alone. And it’s the only survey that delivers its data directly into Bristol Clear and hasn’t been digested by another part of the organisation.

Consequently, it’s a survey that we listen to carefully, and draw data from constantly to shape what we do.

The survey runs in May, for one month, and is then…

  • … analysed over the summer, compared with CROS data from across the UK, local data from the Staff Survey and other evidence we have from consultations with research staff.
  • Turned into a report which will be made available to everyone, researchers, managers, HoS, Deans, FRDs, PVCs, the VC… everyone. (see the 2015 here)
  • Turned into an Action Plan, which forms the backbone of what we (Bristol Clear, the Research Staff Working Party) then prioritise over the next two years. (see the 2015 here)
  • Combined with data from other research staff at other universities to generate a national report. (2015, 2017)

CROS is recognised as an ‘official’ survey for university data-gathering purposes… it’s supported by HR, the Research Staff Working Party, and the university’s management more generally. That means that what you tell us carries weight, and is reported. That’s why, this year in particular, we’ve worked closely with research staff to ask the questions that they want to answer, so that you can tell us what you want to tell us. This year, research staff have added questions on well-being, work-life balance, and Progression and Promotion.

CROS will launch on the 1st May. Please support us to support you, by filling it in as honestly as possible, and encouraging others to do the same.

If you have any questions about the CROS survey, then please let us know by emailing us at

CROS – Bristol’s Own!

This is the story of CROS, and its origins, in the University of Bristol (1).

Once upon a time… researching in universities was a bit of a gig economy.

Hmm… *pauses and glances cynically at the audience*

Anyway, back to the story.

Back in the post-war period, universities would employ (often graduate) contract researchers to carry out specific research tasks. Some of them did one contract. Some did more. Some became lecturers. Some didn’t. There weren’t many research jobs – but that was OK because universities weren’t so reliant upon research income and lecturing posts were easier to get, and there weren’t many PhDs, and so the whole situation ‘gigged along’ reasonably happily.

But then, in the 70s, more people started getting PhDs (2). And then industrial sponsorship and the gradual commercialisation of universities meant more postdoctoral positions… that were then taken by those with the PhDs, who then wanted more research positions… and at some point in the 1990s, the situation evolved into one very much like the present one, in which a community of research staff (highly skilled in research, and in their own specialist area) were employed on temporary contracts by universities… until the research was done. Then they were largely left to fend for themselves.

In 1996, most of those involved in Higher Education and research funding (the research councils, the British Academy, and bodies like the wonderfully entitled “Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals”) agreed that “something must be done” to support the rising number of staff in the universities who were on temporary research contracts, to make sure that they weren’t being taken advantage of, and to explore how to equip them to find jobs outside of H.E. when they were done. Together, they drafted a ‘Concordat’ (basically, a contract) to “provide a framework for the career management of contract research staff in universities and colleges”. A copy of it is available at

The Concordat went down well. But it was only a piece of paper and wasn’t ‘enforceable’ in any sense.

What was needed was evidence – that would show which universities were failing and where, which were succeeding and where, and who could learn from whom how to do better.

And so in 2002, a group that included a resourceful and imaginative HR manager from the University of Bristol, along with a manager from Bristol’s Institute for Learning and Research Technology came up with a proposal… they would get funding from HEFCE, to set up a new online survey tool to run a new survey every other year or so, which would tell them how well universities were doing in holding to the Concordat. (3)

The online survey tool was Bristol Online Surveys – upon which the survey still runs. And the survey was the ‘Contract Researchers Online Survey’, which quickly became the ‘Careers in Research Online Survey’ = CROS (4)

(1) For those interested in the history of the CROS (!… I mean… I am… which others might find a little embarrassing, but I’m not ashamed) there’s a brief timeline on the Vitae website. What the timeline doesn’t mention is Bristol’s role. I mean, why would they? But *I* know this stuff because somewhere between completing my PhD in 2009 and now, in amongst the postdoc work and other bits, I worked for Bristol Online Surveys and was the person mainly responsible for delivering the CROS survey and training, which contained a brief ‘historical’ bit. I never thought it would be useful until now!

(2) David Bogle has written a History of the PhD which is interesting reading for those who, like me, are interested in this stuff.

(3) Projects like this were the order of the day when I worked in IT. A policy concept (the Robert’s report – also 2002), an online-based IT innovation and bob’s your designated relative.

(4) Commonly pronounced ‘CROSS’ – because ‘CROZ’ just sounds really naff.

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