In the next two months, I am supposed to devise a Probation Professional Development Plan for a lectureship in the UK. People often declare probation to be a "paperwork exercise" but looking at the documents, I am to set my own goals for what I want to accomplish and I am supposed to make it challenging yet realistic. There are many questions I have for this exercise.

  • What happens if I am unable to deliver on my research goals? I am ambitious on what I plan to accomplish (hopefully many papers and grants), but it seems like not the best location to demonstrate this ambition? The documents seem to support you being very ambitious, but if I make bigger goals will I be penalized if I don't achieve them? This whole part of designing my own goals and then being graded on it is very counterintuitive for me.

  • In what ways should I expect clearing of probation to be decided?

  • How do probation reviews actually work in practice?

Edit: changed tags due to comment's suggestion.

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    I gather (based on a quick nose around your SE profile) that you're in pure maths: you might want to make this extra detail clear in the question. I haven't got a quick and useful answer off the top of my head but the first thing to do is to is to talk to whoever has been assigned as your "mentor" as a new member of staff, and to get as much advice from others in your department who have been through the same process. (Unlike e.g. tenure track, there is no sense that you are competing against other newly hired staff, except in the very vaguest "not wanting to look too much like a rube" sense) – Yemon Choi Jul 28 '18 at 0:18
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    BTW, I think "tenure-track" is a potentially misleading label. Having been on a tenure-track in Canada before taking up my present post in the UK, and having talked to friends about the tenure-track (in maths), passing probation in a UK pure maths department is nowhere near as formalized and demanding a process as going up for tenure. If you were thinking of the two as equivalent, then perhaps you might be putting yourself through unnecessary stress – Yemon Choi Jul 28 '18 at 0:24
  • @YemonChoi That very much depends on where you are and what you do - in my department probation review is very much seen like tenure review. You get 3 years. You have challenging criteria (mine were publish 3x3* or 1x4* paper first or last author, obtain a qualification in teaching and get at least £400k in research funding) and people who don't make the criteria are sacked. – Ian Sudbery Jul 30 '18 at 12:32
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    @IanSudbery Thanks for the warning and extra data. However, I did say "passing probation in a UK pure maths department" and I stand by this. The OP is going to be working in a maths department (admittedly with some math phys leanings) where I know one or two of the people already there. In particular I think the OP is almost certain to be asked to apply for a EPSRC-ish grant but probably won't be required to succeed as a condition to pass probation. Finally I reiterate that probation in a UK pure maths dept is far less rigid and demanding than the average corresponding tenure application in NA – Yemon Choi Jul 30 '18 at 12:39
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    Obviously if you know the department in question, then i'm sure your advice is the most relevant. My experience so far of the UK system has been that it is almost impossible to talk about the "average" department, even within a discipline. I do however think that it is become more common for probation to be less of a "paperwork only" exercise, and probation committees, requiring evidence packets etc, more common. – Ian Sudbery Jul 30 '18 at 12:48

I'm going to describe how they work in principle, and at my institution. As the comments from @Yemon Choi note, you'll really want to talk to your mentor to get a better understanding of how things happen in your institution.

First, the idea of designing your own goals and then being graded on it is central to performance reviews at all levels in my institution. After the initial document, these would usually be discussed and revised in each (yearly) meeting, but it's still up to you to put your goals down in your own words. This is, after all, part of what you do in writing a grant proposal: set your own goals for where you're going to get to.

Second, as far as possible, you should focus the goals you, personally can achieve. For example, you can apply for 2 external grants in a year1: you can't control if they're accepted or not. By making sure you list as goals what's under your control, you minimize the chance of not achieving them.

Third, as noted in the comments, this is not (meant to be) a competitive process. This should be about helping you develop and fit in as a member of staff. It should be about identifying which of your goals you have the skills and knowledge to complete, and which you need more training for. Have you been on the required training courses to administer a research grant, or to supervise a graduate student? Have you got the experience and skills to manage a research group of the size you want (more training to find and take there)? By saying where you want to be in terms of your career, your mentor and your reviewer should be able to suggest what you (and the department, and university in your support) need to do to get there. There's clearly a distinction to be made here between short term plans (do before the next review), medium term (before the end of probation), and long term (before you apply for promotion).

Fourth, make sure that you have plans and goals for all aspects of your job. If you're on a balanced role (as I would expect as you've termed it a lectureship), I would expect a 40-40-20 split across research, teaching, and administration (or service). Whilst the latter two are predominantly duties that are given to you, you should still have medium and long term goals as to how you want to develop your skills and what direction(s) you'd like to go in2. If nothing else, I'd expect "completing the required teacher training course" to be one of these.

On how completing probation is decided, and on probation reviews. Typically there will be a one-to-one meeting with your line manager on a regular (6-12 month) basis. You discuss your progress, saying how it aligns with your goals, and how your goals have adjusted. If, by the end of your probation you're working at a level of a lecturer in your institution, the line manager will recommend you progress. They may consult with other colleagues, particularly your mentor, but I believe the decision is usually down to them alone.

So, you should know what the role descriptors are for the lecturer role at your institution: I would expect that to be on your HR department's website or similar. You should also ensure at each one-to-one meeting that you have an explicit idea of how you're matching up to your line manager's expectations.

I'm not going to cover how the probation process can go badly, or go wrong, as I've very little experience in that, and it seems to be very case dependant. I would just note: this department has already put a lot of time, effort and money into hiring you so they want you to succeed. If you keep communicating well with your mentor and line manager, then you'll usually find it straightforward to fit in and meet expectations: that's exactly the point where probation becomes a paper exercise.

1: You won't have full control over submitting a grant, as your finance department, and line manager, and... will have a say: but you get what I mean, I hope.

2: Even if you want to focus 100% on your research, you can use these goals to attempt to control what tasks and duties you're given in order to get the "least bad" solution for you. Being, or at least appearing, willing to take on your full share of these duties is an important part of fitting in within the department.

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  • Thanks. I was wondering what it all meant. This actually sounds a lot like what we did (retired now) for post tenure annual review. Faculty makes a plan, revises it with advice from the dean and is then at least partially evaluated the next year on how well you fulfill it. The dean can suggest you do more when you work it out, of course, and can detail consequences if you don't. The results were mostly for salary increases since this was post-tenure. I found it to be very useful. It wasn't very time consuming after the first year since you develop your own boiler-plate for next year(s). – Buffy Jul 29 '18 at 14:04
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    +1 for ask your mentor! Actually, ask several people in case your mentor has a skewed or outdated perception. – Dawn Jul 30 '18 at 13:49

I think it is important to note that the process @Ian above outlines is not how it works everywhere.

Where I am you do set probation goals in discussion with your head of department, but there are some base line goals you have no choice over. For us these notably included securing (not just applying for) a full RCUK project grant sufficient to employ research assistance for 3 years. Success or failure at probation is decided by a panel of all HoDs in the faculty, along with the head of faculty. People can and have failed probation, sometimes against the wishes of the head of department.

All this is to say that it very much varies from place to place, and even time to time (strict criteria for probation is a new thing here) and you very much need advice from someone local.

You might be interested to know that a group of new PIs in the UK is currently processing data from a survey of how new hires at UK universities are treated, and one area of focus was probationary requirements. Look out for the results soon!

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  • Did you mean @Yemon ? – Yemon Choi Jul 30 '18 at 13:01
  • BTW I completely agree that advice from someone in the dept (and if possible the faculty) is crucial, and completely trumps anything I might have said above! – Yemon Choi Jul 30 '18 at 13:03
  • No, I did mean the other answer to the question by @Ian. – Ian Sudbery Jul 30 '18 at 13:06
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    +1 for pointing out this Varies Substantially. So you should definitely discuss with multiple people in your own department. By asking, you look wise for understanding how much the process varies, not foolish for being ignorant of a standard practice. – Dawn Jul 30 '18 at 13:50

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