HEA Senior Fellowship: getting started

‘Senior Fellow’ has always struck me as a singularly inappropriate term. Advance HE (formerly the Higher Education Academy) insist that its different categories of Fellowship award (Associate, Senior and Principal, as well as Fellowship) are not ‘levels’ but merely descriptors: that is, there is no hierarchy. I’m inclined to agree: it describes a different role, rather than greater skill in education – yet the word ‘senior’ tends to confuse people. It puts people off applying who should get it, and contributes to pressure (often from within institutions) on senior academics to apply – when one can be a perfectly good, and indeed senior, academic and still not be eligible for Senior Fellowship. 

‘Senior Fellowship’ comes under Descriptor 3 of the UK Professional Standards Framework, which is the framework that UK higher education (and some institutions beyond the UK) uses to recognise professional development in relation to teaching and learning. The UKPSF has four ‘descriptors’ – levels at which your work in university-level teaching and learning can be recognised with an award:

  • D1 – Associate Fellowship – recognises roles in teaching that focus only on one or two aspects. This might just be classroom teaching, if you’re a PhD student who teaches, for example, or marking and feedback, or supporting students: others who might get an Associate Fellowship include medical educators who teach during their clinical work, or Professional Services staff who run a few workshops or help students as part of their role. 
  • D2 – Fellowship – is the most common award, and is usually linked what’s seen as a ‘full’ academic role: it requires you to cover teaching, planning teaching, assessment, student support and self-development. This is usually the level to which new lecturers are required to get recognition, as part of their probation. Often they do this through a taught programme (sometimes known as a PGCert, PGCAP, PGCHE) of some kind. 
  • D3 – Senior Fellowship – requires engagement with all the same areas that Fellowship covers, but in more depth, and crucially, requires ‘Successful co-ordination, support, supervision, management and/ or mentoring of others (whether individuals and/or teams) in relation to teaching and learning.’ Teaching the teachers, essentially. 
  • D4 – Principal Fellowship – is about influence more broadly than individuals: institutional influence, national influence, and influence across the HE Sector in the UK and perhaps beyond. 

You can achieve recognition by applying direct to Advance HE or by using accredited routes – many universities run taught programmes which are accredited and are also ‘accredited’ to award certain categories of Fellowships themselves (see here for an explanation of the different routes). Many institutions who award Fellowships themselves also design their own application formats, and these vary so much I won’t go into them today. 

I’m going to focus on the standard format as used by Advance HE and also many institutions, including QMUL, where I was awarded mine. This format is a written application of six thousand words, divided into three parts: 

  • The Reflective Account of Practice: an account of your practice through the last five or so years, including how you ended up where you are today, and how you developed as a teacher and mentor; 
  • Two Case Studies, which go into more depth on a particular project or aspect of your practice. 

You can divide your 6000-word allotment equally between the three parts, but some people choose to have a slightly longer Reflective Account of Practice or one Case Study that’s longer than the other. 

How do I know if I’m ready for Senior Fellowship? 

One way to find out, especially if you’re not at all sure which category of Fellowship would fit you, is to use Advance HE’s Fellowship Category Tool, which will ask you lots of questions and then send you an email advising you which category fits best. If you’ve already done this, or already know through other means that you want to apply for Senior Fellowship, there are a few key criteria: 

  • Have you been doing your job for more than a year? The Descriptor requires ‘sustained’ work influencing and mentoring others.This is a bit vague, and different panels may have slightly different interpretations, but my most generous one would be that it needs to be over more than one year, ideally across multiple academic years, so that you’ve seen programmes play out and completed cycles of planning, practice, reflection and improvement. 
  • Do you actually influence others? This could be in the form of formal programme leadership, but it can be informal – observing people’s teaching and giving them feedback, helping people develop their teaching or facilitation skills, advising on the development of programmes. The important thing is that you can provide evidence of this, so you might need to get people to write you sickening things like ‘Emma helped me improve my webinar facilitation’. 
  • Do you engage with all the Dimensions of the UKPSF – the Areas of Activity (As), Core Knowledge (Ks) and Professional Values (Vs)? This can feel a bit of a tick-box exercise, but it’s part of the criteria, so if you don’t (for example) engage in any way with learning technologies or acknowledge diverse student needs, you can’t be awarded Senior Fellowship. 

It may be that you almost meet these criteria – in which case, use them as a checklist or guide to development. A good test is to think of what your two Case Studies would be (assuming your institution follows the standard Senior Fellowship template). If you can’t think of two specific Case Studies, it may be that you aren’t quite at the stage to write your application and you need to seek some more SFHEA-level opportunities.

I think I’m going to be ready soon, but I don’t feel quite there yet – what should I do? 

Knowing the criteria for Senior Fellowship in advance is helpful both for shaping what you do, and ensuring you collect all the evidence. Seize opportunities to mentor and influence people – accept requests for peer observation and mentoring, help people develop modules, take on leadership positions. Once you have those, make sure you document every little bit of influence and leadership you personally have. Save every email that says ‘thank you for doing X’, in particular, and get used to asking people to write a few lines about your skills as an observer/mentor. In my experience, they’re more than happy to do so. 

Gathering evidence to document your personal influence/leadership can be excruciating. Contrary to the stereotype of academics as selfish lone wolves, putting in hours in the library or the lab, most drafts I see are in fact too collaborative. They give credit to their teams and explain how ‘we’ did X and Y. Morally, that’s great, and in almost every other situation that makes you a fantastic person to work with. But the Senior Fellowship application is about you , not your team. It’s a claim that you personally have had sustained influence on others’ teaching; so to support that claim, you have to evidence your own influence. This is the exact opposite of good collaborative writing: you’d never write a methods section that said ‘Author 1 suggested doing a questionnaire with a Likert Scale, and Author 2 contributed questions 1, 3, 5 and 9 of the 12’. Your Senior Fellowship application fulfills a very specific purpose, however, and one that’s different to most of the writing you do: so put aside your qualms and be selfish. Retell the story through the most egotistical way possible. (But then maybe buy your collaborators a cup of coffee to thank them for their contribution, or even better – help them write their applications…)

I don’t have an official leadership role – can I still apply for Senior Fellowship? 

Yes! I’m now acting as Director of Taught Programmes, but I didn’t have an ‘official’ role when I applied: my two Case Studies were on (1) leading a team-taught module, and helping people on that module develop their teaching; and (2) teaching observations, showing how I’d helped people develop as a result of the feedback I gave them after watching them teach. Other ways you can have non-formal influence include ad-hoc workshops or presentations – if you’ve done something innovative in your teaching, find some way to share it with colleagues, even if it’s just within your department or (however obscure) subject area. Can the annual conference on Pageant History host your paper/panel/poster on teaching pageantry, for example? 

Beyond teaching, you may do some informal mentoring of junior colleagues that doesn’t involve workshops, but just taking them for a coffee and a chat every few weeks: if you can get them to write a few sentences about how you’ve helped their teaching, and reflect yourself about how you’ve approached it, that counts. If you hadn’t really had a specific approach but just tried to be a nice mentor, maybe take a few weeks to read up around mentoring and think about your practice – what could you improve? Reflect, make a few changes (if needed), then ask your mentee what’s helped. Make sure it’s related, however loosely, to teaching, too; being a research mentor is fantastic but not what Senior Fellowship is about. This includes any work they do with students or around education, so you might mentor colleagues around student support (personal tutoring or academic advising), module design or use of particular technologies/systems at your institution. The key thing is getting them to tell you about it – which, as I’ve said, is a horrible prospect but almost always produces amazing evidence for your application, so is definitely worth it. 

I work in Professional Services – what about me?

Working in Professional Services is definitely not in itself a barrier to applications – at every event I’ve been to, Advance HE representatives have been keen to emphasise that institutional schemes should be supporting PS colleagues to apply. The key is ensuring that you have enough activity that relates to teaching and learning, and that the mentoring, influencing and leadership you do also relates to teaching and learning. 

Activities might include: 

  • Running sessions for students and staff on your specialism – e.g. Library and information sessions, enrolment briefings, staff training and development. If you feel as though those things are just information transmission, this is a chance to develop in that – what could you do to make that session feel more like somewhere you can develop as a teacher? 
  • Advising staff on areas in which you specialise, including programme and module design (for those of you working in Registry or related areas); disability or inclusivity; information or digital literacy; international student issues. This could be done with individuals or groups, and is also a way you might demonstrate influence. 
  • Contributing to broader institutional discussions on teaching and learning. For instance, you might be a Disability Services or Library representative on a committee looking at new regulations, or working on new Admissions processes and thinking about how students are supported through Admissions and Enrolment. 
  • Giving feedback on practice, be that students’ or staff. You might be a learning technologist or Library staff member feeding back to staff on their course materials, for example. As feedback is in itself an Activity (A3) in the UKPSF, your feedback doesn’t need to be on teaching to count as A3 – but if you want to claim it as influence, it does need to be affecting teaching or learning. In the same way, academics giving feedback on student Geography coursework is A3, but giving feedback on staff Geography teaching could count as Senior Fellow-level influence. 

To gauge whether you have sufficient influence or leadership to apply for Senior Fellowship, try giving yourself a chunk of time to think about, and write down, everything that has changed as a result of your work (or might have changed). What have you helped people do differently? Don’t filter; just write as much as you can. It may be useful to look back at your calendar (or is it just me who forgets everything I did more than six months ago?). Only when you have everything down should you start filtering: cross out everything that absolutely doesn’t have anything to do with teaching, learning or students. What you have left should give you some indication as to whether you have enough to start writing, or whether you need to spend a while doing a bit more of the activities above. 

I’m ready to write, but I hate it and I don’t want to. You can’t make me! 

I’ve been there! I hated writing it too, and I love writing so much I’ve gone on about Senior Fellowship for over 2000 words. It can feel like all the worst aspects of a job application, but with the ill-defined pressure of the worst parts of public engagement. I also found myself continually doubting my own abilities and whether I deserved to be a Senior Fellow. So if you feel this too, or any other negative feelings, know that you’re not alone. I found the following things helpful: 

Have a big initial planning session 

I started writing my Senior Fellowship application on a writing retreat. At the time, I felt a lot of pressure to be ‘writing’ – i.e. typing continuous sentences – but if I had my time again, I’d use the space to sit and think creatively, to plan my case studies and the outline of my reflective account. Remember that the planning stage is really an investigation into the evidence you have, and the evidence or activities that you still need – so if you end up with insufficient stuff to start writing, the plan has done exactly what it’s meant to do. You just need to step back a bit and give yourself some time to gather more of what you need. 

I found sitting at my work computer, with all my emails and documents at my fingertips, was helpful – I could sift through what I’d done and gauge the richness of evidence to judge which aspects would be a good case study and which ones would just be a line in the reflective account of practice. 

Set aside some time to work on it every week 

When I was doing well, that was Friday afternoon. It just gave me a space to gather my thoughts and revisit the application in a controlled manner. I wasn’t always ‘writing’ per se: quite often it was the mundane work of copying sentences from one format into another document. Gathering data for the application is just as much work, and I found was never wasted: once I had the evidence at my fingertips, I gained confidence – and this enabled me to think much more creatively about what my application would look like. 

Sit with all your evidence

Once you’ve done the initial round of evidence-gathering, sit with it and play with some ideas. Model a few different case studies, and storyboard your reflective account of practice. What story do you want to tell about yourself? How will you make the case that you are a Senior Fellow-level educator? 

Alternate writing, planning and editing 

This blog post by Inger Mewburn, AKA The Thesis Whisperer, is aimed at those writing up a PhD thesis, but I found its central advice useful long after I finished mine. Mewburn’s key point is that the process of creating writing is different to the more analytical process of editing and improving, but we sometimes feel so much pressure to do the latter that it stifles our ability to put words on the page. I found that this was true for the Senior Fellowship application. We usually refer to ‘writing’ a Fellowship application, and it implies – or at least it did to me – that if you are truly deserving of a Fellowship category, you will be able to sit down and a perfect, or near-perfect, APP will simply flow from your fingertips. The writing is an important part of the APP, it’s true, but equally important are the two parts either side: the planning and evidence-gathering, in which you work out what you want/need to say, and the editing, in which you review what you’ve said against the requirements of your Fellowship category. 

To slightly amend Mewburn’s tip, then, I would make time for evidence gathering and planning as well as editing. I did this eventually, but it took me several months of getting out a half-drafted APP, writing a few sentences and putting it away in disgust before I realised why I felt so lost whenever I tried to write. As with most academic articles, the writing is only one part of the creation process, and without the evidence at your fingertips – evidence you’ve had to work to gather – you can only go so far. 

Turn work into chunks

In the post linked above, Mewburn quotes her supervisor as saying that writing a thesis is like mucking out a smelly stable: ‘if you stay in the stable too long, the stink will kill you’. The same applies, probably more so, to any kind of Fellowship application. Everyone who’s ever written a job application knows how boring it is to constantly line edit a statement of what you’ve done in your previous roles and how amazing you’d be at this job. The same happens with Senior Fellowship applications, and at 6,000 words, unlike personal statements, they can’t usually be written in one fell swoop. So, like the smelly thesis, you need to tackle one wheelbarrow at a time. If you can carve out a time to work on it, make a list of small tasks of which you can tick off one or more during that time. ‘Write Case Study on Teaching Observations’ is a daunting instruction to face on a to-do list, but ‘Gather observation sheets’, ‘Copy participant reflections into document’, ‘Select useful quotations from reflections’ are all discrete, doable tasks – and get you much closer to the goal of actually writing that case study. 

Give yourself a mentor and a deadline

After all the advice above, you know what really spurred me on? The fact that I realised I only had one possible submission date for a QMUL Fellowship award panel before my amazing mentor David Andrew left the university. Until then, I’d spent two years ‘thinking’ about the application and doing absolutely nothing, because everything more immediate got in the way. It was only the concrete date looming that forced me to prioritise my Fellowship application above everything else I did. That, and David’s support. I can’t promise you that level of mentorship (though he does offer consultancy and coaching) but a deadline, and a supportive friend to provide advice and accountability, will provide a practical push that I couldn’t have submitted without. 

I hope this advice has been useful: please leave any tips of your own, or further questions, in the comments. Here’s my Account of Professional Practice, in case a concrete example is helpful – but of course applications can vary as widely as jobs in HE, which is to say, a great deal. 

(With thanks to @DrCTurner, @pedantka and @Brackers_ for the inspiration and useful questions!)

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