Following a recent workshop that I hosted at Staffordshire University, with Professor Megan Lawton, and prompted by discussion on Twitter, I thought it was time to identify my own lessons learned and share tips for approaching a Principal Fellowship application in hope that it might help others. My own application, submitted in 2018, took me much longer than it should have done simply because I did not get step one right (see below). Once I located the things I wanted to explore  in my application, everything got much easier.  Here are my ten tips for developing a successful PFHEA claim.

1. Locate your evidence

PFHEA begins with the selection of evidence that will underpin the entire application (this is called the Record of Educational Impact or REI). This list contains the ‘stuff’ that you will write about when you undertake the reflective narrative. Initially I mistook this for a list of ‘things that you’ve done in your career’ – a bit like an itemised career history.  My early draft contained a list which contained relatively small things that I had achieved. The knock on effect was that when it came to writing, I was spreading myself too thinly and writing about single instances or events; I was not able to get the depth needed. Instead, I found it better to stand back and ask what have been the major chapters in my career? What are the areas of work that I have led? Where has my impact been?  By example, in my initial list I put things like ‘created and led the university’s teaching recognition scheme’ and ‘developed postgraduate provision around teaching and learning’. In a later version I collated all of this under the umbrella ‘Leading the creation and embedding of a cross-university staff development system’. Another example would be that in my early draft I cited the development of employer engagement contracts, I introduced innovative curricula to work-based learning and I supported colleagues in working with industry. Later all of this was collated under ‘Leading cross-university development of employer engagement provision to widen participation in higher education’. Moving away from individual items of practice (activity) and grouping them (in to clusters of activity) was a reflective process of stepping back. In turn this process helped me to see how ‘activities’ came together as a strategic unit. Later in the application it is much easier to reflect on a body of work, which was underpinned by values, strategy and institutional culture, compared to focusing on a single instance of work undertaken.

pfhea steps
Steps to move from initial thinking, to the formation of the REI and then to deeper reflection 

2. Work with a mentor

For me this was a must! The level of formality of a mentor relationship may depend on whether you are undertaking the PFHEA as part of an individual scheme, or applying direct to Advance HE. Either way a mentor can help you to see where to look for evidence, they can debate and discuss aspects of your application and provide critical feedback, they can signpost literature and encourage you. Ideally this person should know you well and already be a PFHEA so that they understand what is required.

3. Identify how you have led policy or strategy

It’s really important, but very tricky, to show how you have led policy and strategy relevant to learning and teaching. This is no time to be shy! Be bold and state your claim. We all work in teams, but it is absolutely necessary to point to you own role and contribution.  Every time you go to write ‘we’ – check yourself and switch to ‘I’. Writing about yourself at the expense of team members doesn’t mean that you are ignoring the work of others – simply, this application is about you! Locating your own contribution to strategy or policy may mean re-framing your account to be clearer about your own role; this step mitigates against ‘over claiming’. You may need to pin down which ‘slice’ of a policy or strategy you have led. For example in developing an assessment and feedback policy did you lead the overall coordination, or did you focus on the introduction of technology to formal feedback? In developing an inclusive policy did you write an overall strategy, or did you lead a strand of this, such as the use of technology for inclusivity?

4. Don’t just identify what you led, reflect on how and why you led that way

Presumably, if you are leading areas of work you have your own methods for such things as how you go about challenging the status quo, how you court buy-in from others, how you use evidence, data and research to make the case for change, or perhaps you have methods for how to work in a diverse and distributed team, or how to scale-up a development. To ensure your account is suitably reflective, consider discussing your leadership methods. Highlight what approach you used and why it was effective, and don’t be afraid to show any limitations and lessons learnt. It may also be appropriate to underpin this aspect of reflection with literature on higher education leadership.

5. Role and status is no guarantee of success – present your case accordingly

There can sometimes be a perception of hierarchy around UK PSF, such that senior staff feel that they align with Senior and Principal Fellowship. It’s important to remember that role and status in an institution is no guarantee that you can and will meet the criteria. Accordingly, write humbly no matter what your role. Use the criteria and make no assumptions.

6. Be clear of your impact

In any reflective writing it’s important to consider the impact of actions. The PFHEA criteria emphasise the scale of individual operation and influence.  Descriptor 4 has references to ‘organisational policies’ and championing within ‘institutional and/or wider settings’. It can be helpful to indicate your sphere of influence – e.g. How many staff have you influenced in a given area of work? How many students have benefited from a curriculum development? How many people interact with you on Twitter and what is your reach?  How many students have been influenced by a policy change that you made? Collating some numbers to indicate impact can really demonstrate the scale of your activity.

7. Draw on testimony

Actively ask colleagues to send you a note (a couple of sentences at most) about your impact and influence. You may need to ask for very specific things to support aspects of your Record of Educational Impact. Asking different colleagues to comment on different aspects of your REI will yield more helpful testimony to pepper through your application, compared to a general request for feedback. As you solicit testimony consider asking about the ripple effect – if you have influenced staff, ask what has been the impact on their students?

8. Consider how you will embed CPD and scholarship

Although there is a section for CPD, both CPD and scholarship can be used throughout an application to support the reflection and can be used to show an informed approach to practice. Ask yourself things like – What evidence did I use to support this project or strand of activity? How did I bring current thinking to this area of work? How did I engage with the wider HE community and how did this inform my practice or leadership? How did my own scholarship inform my thinking and activity? How did my scholarship drive this area of practice and give confidence to decisions made? As you draw in CPD and scholarship, remember i) There’s no need to list all of your own publications – just cite some of the key ones but take care to show their role in your thinking ii) Think broadly about what CPD is; remember it’s not just formal courses. Consider drawing on social media interactions, engagement with publications and policy commentary (WonkHE, Times Higher), professional networks, reading, and anything else from which you learn.

9. Contextualise your application

It may be useful to spend some words describing the unique context in which you work. How many staff and students do you have? What is your role? What is the institutional culture like? What are the institution’s priorities and specialisms? etc. When you then discuss aspects of your practice in your application bring out these contextual details so that your impact and leadership is better understood. For example part of my claim was about leading on online marking and technologies to support feedback. In my context at that time, this was innovative. For others, in different institutions, this may have been ‘just’ regular practice. Without sharing details of the practice context, the scale and scope of insights in the application could be misinterpreted and under-regarded.

10. Use exemplars

Like any application (or assessment) it is useful to see other peoples’ submissions to help conceive what a finished application may look like. If you have a colleague who is willing to share, this may provide help and inspiration. By request I am happy to share my own application for PFHEA.

11. And an extra tip (added June 2022) …. 

This is an additional point added because I have so many requests for  my application (which is fine) and I notice how much potential that there is for people to connect and meet others on the same journey – if you are looking at Principal Fellow visit the Aspiring Principal Fellows group on AdvanceHE Connect where you will get input from others and where you can ask questions of others going through the process.

And here are my notes from our workshop day which provide the basis of this list: