MUT prepares staff for NRF ratings

MUT staff that attended the meeting. Research leaders, from left, Dr Jordaan, Dr Mienie, and Professor Sibiya

As the celebration dust begins to settle after staff members in the Faculty of Natural Sciences received their National Research Foundation (NRF) rating last year, the Research Directorate is planning on increasing the number of staff with NRF ratings.

In an information session that the Research Directorate hosted off-campus on 18 January 2023, it became clear that the journey towards being a rated researcher is not an easy one. About 20 academics, most of whom have PhDs, interacted with presentations from various members of the University that gave them advice on how to apply for the NRF rating, and what it means to be an NRF-rated researcher.

Dr Maryam Amra Jordaan, the University’s NRF Administrator in the Research Directorate, said the NRF rating system “remains the benchmark for research excellence, bringing prestige to both the researchers who receive the award and the institution where they are based”. Dr Jordaan said that the University has seen growth in NRF-rated researchers – from six in 2022 to an additional five researchers in 2023. These include the Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Research, Innovation and Engagement, Professor Nokuthula Sibiya, and Professor Theophilus Davies, a Research Professor in the Faculty of Natural Sciences. Both professors received C2 ratings, as well as Dr Ebenezer Oluwakemi,  Dr Njabulo Gumede, both from the Department of Analytical Chemistry;   and Dr Devashan Naidoo,  from the Department of Nature Conservation, who are all Y2-rated.

The directorate invited NRF representatives Vuyo Mliswa, who served as a Professional Officer for the past five years at the NRF Reviews and Evaluation unit, and NRF Professional Officer, Jelka Monyela. The two joined the event virtually to provide information as well as a practical session on the new NRF connect system.

Dr Gumede and Dr Devashan Naidoo informed the prospective applicants how they applied, and what resulted in their applications succeeding. Both Drs Gumede and Naidoo emphasized that the peers, who review the applications, are more interested in what the applicant does, post their PhD studies. You must show some independence from your supervisor, said Dr Gumede. Dr Gumede also said that the applicant needs to give a clear indication that they have a plan for what they will be focusing on, in a reasonable period to come.

Dr Anette Mienie, the Director of the Research Directorate, discussed the common pitfalls encountered during the application process. Dr Jordaan provided information on the internal review processes as well as hints on how to improve application submissions. Dr Jordaan informed the academics that the Research Directorate has assembled an expert panel comprised of our MUT retired Research Professors to vet the applications, and to help strengthen them before they are sent to the NRF. These experts are Professor Aroonkumar Beesham, Professor Davies, Professor Paul Musonge and Professor Marcel Odhiambo Ohanga.

Dr Anette Mienie emphasized the need for applicants to focus on one area of study, and this must be very clear so the adjudication process will be easy.

Said Dr Mienie: “If the areas of specialisation are too broad the panel will struggle to find reviewers, as all fields must be covered, and it might indicate that you do not have a coherent focus.   No clear focus, no rating.”

Dr Mienie also warned academics to be extra careful when choosing journals to publish with. She told academics to stay away from predatory journals, advice that has been sounded by several leading staff members at the University.

Drs Mienie, Gumede and Naidoo impressed upon the academics the need for submitting research work that would have a meaningful impact on the adjudicators. The most meaningful work would be the one that has the applicant as a leading contributor to the work. Dr Gumede said the one where the applicant is the sole author is even more meaningful. This indicates independence from your supervisor, said Dr Gumede. Dr Gumede also added that work not linked to the applicant’s PhD would be regarded as ‘post PhD’, and would have a bigger impact on the adjudicators.