Researchers’ Journeys Blog Series | Dr Eilidh Garrett

A ’career’ path?

Eilidh joined the University of Edinburgh as a senior researcher during the first week of lockdown, 2020. Prior to that she had spent 30 years as a contract researcher in a number of universities across the UK moving across the disciplinary gaps between history, geography and population studies.

Until 1990 my academic career followed a fairly conventional path: PhD, post-doc position, ‘substitute lecturer’ for a year, followed by a lecturing position in London. The latter again started out as a one-year post standing in for a senior academic, but at the end of the year I was invited to stay on. Two years later, in 1990, the drive for funding in my field was such that it felt as though I either had to shift my whole research focus from historic Europe to the AIDS epidemic in the Global South or change career. While I would have been interested to pursue an AIDS research agenda, my skills set was not greatly suited to the task. At that crossroads a 5-year research post at another institution was advertised. The job description looked as though it had been written for me – although this was not the case – and on being offered the post, I opted to step away from lecturing into what has turned out to be a 3 decade-long research career.

The research group I joined was incredibly supportive and collegiate, with everyone from senior professors to the newest post graduate as well as academic visitors meeting each morning over coffee to discuss ongoing work, try out new ideas and listen to problems. We worked together and socialised together, each person’s skills and contributions being recognised as part of the whole. At the end of the first five years everyone was very pleased when a further 5 years funding was awarded. We were well aware of our privileged position and understood that many other researchers led a much more precarious existence.

Five years later the funding body’s priorities had changed, and it became obvious that from then on funds were going to have to be sought through individual grants. It was by no means certain, of course, that these would materialise. At this point, in my late 30s, I had been married for 8 years and had a 3-year-old son, having lived in one University town while my partner/husband lived in another for the best part of 15 years, as posts in our respective fields were few and far between. We decided that I would not immediately pursue any grants but move into one household with my husband as the main earner and ‘see what came up’.

A short time later I was approached by a researcher from another institution in a different part of the country with whom I had previously worked. He had won a research grant and felt that I had the combination of skills needed to help conduct his research project. He was also happy for me to work remotely from home, visiting his institution from time to time. Although this was in the very early 2000s, this arrangement appeared to work well; I had enough experience and self-motivation to work unsupervised and the project was successfully completed. I was then able to obtain work on a similar basis with members of the research group I had worked with previously. Since then, I have participated in a number of research projects at a handful of institutions in the UK, and have contributed to several European based projects, all working mainly from home. I have been in the lucky position that I have never had extended periods of unemployment, and have been able, and was indeed sometimes encouraged, to work part time as it helped to keep research costs down, but also left me free to do school runs etc. There have been periods where I have

been ‘resting’ between grants and was not always certain that I would find further employment in an academic research setting. Thankfully these periods were not too protracted, and I managed to find academic related work to ‘tide me over’.

There are some negatives to balance this generally positive experience. It has often struck me that if I was a single parent, or the principal earner in my household, I could not have pursued this career ‘strategy’; it would have been impossible to be sure that household bills would be paid. I have been very lucky that my PIs and colleagues have been supportive of my ‘working from home’. This may well be because of the long ties that I have had with almost all of them, so they know that they can discuss with me what is needed and that I will undertake the work in collaboration with them. I am not sure that new, more junior, researchers would have been allowed such freedom before the pandemic.

That said, although I had collaborated with the team I now work for a considerable number of years before I officially joined them, there was something of a culture shock in moving to a new university, as the institution, the department and the research institute are all run on rather different lines from previous workplaces. As well as administrative differences, there are also research culture differences to navigate and, I suspect, the pandemic has accelerated change across the wider research environment. While my colleagues have been very supportive, there have definitely been times when I have not known the questions to ask, or even that I should be asking questions. This situation is not a new one but may have been exacerbated in recent years as everyone has had to adjust to a hybrid working environment.

‘Early career researchers’ may, like ‘junior doctors’, expect a few years of constant upheaval from one contract to the next, but this becomes very difficult and costly to sustain once partnerships, families and house purchases are underway. Long-term researchers will have such barriers to surmount when moving between institutions, and the longer their ‘career’, the more difficult it may be for them to physically make such moves. Even those with long running research ‘careers’ – may not view themselves as having a ‘successful’ or ‘long-term’ career as their work-experience may feel very ‘stop-start’ and any progression extremely slow.

Long term researchers build up considerable skills portfolios on which PIs, who often have many other demands on their time, often rely to push the project through to completion. It is a source of worry that, if each new research grant is expected to recruit only junior researchers for both research culture and economic reasons, rather than retain more senior research staff, there is a loss of knowledge and expertise – and projects will proceed more slowly as the new recruits have to gain the necessary skills and ‘bed in’ to the team.

Finally, one disappointment of the years is that despite acquiring many years’ experience, and even although I helped to both design research projects and write research proposals, I found, along with many other long-term researchers, that because I was not a ‘permanent’ member of a University’s staff, I had to accept that funding bodies’ rules meant that I was often ruled out from the role of PI. While this can be an advantage in some situations, it has undoubtedly coloured the view I and others have of my research career; a feeling of always the bridesmaid, never the bride. This situation seems somewhat unfair and I would strongly urge both the research councils and the universities to reconsider their policies in this regard.

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