In this blog post, an anonymous long-term researcher in the College of Science and Engineering at the University of Edinburgh reflects on how the rigid career structures at universities and the lack of suitable permanent positions have impacted their career as well as affecting more generally the way in which science is conducted. This is the fourth blog post in a series of five focusing on the career paths of long-term researchers.
A recent paper (https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0274486) highlighted the fact that research leaders in academia (Principal Investigators – PIs) are expected to only work with a team of juniors (PhD students, and people a few years out of from being a student). In any other organisation, leaders/senior roles have teams consisting of both junior people and more established mid-level people. These mid-level people are crucial for continuity, experience, stability, management and a whole host of research-specific activities.
To do research well, we need to move away from inflexible research funding structures that are set up to support one senior person, and multiple junior people for short periods of time, because mid-level people are also needed. And moreover, these mid-level people already exist and are being employed inappropriately on fixed-term contracts. This problem is being recognised – the recent UKRI People and Teams Action Plan (https://www.ukri.org/publications/ukri-people-and-teams-action-plan/) notes that organisations receiving UKRI funding are expected to “progress towards … [t]he development of a diversity of project staffing models and redeployment processes that support a range of role types and mitigate the effects of disciplinary siloes, strong hierarchies and precarious employment.”
So how does this affect me as a long-term researcher? I’ve been employed (almost continuously) at the University of Edinburgh since 2007 on fixed term contracts. I have enquired about transferring to open-ended contract because of length of service, but I have told that it would be an open-ended contract subject to funding: my contract would have a review date set for when the funding ends, and there would be the same redundancy process when the funding finished as on a fixed-term contract. The only advantage would be in applying for a mortgage.
Because I’ve never been employed on an “real” open-ended academic contract in the UK, I have had fewer opportunities to apply for research grants, or I have needed an appropriately employed person to take on the role of PI with me as a Researcher Co-I (I would like to thank the people who have taken on that role and thereby enabled me to submit my own research ideas for funding).
But at this stage of my career, I am no longer looking to lead a research group as a PI. I want to work in a mid-level role and contribute my years of experience to someone else’s research vision. To some people, this may seem like a career regression but I refuse to see science as a process where individuals either become leaders or are viewed as not successful.
What does the rigid funding situation and career structure mean for me right now? It means time spent applying for lots of small grants (that we may not have applied for otherwise) to ensure employment between large grants. Research grants assume well-defined time boundaries on research projects but we all know that science doesn’t work like this. Our current research has momentum, but we need funds to support that momentum. I could find a non-academic job, and when the funds come in, someone could be employed to replace me. But we aren’t identical cogs in machine, and a lot would be lost: the understanding I have built up in this role that ensures I can do my job efficiently, future research ideas that I could have contributed, time spent for a new person to get up to speed, not to mention the advertising, interviewing and other overheads. Is this really the best way to do science?