What do researchers and the Lohar tribes of India have in common? On face value not much if anything. However, both lead a wandering nomadic lifestyle.
Just as the Lohar move from place to place selling their services as skilled blacksmiths, so do researchers, moving between institutes supplying their accumulated wisdom and honed research skills to principal investigators. Just as the Lohar are bounded by family ties, all researchers, irrespective of their chosen field are also bonded, specifically by a common experience; the fixed term contract.
For the majority of your time spent employed within academia, fixed term contracts are the norm and part of the wider research culture within higher education, which in recent decades has seen a gradual decline in permanent academic appointments and an increase in fixed term positions. Over the last 3 years The University of Manchester has employed a number of its researchers (including permanent staff linked to external funding) on fixed contracts, which can range in their duration. This bias towards fixed term positions appears to be prevalent in natural and biological sciences, where research intensity is high. Has anything been done to reverse this trend? In response to an increasing number of fixed term contracts a European directive (Council Directive 99/70/EC of 28 June 1999), concerning the framework agreement on fixed-term work, was formulated and has since been enacted in the UK through the Fixed Term Employee (Prevention of Less Favourable Treatment) Regulations 2002, which guarantees those of you on fixed term contracts the same employment terms and conditions offered to permanent staff . Nevertheless, researchers employed on fixed term contracts still face a different scenario to their colleagues who enjoy permanent employment.
The raison d’etre for fixed term contracts is primarily to facilitate completion of a specific task or project. However, such contracts can also be deployed to include circumstances where there is a need to provide temporary cover, or where specialist knowledge is required. But what are the advantages and disadvantages of using fixed term contracts and to whom do they benefit? This question was addressed as far back as 2002 in a House of Commons Science and Technology report It concluded that from the perspective of funding bodies and the University, this arrangement provides a degree of flexibility to manage research and also provide an effective means of ending projects that have lost viability. Crucially however, the risk of acquiring future research income is transferred from the University to the researcher, who is required to seek funding through grant applications. However, the report acknowledged that fixed term contracts contributed to high staff turnover; disrupting the continuity of research and leading to a gradual erosion of expertise thereby reducing the quality of research.
From the view of a researcher, short-term contracts provide an opportunity to conduct interesting and rewarding research and an opportunity to switch between other fields. Indeed, it has been argued that the use of fixed term contracts is inherent to good research as it serves to mobilise researchers and encourage the transfer of experience and knowledge between institutions at both a national and international level. Crucially, this helps foster collaboration between research groups, stimulate debate and promote the exchange of ideas, which provide the ideal foundations for creating a dynamic and innovative research environment. Despite these benefits however, working within a fixed time frame presents researchers with a number of challenges.
Among the majority of researchers, the most common concern raised is the nomadic nature of research, with many researchers working from contract to contract, which can generate a high degree of career instability and uncertainty. Even maintaining relationships or beginning a family can be made more complicated. This is exacerbated
in cases where relationships exist between two researchers leading to the “two body dilemma:” the problem of both partners obtaining contracts at the same university or at institutes within commutable distance. Long-term financial planning is also a further concern; any gaps between successive contracts can affect both employment rights
and pension contributions. The accessibility to credit can become limited, especially with regards to mortgages, with many providers requiring a minimum term not only spent in employment, but also remaining on a contract before they are willing to approve an application.
Taking all these points into consideration, how do you manage the challenges and make the most of a fixed term contract? Firstly, you should create an individual career development plan that clearly states your goals, and enables you to reflect on your abilities and skills and identify areas you need to develop. A good starting point is the Vitae Researcher Development Framework, which details personal qualities and professional standards for researchers. The Framework allows researchers to identify gaps in their development, and assign priority to these sections. To support personal growth, The University of Manchester and dedicated Researcher Development Teams operate the Research Staff Development programme, which aims to facilitate research output and support career development. Training is provided through workshops, booked online via the University’s online training catalogue, which focus around research, service and leadership, teaching and learning, academic enterprise and knowledge transfer and career management. If you are an externally funded researcher, the Faculty of Biology Medicine and Health runs a dedicated Fellowship academy to provide support and guidance for fellowship applications and interviews.
In situations where no specific course exists to address your training needs, an alternative strategy to explore is one to one coaching, where researchers can access tailored coaching with a professional mentor. The reasons many researchers seek coaching are often highly varied, says Dr Rachel Cowen, a Researcher Development Officer in the Faculty of Biology Medicine and Health. “A recurrent theme is that researchers feel unable to progress further in their career and have trouble identifying their transferable skills.” This, explains Rachel, is a key reason one to one coaching has been brought into the University. “Coaching is available to assist researchers in not only identifying their skills and core competencies, but to build confidence, or find practical ways of dealing with difficult relationships either with a PI or other members of the research group.” She also states that “for many people one to one coaching helps researchers clarify career goals, realise their potential and see opportunities beyond academia.”
Despite the initial challenges of fixed term contracts, you may still aspire to a career in academic research. However, this is no easy feat; in the UK only ~ 3.5% of doctoral graduates go on to obtain permanent academic positions. If committed to staying the academic course, you would be advised to look into the University’s flagship scheme, Researchers into Management. This is an accredited programme that provides training for running an independent research group, including managing investigators and their careers. The course provides an excellent introduction to management, a view echoed by Dr Suzanne Johnson, Social Responsibility Lead for the Division of Molecular & Clinical Cancer Sciences, who completed the course in 2015. Her reason for undertaking the course may strike a chord with many in a similar position: “I craved more recognition and began to question what other skills I might have and where I should focus my energy.” For Suzanne, elements of the course proved particularly insightful. “Gaining an appreciation of the scale and structure of the University really helped with my personal perspective. Through learning how vital clear communication is, especially within such a large institution, I was able to recognise where I could make changes to my own practise quite quickly and become more visible.” The course consists of a 1-hour induction followed by a minimum of 6 credits worth of units, with each unit taking up approximately 18 hours of guided learning and coupled with preparation of assignments and private study. You can expect the programme to be around 100 hours of learning time, so make sure you can commit before applying.
When coming to the end of a research contract you’re not simply cut adrift without support. The University also runs the redeployment register; essentially a list of all employees whose contract is coming to end. You submit a CV and are placed on the register 4 months prior to the end of your contract. When vacancies appear HR staff liaises with suitable candidates (hopefully you) based on the requirements of the advertised role. To facilitate the transition between research contracts or taking up employment elsewhere, you can also take advantage of the University’s Extended Access to emails and e-resources. This policy provides research staff with access for 12 months beyond the funding date of a fixed term or open ended contract linked to finite funding. HR services contact you at both 6 and 3 months prior to the end date of your contract to offer you this service, so be sure to respond by email in order to opt in.
On a final note, actively managing and planning your career while on a fixed term contract can be demanding at times, yet it’s important to not lose perspective on your life and relationships outside of work. Maintaining a sense of happiness and fulfilment while being able to relax and minimise stress, all help to make a research career highly enjoyable. With this in mind, it’s well worth investigating the University’s Well-being Strategy, “Six Ways to Well-being,” which provides information, guidance and practical activities to help maintain a healthy work-life balance (see this issue’s article “Being Strategic About Your Health and Well- being” for further details).
Being a researcher in today’s modern academic environment can be challenging both personally and financially, but it does offer opportunities unrivaled in most other forms of employment. As long as you keep your career goals in mind and make use of available opportunities, you can be certain of putting yourself in the best position for the next stages of your career.