In which I cling on

Recently I was kindly invited by the University of Southampton’s branch of the University and College Union to give a talk about the casualization of research jobs. ‘Casualization’ refers to the state whereby workers are employed in a disposable fashion instead of being taken on long-term. Most early-career academic researchers in the UK, who are collectively responsible for generating the vast majority of scientific data, are employed on fixed-term contracts (77%, according to a 2011 survey by Vitae, in direct contravention of the 2008 Concordat), or on open-ended contracts which are unstable because they rely on soft money, and as such often end in redundancy.

Although research is a popular and oversubscribed profession because of the excitement and freedom of doing creative work, it is widely acknowledged to have many drawbacks compared to other professions. But in a 2011 survey conducted by Science is Vital on more than 700 UK researchers across all levels of experience, casualization was cited as the very top concern – ahead of pay and other common complaints.


As an individual, I’d have to agree that short-termism and its affiliated career uncertainty is my biggest problem with the scientific profession too. As an exercise for the talk I was giving, I thought it might be useful to make a flow chart of my professional career in terms of contract length (with relative salary indicated by the yellow stars). Although I know I’ve had a long and tortuous progression, something immediately sprang out at me when I put it all together in one diagram: in the private sector, I’ve been offered a permanent position within a few months of joining a company – every time. In academia, I’ve never been offered one.

Career Path

But at least my immediate future is now secured. From April, I’ve been placed as a named investigator on someone else’s grant, so I can carry on with the same work I’ve been doing. (It’s a mark of how long I’ve been on an open-ended contract, renewed every few months at the last second, that a year can seem like an eternity). With some great papers coming out, and bolstered by an external grant I’ve recently won, I hope to use the coming period to secure one of the few independent fellowships that don’t have age restrictions – fingers crossed.

About Jennifer Rohn

Scientist, novelist, rock chick
This entry was posted in Careers, Staring into the abyss, The profession of science. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to In which I cling on

  1. Eva says:

    Wait, independent fellowships have age restrictions?! I had no idea, and that’s rather harsh. Why is that? What if people start their science studies at a later age?

  2. Sorry, I wasn’t clear. Age as in how long you’ve aged after your PhD, not absolute age generally. Though I have in the past seen a few with concrete age limits listed, but I think this might now be illegal in the EU.

  3. Eva – you need to read the back catalogue here at Jenny’s blog.

    Jenny – congrats on the one year, the forthcoming papers, and the new grant. 🙂

  4. Thanks Winty. I keep hoping for a miracle.

  5. Jenny Koenig says:

    I think the impact of short-termism on a scientist’s self-efficacy is really important but I’m not sure it’s that well recognised. When I was a contract researcher, long-enough ago for me to be able to look upon it with some distance, I instinctively saw the lack of renewal of a contract as some judgement upon my intrinsic ability or value as a scientist. In contrast, I moved from academic research to consultancy and was then pitching for pieces of work. When a proposal was not funded I just assumed that it wasn’t a good fit or the client had other ideas but I didn’t take it as a judgement on my ability. Which makes me wonder *why* short termism is such a problem. In my case I think it ate away at my confidence or self-efficacy but wonder whether that is true for others or whether there is some other impact.

  6. Thanks for your comments, Jenny. I don’t, however, see short-termism in science as a knock to a researcher’s self-confidence or self-efficacy – it could hardly be that since the vast majority of all academic research jobs (96% in the UK) are temporary. What it does do is make it very difficult for scientists to plan for the future – chasing the contracts, they move from city to city and country to country, which often means they have no meaningful pension, are unable to get on the housing ladder or start a family. (It’s difficult to satisfy requirements for university maternity pay, for example, if you need to be in place for 3 to 12 months before and return to work a set number of months afterwards, and your contract is shorter than that total period). Also, the older and more experienced you are, the harder it is to find employment, because short-termism favors young, cheap labor over expertise that would command a higher salary.

    I don’t think it’s fair to compare a profession, like science, to a freelance or consulting job where you are in control of your pitches and can demand a very high salary for your services. Working for yourself, these are fair disadvantages that come with the territory and that you are aware of in advance. But the vast majority of young scientists are lured into academia with implicit promises of a stable job at the end, even though the chances of achieving this are (in the UK, at last count) vanishingly small. Many would have been better off leaving academia after earning their PhD, instead of tread-milling for a number of postdoctoral years getting older and more expensive, only to have to leave academia anyway in the end.

  7. I recall “young investigator” type awards here in the past that had age limits – a requirement that the applicant had to be under 45 I think. Your comment above made me realize how discriminatory this is and wonder whether this is still the case – and it apparently isn’t. The ones I found were as you describe in your response to Eva’s comment: within five, or seven, years of first appointment, for example. I’m sure they used to have “real” age limits though.

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