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.
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.