Thoughts from Contract No. 17.
By Mila Petrova.
My latest mini-meltdown came after eight years in research employment, at the beginning of Contract No. 17. It came late. I’d lost a couple of thousand GBP from moving out hastily, lived for two months with my mum, moved far from the city of my university to use the affordable seaside lets in winter, and was about to live out of a suitcase in a youth hostel while my “permanent” accommodation became free. Three masters, PhD, top UK University and all. Most read paper of the month and a “will be delighted to hear about your ongoing work” letter from a senior parliamentary official in my inbox.
This is how the gears turn for academic research contracts in some parts of the world. There’s no reliable funding bridge between projects and you can never submit enough applications for a watertight back-up. And somewhere there’s always new blood, fresher energy on lower pay scales. You get researchers working for free to finish projects: out of duty, curiosity and desire to improve lives; and out of necessity, as it is the papers which secure our employment. The system works if you don’t mind that it loses capacity, leaves masses of data unanalysed, and feeds off the insecurities of those who work for it.
I mind that it does. Recently, I mind it strongly. But for now, it is as it is and we’d better master our responses to it. Here are some of my ways. I hope something in them works for you, too.
Test your curiosity
At the end of Contract No. 16, I was see-sawing on a familiar dilemma. Forty-two weekends. That was my estimate for the additional time required to complete the data analysis. Do I let my study participants down, some of them dying patients and their carers? Or do I end the year exhausted, dispirited, sick? I’ve done it before. It felt right. This time I hated the prospect.
A thought struck me. The extra hours weren’t the problem. It was because the project was … OK. I cared for it, but I didn’t love it.
My marvellous boss pulled a funding trick again. But if you’re going to make sacrifices, and in research you will, it must be for something more than just ‘OK’. Make sure you love your project.
Write that acknowledgement
One of the most sinister aspects of job insecurity in academia is that many of us take it as a personal indictment. “I didn’t get the funding because I am not good enough.” Balance the perspective. 17 extensions are 17 confirmations that you or I are good enough. Wallow in the disappointment for an afternoon, decide to show ‘em why they were wrong, and move on.
Give yourself credit, for the successes and for learning from the failures. Write an acknowledgement to yourself.
Use critical moments to negotiate a better ‘work-how’
Working at the end of a project on a short-term contract demands wonders of efficiency. Find a way to work that works for you. When I write papers, I must be away from the office, often in a café. Agree to test work arrangements that suit you better and show the results are there and improving, then keep (some of) the arrangements when things go back to normal.
Analyse and share the data
Research employment is partially in this sorry state because there is no data for rational decision making. Make a study out of your employment: collect data on the number of contracts, the hours of overtime, the semi-vacations, the financial implications. For your own decision making, to work out whether the sacrifices are worth it, and for discussions with your institution. If a problem is acknowledged, solutions are not difficult to think of: more “bridging” funding which covers the time between a project end and the likely start of another, more realistic budgeting of projects, more writing up grants, more inclusive relocation allowances.
The spirit before the letter
I often remind myself that research is first and foremost an indulgence of curiosity and a drive to enter into the unknown. This helps when the future is a blur. Or when I signed Contract No. 18, glimpsing over the clause “Your employment relies on the availability of funds which are not part of the University’s general revenues and which are finite”.
I bought another suitcase. It is time to move out. The winter lets by the seaside are almost over.
Mila is currently researching patient data sharing in life-limiting illness and broader issues of health IT implementation. Her background is in psychology and philosophy, and her main research interests are in research synthesis studies combining contradictory and ‘incommensurate’ evidence, with the pragmatics and philosophy of science behind them; the interaction between mental and physical health; and the evaluation of complex health interventions.