The hobby work horses

September 5, 1997

This academic life is fraught with difficulty - jobs are scarce, insecure and increasingly clogged up with teaching and administrative duties that prevent our brightest minds from pursuing their first love - research

Increased teaching loads and administration are reducing the time academics have to do their own research. Julia Hinde reports

Many students think we go on holiday when they go home, but it's then that I switch into science mode," says Stuart Lane, an assistant lecturer at Cambridge University's geography department. At 26, he considers himself one of the lucky ones.

With relatively secure tenure and responsibility for an MPhil course, Dr Lane has more than Pounds 250,000 worth of research council grants, yet admits to having to fit his research around his other university and college commitments. "When you compare it with a normal job, I guess my hobby is my research."

On top of research into modelling river flow, Dr Lane spends about eight hours supervising undergraduate students each week, two to three hours lecturing and an afternoon or two on practical classes. He allows himself an extra hour to prepare lectures, while supervisions take a further hour's planning.

"I have about 40 hours of teaching and administration each week. On top of that I have my science," he explains. "At the moment I am doing quite a lot of science because it's the vacation, but I have to manage my time during term, so I can do some research.

"I went into this because I enjoyed the research. Half of me expected the other commitments - I guess I saw my supervisors under fairly heavy loads. But, you have to do it to understand the extent to which you are pressured, the extent to which the loads take their tolls. I work six and a half days a week during term time, that's Monday to Saturday. Fortunately my wife plays football on Sundays, so I can mark then."

According to Deb Fish, a -year-old meteorology lecturer at Reading University, it is not the teaching itself which takes the time, but "all the things which come with it - the weekly staff meetings and people coming in with questions. Teaching is quite a lot of fun, and I enjoy it," she explains. "But the administration is more than I expected. It's the occasional interruptions which really get you."

As scientists progress, the time for research, one lecturer claims, reduces yet further. Asking not to be named, he describes a situation of mounting paperwork as budgets have to be accounted for, research administered, teaching validated and assessed and papers written. With grants stipulating a condition of staff development, students and research assistants have to be properly supervised, as the mountains of administration build and the world of microscopes and field work is left far behind.

According to John Barnett, head of botany at Reading University, "Most heads of departments are bogged down with administration and paperwork." He rarely gets the chance to undertake practical work, with his input to research now largely supervisory and intellectual. "As for getting into the lab myself - that's impossible," he says.

He adds: "We have had a staff reduction over the past 20 years but are teaching more students. Everyone has to teach more than they have before, but are also expected to do research and paperwork."

The only people who are not expected to teach are research assistants, but Dr Barnett adds that employing such assistants on short-term, three-year contracts to carry out specifically funded research, after which they have to find new posts, is often inefficient, for almost as soon as they become accustomed to a post, they are concerned about finding another one.

Much of Dr Barnett's time is filled with grant applications. "I have just been awarded a major European grant," he says, adding that to get a grant, he has to fill in up to six applications. "It doesn't seem to get better as you get older," he adds. "It depends on the research field. If you are in a fashionable field, you are more likely to get the money."

A lecturer at a London college, who also asked not to be named, explained how she found grant applications time consuming and immensely frustrating.

"Applying for grants takes a lot of time. In February I started putting a grant proposal together. Setting up the project takes time, then I spent over a week applying. I spent ten solid days, with nothing to show for it.

"You have to really understand the funding structure before you start applying. I think it is something like a quarter that gets funded. If you are established you are more likely to get funding than those with fabulous ideas and not the track record."

The need to have proposals backed by senior academics is echoed across the sciences. Dr Lane says: "I had colleagues named on the applications who were much more experienced in getting grants. It didn't add legitimacy, but it implicitly meant the science was better than it may have been."

Angela Galpine, assistant director of the scientific department at the Cancer Research Campaign which awards grants to around one in five applicants, added: "Some people are very successful in winning money. Those who are not are unfamiliar with preparing applications. Presentation makes a difference. If an application is complete in itself and the committee can find all the answers, then it helps."

But she finishes: "For good people there's money available."

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