The role of research assistant can leave little time for postgraduate research. David Charter examines the dilemma. Former postgraduate Jayam Dalal believes the collapse of her studies shows the importance of clearly establishing the duties of a research assistant from the outset.
Ms Dalal took up a two-year research assistant contract at the University of Brighton. Her role was to help the business school dean complete a book and a major attraction of the post was that she was told she could register for an MPhil.
However the dean, Professor Jon Bareham, was also her director of studies, which led to problems when she felt she was not being given enough time and help for her own work.
"I feel it is so important, when you are employed and you are doing an MPhil, that those two are separated and there is a clear understanding of how much time you spend on the two," said Ms Dalal.
"There is a conflict with the supervisor being the employer. Employer and boss is a formal relationship and supervisor is very much a personal relationship. If things go wrong they are difficult to juggle."
Ms Dalal grew frustrated at what she felt was lack of support for her own research and resigned after a year but she went back to the job after discussions and spent another six months there until the book was finished. She says she was then unable to go on with her MPhil work because of lack of supervision and funding.
Professor Bareham had set up a panel when Dalal first resigned, to review the prospect of renewing her contract for another year to allow her more time to complete her work.
"Because of my own position as dean, I established an independent group of people to evaluate her progress so there was no argument I was simply making a judgement," he said.
The panel's verdict the following July was that Dalal's contract should not be extended because there was no academic job to which she would be making a contribution, her MPhil subject was peripheral to the aims of her department and the research was not sufficiently developed for the panel to believe it would be finished within the year.
Ms Dalal felt she had no option but to withdraw from her MPhil the following September, when her two-year contract was up.
A spokeswoman for the University of Brighton said it had had no similar problems with other research assistants over their contracts.
Professor Bareham said: "There are always lessons to be learned but we feel we gave her a fair opportunity to progress."
He added: "I have had considerable experience of supervising students to completion and this unfortunately did not work out. I have to say a lot of it is down to the fact that she did not put in the effort, which was the judgement of the independent review."
James Irvine of the National Postgraduate Committee said Ms Dalal's problem reflected a common experience. He said it is vital to establish in advance the exact division of time between research for the job and research for one's own project, to avoid confusion.
"The problem is that a lot of people are taken on as research assistants and are sold this as a wonderful way of doing their own research," said Mr Irvine.
"But they are not really doing their research, they are employed to do someone else's research full-time, and they will get to do their own only for a little time in the week."