Ask the panel

November 4, 2005

Worried about your employment, maternity, pension rights?
Send your questions to The Times Higher advice panel.

I applied for a two-year research position at a prestigious university and was offered the post. My principal investigator was keen for me to start as soon as possible, so I travelled the length of the country as soon as I could and started work before the contract came through. When it arrived three months later, it was only for a year. I feel conned but am too scared to challenge my PI.

* Our resident academic says: "You may feel conned and stupid, but you are not alone in this situation. Two groups are particularly vulnerable to this sort of abuse: those applying for a first research contract and non-native English speakers from outside the European Union.

Commonly neither group is aware of just how professional you need to be."

She adds: "But it is never too late to toughen up. It is probable that the personnel office will alter the contract to two years without you needing to deal with your PI. However, if you suspect the PI may have withheld the extra year, take the original job advertisement specifying the two-year post and your contract to your PI and ask him or her to sort out what seems to be a mistake on the part of the personnel office. If your PI declines to do so, find another job."

* Our Association of University Teachers panellist points out:

"When you started your new job, you and the university entered into a contract irrespective of the fact that you were not provided with full written particulars until some three months later (one month later than legally required). When you started your employment you were accepting the terms and conditions offered, so you must establish what was offered to you at the time. What does the advertisement or the letter of appointment say? If you have evidence that you were offered a two-year post, then you should ask the university to change your particulars of employment accordingly."

She warns: "If, however, you have no such evidence, it will be difficult to show that you were offered a two-year post. The university may still be willing to change your contract if the research project is for two years or you have the support of your PI. But even with a one-year post, as long as you have at least one year's service you are protected against unfair dismissal. So at the end of the year, if the work is continuing, a dismissal arising purely as a result of the expiration of your contract is likely to be unfair."

* The panellist from Natfhe confirms: "Your full written particulars should have been provided two months after you started work, not three, but unfortunately your contract commenced when you started work.

If you have any evidence (the advert, letter of appointment, your notes from the interview) that shows your contract is for two years, then draw it to the attention of the university now with a covering letter stating that there appears to be a misunderstanding.

If you don't have such evidence, then you should still consider raising it with your PI in a low-key way saying that there appears to be a misunderstanding. It is also worth checking to see if anyone else on the team has been in a similar situation with this PI."

* The Research Councils UK panellist notes: "Univer-sities have their own employment rules, but annual contracts are not usual practice."

She refers you to the 1996 Concordat for the Career Manage-ment of Contract Research Staff, which can be found at http:///www.universitiesuk.ac.uk/activities/rci.asp . She adds that the Guide to Best Practice from the Research Careers Initiative (1998) says fixed-term contracts should not be used automatically.

* Our Universities and Colleges Employers' Association panellist says: "It is imperative that you speak to your PI with a colleague present to establish the details of the verbal offer and contract. Your PI is at this stage unaware of your predicament and may well be able to advise you of your options or assist you in gaining an extension. If disagreement remains over the details, you could take appropriate steps for a grievance procedure."

This advice panel includes the Association of University Teachers, Natfhe, the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association, Research Councils UK, the Equality Challenge Unit and Rachel Flecker, an academic who sits on Bristol University's contract research working party.

Send questions to advicepanel@thes.co.uk

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