Contract research: it's a sure way to wreck your marriage

February 4, 2005

* Katherine Lee , not her real name, is a researcher in cell and molecular biology.

She worked for free for a year to get back into research after a career break.

"I had a PhD and a lot of teaching experience," she said. "But after a career break to have children, I found it almost impossible to get back into academia."

However, her desire to do research was strong. "I love the work," she said.

So, for a year, she worked unpaid full time to produce the data required to support a serious grant application.

"I was delighted when funding finally came through," she said. "I was employed as a research associate in the laboratory. The pay was low as none of my experience counted."

But despite her best efforts, the slow pace of academic publishing worked against her.

"In this business you publish or perish," she said. "I needed publications fast to secure future funding and this led to a row with the head of the lab."

Her description of the power of the head of a laboratory, or principal investigator on a research application, is vivid.

"We are like suitcases. When the head of lab moves, we are expected to follow or find employment elsewhere," she said. "I am 44 years old; I have a family. This is exploitation."

Since working at the university, her marriage has broken up and she is now a single parent.

"I have managed to switch to a new lab, which has solved many of my problems," she said.

"The university makes a show of supporting women scientists. But for those in the labs the reality is different.

"I have done my best to re-enter research. All I had was my enthusiasm and my research. I have faced nothing but barriers and discouragement."

* John Parker , not his real name, came to the UK in 1994 to work as a researcher in biological sciences.

For nine years he worked at the same university on short-term contracts and then suddenly, in January last year, funding dried up.

"It was a huge shock," he said. "I was in a senior position, had published well-regarded work with excellent results and was suddenly out of a job."

His field is highly specialised and he estimated that it would take him one to two years to get another job.

The university has allowed him to keep his office and to write up results, produce new papers and apply for new grants.

"I have been living off unemployment benefit and working full time but unpaid since March. This university does not offer bridging funds," he said. He received a derisory sum in redundancy pay.

The impact on his personal life has been disastrous.

"Put simply, my marriage collapsed," he said. "My wife left me. I have a child and the impact of this sort of lifestyle and upheaval on children is destabilising."

His ex-wife is also a contract researcher and had just secured a good job.

"She could not face the insecurity of having to move again because of my job," he said. As he applies for new jobs and grants, his experience is proving to be a disadvantage. "I have earned more compared with other researchers," he said.

He has applied for a fellowship. "This is a highly competitive field and fellowships are as scarce as hen's teeth," he said.

He believes universities are complacent about the issue.

"Contract researchers have to move all over the country - even the world - and universities are doing little to support them. I see very little movement at this university to comply with European Union regulations."

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