Leeds pulls advert for ‘exploitative’ research assistant job

Academics say ‘personal assistant’ position highlights precarity faced by early career scholars

March 11, 2019
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A controversial job advert that was pulled after an online backlash has shone a spotlight on employment practices that many scholars view as exploitative of early career researchers.

In an advert posted on several online platforms, the University of Leeds sought candidates for a part-time research assistant to Gregory Radick, professor of history and philosophy of science, on a five-month, fixed-term contract, asking for applicants who were “interested in developing [their] professional-academic skills”.

The chosen candidate would be required to “provide practical support” to Professor Radick, the post stated, in particular “redeveloping his personal website; keeping his academia.edu, ResearchGate and related websites up to date; providing occasional support in relation to work needed in the University Museum of the History of Science, Technology and Medicine; assisting with tasks to do with a number of editorial projects and grant applications; handling logistics for occasional seminars with visiting speakers [and] workshops”, as well as “handling photocopying, printing and other document-related tasks as needed”.

The final aspect of the job, which would come with a salary of between £22,659 and £26,243, pro rata, was “undertaking occasional bits of supplementary research under [Professor Radick’s] guidance”.

The work involved would be “occasional, and rarely time-consuming or demanding”, with the intention that the successful candidate would track how many hours they had to work each month, but the advert advised that the employee might be called upon to undertake tasks “with some urgency, so the postholder should be someone more likely to be around the university than not”.

Academics who commented on Twitter branded the post an “exploitative” attempt to disguise a personal assistant role as a research assistant post, typically seen as a way for doctoral students and graduates to develop their research skills.

A Leeds spokesman told Times Higher Education that the advert was a “mistake” and confirmed that it had been removed as soon as the university was informed of its existence.

“This administrative role should never have been advertised in that form – it had an incorrect job title and incorrect requirements,” the spokesman said. “We are sorry for any offence caused. We are taking immediate steps to tighten our approvals process and to ensure this doesn’t happen again.”

However, scholars said that it was just one example of how early career researchers lost out in the job market.

Catherine Oakley, an independent history researcher who formerly worked as a postdoctoral research assistant at Leeds, said that “exploitative hiring practices…are rife, but largely informal and invisible”.

“This is absolutely typical of the way that so-called ‘research assistant’ posts are viewed and managed in this department – as disposable appendages to the work of senior white male staff,” she said.

Such posts had “serious implications” for the career development of so-called research assistants, Dr Oakley said.

Vicky Blake, president of Leeds’ University and College Union branch, said she was “dismayed a job ad like that could ever see the light of day”.

“Senior management know it’s not acceptable and the university is reviewing its HR processes,” she said. “But this underlines the ongoing and wider issues of rampant casualisation in the university sector, which we are pushing hard to address at Leeds. Universities should be beacons of ethical employment practice rather than exploitative casualisation.”

rachael.pells@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (4)

"Senior white male...." - we're not going for sexist, racist and ageist stereotypes, in just three words, are we?
Well, count me out on that one. I also found the comment both offensive and insensitive. The post is about casualization in the academic job market, not the latest postmodern complaint that is forty years old and very tired. But here's the point: it doesn't take any intelligence to make a comment like that, so once you open an article to comment, even the stupid can participate. That's democracy. Can I add one further comment here? Casualization is an aggregate term for many practices. There is part time work, differentiated work, in every field and occupation. Academic professionals tend unconsciously to assume that medieval guild standards still prevail. They do not. This job posting is disgusting. It promises an academic job as a gopher. The professor who wants a gopher to do his academia.com and research gate postings should be suspended. What a jerk. But this kind of exploitation is two sigmas from the usual casual post at a university. The real issues in casualization are about the pay and the dignity of the work. I personally discourage every young academic from adjunct work. It is bad practice for the university, damaging to students, and terrible as a stepping stone to a career. But if a university wishes to hire someone on long term contract with decent pay and benefits, even half time, and the job conditions are suitable for research and teaching, and if this situation matches the needs of a young scholar, then at the very least it is not in the same moral category as the position at Leeds.
I'd certainly question how it got through supposedly rigorous HR processes.
That was my first thought too.

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