Shoved 'out in the cold'

February 4, 2005

When fixed-term contracts end, many academics are forced to work for free publishing papers to get back on the career ladder. Claire Sanders reports

Two researchers who ended up working full time in universities for free described their experiences as "desperate" in interviews with The Times Higher about their working lives.

One has worked with no pay for a year and the other for ten months. Both wanted to remain anonymous as their positions are, by definition, vulnerable. Both said that their respective universities - with strong research reputations and ostensibly strong policies to support contract researchers - encourage the practice of unpaid labour.

These experiences resonate with the findings of research from Gloucestershire University that reveal "anger" and "disillusionment" are the dominant feelings among a group of contract researchers in the social sciences.

John Hockey of the School of Education at Gloucestershire looked at what researchers do to keep up their self-esteem and job prospects between contracts. He found evidence of contract researchers working unpaid in universities.

The aim for these researchers was to accrue research publications to increase their chances of reemployment.

The study found that colleagues were often seen to be turning a "blind eye" to their unofficial use of word processors, computing packages, photocopiers, telephones and even desk space.

One interviewee said: "I knew I had to get things published to get back into the system, so I more or less worked full time at the university on data I did not have time to publish when I was employed there. Ironic, huh?

"Mind you, I needed help from my friends to do it, in lots of ways.

There was a great deal of material I needed via inter-library loan, and I did not have access to that service any longer. So two colleagues I had worked with just filled in request forms for me."

Dr Hockey interviewed 61 social science contract researchers, 37 women and 24 men. Much national attention has focused on scientists, but the problem exists across all disciplines. Fifty-nine of those interviewed were employed at 12 universities (nine old and three new) in England and Wales, with one unemployed and one working overseas.

Researchers ranged from novice research assistants to senior research fellows. The vast majority had experienced breaks in employment ranging from weeks to months and, on occasion, up to a year.

Dr Hockey said: "Many senior researchers become trapped. The more experienced they are, the more insecure they become, as it is increasingly tempting for universities to replace them with younger and cheaper academics.

"It is also difficult for women to break out of contract work and secure permanent positions."

Those who had gone into research through what is often seen as the traditional route - via undergraduate and postgraduate degrees - were in a minority. A substantial proportion had practical professional experience and a small number worked up from secretarial or technical positions. Nine of those interviewed did not have a first degree.

Breaks in employment had a "significantly negative meaning" for those who had come through the traditional academic route.

One of the interviewees said: "I went straight through from being an undergraduate, to gaining a PhD and then getting a two-year postdoc. Then suddenly nothing.

"It was difficult on a whole series of levels, some of them obvious - such as money. More difficult, though, was dealing with being outside the intellectual world.

"I realised I had to get another contract quickly, not simply for the appearance of a career but because intellectual work is central to who I am."

All interviewees fought hard to get back into academic life after being "out in the cold". Some of their methods were obvious and "formal" - such as filling in grant applications and sending off CVs. But what interested Dr Hockey were the informal coping strategies. Contract researchers' first instinct was to try to get a job at the university they had just left, where they had colleagues who could tell them about future job opportunities, and how to secure them.

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