The insecure scholar: Carrying on regardless isn’t an option

A plan is needed for when my contract comes to an end

November 2, 2009

It’s a strange feeling watching my contract run down. On the one hand everything is as normal: I’m working hard on my project and I’m solvent, with a respectable pay cheque coming at the end of every month. On the other hand I can never allow myself to forget that unless I do something about it, everything will judder to a halt when my contract ends. Following my meeting last week with the head of department, I’ve been left in no doubt that I can’t just carry on regardless.

I’m calmer than I was when I wrote last week’s column. My wife helpfully pointed out that she has a permanent job, so it’s not as if the kids will have no shoes this winter. I do little bits of part-time teaching and freelance writing, which will carry on when my contract ends.

But still, I have to come up with some sort of plan.

Obviously the first thing to do is to apply for jobs. I already read Times Higher Education’s jobs pages weekly. I can work within a number of sub-disciplines, which makes my situation better than, say, a specialist in medieval Latvian poetry. It also means that there is a lot of competition, too. In any case, jobs that I have a genuine chance of getting come up all too rarely.

Plus, of course, there’s the whole location issue. I know that successful academics seem to move to the other side of the world without demur or, at the very least, commute halfway across the country. Frankly, though, I don’t want to uproot my kids from school (let alone my wife from her job) and I don’t want never to see them or to spend my life on trains. I am willing to do these things if I must, but it hardly inspires the enthusiasm necessary to put in a sparkling job application.

The other main option is to apply for more research grants. Filling in endless grant forms is part and parcel of being an academic in the 21st century, and I’d have to do this task even if I had a permanent position. After my disastrous meeting with the head of department last week, I heard from the research office that I might be able to save my position if I could bring in funding that started before my current contract ends. Time is very short, though, and even if I applied now, the time lag between application and decision is so long for most grant-making bodies that it’s unlikely I’d have funding in place by the time my present grant finishes. So unless I can find a speedy grant-making body and turn something round very fast, I will be left with no institution from which to apply for grants when my contract ends. Then I will need to find a new institution that will be happy to give me an honorary position that would allow me to apply for grants.

Given the uncertainties and the mind-boggling complexities of my position, I find my mind drifting increasingly towards the tantalising “wild card” options. Maybe I should abandon my own research interests and work for industry or the public sector? Think-tanks and government departments employ researchers in my field, and I might receive better job security and pay in return for not being in control of which projects I take on. Or perhaps I should try to make a go of it as a freelance writer? I’d still have my cherished independence even if I wouldn’t have financial security. Or maybe I should change career completely? I’m just about young enough to retrain for a more viable career.

So what should I do? I’m not going to rule out any option just yet. I’m going to explore every possibility that comes along. I’m going to allow myself to dream a little and see my current insecure position as an opportunity.

Of course, my “real” work is going to suffer, putting even more pressure on me as the end of contract approaches. I’m going to have to live a strange dual life: part of me immersed in my work, the other part of me dreaming, planning and panicking.

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