The insecure scholar: On the subject of my future, I should have kept quiet

A discussion with the head of department proves a mistake

October 27, 2009

Recently, I’ve been somewhat paralysed in the face of my contract running out at the end of the year. But earlier this week, I finally overcame my desire to pretend that it wasn’t happening and I went to see my head of department to discuss my future.

I hardly know her. I’m a fixed-term researcher in a large and successful social science faculty – I’m a minnow. So I thought that making my presence better known to the head might help to work out a solution to my employment problems.

Big mistake.

The head was friendly enough. I explained my situation and told her that I was keen to stay on after my contract ends. I suggested that the department might give me some teaching work at the end of my contract while I worked on new grant applications to fund my post, or, at the very least, an honorary position that would allow me to bid for external funding.

In response, the head set out in some detail why fixed-term research contracts were a bad thing; how they create a two-tier workforce; how they are insecure and hinder proper career development; how creating a post on paper for me to bid for research grants would be a breach of a fair employment policy. So the answer to my request was a firm “no” – as far as she’s concerned, I’m out when my contract ends.

Throughout this discussion, there was an elephant lurking in the room. New rules stipulate that fixed-term staff must be given a permanent post if they have been employed continuously for four years. Although the rules were intended to end the situation of staff being employed indefinitely from contract to contract, they have the unintended consequence of making universities wary of employing fixed-term staff for more than a year or two – if they are there for too long, the university could be lumbered with employing them for good or, at least, having to institute lengthy redundancy proceedings.

I understand all the problems, but a fixed-term contract is better than no job at all. In any case, it was my initiative that brought in the original grants that have paid for my current position. When my contract started, my entrepreneurship was welcome; now that it is finishing, no one is interested.

The current head wasn’t in place when I arrived, and I owe my position to her predecessor’s more benevolent attitude. My mistake was to raise my head above the parapet. When I spoke to other staff members after the meeting, it became clear that had I not said anything, I could have been kept on quietly on a “zero hours” contract that would allow me to bid for another grant. Now that the head is aware of my existence, the chances of this are minimal.

I am trying to be philosophical about the head’s decision. In some respects, it was based on impeccable ethics. What did piss me off, though, was that she was clearly trying to “play” me, to treat the decision as being for my own ultimate good. She asked me where I wanted to be in five years. She offered to look over my CV with an eye to making me more employable. She hinted that a lecturing position might open up in due course. It sounded like she’d been on a course about how to break difficult news to employees. She turned a meeting about my being in effect sacked into the woolliest kind of career counselling session.

I was polite and affected being laid-back, but it’s devastating news. However difficult it’s been being a fixed-term researcher, it’s been a huge relief to finally have an institutional affiliation, however tenuous. Now I have to face the very real prospect of being an un-academic in a few months.

So I’ll apply for jobs and I’ll try to raise funds for a new position somewhere else. All this in a recession. I’ll see what the union has to say about the head’s decision, although I don’t have much hope. All this will take time and energy – time and energy that would be better spent actually finishing the project I am working on.

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