A researcher on someone else’s project?



I completed my PhD after a pretty substantial professional career. Then, I went into an academic job and jumped straight into my own small research projects. Now, somewhat later,  I direct larger and longer research projects, often with a colleague and a small research team. This team almost always includes a new PhD, an early career researcher – and their job as research ‘fellow’ is often a crucial toehold on the academic ladder.

This kind of ‘mixed’ research team is common-place. If they are not a ‘teaching only academic’, many newly minted PhDs find themselves working as researchers for other people. They may even work as a part-time researcher on several research projects at once, all run by different PIs.

This is a tricky situation. Having done their own independent piece of research, supported by a supervisor, they then find themselves generating most of the data on some-else’s project, doing first-cut analysis and drafting texts, working to someone else’s research design and some-one else’s research practices. It’s as if they ‘d had L plates on for a long time, briefly took them off and then had to put them right back on again.

Moving from PhD to research fellow is an identity shift, and not always an entirely easy or welcome one. From  assuming the identity of expert researcher (necessary to get through the viva/defence), the Dr. then suddenly finds themselves unable to pursue their own agenda. Their capacity to assume the identity and practices of a fully fledged researcher are abruptly curtailed.

And issues about being a ‘research fellow’ don’t stop there. The project the Dr. is working on may be high stakes and subject to a range of political and contractual issues that are unfamiliar, and also not always logical. Busy PIs may assume that the Dr. knows much more about these things that they have had the opportunity to learn, and may only do the required explanations at the point of decision-making. They may also assume that the researcher will automatically make the same kinds of decisions that they do. In these situations the researcher is expected to act as an extension of the PI in ways that they may not find comfortable, or even acceptable.

And there are significant ethical and practical problems associated with being a researcher on someone else’s project. Co-writing. Credit for authoring.  Attending and presenting at  conferences. But there are other more granular issues too, often related to boundaries – what can the researcher decide and what do they have to refer to the PI? And of course the VERY big one – how can a ‘research fellow’ position play out into a real permanent job?

When I look at the kinds of career advice and support offered by universities – and online – to PhDs and to ECRs, I see a lot of ‘stuff’ about ‘employability’ and an increasing emphasis on discussion about knowledge work undertaken in places other than universities, including self-employment and entrepreneurial activities. Some of this is helpful, some not so much. I also see some support for orienting new researchers to teaching, although scarcely enough.

I see very little discussion about being a researcher on other people’s projects. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of ongoing support for people who are working as jobbing researchers – there is some of course, and some institutions do much better at this than others. But I can’t see a lot of research into the ways in which this avenue of academic identity formation, choice-making and academic career building, including promotion, actually happens. And if ever there was an area ripe for concerted academic self-help online then this is it.

Perhaps I’ve missed all the discussion. I found some scattered bits and pieces when I searched. But perhaps I’m right – being someone else’s researcher is still something that isn’t talked about enough. That’s surprising/distressing/alarming at a time when large numbers of new Dr.s find themselves working on other people’s projects – often for a very long time indeed.

Perhaps some of you Dr. researchers working on other people’s projects would secretly like to contribute some constructive posts about the key issues and strategies for managing and getting on …? I can’t really write them myself as I’m neither in this position nor have I ever been. But…