Surviving (and maybe even thriving) as a career contract researcher



I’m what you might call a career contract researcher. This wasn’t what I always envisaged from my academic career, but at the same time, it is the product of active choices on my part, where, at least some of the time, alternative options did and do still exist.

I’ve been a jobbing researcher since I finished my PhD in 2008.  Since then I have held a total of 8 different contracts of employment. They have ranged in duration from 6 months to 2 years. Until quite recently I have rarely, if ever, known for sure if my contract would be extended until it would almost certainly have been too late to find another had it not been. Yet in almost a decade of stitching together contracts I have only had one period of unemployment, which lasted about 3 months. I have only ever worked in two universities, and at present I have been employed in the same school for just over 6 years.

Contract research is an inherently challenging position, practically, intellectually and institutionally – both in being able to demonstrate the things that you need to in order to progress, and also in finding a place and a narrative that fits. The need for an interesting or relevant job is always potentially trumped by the need for any job. Interests have to remain flexible, and projects have to become ‘cases’, little pieces of an evolving narrative the precise look of which you may not really know, but which you hope will one day emerge. My initial approach to this problem was to try and keep some consistency in the methods employed in my various projects. My interest in the method itself meant that I could happily take on a variety of subject matter, with my attention always held by the different application of those methods to different problems. It also gave me a ‘thing’, even if it was quite a broad thing, that lots of other people also had. I pursued various additional activities to reinforce this. I did casual teaching on relevant courses, reviewed papers for relevant journals, and organised informal reading groups with other researchers. I always tried to use any funded conference as an opportunity to present work to ‘my audience’ and to build and maintain those links across institutions.

This extra activity helped maintain the narrative when my contracts did not always fit. It is activity that I maintain to this day, and which has contributed to a sense of collegiality and community with my ‘full academic’ colleagues that at many points in my somewhat turbulent career I was convinced I would never enjoy.

Another fundamental challenge is writing. Academic writing is a craft skill. Writing on research contracts is also usually a collective craft. An ability to write with other people is something that you need to develop as quickly as you possibly can. That these people will not always share your interests or your perspective is one challenge. That these people will expect you to write things that are relevant to their project, and may well not recognise your need to develop your own publications is another challenge. That projects rarely have ‘writing time’ built into them is a huge challenge. That you will be expected to devote many hours to writing reports, which can be a poor preparation for writing papers and can leave you with little or no time to do so anyway, is a major challenge. The challenges are too many and varied to list. There is a substantial amount of very helpful guidance on developing your abilities as an acdemic writer – I’m going to focus here specifically on the ‘collective’ bit.

There have been some lovely posts about collaborative writing on Patter recently. Mostly this has been about developing the one-on-one relationship, the writing partnership. If you are fortunate as a researcher you will find colleagues with whom you do form these kind of relationships. However, you have to forge on with collective writing even in the absence of them.

What it has taken me a considerable time to realise, is that although every academic from researcher up to professor ‘wants’ to write, writing and publishing is an essentially conflicted and contested practice. It has to be fought for by everyone who wishes to engage in it, within inflexible constraints. Until relatively recently I think I held an implicit expectation that I would be ‘managed’ in my writing, in the sense that project leads and line managers would expect me to produce writing and would employ the usual regulative apparatus to make sure this happened. When it comes to writing I have found that this relationship is inverted. You have to manage them. You have to be the one who is pushing the need to write onto the agenda at project meetings – as early on in the project as you possibly can. You have to be the one finding potential arguments and audiences. You have to be the one getting drafts into circulation among the team and keeping them moving. Be bold and fearless. Tell your boss that they need to find time to do their bit on this paper. Give them a target and manage them to it. While this is most essentially the case when you are the lead author on a paper, it is, I think, the best approach with any writing that involves your more senior colleagues.

This might all sound like hard graft, and it is. Although I am going to finish with a ‘but…there’s hope’ message, I’m not going to pretend that at some point the search ends and you find the pot of gold. However, sticking in one place for a considerable time, joining and maintaining groups and communities within and beyond your university, and developing a regular writing habit and a hard line in managing up, are some of the things that have helped me attain a satisfying, secure, flexible and autonomous position – most of the time. There are certainly peaks and troughs to all these characteristics – as is generally the case I think with project-based work. They are also never settled, and always subject to ongoing negotation, but this is no different anywhwere else in the academy.

As I said at the beginning of this post, career contracting was not exactly what I thought I was signing up for when I decided upon a career in academia. Among many other aspirations, what I really wanted to do was write. With time and persistence I have found a position that affords me more opportunities to write than the majority of my colleagues, wherever they stand on the ladder. It is In this sense that I think career contracting can be worth the fight.

Author Bio: Dr Simon Bailey is Research Fellow, CLAHRC Greater Manchester Alliance,  Manchester Business School