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…

I’m very keen to have a few offers of, and publish, posts about what it is to be a research fellow on someone else’s project and how to manage. Please contact me if you’d like to contribute. 


About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in career, early career researchers, researcher, researcher identity, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to a researcher on someone else’s project?

  1. Annie says:

    As always, a very interesting subject and one I cannot comment on personally…yet! However, there is a new book that may help shed some light on this topic: The Unruly PhD by Rebecca Peabody. Might be a useful read.


  2. Dr. Eldard Ssebbaale Mukasa says:

    Indeed as a Dr, having gone through all the hassles and struggles, it would be nice to work on your own projects, but some times situations and conditions don’t warrant, so inevitably you may have no choice. However, as a Dr, you need to lead but to be led.
    Thank you


  3. Caroline says:

    Hi Pat,
    I read your post with interest as I am currently in the position of working on other people’s project and as you say after being awarded your PhD, it is a strange feeling. I am not a Research Fellow but a layer under that, which I would argue is a situation even worse off than the fellow. I joined the university where I work now as Research Administrator as my PhD funding ended and I had six months of writing and editing the thesis left. Over a year later I have also been employed (by the same university) in two additional temporary Research Assistant jobs, and currently spend my time working across three different projects, doing different levels of research from admin to conducting interviews and analysing data. I feel both undervalued and underpaid – doing tasks I am well overqualified for – and also somewhat thrown into the deep end as I am granted responsibility for effectively running a Senior Research Fellow’s project but with no word on whether I will be named as a author in any publications. Needless to say my days off are focussed on my own work, such as publishing papers from the PhD, conference attendance and looking at fellowship opportunities (!). My situation is short-term and temporary so in some ways the flexibility suits me. But I find it curious that I am working as a researcher on topics not related to my subject area, only except for a mutual interest in health research, and as well within a discipline and an approach to research quite different to my own.


  4. Em says:

    Hi Pat,
    I’m in this position at the moment and looking forward to seeing some posts about it. I like working on something that has the potential to change lives, that bit is quite rewarding. But working on a large, long-term study as a postdoc on short contracts means I might not even be employed by the same institute when the time comes for the primary analysis and first publication. I work with the hope that it might count for something eventually (at least I can put these skills on my CV if I need to look for employment elsewhere). Maybe I’ll still be employed here in 5 years and can be first author on a secondary analysis? In the meantime it will swallow most of my research time, and won’t add anything much to my metrics in this publish-or-perish era.


  5. Susan Krieg says:

    Another issue new PhD graduates also face is the casual teaching that keeps the budget (both their own personal budget and also the university budget) afloat. With the increasing casualization of the teaching in universities, prospective PhD students and graduates are often loaded with large amounts of teaching. Balancing these roles is difficult and adds to the stress of carving an academic career.


    • pat thomson says:

      Yes absolutely and I don’t want to negate that. But there us already a lot of discussion about this casualisation and adjuncting. I’m trying to pickup this other route. Yesterday I saw a slide which suggested 30%+ of PhDs in the U.K end up as jobbing researchers.


      • Karina says:

        To add to this and to my comment below, I am a ‘jobbing researcher’ precisely because casual teaching neither paid me a living wage nor helped with developing a career in the academy. At least as a jobber, I can have the former if not the latter.


      • Kate Bowles says:

        Hi Pat

        I think the problem is that casualisation/adjuncting has had the side effect of contracting the secure job market so that it’s harder to progress to a position where you can pursue your own research. So the career interval as jobbing researcher is now likely also to become protracted, and if it does, then it’ll have the same impact as prolonged casual teaching. This means I think that the two issues are entangled. They’re one issue, really.

        The issue here is what it feels like to be a casualised and dependent researcher, rather than a research originator. And then as you say how good practice is developed for these uneven and unfair situations.

        As someone currently collaborating with a PhD graduate who is still waiting for a permanent position I’m conscious that we’re both in a messy space, trying to take care of each other. What I need to get done in a grant context isn’t quite what she needs to do in her own research journey but we’re trying to find the sweet spot. It’s a fix.


  6. Karina says:

    Hi Pat,
    I’ve worked on more than fifty projects – small and large – since starting work in higher education 12 years ago. Only one of those projects was my own – the PhD, completed more than five years ago now, the rest were designed and (mostly) driven by others. I’ve usually worked as a research assistant, rather than a co-researcher, which has allowed me to cross disciplines (I’m at least eight discrete social science and humanities disciplines in). I’ve not been eligible to apply for grants, nor have I ever had my name on a grant application as a chief- or co-investigator – in fact, I twice had my name removed from an application because my name would not have ‘helped the application’.
    I’ve also a very reasonable publication record – again, across disciplines, so not particularly coherent or deep, but still with invitations to contribute to special journal issues.
    It’s a very weird academic-y career and it’s actually one I would recommend to people, particularly those who are attached to a university library card, which gives them access to All the Research, those who enjoy variety in their daily reading and writing, those who enjoy working with scholars from a variety of disciplines, and those who are okay to surf job contracts.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Mary says:

    Just this week I have been reprimanded by a colleague who leads a funded project. My offence? I contacted the project researcher directly and didn’t go through the PI. Serves me right for inviting them to a research showcase! Issues around identity and intellectual contribution are a tricky balance between the person who designed the project and secured the funding and the person doing the work. I see parallels with the problems of co-authorship.


  8. Pingback: not just a foot soldier – a researcher on someone else’s project | patter

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  11. Amy says:

    Hi Pat, Thank you for this really helpful series of posts. I am an early-career researcher in the social sciences, about to start engaging part-time researchers for the first time. The series has been incredibly useful in thinking about the ethics of working with contract researchers, managing goals and expectations, and how to make a research team more than the sum of its parts. Thank you.


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