Sharon McCulloch is (among other things) a teaching fellow at the University of Bath, a postgraduate tutor at University College London, and an associate lecturer at Lancaster University. Her research interests are in literacy practices, as they pertain to both students and professional writers in higher education. She is particularly interested in the relationship between academic reading and writing, and in how they relate to knowledge production.
Working as a researcher on someone else’s project raises a number of issues around job security, autonomy, and academic identity, but there is a relative dearth of advice or discussion on how one might negotiate this rather precarious academic position. Having just finished a two-year contract as a research associate on an ESRC-funded project, this is my tuppenceworth on what I learned from the experience.
I should start by saying that the two years I worked on the project were some of the best in my life. I learned a huge amount, got to travel all over the world, was invited to speak at international events, and meet interesting, knowledgeable people. However, the main factor in making the experience so enjoyable was the team I worked with, and my PI (primary investigator) in particular.
The team consisted of the PI, two semi-retired co-investigators who worked one day a week on the project, and two research associates (me and my colleague). Two of the team were from one discipline and three were from another. In the first year of the project, we held regular reading groups, where we took turns to select a text and lead a discussion on its relevance to the project. This was an excellent way of getting to grips with new disciplinary areas, but it also enabled us to get to know each other better and get on the same page in terms of our understanding of the key concepts.
We also had fortnightly project meetings to allocate work and discuss progress, but aside from this, our PI largely left us to our own devices. Some researchers on other people’s projects feel that they get stuck with ‘dogsbody’ work, or are micro-managed to the point of feeling stripped of autonomy, but this was not my experience. I was made responsible for certain research sites and was given free reign to recruit participants, arrange interviews and manage the data where and when I wanted as long as things got done. Most of the time, I worked independently and kept track of my progress on a shared spreadsheet (which I suspect no-one but me ever looked at).
I was extremely grateful for the trust and freedom afforded me, but I think my PI did things this way as much out of necessity as anything else; she was far too busy to micro-manage us. Although I appreciated this hands-off approach, it could easily go wrong. On funded projects, time is limited and a team member who doesn’t pull their weight can have a serious impact on the project, yet there simply isn’t time to go through the usual steps for managing underperformance. A colleague who manages a project told me that, as a result of previous bad experience, she now asked her researchers for weekly reports on what they’d been doing and a forward plan for each week ahead. I would have hated to work like this, but I understand why it happens.
Some may worry that, as a researcher on someone else’s project, they won’t be able to pursue their own research agenda. This is up for negotiation, however. Our PI included the target to ‘become a REF-able academic’ in our annual professional development plans. My fellow research associate and I interpreted this in different ways. He presented in his own right and worked on his monograph throughout the project. I tended to prioritize project work and submitted just one paper based on my PhD. When it was rejected, I didn’t have time to rework it, so published nothing of my own during the two-year period.
My colleague and I also interpreted our remit as research associates rather differently. Strictly speaking, our job was to do research for the project and didn’t require any teaching or ‘service’. But with the TEF looming, I didn’t want to have a gap without teaching on my CV, so I took on unpaid teaching, supervision of MA students and examining of PhD theses. I also did a course leading to HEA fellowship. I organised research seminars and co-convened a research group in the department. My colleague, in contrast, focused on his own research as well as project work and didn’t take on any extra duties.
Which approach is best? Well, at the end of the project, my colleague had a monograph under his belt and walked straight into a permanent lectureship. I walked into three temporary posts scattered around the country. Do I have any regrets? Not really. I could have been more strategic, but it was important to me to be seen as a team player, as someone hard working and reliable. More importantly, I got a well-rounded apprenticeship into academia. The accreditation and supervisory experience I gained is probably helpful when job hunting, albeit not as helpful as a long list of publications.
Speaking of publications, don’t expect to have these in hand by the time you finish a two-year contract. Our data collection took longer than planned, delaying the analysis and our readiness to reach conclusions. By all accounts, this is the norm rather than the exception. Although the project has now finished and the pay checks have stopped coming in, writing is still being done. If I want the publications, I need to do them in my free time (assuming that I have some free time in between my three jobs). Aside from the issue of working for nothing, this has implications in terms of access to data, equipment, software, IT support, office space and shared drives. If you’re no longer employed by an institution, you generally lose this access, even though it is widely acknowledged that work on research outputs needs to continue.
I loved working on a joint endeavour with more experienced people and having the freedom to organise my own time. I found the work intellectually stimulating and would happily do it all again.