In the post that prompted our contribution, Pat described some of the ethical and political issues associated with working as a contracted researcher. But there are other challenges that arise when working on ‘soft money’, which only seem to be talked about in shared offices or quiet, snatched conversations involving coffee or wine.
Counting the time before, after and during our PhDs, between the two of us we have been employed as part of what Megan Kimber (2003) described as the ‘tenuous periphery’ for almost two decades and have experienced many challenges and opportunities in working on other people’s projects. Our post focuses on doing contract research post-PhD. Simultaneously balancing PhD research with paid research work deserves a whole blog post of its own!
The first hurdle that contract researchers face is finding suitable work. Word-of-mouth is king in the world of contract research. Aside from the coveted three-year project manager or research fellow positions, short-term research work is rarely advertised. Getting your foot in the door and doing good work is key to the next contract. Academics talk, and good researchers are a highly-prized commodity.
The ‘dark side’ of this esteem is the need to self-regulate. Because of the precarious nature of short-term contracts, researchers often accept work whenever it is available. Gathering stores for the proverbial winter. It is not uncommon to see researchers employed for more than 40 hours a week, on multiple contracts taken back to back in fear that the next contract might not appear. For some researchers, this can continue for years without break. The system is fuelled by our desire to engage in high quality research, to achieve continuing employment, and our need to pay the bills.
The nature and pace of this work is dramatically different from doctoral research. During the PhD, you are encouraged to take time ponder new ideas or immerse yourself in the literature. Every aspect of your work is subject to scrutiny from supervisors and examiners. Moving on from that experience, it can be tricky to limit yourself to the time dictated by a contract if it feels like it is not enough to produce quality work. We have both had the experience of working additional (unpaid) hours to complete work, worried that we might be seen as working too slowly, or that our work is not good enough. We make these decisions fully aware that research budgets often won’t stretch to cover more hours and that the academics who have employed us also face workload pressures.
While many of these concerns are tied up with our identity as researchers, the pressure is intensified when you are competing with others and hoping to increase your chances of another contract, or an ongoing position.
The dreaded ‘imposter syndrome’ never seems to be far from researchers, and those working on short-term contracts are certainly not immune. You are thrown into the deep end, often using methods or working on projects that are outside or – if you are lucky – on the periphery of your field. The learning curve for any new project is steep. As any researcher working on multiple projects knows, it is tricky to keep track all of the associated details.
The ability to engage in ongoing and focused programs of research and deepen your expertise in a particular field is a luxury that is not available when working on other people’s projects. You tend to take on projects that are interesting but not necessarily related to your previous research. After a while, your publication record might end up a bit patchy – or worse – which isn’t helpful when looking for tenured work. Finding time to write from the thesis can take a back seat to the immediate pressures of research work. While you might review the literature, transcribe interviews, code data, and undertake preliminary analyses, contract researchers are far less likely to be paid to write publications or to be named on publications that use their work.
It sounds like we are saying that working on somebody else’s project is a terrible idea. On the contrary, working on others’ projects can open opportunities and benefits that are not accessible in other ways. Working on projects that are led by others builds experience and expertise across a range of areas while you are supported by experienced researchers. The focus of a PhD limits researchers from engaging with a wide range of topics and methods. Working on other projects helps researchers to move beyond the familiar.
Despite the insecurity and uncertainty of contract research work, personally, this type of work has helped to us both to develop networks, find mentoring relationships, build collaborative research relationships and grow in confidence. And importantly for us, “working on other people’s projects” is how we met!
This type of work provides experience and support in navigating some of the tricky aspects of conducting research before you start taking ownership of projects yourself. While you might contribute excellent research to a project, you don’t have the weight of large-scale studies and meeting institutional requirements solely on your shoulders. If the financial uncertainties and performance pressures of contract research could be alleviated, this type of work might allow researchers to find flexible employment and a brilliant training ground.
We think it is important to tease out these discussions and consider the question of how can we, in both the ‘tenured core’ and the ‘tenuous periphery’, overcome the challenges and uncertainties to support better opportunities for contract researchers.
Kimber, M. (2003). The tenured ‘core’ and the tenuous ‘periphery’: the casualisation of academic work in Australian universities. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 25(1), 41-50.