I have just returned from my last conference of the season – half a dozen in total, across the UK and Europe. One theme kept cropping up in conversations with fellow attendees : job insecurity, and the impact it is having on our families and lives.
I spoke to a man, on his second post-doctoral fellowship, who was living across the country from his fiancée for a year to take advantage of a “good opportunity”. The affianced pair were only seeing each other at weekends.
There was the not-so-early-career researcher whose partner takes their daughter to play groups every single weekend, so she can write fellowship applications outside of work hours.
There was the announcement that a top-notch researcher was leaving academia for the private sector, citing lack of job security and pay as the reasons.
The crème de la crème was a lifetime achievement award for a professor who had never had a permanent job contract in her entire academic career.
I am once again approaching the end of another fixed-term research contract. I won’t say how many I have had, but I can say that this last post was longer than most. I had some time to breathe. Time to finish papers from previous posts, time to devote to writing papers for this project before having to devote evenings and weekends to trying to find the next post. I have had more time to spend with my family and friends. I have had time to exercise and take care of myself physically and emotionally. I have had time to think and reflect.
But the other posts, the ones that last a year or less, bring far more stress – for me and my family. I have to spend evenings and weekends on fellowship and job applications, trying to get papers accepted and preparing for job interviews.
My loved ones have always been understanding, but I wonder how long they will feel this way. And, given the common cross-stress of trying to advance in academia at the same time as raising small children, I wonder how many other relationships are being fractured by this set-up.
It is hard when I spend all day Saturday working and come home to find the house is a mess, a load of laundry to be done, and nothing for dinner. But I can’t really complain, because my partner has spent all day with the child(ren) so I can work.
It is hard to forgo spending time with my partner or catching up on sleep after our baby was awake half the night, but I have to work on that grant proposal. If I don’t, I might not have a job after my current contract ends.
This uncertainty means we can only plan our future a few years at a time : we can’t commit to a mortgage, we can’t plan which school our child will attend, we can’t even plan a family holiday next summer because we don’t know if I will have a job then.
It brings a persistent low-grade anxiety that lingers around my heart, sometimes travelling up to constrict my throat as the time remaining on my contract dwindles. Rinse, and repeat. For years. I don’t know what impact this lifestyle is having on my health, but it can’t be good.
When I finished my PhD, I expected to complete one post-doctoral fellowship then move into a permanent post. I had every expectation of this career path, because that is the route that most of the researchers around me had taken. Quite a few had moved into a permanent post straight from their PhD studies.
When I try to talk about job insecurity with senior researchers, they brush it off. They tell me I will be fine in a few years. They had permanent posts before they were my age. They had free education, great pension plans, and affordable housing costs.
They don’t understand that this is not just about me. It is endemic. Almost everyone else I know at my level, and below, is in the same situation. This is an industry-wide systemic problem that is being brushed under the rug in the name of “challenging funding environments”.
Don’t get me wrong, academia isn’t all negative. I love my job. I love what I do. But I don’t know what the solution is.
What I do know is that universities need to move away from thinking that a hyper-competitive, highly-mobile scientific workforce is good for science. Good scientists are not born, but trained and supported by the people and institutions that surround them.
Here is a new idea : let’s make science better by supporting the people who conduct it. Let’s make rewards and funding to universities dependent on how they treat their staff. Let’s make world rankings weighted on how many staff are on permanent contracts. Let’s make Athena Swan awards dependent on low levels of fixed-term contracts. Let’s reduce the Research Excellence Framework funding for universities for every staff member who is on a temporary contract.
Because, if anything, the less time and energy a scientist has to spend on searching for the next job, the more time and energy they will have to actually do science. Let’s see how much more productive scientists are in making scientific discoveries when they can actually make long-term plans. Let’s reward people for the years of education and hard work they have contributed to the university and science with a stable professional and home life.
We want to conduct science for the public good – this surely includes the scientists.