A short defence of short term contracts

Many of you have probably seen already the Science is Vital report on Science Careers, which was published this week. Perhaps you contributed to the consultation. I’m afraid that I didn’t. In part, this was because September is among the busier of my months (conferences, start of term, and this year too a whole load of rugby to watch at inconvenient times in the morning). But I was also put off by the negative way in which the issue was framed. For instance the online survey which asked respondants to “rank the following problems with science careers…”, and the email I got inviting me to contribute stated that they were “…currently preparing a report… detailing the worsening situation in scientific careers” (emphasis mine). If you start your consultation with the outcome decided, then you preselect a biased sample of respondants. Scientists often get questionnaires wrong in this kind of way, not having read the literature on how to construct them properly (and I’ve worked with enough social scientitsts to know that it drives them mad!)

Notwithstanding the lack of space for people to say ‘I love my job – few other careers would give me more freedom to manage my own time, or more opportunity to be creative, and I think the career structure is about right’ – I will admit that it’s hard to disagree with the main conclusions of the report. Although many of the complaints (lack of job security, work-life balance, pay, pressure to perform against suspect measures, etc.) could of course be made by people in any of a number of other careers, and I’m not convinced that as scientists we have it especially bad.

The ultimate issue, of course, is that there will always be fewer senior positions than there are qualified scientists. I know some have made the argument that we could solve this by producing fewer PhDs, but that’s really hard to justify. Hunter S. Thompson once wrote something like, ‘Of course not everyone should be allowed a gun. But I should’ – we have to be very careful not to advocate restricting access to something that we already have. So, the situation will continue: lots of PhDs chasing fewer post doc positions chasing still fewer senior positions. Short term post-doctoral contracts have been one, much maligned, way of wearing down the demand until it matches the supply.

Which brings me to my surprising (to me, at least) defence of short term contracts. Now 5 years ago your would have struggled to convince me that my future self would be writing this. I was in the middle of a 4th consecutive 1 year post-doctoral contract, at a 4th successive institute, and, chasing that elusive work-life balance, had been conducting some crazy commutes over that time (York-Oxford a particular favourite). I used to reckon that in a 12 month contract, 5 months were spent writing up the previous project, 5 months applying for the next one, leaving a couple of months for productive work in the middle. (And I still think one year contracts are a little extreme, and more bridging funds would have been very useful at times…)

But for all that… In four years I got to work in four different institutes, for different bosses and with different colleagues, exposing myself to different methods, ideas, networks. I was fortunate to work for people who supported my efforts to progress, pushing me apply for fellowships and lectureships on the tacit understanding that I would still be contributing (unpaid, of course!) to their project after moving on. That kind of mobility can be really useful (if tiring) for a post-doc; and just as important, the intellectual atmosphere of an institute greatly benefits from a turnover of bright, enthusiastic people. The inconvenient truth is that the best places I’ve worked have always had a high proportion of fixed-term contract researchers.

Of course, there comes a stage where more stability is needed. Would I have bitten your hand off if you’d offered me a permanent contract 5 years ago? You betcha. None was forthcoming, but I kept tweaking my applications and was lucky enough to land a couple of fellowships before I went mad / left science. That’s not the end though, is it? My current fellowship is lovely, but still fixed term, and if I don’t perform I’ll be out at the end of it. Most lecturers are also appointed now with probationary periods, and the idea of a ‘permanent position’ in science is receding everywhere. Should post-docs really expect the security of a permanent position without the responsibility of leading a lab, or of taking on heavy teaching and admin loads, or propping up a department’s REF submission? Should systems be in place to allow a lucky few to continue their post-doc forever?

The thing is, such positions do exist – in research institutes, the scientific civil service, and so on (although they frequently bring their own administrative hell). Whether the job security at such places leads to more / better / different science is an open (but I guess answerable) question. Expecting universities to fund similar positions – effectively permanent post-docs – is unrealistic: why would they pay a lecturer(+) salary when for the same money they can get a researcher who also teaches and is a grant-writing PI? If you see your position as essentially providing skilled support to the research programme of a lab head, you should probably expect your payscale to reflect this fact.

In the meantime, I expect those on short term post-doctoral contracts to continue to make massively important contributions to the intellectual life of our scientific institutions.