by Dr Catherine Armstrong
In an increasingly competitive job market many postdoctoral scholars end up working in short term contracts either as researchers, as seminar tutors or as temporary lecturers. This period of uncertain employment can last for many years. This article will look at the challenges facing those trying to get permanent academic positions and the positive side to working in temporary contracts.
Temporary contracts: the negative side
After studying for seven years at undergraduate and postgraduate level, during which time it feels like life has been put on hold, many people look forward to a time when they will get a secure job and begin earning money. Debts have probably accumulated during that long period of study. And many people who complete a PhD are in their mid-20s or older and are in a position where they may want to make life changing decisions such as buying a house, getting married and having a family, all of which are more easily done with a permanent job, although not impossible without. Some people find that working in a temporary job while looking for permanent work creates a struggle financially and in terms of their work-life balance.
Also it is incredibly difficult to maintain an on-going academic career while working temporary contracts. It is a catch-22 situation: in order to get a permanent position in the future you will have to maintain your publication record, attend conferences and so on, yet with a temporary contract this is not always easy. Teaching loads are often very high and the learning curves are steep because you do not stay anywhere for very long. You constantly have to learn new ways of working, and perhaps write a number of new lectures, for example.
As a temporary member of staff you do not always enjoy the benefits of a permanent member of staff, so you might not be able to take time off to attend conferences, or ask for periods of leave to finish a writing project, or apply for funding from your institution to go on trips to libraries or research facilities.
The mentality of some departments is such that as a temporary member of staff you are seen as someone who comes in and does their teaching and then promptly leaves without taking a full part in the life of the department. Even if you wish to do get more involved with the department, the opportunity may not be available to you.
Trying to get books or articles published while working on temporary contracts is very difficult, but it is almost essential if you want to secure a permanent job. You have to be very motivated and ambitious and drive yourself forward even when you cannot see an obvious gain to your career. This can mean working long hours and feeling isolated.
The most pernicious negative impact of temporary work is the psychological effect it can have. People suffer disappointment because their lengthy period of acquiring qualifications seems to have done nothing to secure work. They may become increasingly depressed if job applications are not successful. The search for work may seem endless, and they may worry about whether their short-term contracts will be renewed.
Why temporary work might benefit your career
Temporary contracts are not all bad news, however. There is some benefit to your career through doing this sort of work. It gives you a certain amount of flexibility. Perhaps you don't know where in the country you would like to live or exactly which field you wish to specialise in. Temporary jobs afford you the time to explore a number of different possibilities.
Temporary work is also a great way to expand your skills base in the academic sector. Take your teaching portfolio for example. When you have finished your PhD, you will have limited teaching experience, perhaps only at your own institution. If you work a number of short-term contracts you will be able to see how different departments work and get experience of teaching in different contexts. Students who need guidance in various ways, perhaps because of the entry qualifications of the institution, can be really eye-opening. You will also be asked to teach on a wide range of courses and you will gain experience in different fields of study. You may even find that you enjoy teaching something that is a long way from your own work and this might inspire you to change the emphasis of your research.
Another bonus is the number of colleagues you get to meet. Networking in academia is very important for your long term career goals, so if you teach in a department even for one semester you will be able to meet new people who could be very useful to you and your work in the future.
Taking temporary contracts also enables you to wait for the perfect job to come up. Some fields of academic work are very specialised and only a few permanent jobs a year might be advertised. Rather than take something that is not ideal in terms of location or job description, doing temporary work enables you to pay the bills and gain new skills while waiting for your dream job. Also, if you have just finished your PhD you may have an idea that you want to stay in academic life but without really knowing what is involved. Working a temporary contract enables you to sample an academic career without the full commitment that a permanent job involves.