Working as a Contract Researcher

     
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Working for a university, but only in a part-time capacity? Seeking work with a university? Perhaps you’re bored with your current post, or feel the need to try your luck in another industry without taking a huge risk? Branching out into working as a contract researcher may be for you. Despite current rhetoric about eschewing "experts," government departments rely heavily on the research expertise of academics to gather and analyse data, as do voluntary sector organisations, companies and universities.

What is a contract researcher?

When a company, NGO, government office or university department needs to buy in the perfect person to carry out necessary research, contract research staff (CRS, also known as FTCS—fixed-term contract staff) is what they usually go looking for. These posts are generally temporary because they are tied to a specific funding package for the research, whether that’s a research grant or a finite project or plan.

Experienced university staff and recent MA and PhD students often have precisely the skills that employers and research project managers seek—all you need to do is locate an appropriate possibility and package yourself to fit.

Getting the job

Often, CRS posts are advertised; those based within universities almost always are. Begin your search on sites like jobs.ac.uk and with universities in your local area. That said, occasionally university CRS posts go to known colleagues or former students, and are either advertised only briefly or the intended CRS names are included in the funding bid. This means that letting colleagues and former lecturers know you’re seeking contract research work can help—offering to help with putting the bid together is one way to ensure you get a piece of the pie if it succeeds.

Other posts, such as those with NGOs and businesses, may or may not be formally advertised. A charity, for example, may approach an academic whose research is in their field to supervise or carry out a research programme or to write a report based on existing knowledge. Here, contacts are everything—if there are organisations or businesses that operate in your area of expertise or routinely partner with researchers in your current department, find ways to make your ambitions known. Contact-making opportunities include sector conferences and public service task forces.

Pros and cons

Many people find that life on a series of fixed-term contracts comes with its own set of challenges. It can be difficult to obtain a mortgage unless you have a partner in full-time permanent work, for example, and typically the fruits of your labour are the contract givers’, not yours. It’s important to start seeking the next contract around the middle of your current one, and to pursue all opportunities to turn ‘temporary’ into ‘permanent.’

For those stuck in part-time work or trying to get a foot in the door at a university, however, CRS work can offer an opening. You’ll have to work hard to make the most of it: for example, you may be eligible for tuition fee remission if you’re working for a university, so try to make progress towards a PhD if you don’t have one already. Contract posts can be isolating, so make a point of joining faculty groups and attending research events to maximise your chance of meeting people who can recommend you for a permanent post, or at least another contract.

Tips for new CRSers

Joining a union can help to protect you (and the rest of us) from poor employment practices. You’ll certainly want to be quite careful about your job description—be clear with your line manager about what you are there to do (research and closely related administration) and what you are not there to do (unrelated administration and, in most cases, staff training or teaching—unless that has been explicitly agreed). Outside of the HE sector, some CRS work is freelance. This can be tricky to negotiate, as you may be offered a flat fee to produce a piece of work rather than an hourly rate or a proper employment contract. If so, consider carefully how many hours may be needed to do the work, and make sure the fee offered is sufficient. Also, make sure you get credit for your work whenever possible, through named authorship or inclusion in the official list of contributors to documents or projects.

 

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