Working as an Academic: Coping with Temporary Contracts

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By Dr. Catherine Armstrong

It is a fact of academic life in the twenty-first century that most people who wish to become lecturers or researchers have to work in short term contracts before being able to get a more permanent, secure job. This has a big impact on the practical and personal working life of the lecturer concerned and it is important to develop strategies for coping with this sort of working environment. This article is designed for those academics that have recently finished their PhD and would like a permanent academic post, but have not been able to secure one as yet.

Sorts of contract

There are several sorts of teaching contract, starting with the most basic first:

-hourly paid teaching

-one term/semester contract

-nine month or one year contract

-several year contract (usually between 2-5 years)

-permanent (with probationary period)

Hourly paid teaching

Most PhD students have some experience of hourly paid teaching, and in fact many departments come to rely on these members of staff to teach large survey courses. You may find you have to take these jobs once you have finished your PhD, which can be tremendously dispiriting. The advantage is that you can be flexible and if another job comes up you can take it with only one month's notice. The disadvantage is that you have no security at all, you are not paid out of term time and if you have to take time off sick you will not be paid either.

One term/semester contract

One term or semester-long contracts are often offered if a particular module needs to be covered. These contracts rarely lead to anything more secure, but are very useful for scholars who have never taught outside the university where they completed their PhD. However, a lot of preparation work will be involved, writing lectures or preparing seminars, which many never be directly used again. You may also have to travel a long way to this sort of job, as it will not be worth relocating for only a few months. If your travel costs will be high find out whether you can reclaim them.

Nine month or one year contract

One year contracts are the next step up, and these are very desirable because it means for the first time you will receive wages during the summer months. However, many universities now offer nine-month contracts from October to June. If you have been unable to save enough money to cover your expenses during the summer months, you will find yourself having to do a non-academic job for a few months simply to survive.

Several year contracts

The several year contracts offer a little more security, but never really give any relief from the never-ending search for a job. Especially for contracts of only two or three years, it is important to keep searching for that next opportunity. However, the advantage is that you will be paid a salary over the summer, and will enjoy some of the ‘perks' of more permanent work, such as joining a pension scheme. It is likely that your department may involve you more fully in the administration and management of their affairs. You may have your own office and take on roles such as personal tutor to undergraduate students. You will perhaps be able to attend staff meetings and be involved in decision-making.


The holy grail of academic teaching for many is the permanent position. As in many sectors, these jobs are becoming rarer, but if you can achieve one you will have a decent measure of job security. You have to work a probationary period to check that you and your employer is happy, and this could be anywhere between one and five years.

Remember that any of these contracted roles can be part-time too. You may hear about a job being advertised at ‘0.3' or ‘0.6'. This means that the contract offered is 30% of full-time hours or 60% of full-time hours, and of course the salary offered will be pro-rata, i.e. will be a percentage of the full time rate.

Why do universities work this way?

University departments have to be flexible in order to fill their teaching requirements. Permanent staff who are not undertaking teaching duties for a short period need to have their work covered and so short-term contract posts are often generated by maternity or sick leave, or by the member of staff taking sabbatical leave. In some institutions the numbers of students signing on for a particular course can generate the need to take on extra teaching staff.

Budget constraints mean that departments have to be able to prove the need for a member of staff, rather than simply hiring him or her because of good work or when the PhD is finished. In recent years it has been more difficult for junior scholars to get a job because of the demands of the RAE process (research assessment exercise). Universities have wanted to prove they have an international profile in order to get more funding from the government, and one way of doing this is by employing more people at senior level who already have international reputations. This means that more junior scholars get squeezed out. However, the RAE cycle is due to end in 2008, and this may mean more posts are offered to those starting out on their career.

Problems for the individual of short-term contracts

Lack of security is an obvious problem, meaning that you do not know where or if you will be working in a few months time. It is also not possible to start contributing to a pension or to claim sick pay during these contracts. This can have an impact on your personal life, preventing you from buying a house, or from getting married perhaps. This can be a stressful time and put pressure on personal relationships. It can also be difficult to explain to those outside academia why someone as highly qualified as yourself is unable to get a secure position.

Some contracts do not pay enough to subsist, either because they stop over the summer, or because they were only offered part-time, so this means you have to take on extra non-academic work simply to pay the bills. This can have its positives, allowing you to acquire extra skills, which will be useful in career building. However, some academics find themselves doing jobs very different to their aspired career, such as being a barperson or waiter.

Coping with short-term contracts

It is important to stay focussed on your eventual career goals and to apply for as many jobs as possible. Even though it is easy to get bogged down in the needs of your short term contract, always try to keep an eye on the ‘bigger picture'. Having a portfolio career (i.e. working in several jobs to make up the wages of one permanent job) requires flexibility and commitment, however, it is possible to progress from shorter to longer term contracts and eventually to a permanent job, so do not give up!

How to maximise your chances of getting a permanent position

There are several strategies to adopt here, but these can be covered with the phrase ‘CV building'. It is important to achieve as wide an experience as possible, so get work at different universities if you can, filling in for someone on maternity leave or who has research cover. It is disheartening to take on a job that involves lots of preparation and adjusting to a new environment while knowing it will not lead directly to a permanent job, but it is vital to show future employees that you have teaching experience at different institutions.

Also make sure you are constantly working on your research profile. It is a catch-22 situation, because while teaching short-term contracts you often have a heavier load than that of permanent staff, so it is harder to fit in research, and yet of course it is vital to do so. Having publications out, a monograph or a series of journal articles are important, so try to do something every week to achieve that aim.

Finally, the most important thing you can do during this time is network. Get your name known in as many universities as possible, give conference papers, contact like-minded colleagues, ask your former supervisor to introduce you to people: all these things will help you to achieve your goal of a permanent position.

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