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Cambridge University Science Magazine

​​Early-career researchers in pursuit of an academic career can expect to spend years jumping between temporary roles. While these contracts offer opportunities to explore new science, institutions, and cultures, they also act as a barrier to an untold number of people who cannot afford years of insecurity with little promise of a permanent job at the end. This issue’s FOCUS article dives into the murky waters of fixed-term contracts and asks what impact they have on diversity in scientific research.

The uncertain world of academia

As a postdoctoral research associate, I exist in a perpetual state of reflection, striving to answer the question ‘What next?’ It is a situation that will resonate with many early-career researchers, or ECRs, the precariously defined term used to group people within about eight years of completing their PhDs. So, although I am not yet applying, my mornings sometimes include scrolling through job advertisements on LinkedIn, saving or dismissing roles from potential future employers as though they were profiles on Tinder.

One morning, I discovered a post advertising an academic position requesting a PhD in physical science, five additional years of research experience, proven expertise in a vast list of specialised skills, leadership experience, product management experience, a portfolio of top-quality publications, and a catalogue of soft skills. And the duration of the job? 10 months. What is most shocking about this short-term role is its normality. Fixed-term — or temporary — contracts are keystones of academia, with approximately 70% of UK researchers in higher education tied to one. These contracts end on a specific date, usually a handful of months or years in the future.

In 2002, the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee published a report examining how 40,000 of the UK’s researchers found themselves employed on fixed-term contracts, some as short as one month. The Committee found ‘widespread dissatisfaction and demoralisation’ among researchers who saw ‘no career structure’ and ‘little hope of obtaining a permanent position’ in their futures. The report concluded that universities ‘deflected the risk’ of employing researchers longer than the project grants they were associated with onto ECRs themselves. This ‘added to the plight’ of junior researchers.

Despite the report being older than some of the University of Cambridge’s current undergraduates, many of its findings still ring true today. In the past decade, the number of UK researchers on fixed-term contracts has risen by 12,000. However, individuals and institutions are increasingly highlighting the issues surrounding academia’s reliance on temporary contracts. Indeed, the University and College Union (UCU) is running a national campaign to improve employment stability and continuity amongst ECRs. This campaign contributed to the strike action on working conditions that UCU members voted to support in November 2021.

Universities appear reluctant to update the fixed-term contract system despite simultaneously wanting to create diverse and inclusive communities. However, academia cannot ignore its reliance on fixed-term contracts when addressing the diversity issues which run rife through higher education institutions.

Diversity in academia

Before exploring how fixed-term contracts affect diversity, I should ask the following: what are the diversity issues in academia? A quick Google search reveals a plethora of articles that hint at the scale of the problem. For example, a 2018 report by the Royal Society of Chemistry revealed that only 9% of UK chemistry professors are female, despite women making up 44% of the undergraduate cohort and 39% of PhD students. This mass exodus of female staff in STEM careers is a well known phenomenon and forms part of the so-called ‘leaky pipeline’ — a topic discussed in issue 52 of BlueSci.

According to 2020 data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, out of around 23,000 professors in the UK, 6,300 are women. Of those women, just 35 are black. In late 2021, the University of Cambridge ran an exhibition titled Phenomenal Women: Portraits of UK Black Female Professors, which highlighted this absurd disparity in the top echelons of academia.

The under-representation of marginalised groups is a significant problem within scientific research, and universities are taking steps to combat this. For example, the Cambridge Equality and Diversity unit offers grants, runs events, and fosters networks designed to improve diversity by increasing awareness and helping to amplify the voices of marginalised groups in STEM research.

However, the slow rate of change is worrying. In 2021, the Royal Society published a report examining the diversity observed in applications to their early-career fellowship programmes. Although fellowships are not permanent positions, they are often seen as the next step in a postdoctoral researcher’s career. But the Royal Society’s results are troubling. Between 2018 and 2020, applications were not representative of UK postdoctorates. For example, in the call for the Royal Society’s prestigious University Research Fellowships, out of an ‘eligible pool’ of 42%, only 28% of applicants were women. There was also low representation of Asian and multi-ethnic groups, and no applications were put forward by black researchers.

Therefore, marginalised groups are not only under-represented as recipients of competitive academic fellowships, but they are not applying. Why? As the rest of this article explores, fixed-term contracts contribute to the exclusion of minority groups, exacerbating existing diversity issues in academia.

Benefits of fixed-term contracts

It would be unfair to dive into the issues temporary contracts cause without first acknowledging their advantages. Fixed-term contracts offer an abundance of opportunities to ECRs, which would be difficult to match in any other profession.

When researching this article, I reached out to current Cambridge-based ECRs who cited ‘freedom to move’ as a major benefit of temporary posts. ECRs enjoy the flexibility to ‘try out different projects and challenges’, ‘build a network in another country’, and experience other cultures and institutions ‘without the need to permanently settle’.

Academia is almost unparalleled in the mobility it grants its employees, and few other professions could lead you to five different countries in as many years. Being a researcher means you are part of a global network, and the opportunities can feel limitless. The temporary nature of roles and access to thriving scientific communities means ECRs can swap topics within or even outside their discipline, so broadening their career prospects and providing the opportunity to discover research they may hold more passion for than their PhD work. This might sound ideal, and for many, it is. However, this freedom comes at a cost.

How fixed-term contracts restrict diversity

1) Increased financial strain

A few years ago, I quit my job at a large multinational firm to start a PhD for ‘my love of science’ because, as I told my baffled friends, I was ‘not in it for the money’. Indeed, after a second master’s degree and a PhD, I earn less than I did as a 22-year-old graduate, although I am far more suited to research and much happier with my day-to-day work.

Besides the discrepancy between qualifications and remuneration, the concrete end date printed on fixed-term contracts serves as a constant reminder that, one day, the money will stop. As the end of an ECR’s contract looms, they must confront their options: line up an extension, win more funding, or find another job. ECRs must meticulously plan these next steps to coincide with their contract’s end date, cutting into the time they can spend on their current project, else endure weeks or months eating into their financial savings.

Many researchers struggle to move up the career ladder despite gargantuan efforts in the lab, publication records longer than Netflix’s lists of home makeover shows, and CVs saturated with accolades. The nature of the academic job market does not guarantee researchers a permanent position after their temporary roles. In fact, just 10% of postdoctoral staff in the UK achieve permanent jobs.

Financial insecurity alienates people who cannot afford to risk periods with little or no pay, including those from low socio-economic backgrounds, those on visas with strict salary requirements, and researchers with families. As one ECR explains, ‘When it was just me, [changing contracts] was a lot more fun and exciting’, but ‘with a young family, and as the main income earner, the responsibility changes completely. Last-minute extensions [to contracts] are not OK and do not help’.

2) Family planning pressure

It is impossible to make long-term plans whilst on a temporary contract, and ECRs often face a choice between progressing their career or starting a family. While the insecurity of fixed-term contracts has considerable effects on men’s family planning choices, reports consistently highlight that women are disproportionately affected. Perhaps one of the most significant impacts of fixed-term contracts on inclusion and diversity is their role in maintaining the ‘glass ceiling’ — the metaphorical barrier halting the career progression of marginalised groups, especially women.

The average age of a UK PhD graduate is 27. If this graduate — let’s call her Olivia — wants a career in academia, she can expect to be on fixed-term contracts well into her thirties. As most women this age know, society will bombard Olivia with unsolicited opinions on her fertility, despite the possibility of her choosing not to have children or wanting to wait. However, if she starts a family at 30 — the average age for a first-time mother in the UK — she will probably be on a temporary contract. During this time, she faces the possibility of having no right to maternity leave because of the insecure nature of her role. For safety reasons — due to, for example, chemical hazards — she may also have to spend nine months away from the lab she works in, eating into the limited time her contract grants her, with little or no support to complete her experiments. Or she may find herself stuck in the grey area where her contract ends before her due date. Since Olivia faces so many concerns due to the temporary nature of her role, she may prefer to leave academia altogether.

Lack of support for young mothers is one of the many reasons behind the low number of women progressing up academia’s career ladder or choosing not to start the climb in the first place. The 2018 report by the Royal Society of Chemistry investigating women’s retention and progression in the chemical sciences concluded that ‘the dominance of short-term contracts creates unnecessary pressure and uncertainty’. Many researchers the Royal Society of Chemistry interviewed cited fixed-term contracts as the main reason female postdoctoral staff leave academia, helping to account for the conspicuous absence of female chemistry professors.

3) Lack of support for parents and carers

If an early-career researcher stays in academia while starting a family, the insecure nature of their contract may lead to problems beyond parental leave. The term ‘early-career’ covers a vast range of people, funded by a myriad of different organisations with no standard set of rights written into their contracts. This diversity of roles leads to considerable variation in the benefits researchers can access. For example, when I was researching this article, an externally funded ECR I talked with said that not only was she denied maternity leave, but she also did not have access to university childcare or funding to help with costs.

Restricted access to childcare is not uncommon. In 2020, Nature published the results of their first survey of postdoctoral staff, gathering data on over 7,600 researchers from 93 nations. Only half of respondents had access to paid parental leave, and just 14% could then apply for subsidised childcare — this lack of support recalls the first issue I discussed, financial strain. Childcare is expensive. In the UK, the average cost of a part-time nursery place stands at £7,000 a year. Flexible working may help alleviate these costs, but such benefits are rare in fixed-term contracts. In addition, ECRs must spend a significant amount of time searching and applying for their next role, on top of their current full-time job. These time and financial pressures can present significant challenges for a parent with a partner and insurmountable ones for single parents.

Lack of flexibility also affects carers. The NHS defines a carer as anyone who ‘looks after a family member, partner or friend who needs help because of their illness, frailty, disability, a mental health problem or an addiction and cannot cope without their support’. However, carers may not always ask for direct support because, as the NHS notes, a person takes ‘an average of two years to acknowledge their role as a carer’ — a length of time comparable to a typical fixed-term contract. Little data exists on the opinions and quality of support available to carers working in research. Still, universities are running initiatives to help, for example, the Supporting Parents and Carers @ Cambridge — or SPACE — network. SPACE offers a range of initiatives designed to support parents and carers in maintaining a positive work-life balance.

While UK research institutions acknowledge the need to help parents and carers, ECRs on temporary contracts still face the question ‘What next?’ What support is there once the end date of their contract passes? What happens if the researcher’s only option is a role in a different institution or country? Then, the mobility that can be a desirable benefit to fixed-term contracts becomes a major obstacle: moving means relocating a family and/or dependents.

4) Vulnerability to bullying, harassment, and discrimination

In recent years, bullying within academia has made major news headlines. In 2018, an investigation by The Guardian revealed 300 academics at UK universities faced accusations of bullying between 2013 and 2018. However, this only hints at the true scale of the problem. A recent study conducted by Moss and Mahmoudi investigating bullying in STEM found an incredible 84% of researchers they surveyed had first-hand experience of bullying, but less than 30% had reported it. Why?

Claims of bullying and harassment are often downplayed or ignored by host institutions, contributing to victims being hesitant to report issues. In addition, ECRs can also face severe implications for their career if they speak out. Moss and Mahmoudi noted that ‘perpetrators were more likely [to be] from the highest-ranked institutions, and they were most likely PIs’. PIs — or principal investigators — are the senior academics responsible for a research group and who often hold the grants that fund early-career researchers.

The nature of fixed-term contracts means ECRs depend on their PIs for career progression. For example, an ECR’s PI is often the only suitable reference for job applications. This leaves researchers vulnerable to the opinions and behaviours of one person. The Academic Parity Movement — a non-profit organisation aiming to protect students and ECRs from bullying — identifies several examples of PIs abusing their positions to influence an ECR’s career negatively. Examples include giving an unfair reference, cancelling job offers, extending contracts unnecessarily, and offering no support when an ECR expresses an interest in moving on. The over-reliance of career progression on PIs, coupled with the vast power imbalance between senior and early-career academics, puts the careers of those vulnerable to bullying, harassment, and discrimination at serious risk.

Nature’s 2020 survey of postdoctoral staff revealed that 40% of respondents had experienced gender discrimination, of which 90% were women. Female staff are subjected to intolerable levels of bullying and harassment, often manifesting so subtly that incidents are dismissed or go unnoticed by colleagues. The problem is so severe that the Royal Society of Chemistry identifies a ‘culture of secrecy and lack of accountability around harassment’ as a key barrier to women’s progression in chemical science.

A quarter of the postdoctoral researchers surveyed by Nature in 2020 had experienced racial discrimination, and an increasing number of BAME researchers are opening up about their experience of racism in academia. They cite problems such as being subjected to racist comments, being side-lined by senior colleagues and having to defend their abilities as scientists when others see their appointment as reaching a ‘diversity quota’.

Discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community is also a serious problem. A joint report run by the Institute of Physics, the Royal Astronomical Society, and the Royal Society of Chemistry in 2019 found that 28% of LGBTQ+ researchers had ‘considered leaving their workplace’ because of discrimination and intolerance within their institutions. For LGBTQ+ researchers, the mobile and international culture within academia — supported by the prevalence of temporary contracts — increased anxiety because of the prospect of ‘interacting with cultures that were not yet inclusive of LGBT+ people’.

While issues of bullying, discrimination and harassment against marginalised groups are not unique to universities, higher education’s reliance on fixed-term contracts leave ECRs more vulnerable to bullying than employees in many other workplaces. When this compounds with the discrimination and harassment marginalised groups face, it is no wonder many leave scientific research in favour of more stable jobs, where they are less reliant on one person for career progression.

5) Disenchantment with academia

An extensive study conducted by the UCU in 2019 found that 81% of researchers considered short-term contracts to have negatively affected their own research. This alludes to the vicious cycle in which ECRs can become trapped, as time pressure created by fixed-term contracts limits research activity. To improve their output and thus their chance at landing a permanent position, ECRs take on many extracurricular roles on top of applying for short-term grants.

However, grants and fellowships can have thousands of applicants for only a handful of places. Therefore, most applications an ECR makes are likely to be unsuccessful. Hence, an ECR is likely to spend a tremendous amount of time applying for short-term funds to extend their short-term contracts all to continue their research, which should be their full-time job. This begs the question: why bother? Why not leave for a permanent position elsewhere? Many people do. Universities are allowing talent to slip away.

In almost every industry, organisations employ separate teams to sell, design, implement, and communicate work. Each stage requires a very different skillset, so having specialists is a sensible decision. But academia expects researchers to excel at selling, designing, implementing, and communicating their work, alongside being world-class teachers. Unachievable expectations lead to fantastic researchers having no time for science because they must concentrate on other tasks, brilliant teachers with little energy left for their students, and extraordinary science communicators who feel their work is side-lined. These people often choose to leave for permanent roles in the areas they are passionate about. Therefore, universities are missing out on an incredibly diverse range of talent by continuing to fixate on an outdated opinion that professors must be polymaths.

Looking to the future

A survey conducted by the UCU in 2019 revealed that 97% of respondents on fixed-term contracts in higher education would prefer a permanent position. Over the past few years, ECRs have become increasingly outspoken against their uncertain employment status, and support for campaigns pushing for change, such as the UCU’s ‘stamp out casual contracts’, has grown. And universities are listening.

In 2020, the Russell Group — an association of twenty-four research-intensive UK universities, including Cambridge — commented on academic working practices. In the report, the universities admitted the ‘over-reliance on some forms of employment models and associated contractual arrangements may not serve the best interests of staff, for example, in supporting their development and career aspirations. Ultimately, they may also affect the wider academic mission and the staff and student experience at university’.

Although the vast majority of ECR contracts continue to be temporary, positive change appears to be underway. An increasing number of permanent teaching and research development roles within universities seem to scatter my job searches on LinkedIn. However, change is a slow beast, and academia’s reliance on fixed-term contracts will probably be an issue for many more ECR cohorts. Therefore, universities will continue to lose the researchers they invested so much time and money in training.

Leaving academia is often seen as taboo for early-career researchers, but it is the correct decision for many. Researchers should not feel obliged to continue pursuing an academic career if the negatives outweigh the positives. Losing talent is a failure of the system, not the person. An academic career is a journey of manageable steps up a well trodden path for some. For others, it is a game of snakes and ladders. As with most professions, the people who reach the top are likely those for whom the journey was smoothest.

Ultimately, the power to demolish the barriers driving the diversity issues plaguing academia lies with universities and funders. For real change to happen, more must be done than simply issuing statements supporting diversity, holding seminars, or offering awareness-raising online equality courses. One concrete action would be examining academia’s over-reliance on temporary contracts and implementing alternative working practices. We cannot form a diverse research community without being inclusive, and we cannot improve inclusivity without addressing fixed-term contracts.

Bethan Charles is a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Materials Science and Metallurgy. Illustration by Anna Germon.