Managing your Fixed-Term Contract

Written by Nudrat Siddiqui, Research Staff Development Officer, CRSD

As a member of research staff you are probably well acquainted with the precarious nature of working on fixed-term contracts. Knowing that your contract has an end date in the near future means that during this crucial period of your career when you are saturated with working on establishing yourself as an independent researcher while juggling commitments in your personal life, you are likely to have the added responsibility of constantly thinking about your next role and applying for jobs. The current contractual system is not particularly accommodating for research staff and there have been many voices petitioning for the introduction of more secure, stable contracts of employment. However, for the time being, fixed-term research contracts continue to be the norm across the higher education sector in the UK and in many other parts of the world. In fact, temporary contracts aren’t unique to universities. Several other sectors, including the arts and culture and health and social work sectors offer fixed-term and zero-hour contracts.

Image source: Office for National Statistics

While the uncertainty that comes with fixed-term contracts can be a test of mental and physical endurance, there are ways in which you can manage your contract and keep your situation in perspective:

Re-evaluate your Expectations

If you are aiming to secure a permanent academic role, speak to colleagues in such positions to get a sense of how long it may take to achieve this, then reflect on how long you are willing to invest time and effort into aspiring towards this goal. Are the two timelines compatible? While for some people it can be a straightforward path, for many others it can take years of navigating fixed-term contracts before landing a permanent academic position. Are you open to the idea of working on temporary contracts for as long as it takes or do you have a cut-off date based on the extent of effort you put in: e.g. after having X number of publications, teaching on Y number of modules, and participating in so many public engagement and impact activities, if I have not obtained a permanent contract I will explore other options. These might be difficult, probing questions to ask yourself, but they can offer clarity for your future plans.

Don’t let Rejection Defeat you

You will achieve multiple milestones during this period of your career, but you are also likely to face rejection along the way. Rejection in the form of papers not accepted for publication or unrelentingly mangled during peer review, grants not awarded, and unsuccessful job applications and interviews. It can be bruising and might make you question your intellectual worth. Remind yourself that rejection is an unavoidable part of navigating the highly competitive waters of academia and is a process that all your colleagues, including senior academics, have gone through. Dwell on your many successes instead of on the occasional failure. Managing fixed-term contracts is an important learning lesson, enabling you to develop the aptitude for strategic, long-term planning and identifying opportunities, so commend yourself for having reached where you are today.

Keep your Options Open

Transforming the world through the research you carry out in academia might be your lifelong ambition, but don’t dismiss the possibility of making the contributions you plan to make via other career routes. For some of you the idea of leaving academia might be mired with the notion that somehow you have spectacularly failed or are a quitter. This belief is far from true. In Vitae’s 2016 report* entitled What do Research Staff do Next that captures the results of a survey completed by 856 research staff who transitioned into other sectors, the majority of respondents reported having high job satisfaction in their new roles. There is a wealth of opportunity outside academia where you can apply your expertise without compromising the challenge and exhilaration that the promise of an academic post might hold, often with the added benefits of better security and scope for work-life balance. Visit our case studies webpage to see how people applied their research experience and PhDs to a range of roles and sectors and book a one-to-one appointment with our experienced Careers Consultants who can support you with exploring options.

*King’s has institutional membership to Vitae. Login with your King’s credentials to view the report.