After her one-year contract expired, Lacy-Nichols had a gap of four months waiting for her next one to be signed off. During that time, to avoid having to break her employment with the University of Melbourne, she converted her previously four-day-per-week role to one day, then took that day as annual leave.
“I can’t live on a 0.2 salary so I luckily picked up a short-term consulting gig,” she said. “That’s the nature of the beast; that was my first introduction to the academic funding cycle.”
A renter, she said the job insecurity made it hard to plan ahead and complicated taking on a mortgage with her partner.
“I’m very confident I’ll have a career in academia but can’t tell you what my next job will be in two and a half years.”
She’d like to see casual contracts abolished at universities. “Let’s not have universities be the next Uber. You can have part-time work that still has benefits.”
Ankur Singh has both researched insecure work – he co-wrote a paper on undocumented farm workers – and lived it as a migrant from India with a young family.
“I started my postdoc [post-doctoral research placement] five years ago and had a one-year contract, and just figuring out whether the contract would be renewed every year put enormous stress on me.”
Adding to that pressure was his temporary visa and the uncertainty about whether he would stay in the country, let alone have an ongoing job. Singh said there needed to be more work done to understand the intersectionality of insecure work and how it affected people differently, including by gender, background and visa status.
He moved from research-only roles and is now a lecturer in epidemiology at the Melbourne School of Population and Global Health, where he conducts both teaching and research.
“To be honest, I think I’m one of the lucky few that survived this. I’ve seen incredibly talented colleagues who did get those…competitive fellowships and then are not able to stay on in the jobs they loved because of lack of funding. It was heartbreaking.”
His biggest concern for colleagues is damage to their mental health from the stress of navigating the system. “If they miss out on a grant, they are suddenly out of a job. Where is the backup strategy to support these people?”
Natalia Egorova Brumley
When her second child was just a week old, neuroscientist Natalia Egorova Brumley was filling out a grant application so her career would not stall, or end, soon after she returned to work.
“I was typing on the computer with one hand while holding the baby in the other,” the PhD graduate from the University of Cambridge said.
Her current grant was due to expire at the end of this year so she needed to line up another one to ensure she had several years of more work locked in. With the grant process only coming around once a year, she had no choice but to apply so soon after her birth.
“There needs to be some systemic changes to alleviate the stress,” she said of a research environment where funding has become far more precarious and work more insecure.
With a four-year-old daughter and six-month-old son, she says the system is particularly hard for women with children to navigate.
As a senior researcher at the Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences, Egorova Brumley is originally from Russia but has also studied in the US and worked across Europe.
Since 2015, she has worked in Australia. She said there needed to be multiple deadlines to apply for grants and a chance to apply for smaller sub-grants. She found she had to work while on leave to ensure her research career remained on an “upward trajectory.”
In the end, she won a three-year fellowship that will keep her “employed for a while.”
George Taiaroa knew some of what to expect from a scientific career because both his parents were academics. But it has still been a challenge to navigate the system as a young infectious diseases researcher studying the evolution of diseases such as Covid-19.
“If we are saying that we value science as a nation and its role in meeting challenges such as the pandemic or climate change – well, we are not really funding that.”
Although Taiaroa works in an in-demand area of research, there remain few opportunities for stable funding, and for many researchers, looking for a new job that can mean moving interstate or overseas.
Taiaroa completed his PhD in New Zealand and is now coming up to his fourth year as a research fellow at the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity in Melbourne.
The biggest stress was that he had to commit to moving to Australia with little job security: he’s employed on a 12-month contract that gets renewed annually.
“If you have a mortgage or are looking to start a family and you can only plan for 12 months of income, it means the sector can be far less attractive,” he said.
Vaughan Macefield gave up an ongoing academic position to return to pure research and his specialty, which is studying how the brain controls blood pressure.
From 1986 when he finished his PhD to 2006, Macefield was on short-term contracts, and now, after a decade-long stint in academia, he’s working in non-ongoing work again.
“It’s been a long time with no job security; it’s very stressful,” Macefield, now at the Baker Institute, said.
“You’ve got these highly, highly skilled people working in very niche areas for a limited pot of money… it really is a gig economy. We are all just scavenging for these little amounts of funding,” he said.
“Unless you have a continuing academic appointment at a university, everyone else in the research sector is on short-term grants: Florey, Baker, Peter Mac, everyone. No one has a permanent job, and there are no such things as permanent jobs.“
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