Precariously employed

#106: Precariously employed: the daily hassles of Early Career Researchers

Take a moment and think about the following: What kind of contracts have you been working under in the past as a Doctoral Candidate, Junior Researcher, or Postdoc? How long have you been funded at a time, and how often were you required to seek new funding? Based on your contracts, what access have you had to welfare provisions? What effect has this had on your wellbeing or work-life balance? This blogpost discusses the issue of precarity in science. It’ll inform you of the negative consequences on an institutional level, and the daily hassle you might face because of precarity. But it’ll also tell you what you can do to make your own circumstances—and that of other Early Career Researchers—less difficult. 

Guestpost by Filomena Parada

What’s precarity? 

According to ILO (International Labour Organization 2021), precarity consists of employment that does not fit the description of a ‘regular’ job. It has an uncertain duration, or lasts only for as long as the employer needs you to work for them—for example, a few weeks or months. The work is often part-time, and the person hired does not know when they will be working. Precarity also entails lack of access to social protections and benefits usually associated with employment, along with low pay, and substantial legal and practical obstacles to joining a trade union and bargaining collectively.

Precarity dominates the working lives of Early Career Researchers (ECRs; doctoral candidates and postdocs), especially those employed in the academic research sector (OECD, 2021). Awareness of the multiple negative outcomes of precarity and a non-nurturing, highly competitive environment on researchers, research, and society is increasing (Wellcome, 2020).

Precarity undermines ECRs’ quality of employment, and challenges their quality of life (Nature, 2020). Researchers at the early stages of their careers often linger (frequently for decades) in positions marked by a succession of short, fixed-term contracts involving low job security, insufficient benefits, and poor compensation (Woolston, 2020). These positions offer uncertain employment and career prospects, and come with high workloads and high productivity expectations that hamper a satisfactory work-life balance (Woolston, 2020). 

Together, these aspects promote ECRs’ high levels of stress and anxiety, as well as feelings of isolation and loneliness. These feelings  are further aggravated by an inability to find support, and a decreased sense of belonging and camaraderie that has spread through academia (Wellcome, 2020). The COVID-19 pandemic made this gloomy scenario even gloomier. In many universities, hiring was barred, and opportunities for career progression were limited or suspended (Eurodoc, 2020).

Consequences for research and society, and potential solutions 

Nevertheless, the negative effects of precarity and of a competition-oriented research culture go well beyond their impacts on individual researchers’ lives and careers. Additional adverse consequences concern the constraints the academic research sector started to experience in attracting and retaining talent (European Commission, 2020). These constraints will eventually hamper academia’s ability to produce real innovation and societal impact (OECD, 2021). To further discuss the issue and propose effective solutions to these problems is beyond the scope of this post. It is, however, important you bear the following in mind: no easy fix exists. 

Solutions for problems with the scale and complexity of the ones described can only be achieved through widespread public debate and concerted action involving stakeholders operating at all levels of the research and innovation system: individual researchers (including ECRs); research groups, departments, and universities; regional or national and supra-national funders and policy makers (OECD, 2021). 

Effective change can only be achieved if all relevant actors are invested and contribute to the planning and implementation of systemic solutions that shift policies, processes, and power structures, as well as the norms and values that currently make research and innovation systems across the globe malfunction (Hatch & Curry, 2020).

Daunting, right? You might be thinking: 

I’m only one person, is there really anything I can do to change things? Or at least make circumstances less difficult for myself and others? 

Yes, there is! You can always find ways to be engaged—specifically to deal with the various daily hassles most ECRs working precariously face. And that is what I want to help you realise with this blog-post. 

Daily hassles of an ECR working precariously

Daily hassles are all those obstacles ECRs working precariously face when trying to do their job, and that result in them often being ‘invisible workers’ to their hosts (Parada, 2019). This ‘institutional invisibility’ is most obvious in the difficulties many experience in accessing resources or professional development opportunities, and, as is often the case with postdocs, in the reduced level of responsibility and independence which institutions and supervisors give them.

Let me give you some examples:

Have you ever worked on a stipend or on a short/very short employment contract? Yes? Then, you probably experienced one or several of the following hassles:

(1) Restricted access to facilities

This includes not having (immediate or easy) access to:

  • An institutional email or a mailing address you can use to communicate with others in/outside your organization.
  • Keys allowing you to move around according to your needs.
  • An office space with a desk and a computer you can use to work.
  • Credentials and other access privileges allowing you to gain entrance to library resources (data bases, books), and other tools like scientific software that are essential for your research.

(2) No access to ancillary costs

This includes:

  • Privileges (including a budget) for printing and mailing.
  • Language proofreading for free or that is reasonably priced.
  • Financial support to cover publication costs (e.g., article processing fees) that is not directly dependent on your supervisor(s)’ budget.
  • Financial support to cover registration and travel costs inherent to attending conferences and other professional development activities (seminars/workshops, summer schools). 

(3) Exclusion from staff information and communication resources

For example:

  • Mailing lists and other internal networks with relevant information about ongoing or upcoming events and calls. Examples are open calls for open positions, including lecturing and hourly paid teaching positions; information about and registration for professional development opportunities; information about social events.
  • Websites, namely access to an institutional profile page.

(4) Having to pay bench fees or tuition 

For example, when attending programs offering a non-degree diploma for postdoctoral research. Sometimes, ECRs  must face a trade-off: they are exempt from paying bench fees or tuition if they agree to not be compensated for teaching or other duties that fall outside the scope of their contract. 

In sum, the problems precariously employed ECRs face in being recognized by their hosts as staff members not only make it harder for them to perform their job, but also obstruct their adequate integration and participation in the daily life of the institutions for which they work. 

Further hassles faced by precariously employed ECRs

These problems are further aggravated by other barriers:

(1) Limited autonomy

ECRS experience limited autonomy in carrying out research projects, which often inhibits their ability to engage in and develop their own professional networks, and provides them with only a narrow range of skills. This is in contrast with Doctoral Candidates (DCs) and postdocs expectations (Parada & Peacock, 2015). Many ECRs feel that a wider range of experiences and competences would prepare them better for positions reliant on higher levels of responsibility and autonomy.

(2) Non-recognition of supervision or teaching

It is often expected that ECRs, (particularly postdocs) contribute to the supervision of DCs (DCs) or master (MA) students. Similarly, it is also common that ECRs contribute to the teaching that falls within the umbrella of their department. However, these contributions are not always formally recognized—particularly when performed on behalf (or instead) of supervisors and other senior staff. Also, despite frequently needing extra resources for teaching, not all institutions regularly have open calls allowing ECRs to apply for lecturing or hourly paid teaching positions.

(3) Restrictions to becoming a Principal Investigator

Hosts  (universities, faculties, departments) commonly impose restrictions on researchers working on fixed-term contracts concerning their ability to apply for funding as principal investigators (PIs). Consequently, their supervisors or other senior staff members are named as the applicants and, if the application succeeds, these are the ones credited for having secured the funding and for formally managing the project.

In some institutions,  rules #2 and #3 are clearly stated, and the procedure overseen by regulations is followed. However, in other institutions, non-transparent practices prevail regarding who is allowed to (co-)supervise or teach, and how this contribution will be recognized and compensated. The same goes for decision-making processes determining who may apply for funding as a PI, and the control exercised over who can access specific calls.

(4) Lack of support when welcoming non-nationals

The lack of preparation many universities show when welcoming non-nationals  is evident in the inadequate support offered to these researchers in areas like (Ivancheva & Gourova, 2011):.

  • Immigration services and legislation.
  • Housing and accommodation.
  • Services related to relocation for those travelling with families, for example, job searches for a partner or finding a school for the children.
  • Internal bureaucracies. It is not uncommon that relevant sources of information (e.g., websites) and documents are made available mostly and, sometimes, only in national language(s). Non-national ECRs are not always fluent or have a mastery of the country’s native language(s), which hampers their ability to find support and navigate the maze of bureaucracy.

Can all of this be explained by the nature of ECR contracts? 

No, it cannot. Universities and other research-based institutions should have already figured out how to avoid the many hassles ECRs in atypical or non-standard employment experience, especially at the onset of their contracts.

Why haven’t they?

Well, mostly because of:

(1) The highly bureaucratic nature of universities and other research-based organizations (henceforth, universities).

In recent decades, and contrary to what the management and organizational literature advocates, the bureaucratic nature of universities increased (Martin, 2016). Their organizational structure became more centralized and hierarchical. Universities began to rely mostly on a top-down approach to management and planning. This led to a decrease in the autonomy of departments, and an increase in the weight of formalized procedures.This resulted in an increase to the internal structures (offices/services), administrative staff, and bureaucracies governing universities’ daily life.

The need to comply with a strict and often complex set of rules and regulations imposes numerous roadblocks to a quick and simple resolution of problems such as the ones listed. Navigating such a dense organizational structure and such heavy administrative procedures is not simple, especially for newcomers: DCs starting their training and postdocs starting a new job with a different employer. As formalities usually differ across institutions, different offices/services are responsible for issuing keys or credentials; different forms must be selected among the myriad paperwork newcomers must deal with, then filled and submitted or delivered to specific individuals or services within the university, faculty, or department. This sometimes also happens within structures (faculties, departments) of the same organization. Consequently, bureaucracies are not always simple to discern, and their requirements take time to complete. Administrative staff/offices’ response times often are not synchronized with the needs of ECRs, especially when employment is of short or very short duration.

Illustrative of the intricacies and opacity of the bureaucracies governing the life of universities are recruitment procedures. Diversity in these procedures prevails across countries and institutions (Parada, 2016):

  • Calls for open positions are not always visible, making them difficult to find.
  • Recruitment periods differ between institutions and countries.
  • Positions advertised in the country’s national language(s), often only nationally and, sometimes, only locally or regionally.
  • Employment conditions are not always clearly defined, which makes it hard for those not familiar with the national or regional labour markets to discern the pros and cons of the job. For example: benefits coverage, relationship between compensation and cost of living, taxation.
  • Unofficially required criteria are not always explicitly disclosed, which often makes external candidates unaware of them. Similarly, recruiters are not always familiar with the rules and other cultural norms that are relevant to fully understand external candidates’ backgrounds, which may play against them and undermine their odds of getting the job.

(2) ECRs’ poorly defined rights and duties, and their lack of representation in the governing bodies of universities and other research-based organizations.

In 2011, Eurodoc published the Eurodoc Survey I that surveyed more than 7500 DCs from 12 European countries. Recently, Eurodoc conducted the Eurodoc Postdoc Survey 2018 that collected answers from over 1700 postdoctoral researchers based in more than 30 European countries (Parada et al., 2021). Both studies showed that a large proportion of the ECRs surveyed did not have clearly defined roles or clarity regarding their rights and duties. Equally concerning was the percentage of postdocs (over 50%) stating that either they were not represented in the management bodies of their hosts or that they were not aware of this possibility. 

ECRs inexperience, misguided expectations, or lack of knowledge of the regulations and other directives governing the life of their host institutions are a likely explanation for these results. However, responsibility cannot be imputed solely to ECRs. Employers also do not take measures ensuring that the content and requirements of the job, including clarity of rol, and rights and duties, are transparent to ECRs at the start of their contracts. 

Supervisors are crucial in supporting ECRs integration and participation in the daily life of their hosts (Parada & Peacock, 2015). Besides their direct responsibilities in the training and assessment of ECRs, supervisors have a fundamental role in facilitating supervisees’ access to resources. They also have a substantial impact on the careers of their supervisees, helping to enhance or hinder ECRs’ access to professional development and employment opportunities. Building positive, constructive relationships with supervisors is, therefore, fundamental. However, supervisors are not always sensitive to the needs of their supervisees, especially when it comes to providing support or career advice. This advice must take into consideration the goals and motivations of DCs and postdocs, and point to a diversity of career options within and outside academia (EUA, 2010). Not only is this an area where ECRs frequently rate quality of supervision as poor, but some supervisors discourage their supervisees from considering careers outside academia (LERU, 2014). Awareness of these issues led Eurodoc to publish a charter for supervision and training that includes a set of standards designed to ensure the consistency and adequacy of the training and supervision offered to ECRs. These standards may help you when the time comes to choose a program or a supervisor.

What can you do to make your or other ECRs’ circumstances less difficult?

There are several things you can do that  fall within your ability to perform, namely:

(1) Get to know other ECRs that work for your department/institution and, together, build your own work community

Among the ECRs that work for your lab/research group, department, faculty, or university, you’ll find  others that are facing several of the same hassles you are. You will probably also find DCs or postdocs that already know their way around the maze of bureaucracies you must take care of, or  can point out staff members to talk to solve certain problems (often, they also know which are more friendly or efficient). 

Remember: you may also hold the knowledge that can make life easier for a fellow DC or postdoc!

Regardless, what is important is that you might find support among other ERCs. Besides helping with practicalities, they may provide you with a safe space for sharing and receiving emotional support. This support can help you feel less isolated, and minimize whatever hardships you might face.

(2) Get to know ECR representatives, and attend their meetings

Union and other ECR representatives can help you become aware of the rights and duties attached to your role. They may also help you address many of the hassles described above. They also often operate as your voice and advocate within the institution hosting you.

Therefore, find the time to attend meetings they schedule. This will likely be an advantage to you. And remember, you do not have to be more actively involved with ECRs representation and advocacy just because you attend their meetings. However, your presence in these meetings will give the representatives additional strength, which will make their claims more easily heard by institutional officials.

One example of these representatives working on your behalf are the volunteers from Eurodoc member organizations. Eurodoc is a grassroots organization that represents ECRs in 25 countries of the European Union and the Council of Europe. Eurodoc advocates for a fair and sustainable research culture where ECRs are treated with respect and have access to long-term and stable career pathways. Want to know more? Check the links!

(3) Attend events targeting ECRs/newcomers at your institution

A growing number of universities and other research-based institutions  hold welcoming sessions to students and ECRs/staff that are new to the organization. These sessions usually introduce you to the host’s internal structure (organisation) and the contacts of staff/offices that handle or may help you with bureaucracies, as well as with housing and other issues pertaining to yours or your family’s relocation. This is also a nice way to get to know others like you. Some organizations also hold events targeting the families of non-nationals/newcomers, or that are specifically directed at ECRs. These events may be informative, social, or both (e.g., welcome days).

(4) Sign a formal agreement with your supervisor

Write up a formal agreement with your supervisor that makes explicit the terms of your relationship! The need and value of supervision agreements providing DCs and postdocs, supervisors, and institutions with a “transparent contractual framework of shared responsibilities” (EUA, 2010) is broadly acknowledged, although not widely implemented. Ensuring that the relationship you have with your supervisor and host is governed by such an agreement depends on more than just you. However, you can always suggest that an agreement stating a feasible plan for your project, and detailing a timetable and key research objectives (for example, a publication plan) is drafted. This agreement should also commit your supervisor to helping you develop and implement a plan for your career, and consider all other responsibilities (teaching, administrative) you may be asked to take part in.

Now, it is up to you! Take some time to think about all you have  read, and see where or how you can begin making a difference in your life and in the lives of other ECRs!

About Filomena Parada: 

Filomena Parada is a volunteer at Eurodoc who currently coordinates two task forces Eurodoc created with the aim of analysing the policies and employment conditions of postdoctoral researchers in Europe.  She started volunteering for Eurodoc in 2008, when she became a member of the international group of junior researchers involved in “Eurodoc Survey I: The first Eurodoc Survey on Doctoral Candidates in Twelve European countries,” followed by several leadership roles within the organization: Working group coordinator (2013-2014), vice-president (2014-2015), and advisory board member (2015-2015; 2017-2018). Since 2012, she has been a member of several Eurodoc Working Groups, namely the Employment and Career Development Working Group. Between 2013 and 2015, Filomena was a regular contributor to the Science Europe Working Group on Research Careers while actively involved with the task force “Post-Doc Funding Schemes in Europe.” Between 2019 and 2021 (January) she represented Eurodoc in the Expert Group of OECD’s Global Science Forum project “Reducing the precarity of researchers’ careers.”

Since 2017, Filomena has been collaborating with Minds Hub, a research group at the Department of Education at the University of Helsinki. Her main research interests are youth transitions to work and adulthood, wellbeing and positive youth development, and the development of sustainable careers. Contextual Action Theory and its associated research method (A-PM), career counselling and development, lifelong learning and guidance, and research careers also are among her topics of specialization.

About Eurodoc:

Eurodoc, the European Council of Doctoral Candidates and Junior Researchers, was established in 2002, and is based in Brussels. Eurodoc is an umbrella organization of 28 national associations representing doctoral candidates and junior researchers in 25 countries of the European Union and the Council of Europe. The mission and vision of Eurodoc is to advocate for a fair and sustainable research culture where early career researchers (ECRs) are treated with respect and have access to long-term and stable career pathways.


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