The perks and perils of short term research contracts

When you are starting a career in academia, you are inevitably going to be working on a couple of short-term contracts. A lot has been written about this, and I don’t want to repeat that discussion here – at the moment, there isn’t really a way around it, unless you are one of the few people who get a lectureship straight after their PhD (which could turn out to be a curse rather than a blessing!).

Being on short term contracts, and specifically, having to go where the work is, can make you feel out of sync with friends or university classmates who chose to work in industry (or, who got a proper job, as some relatives keep reminding me – they never stop asking me when I graduate or am done studying). They start to earn money straight after university; they buy houses and cars, and can afford expensive lifestyles. They build up a network of friends and colleagues, start to have children, and meet more people when they drop off their kids at the crèche or primary school. They settle down.

In academia, all of this is challenging, and it could get in the way of your career. Short-term contracts mean that it is hard to buy a house, or to settle down. The decision whether and when to have children is even more difficult, as the age at which women generally have children is exactly the age when independent research careers start to take off and require a lot of investment.

Where I think these different career choices also make a difference is in the build up and maintenance of a social network.  Peers who have gone to university and then move on to a job in the same city, are likely to have a network of friends who work in different fields and have widely differing careers. For example, I have friends that I went to university with who work in a cinema, who are teachers, who work for the government, and who work in bike shops.

Because I have moved around so much, I have had to make new friends, and those are most likely to work in my department, or at least at my university. It is simply quite difficult to make friends outside the university, as this requires active planning, such as becoming a member of a sports club. After having spent years planning my life around mountain biking races, I enjoy having the freedom to go cycling or climbing when I want it, and not when a club prescribes me to – so, this doesn’t really work for me. As a result, I mostly socialize with people who I also work with.

However, on the positive side, moving around a lot also means that I have an army of friends in all corners of the world, and a place to stay on most continents! It’s not only fantastic to see those friends while travelling, it also greatly improves the travelling experience, as you are more likely to see everyday life and culture, rather than tourist attractions, in a country.

But, to conclude, making new friends costs time and energy, and so far, in Manchester, I’ve had very little surplus of both. So, during the week, I’ve been putting my head down and working like a horse to catch up with things, and during weekends, we’ve had some nice solitary mountain bike rides in the Peak District (on my new bike!). However, now that things are calming down a bit, I hope that I will soon have the energy to go out more, and make more of an effort!


One comment on “The perks and perils of short term research contracts

  1. […] career in academia means choosing to be flexible. I have already written about the drawbacks and benefits of short-term research contracts and moving around a lot in terms of having a…, but when it comes to maintaining your relationship, things can become a lot more complicated. […]

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