Research Careers at Sheffield

Sheffield UCU, February 2008.
(Including material from discussions with Research Staff Working Group, Careers Service, Research Leaders programme, HR, and Keith Burnett.)


Universities run on the motivation and good will of their staff. This note is about increasing these qualities amongst contract research staff.

Changing the big picture of research careers requires intervention at a national level, but there are several local measures that can help make Sheffield more attractive for contract research staff:

The intent of these changes is twofold:


It is now widely recognised that the old career model of PhD...postdoc...faculty cannot scale up to the volume of research happening in a research-led University. In Sheffield Computer Science, for example, there are more than 60 contract research staff and only 35 academics, and similar figures are becoming common elsewhere. Because of this careers as non-faculty research staff are already with us. Now it is time for terms and conditions (and the culture) to catch up.

(This is not an argument for an expansion of teaching only and research only posts: there are strong reasons to seek synergy between research and teaching. Our point here is rather that the size of the research base now necessitates some changes in conditions and culture.)

The current model assumes that faculty do research and contract staff assist them: the funding proposal is written by faculty, who also do the project management, write the papers and present the work to colleagues at conferences and in journals. In the past this model worked to give an initial taste of academic life to research assistants (RAs) hired soon after their doctorates, who would then expect to go on to secure a faculty position after 3 or 4 years. The problem now is that research has expanded massively while the number of faculty has not. As a result research staff can no longer expect to routinely progress to a faculty post, and, on the other hand, faculty cannot always initiate and manage the quantity of research that has become an accepted part of membership in the international community. This has lead to a situation where, at its worst, RAs have all the responsibilities and obligations of research (including proposal writing, project management and administration) without the benefits of security, visibility and status that accrue to faculty. RAs also suffer from an absence of career structure, and restricted access to promotion (a typical research council project budget takes no account of staff progression, for example). Of course there are many laudable counter-examples, but the general picture still typically follows the old model.

This is a bad arrangement for research staff but it is also bad for research productivity in general. In a typical 3-year project research staff spend the first year learning the job, the second year being productive, and the third year looking for another job. From this perspective better job security could mean a 200% increase in research output!

Taking a Lead at Sheffield

Other Universities are already changing their practices: Bristol now has a buffer fund, and along with Loughborough has increased the use of open-ended contracts, and Leeds is making similar noises. Now would be a good time for Sheffield to take a lead. Some of the areas that we can work on are:

Fixed-term vs. open-ended contracts.

The only difference between the end of a fixed-term contract and that of an open-ended contract which has run out of funding is the mechanism for triggering the redundancy process. In the latter case it is the department's responsibility to inform HR, rather than the other way around. So, on the one hand, having an open-ended contract doesn't help from a job security point-of-view (but by the same token doesn't cost the University any money). On the other hand, open-ended contracts may serve to shift PI opinion to a degree, and to make departmental structures more aware of the possibility of long-term research careers.

Holding on to successful staff between grants.

In a team of 10 or more contract researchers it becomes possible to shift funds around to ensure staff retention. In smaller teams this is often impossible and continuity can only be achieved when grants overlap or their end points are perfectly synchronised. The University should consider the establishment of a buffer fund to which applications can be made for carry-over funding, and should use the establishment of such a fund as part of representations to the research councils about how to make this type of arrangement a structural part of the funding scene.

Other areas where the research councils could do better are

Where we cannot retain, our redeployment and careers support should be as strong as possible (and good progress has been made by both HR and the careers service to this end). Some additional ideas:


Let's stop calling our research staff "assistants" or "postdocs". Perhaps a mixture of "research scientist", "research scholar" and so on? (The terms "associate" and "fellow" are better than assistant, but because of the way they stand for different things in different universities they tend to get bundled up with "assistant".)

The "research leaders" programme is a positive step, but we should be clear that we want to promote the interests of all our research staff, not just that percentage who are eligible for advanced fellowship awards and the like. An area of leadership which sometimes goes unacknowledged is contributions to grant proposals, and PIs should be encouraged to name co-authors and co-investigators.

Other issues that have been raised in the context of leadership:


Further consultation with research staff and their representatives would be a good thing. As well as direct approaches, two groups have been particularly active in recent times: