Most people trying to get a permanent academic job have to go through a period of fixed term research project or teaching work, after completing a PhD, before they have any chance of getting that permanent job. The uncertainty this creates makes it a very challenging stage of your academic career.
I’ve been trying to write about this issue and I was about to trot out the old line about how difficult it was to break into the academic job market, with fewer permanent academic jobs and the increased use of fixed term contracts but thought I’d better do some fact checking. Now I’m really confused.
This might only be of interest to those about to embark on an academic career, post-docs experiencing these issues first hand, other careers advisers or the odd stats junkie (like me) – feel free to skip otherwise.
Each university in the UK makes an annual return to the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) not only about its student population, but also about its employees. HESA publishes a range of data on those employed in academic roles, so I’ve looked back over the last 5 years (04/05 to 08/09, the latest info available on-line).
The following graph shows a very different picture to the one I was expecting (click on it to see a larger version).
Permanent academic jobs up by 27% – oh really?
You can see that permanent academic jobs have gone up by over 33,000 over the last five years, with fixed term contracts having fallen by over 4,000. That’s almost a 27% increase in permanent academic jobs – I was stunned.
Digging around, I’ve found out that there may be a bit of a “difference in interpretation” between institutions over what gets returned to HESA – but is this enough to over-ride the basic message?
Are graduate teaching assistants included?
For example, the data I’ve used from HESA excludes “atypical” academic staff. At Manchester, we have large numbers of these, including all our graduate teaching assistants & sessional lecturers (which we don’t include in this HESA return) but it’s not clear that this same definition is used everywhere. However, this would generally only over-inflate the fixed term contract numbers.
The fixed-term vs open-ended contract issue
A more important distinction may be the way that institutions define staff who have had multiple fixed term contracts. This gets to the heart of a very contentious issue. Since a change in the law a couple of years ago, anyone who has been employed to work on a fixed term project, or series of fixed term projects, for over 4 years with the same employer is deemed to have an open ended employment contract.
This doesn’t mean that they have a permanent job for life – if the work ends (as it generally would with a fixed term project) they may still face redundancy at the end of the project, but at least they would be entitled to support to find alternative roles, or redundancy pay if no other work were available.
Is it really a permanent academic job?
At Manchester, when we send HESA the number of permanent/open ended contract academics, we don’t include anyone on a fixed term research project or teaching role, even if they have clocked up enough service to have an open ended employment contract. I think this is reasonable, otherwise it would look like we’ve got loads of academics in comfortable permanent jobs, whereas many of them would actually be in jobs which might well end in a year or two if no other suitable project work comes up. However, I don’t know if this rationale is used across all institutions.
So, are there lots of new permanent academic jobs out there? I know if you talk to PhDs, research and teaching staff that it doesn’t feel like it, and with impending cuts, it’s only likely to get tougher.
I’ve looked at the stats by fixed term vs open ended contracts, and by full-time vs part-time in “teaching & research”, “research only” and “teaching only” and most of them show a growth in numbers (other than fixed term contracts) over the last 5 years. Click the link below to see a Word document with lots of pretty graphs.
Have we really been living through a golden age of academic recruitment and not noticed? If anyone can shed any light on this, let me know!
I’ve been digging a bit further, and spotted that the increases in academic staff aren’t evenly spread across the grades. There was an increase in the number of Professors and Senior Lecturers/Researchers, and a reduction in the number of Lecturers, from 04/05 up to 07/08. Unfortunately HESA changed their stats reporting by grade that year, so I can’t give equivalent figures for 08/09.
(The notes on the HESA website point out that some institutions report senior grades differently, and include Profs in the Senior Lecturer category, so the Professor figure is likely to be an underestimate).
I wonder if universities might have been filling up with senior staff (who, coincidentally, would look good in the RAE. Now, when was the RAE? Oh yes, 2008 …) at the cost of new lecturer posts? Hmmm, that might account for why early career researchers report struggling to find academic jobs at a time when permanent academic posts have increased.
HESA has changed its stats for 08/09, only reporting “Professors” and “non-Professors” now, so I can’t see what happened to the Lecturer grades after 07/08. Interestingly though, the figure for “Professors” fell that year, from 18,290 in 07/08 to 17,535 in 08/09.
Lots of retirements as soon as the RAE was over – or am I being cynical?