This week, university staff around the UK began an eight day strike over pensions, the gender pay gap, casualisation… almost everything really.
I thought long and hard about striking. I am a Research Fellow on a research-only contract meaning that I don’t teach, and being on a fixed-term contract, I’m the only one who will suffer from my being on strike.
But I’m striking because I’m fed-up, upset, angry. I’ve had enough.
I graduated with a first-class honours degree from UCL but I didn’t even get interviews for the top PhD programmes I applied for. I took the best position I could find, but I was, like everyone else, at the whims of my supervisor in terms of research and publications.
I wasn’t awarded a travelling Fellowship to the US in the final year of my PhD, despite being told that the application process was just a formality. For reasons I’ll never know. I watched every PhD student around me go, make contacts, write papers, get offered jobs over there. I’ve repeatedly been told that in order to be a successful researcher in the UK, that you need to have worked for a time in the US.
My first post-doc position was only four months, and I moved cities for it. And this was after my fourth unpaid ‘writing-up’ year of my PhD. I’ll never know how I survived that year, although I suspect it was through hand-outs from my grandmother, which included food parcels.
This four months covered someone else’s maternity leave, which meant that no matter what I did, their name would always go in front of mine in any publication. During this time my first research Fellowship application was rejected.
I was unemployed for six months after my first post-doc.
My second contract was for six months, and I fell pregnant during this time. I had to hide my pregnancy if I had any chance of my contract being renewed. It was renewed for six more months, but once I started to show, there was no hope it was going to be renewed again.
My contract ended a month after my son was born, which meant I was entitled to no maternity pay after this time, only statutory pay from the government. Somehow we managed to survive that year, now the three of us.
My next post-doc position began just before my son’s first birthday, and thankfully this contract was just a few months shy of two years. I began to build up papers and to network. I joined a formal mentoring scheme to help me progress but I was told that in all their years as a mentor, that they had only one mentee that stayed in academia. If I was looking for mentorship it was likely I was already on my way out. This person became a Fellow of the Royal Society during their time mentoring me.
My next position was covering someone else’s maternity leave for a few months, and I decided to take the cut to 60% FT to make it last longer. At the beginning of this I was awarded my first small early career grant which enabled me to top up to 100% FT for a while, beginning my own independent research.
I began to find how hard it is to prioritise my own research when I was the only one rooting for it.
This new lab I was in was doing well, and my contract started to roll, one into another, and with a bit of wiggling, I was able to top back up to full-time when my own grant ran out.
My early career grant had enabled me to gather preliminary data for Fellowship applications, which is next-to impossible to do if you work for someone else. And I’d started to apply for Fellowships again.
My first preliminary application was invited for a full application – so this means that you first send in a rough outline on one or two pages, and if the funding body like it, they invite you to send in more, with full costings. My application went out for review but was not short-listed for interview. Reviewers comments took inspiration from the ‘career breaks’ section, rejecting my application because I clearly was not a very good scientist, probably because I was a mother (paraphrased).
This happened only three years ago. Complaints on my part went nowhere.
Fortunately, my second application was in at the same time. Same application, only asking for less money, over less time.
Incredibly, this application was funded, and I began to get excited again about the prospect of my research career taking off. I began emailing HR to ensure everything was in place for me to begin my fellowship in a few months, to rise a pay grade. They told me that it was.
On the first day of my Fellowship, I came in wearing my brand-new red shoes, my ‘Fellowship shoes’ I called them. I received congratulations as I walked around the building. Some people turned up their noses when I excitedly pointed to my new red shoes.
I didn’t care because I was walking on air that day.
But also that day, HR remembered that actually I couldn’t have the pay rise that my new Fellowship entitled me to. And it was only then that the system of progression began to reveal itself to me. Now this is a system that you could never know about until faced by it, as I was. It was not on any website, and even my contact in HR didn’t really know how the process worked in full. She only knew that I had to have a form completed by the Head of School, and that it needed to be done by a date that just happened to be only six days in the future. I hurriedly completed the form and sent it with my CV to the Head of School.
This was the start of July 2017, and I was told that if I didn’t meet this deadline, that I would have to wait until November to be able to ask to be paid the Fellowship money that I had been awarded. Because the gruelling application and interview process with the funding body wasn’t enough for them.
The Head of School sent it on to my Section Head to deal with because unfortunately I needed to send my Academic CV, not my normal CV. I’d never heard of an Academic CV, but sure enough, I was referred to guidelines on the University website,
An eight-page CV, no more. To include inputs under very specific headings. Every conference you’ve ever attended. What your contribution was. Specific contributions to teaching. Research direction.
It took several days to gather all the information, but I did, and with a bit of back and forth it was finally re-submitted to the Head of School, and the original form was signed off.
Now, it turned out that the original deadline of six days I was given wasn’t actually the deadline for submission of the completed form, but it was the date the Dean had to sign off on my progression by. How graciously I was told that I was lucky that my form was the last to be considered by the Dean on the day he had set aside. How lucky I was.
Now into the second week of my Fellowship, I hadn’t done a single thing but felt the stress of uncertainty and my blood pressure rise. The stress of a privileged system that only revealed itself to me in small fragments.
The excitement for my Fellowship was fast turning sour.
At this time I was also saddled with a medical student, with no lab experience, to supervise a summer project of my former supervisor’s choosing. The student wouldn’t be contributing to my own work.
This gift felt more like a ball and chain.
A few months later, the remainder of my post-doc salary from my previous contract was given to a Lab Technician with a psychology undergraduate degree and only a few months of lab experience. Out of guilt for leaving the post-doc position to begin my own research, I was expected to train him as my replacement – alongside the medical student, who had now begun his intercalated BSc research project.
Neither of whom would be contributing to my own work.
Also at this time, I was under pressure to write up the work from the project I worked at part-time, the second period of maternity cover I undertook. The researcher I covered was now back, but somehow it was me who was expected to write up the publication.
For joint authorship.
What a relief when I fell pregnant for a second time. This gave me the excuse (I shouldn’t have needed an excuse) to look after my own mental and physical health and work (or hide) at home. I applied for (and was awarded) a small amount of money that would enable me to hire a post-doc for a year so I could hit the ground running on my return.
Naturally, the medical student and technician floundered. After revision, the manuscript was accepted for publication just before I formerly left for maternity leave.
I had done almost none of my own research by this point. This was the beginning of last year.
Soon after I gave birth to my second baby, my husband and I began to talk about moving away, moving our whole lives to another region of the country, to another university. I made enquiries, and when my new baby was only seven weeks old, I left her with my husband and spent a day at the new university, my breasts aching with milk, I worked hard to hide the leaks.
A few weeks later I was interviewed for a University Fellowship at this new university, which I thought could help me with the move by extending my already short three-year fellowship to five while I got on my feet.
I was the most experienced candidate. I know this because at several points during the process, all of the candidates were collected together into a room to wait before their next meeting or presentation or interview. This process lasted two days. I had to keep ducking out to feed my baby, who I had brought with me this time.
One of the questions I was asked was, “What makes you think you’re so special?”
Feedback after my application was rejected indicated that my publication record wasn’t good enough, that no funding body would fund someone with a publication record as poor as mine. I keep thinking that had they read my application properly they would have known this before I would have had to transplant my whole family to a hotel, pulling my eldest out of school for two days.
It’s also interesting because I was the only one of any of the candidates who had already been awarded a research grant – and I had been awarded three by this point.
Coming back off maternity leave, having shed the student and the technician, things began to prosper, and at last I began to generate data.
But not the kind of data that the other PIs, my former supervisors, thought I should be generating, however, and I began the almost daily struggle of having to defend my actions and my decisions. I began to lay awake at night worrying that my Fellowship would be withdrawn.
Meanwhile, my post-doc was being openly praised for his exciting and innovative work.
This becomes pretty wearing after a while.
As I made the moves to transfer my fellowship to a different university, the discouragement became worse, and I stopped attending group meetings. I stopped involving myself in the wider group very much at all.
I had many conversations with more senior academics about moving universities, and the advice is that you are never more desirable as when you are looking to move, so you should make sure you negotiate a good package. I’ve been told never to accept the first offer. Never move a fellowship without the promise of a permanent job.
The new university accepted my fellowship transfer “with concerns” – no support, no mentorship, nothing — although what those concerns were, I’ve never been told.
When I first received my contract, it said I was being employed as a Senior Research Associate – a post-doc – and I had to ask, please employ me as a Research Fellow, since I hold a personal Fellowship.
Although I only moved this Summer, I’ve begun applying for Lectureships at other universities. Now that I only have 18 months left of my Intermediate Fellowship, I’m not eligible to apply for any more grants, and so to keep up any kind of research momentum that I might have had, I need to secure my next position.
In October, I had an interview for a permanent Lecturer position that I thought went really well, but despite my asking I was not provided with any feedback when my application was rejected.
Somehow, I managed to pick myself up to apply for the next, but I wasn’t even shortlisted that time.
But I can’t say any of this out loud because I might upset someone. Someone who might otherwise have helped me. Funded my work or offered me a job.
Honestly, I’m past caring.
This is why I’m striking. Because I’ve had enough.
The whole system is one big progression system, un-published guidelines that only reveal themselves to you when you reach a certain point in the game. Now tell me that wouldn’t impact on your mental health.