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Career Advice

The “gig economy” comes to the academic research lab

One academic’s experience working as a non-faculty staff researcher.


My first full-time research job was at a large research hospital. I was hired on a part-time contract to collect and analyze data on a national study, and to supervise students and research assistants. I sometimes worked 60 hours a week and was expected to pay for the travel associated with the study using my personal credit card, and then wait weeks to be reimbursed. More recently, I have been employed by a research team working on multiple studies on a related topic. For this work, I’ve had contracts that range from 30 to 200 hours at three universities in two provinces.

What more can be said about the “gig economy” that awaits graduates? But, this time around, it is not a story of the revolving door of contractually limited appointments and sessional teaching assignments. Rather, it is a story about the other main business conducted in universities: research. This is a story of the small army of non-faculty researchers who do the day-to-day work of collecting, analyzing, managing and writing up data that then gets primarily attributed to one person: the principal investigator (PI). This work counts towards the PI’s tenure and promotion, with the accompanying benefits of job security, collegial governance and academic freedom. Yet these benefits are rarely extended to the people whose hidden work makes the research enterprise a success.

My story is that of a professional researcher who has worked at six universities and research hospitals in 10 years, sometimes holding down four jobs at a time. I have worked – to name a few of my job titles – as a research assistant, research coordinator, project coordinator, data analyst, and writer and editor, contributing to the research conducted at research institutions.

Currently I have one job – or three. It’s hard to be precise because I was paid for work that officially ended long ago, but my continued presence on research teams is considered invaluable. My work follows the model of the professoriate: collect and manage the data, spend time analyzing and interpreting the findings, then write up and present the results in the years that follow. Unlike a professor, I am paid by the hour, on contracts tied to time-limited sources of funding.

Being a non-faculty staff researcher means I can be curiously unattached to the institution that formally employs me, but the relationship with the PI is what defines my continued employment. I have some amazing personal and professional relationships with PIs at different universities, and much of my employment is a result of them sharing my name with their colleagues.

My contributions to their publications are acknowledged, and I have been named a coauthor on several of them. In recent years, this has allowed me to have near-continuous employment, which has tempered my anxiety about the next gig. However, it means that my weekends and “vacations” are rarely work-free. It can feel risky to say no to small contracts. The 30-hour contract I have been offered to conduct a literature search or analyze survey data may become two years of solid work, if I am lucky.

This is not simply the story of one person, but the story of how the business of research is done at Canadian postsecondary institutions. In one survey of sessional instructors in Ontario (PDF), 60 percent of respondents were women. If there is a gendered element to precarious employment among the professoriate, then my (anecdotal, unscientific) observations suggests that women make up as much as 90 percent of non-faculty researchers across the disciplines I have worked in, which include the medical and social sciences. Accurate figures are hard to come by because there is no consistent accounting of such staff within or across institutions – itself, arguably, an indicator of how invisible and undervalued we are.

Beyond the anxiety I may have about where my next source of employment will come from and its duration, for me, the hardest part of this work is that the content knowledge I develop in any one study isn’t always relevant, valued or acknowledged in a new one. It is in the best interest of PIs to keep me involved in their studies long-term, but unless they can pay me, I will find other employment and begin anew.

Just as the academic community is reckoning with its dependence on adjunct and sessional instructors, so too the time has come for the research enterprise to face its own reckoning. The small army of research assistants, managers, coordinators and analysts is clearly indispensable to the Canadian research enterprise. The time is long overdue for our contributions to be as recognized, supported and respected as those of the professors whose careers benefit from our work.

Denise Sarah Boyle is a pseudonym. The author requested anonymity out of concern for her current work arrangements.

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