An Academic Career

Fixed-term posts

The background and implications

Why are fixed-term posts used?

Although universities do receive annual funding based on such things as student numbers and their overall research allocation, university research is often funded through discrete project grants (from Research Councils, charities, industry and business), lasting from 1 to 5 years.

This has led to a large number of fixed-term research project vacancies, often filled by post-doctoral research staff. This is commonplace in science, engineering and technology subjects, but is also increasingly being used in humanities, particularly social sciences.

Fixed-term teaching vacancies may be created when:

  • Permanent academic staff win research funding which allows them to 'buy out' their teaching duties, creating a lecturing vacancy for the period of the research grant.
  • Cover for sabbatical or maternity leave is needed.
  • A department decides to create fixed-term part-time teaching vacancies to enable some of its recently completed PhD researchers to gain the teaching experience they need to secure a permanent academic post. This also allows them to stay within academia while continuing their research and, hopefully, gaining further publications.

What are the implications of fixed-term posts?

If you are working in a post which has fixed-term funding, it naturally creates uncertainty about what happens next.

Your contract of employment

If you have worked on a succession of fixed-term posts for the same employer, you may have sufficient service to qualify for an 'open-ended' employment contract. However, if funding comes to an end for your fixed-term post and no suitable alternative work is available, you may simply find yourself entitled to redundancy pay.

Your status as a member of university staff

Most institutions have improved the treatment of research and teaching staff on fixed-term contracts, at least in terms of access to training and some level of inclusion in consultation or decision making.

However, you can often find yourself caught between two camps - no longer a postgraduate student but neither seen as a full academic member of staff.

You know you could improve your chances of progressing in an academic career by taking responsibility in your department and acting like an academic. However, this may be frustrating if you are not at the same time afforded the respect and status of a permanent member of academic staff.

Constant forward planning

Most research and teaching staff on fixed-term contracts recognise that they must start to search for alternative work, in the same or other institutions, before their fixed-term contracts end. However many don’t, often on the vague promise of funding extensions which may not materialise.

You need to think about your next move strategically to give yourself the best chance of moving your academic career forward, rather that falling into whichever fixed-term post is most convenient.

National and international policy

UK employment legislation has changed in recent years, whereby a member of staff on successive fixed term employment contracts with the same employer can eventually gain improved employment rights. This is gradually having an impact on recruitment and retention of research and teaching staff in universities.

In the UK, there is pressure nationally for universities to reconsider the employment terms and conditions of research and teaching staff. This has been underpinned by 'The Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers'. Universities UK, which represents all UK universities, are signatories to this Concordat. The UK Concordat also allows UK universities to demonstrate that they are aligned with the 'European Charter for Researchers and the Code of Conduct for the Recruitment of Researchers'.