Academic and PRISM quotes

A reflection of the stark contrast between the role value and the precarious employment reality impact.


Key themes:
  • Value & appreciation of breadth of skills and experiences
  • Passion vs. leaving the HEI sector
  • Mental health
  • Buying houses
  • Career progression
  • Having children

A.) Academic quotes - the value of PRISM roles


A key rationale for creating (and funding) large scientific programmes is the belief that they will achieve more than the sum of their parts. A doctoral training centre is more than just a gaggle of PhD students. A research institute is more than a sign above a lab door and a steady stream of postdocs.
With good leadership these endeavours can turbocharge the local research environment, become beacons of good practice in areas such as EDI, and enrich the sector nationally. But these benefits will not happen by accident - they must be earned with clear strategy, sound management and effective leadership.
Much of the leadership required is not scientific in nature, and largely cannot be undertaken effectively either by career academics or by entry-level administrators. We need leaders who are committed to the wider success of their programmes, who have authority and integrity, and who are able to see things clearly without suffering from discipline biases or the distractions of teaching or running a personal research programme.
I have seen first-hand the added value such colleagues can bring, including:
  • Flexibility to spot and take opportunities which would otherwise be lost in the general chaos of an academic department.
  • High-quality support for research funding bids which is far more useful than that provided by centralised systems.
  • National and international profile building and better interactions with industrial partners.
  • Visible and consistent leadership on ED&I, inspiring positive culture change more generally.
 - Prof Tim Rogers, University of Bath
 
It would be impossible to co-ordinate the activities and deliver the quality of science, discovery and impact without robust project management. I work hand in hand with project managers who have different levels of seniority. They are fundamental to getting the job done. They help manage risk, keep the structure and flow of the project moving - with an eye on project deliverables; provide the less glamorous but essential role of oversight; ensure timely reporting, as well as thinking about the bigger picture [including]exploitation etc. I have the confidence to concentrate on the detail of the project - knowing that the operational detail (and strategic detail in some cases) is being taken care of. They form the glue that binds the consortium together, are highly visible and respected by all.
- Prof Lynn Rochester, Newcastle University
 
PRISM roles are essential to research teams as they deliver professional, expert support and alternative perspectives that enable teams to be more efficient in delivering their goals and more effective in delivering impact.
- Prof Elizabeth Gibson, Newcastle University

Research and Innovation is about team work; it about bringing like-minded but differently-skilled specialist together to form something that is bigger than its parts. 
 The PRISM is the specialist who identifies and forms these connections, and understands how the team comes together to achieve the ultimate goal.  While this vision may originate from an academic, they are not normally best placed to undertake this role – why should they?  They are embedded within a culture focussed on generating new understanding and driving discovery, which in itself is overwhelming, but are then expected to balance the needs of teaching, admin, supervision and supposed to drive strategic growth.
The PRISM provides clarity to their approach, offering leadership to bridge divides, fostering communication, collaboration, and innovation. They bring the ability to work independently, with integrity, a research mindset and a positive people attitude that resonates and instils trust with academic, industrial and governmental partners. It is a unique and rare combination of skills, experience and aptitude that facilitates progress and developing the strategy for future growth, and in equal partnership with the academics.
How can we support a research active postdoc who is stepping up into the role of research enabler on a programme grant? How can we recognise their growing remit and responsibility when they drive the growth and influence of the initial programme towards a much larger entity?
Academics are rewarded with promotion and progression as they develop their role, from lecturer all the way to Professor.  We must find a similar way of honouring and nurturing this specialism and the career progression for PRISM roles as an essential part of the research and innovation landscape.
- Prof Alastair Hibbins, University of Exeter
 
These roles are the lynchpin of large-scale research activities and individuals with extensive experience working within the faculty/university and leading these activities (from an Administrative / Managerial perspective) reduce friction at all stages of delivery. The research benefits from their extensive personal networks within the university which enable rapid trouble shooting of issues and technical knowledge on how the activity is delivered. This is especially the case when academic leads are new to the University of leading these types of activities for the first time, which is something we want to encourage for succession planning and personal development.
- Assoc. Prof Nik Watson, University of Nottingham
 
In my experience, professional research support has enabled effective stakeholder relationship building, ensured design and implementation of a clear communications strategy, identified and developed opportunities, and contributed to a positive research culture.
- Prof Sara Walker, Newcastle University
             
In many fields research is clearly moving beyond what any one individual can take on alone - the future requires multi skilled teams. Successful teams will fuse researchers with research enablers who provide technical, organisational and engagement skills.
To shape this future, we must create an environment that supports the careers of all involved. We must recognise and reward success and create career tracks which tackle precarious contracts for all who drive the UK’s research forward, for researchers and research enablers alike. 
- Prof Miles J Padgett, OBE FRS FRSE FInstP, University of Glasgow
 
The era when highly innovative research could be conducted by a lone academic is long gone. Scientific breakthroughs today emerge from complex, multi-disciplinary, multi-site research programmes which require professional management. Professional research managers have become an essential figure to ensure the success of these programmes, but most UK Universities have been slow to recognise the importance of these roles. From supporting funding bids to managing complex teams to driving culture change and developing public engagement initiatives, professional research managers provide not just support to academics but [provide] needed leadership to advance research and translate it into impact. These roles have grown organically over the years, and it is now urgent for UK Universities to recognise their strategic importance and provide a framework for dedicated training, career development, and meaningful opportunities for promotion.
- Prof Davide Mattia, University of Bath
 
PRISM roles have been incredibly valuable, including: (1) high quality support for research proposals; (2) effective co-ordination of doctoral training centres, including creation of an inclusive and engaging research culture, as well as the provision of effective subject-specific training for researchers; (3) increasing the reach and impact of academic research, for example arranging, advertising and convening one of the largest talks I've ever given on communicating science effectively for impact; (4) helping to build relationships with external partners, to be benefit of our research and the partners' work. I am very grateful for the support that PRISM roles have provided.
- Dr Stephen Allen, University of Bath
 
Professional Research Managers are valuable members of research teams, enabling us to enhance the impact and reach of our work. They understand the content of our work which means that they can effectively tailor and apply their skills to all aspects of the role including, aside from traditional project management, searching for new funding opportunities, writing and structuring applications to meet donor requirements, managing and seeking new partnerships, reporting to funders and advisory boards as well as managing a plethora of practical and often ad hoc project aspects. All this with a focus on the bigger picture to make the very most of our projects. These are important aspects which researchers may not have the time or training/experience to give sufficient attention to.
- Prof Christopher Pain, Imperial College London
 
I firmly believe that without the high-level expertise, visionary thinking, grant writing and partner engagement skills of our PRISM, we would not have been awarded the £5.8M project extension, and we would certainly struggle to deliver it effectively.
- Prof Gregory Offer, Imperial College London
 
PRISM roles add value to research teams by 1) ensuring effective compliance with relevant regulatory bodies 2) bringing continuity in personnel (provided that long term contracts which bridge grants are available) which helps establish a team identity and working culture amongst research staff on fixed term project-based contracts 3) bringing essential expertise which might be considered more 'corporate' or business-like in nature (i.e. distinct from the expertise of academics) such as project, people and financial management, knowledge of the wider organisation 4) using their knowledge and insight of being involved in previous research in the above capacity to develop feasible research projects.
- Dr Byron Creese, University of Exeter

B.) PRISM quotes - the impact of their employment reality


Being employed fixed-term ("open-ended" - what a joke) means that I am in a very bad position to buy a house. It's been 10 years since I moved into a research enabling role after my PhD. The constant fixed term contracts, financial risk, and stress to prove myself left me without kids to date.I am torn between the job I love because of its variety and the direct impact I have on the research, and the need for a permanent job to actually have a life. I am constantly at the brink of exhaustion and there is no way out, because I love what I do and the research team I am working with.
 
I spent years going from one contract to the next, pouring all my time and energy into the growth of this team and building relationships to foster research and the associated income, linking all the strands into one cohesive and effective "bigger-than-its-parts" powerhouse, from PhD student nurturing to industry partner engagement, from event management and outreach activities to board meetings, marketing and advocacy work with government and funders.
 
I now see the academics being promoted on the back of this success and I cannot help but feel left behind, exploited, and I am wondering why I did all these overhours. I care for my team, I am happy that they are successful and recognised, and I know they value me, too. But the institution doesn't extend that recognition to my work, I am facing barriers, rejection, lack of understanding when asking questions around career progression and salary increase. I have outgrown the role I was employed to do, extending my influence, responsibility and remit with the growth of my team.
 
It feels almost like being bipolar – one the one hand proud part of the research team, recognised force and specialist within the wider community and amongst partners, dedicated and hard worker to drive our success, and on the other hand a replaceable minion within the institution who doesn’t belong anywhere and is not worthy of security, support and recognition.
Centre Manager (anonymous, organisation not disclosed)
 
 
My PRISM role fits well with my family circumstances, as working part time and flexibly fits around my young family. However, I have had no career progression in the nine years since starting as a PRISM. I joined as a Grade 6 and am still on this grade. Being managed by the academic means I have had no training opportunities that could help me apply for a higher grade position. There is also little clarity over what a Grade 7 role requires that is different to a Grade 6 role. The fact that I am a 'single point of failure' in my projects does add pressure, and while it's manageable, sometimes my mental health is negatively impacted (though not to the point where I have had to take time off).
Network Manager (anonymous, organisation not disclosed)
 

My role definitely has an impact on my mental health - relying on self-motivation, esteem, and momentum can sometimes be very tiring as it is spending a lot of the time trying to get people to meet deadlines and produce outputs. I've often found management lacking - managers in these roles aren't in PRISM roles themselves and career development can be difficult and lonely. We also need to be able to move in and out of the HEI sector with ease, offering fellowships and secondments for our roles as academics have. I love that I get to do varied / semi-academics things in my role (like supervising a post doc for example) but I wonder how do I turn that into career progression?
 
I tend to burn out very quickly by the pressure I put on myself and I had to be signed off for a couple of weeks last year for depression. Fixed term is fine for me now as I'm child free, but I do want to buy a house and I'm aware that a fixed term contract doesn't put me in the best position.
Project Manager (anonymous, organisation not disclosed)
 

I have been employed on a contract basis (relying on incoming funding form grants) for the past 4 years. Although I work with amazing people and my boss is extremely supportive of extending my employments using whatever funds that we can have, I have spent the last 1.5 years in particular on a contract that was extended on a 3month by 3 months basis (for lack of long-term funds). Of course, being a young woman, this is affecting every aspect of my life, from deciding where to buy a house (since my employment location is not assured), financial security, and prospect of having a family.
 
I am now in a position where this uncertainty on all front is greatly affecting my mental health and thus, I am considering with great regret to move out academia and this fantastic research group.
Anonymous PRISM at Imperial College London
 

I manage large research investments in digital (EPSRC funded) and in culture (HEIF funded). I'm attracted to these roles as they align with my professional expertise around computing and creativity, and I love managing ambitious and collaborative research programmes, and working alongside my academic and research colleagues.
 
However, I've now been on fixed-term contracts for the past 7.5 years, which does limit my ability to plan into the long term. Currently one of my 0.5 FTE contracts ends in September 2023, the other in October 2024.
I'm thinking about whether I want to have a child with my partner, but when would be the right time? Right now, because I can only get fulltime maternity cover up until September 2023? Or wait until I'm on a more secure contract?
 
I don't see many future career opportunities for me in higher education beyond the roles I have now. My professional skillset in research support is general, but my interests are specialist - I'm interested in specific research fields. I can't think of many (or any) other roles at my institution that I'd want to do. But while I work on varied and interesting projects, my own career development is limited. I'm never named on the research grants I help to bring in. There isn't a pathway or training programme that matches my career stage or developmental needs, but I am being supported to undertake an executive education programme which has been interesting. I don't have the security of knowing that when either of my contracts finish, that there will be a job for me that matches my interests.
 
In other ways, I'm not too worried. If one of my contracts ends next September, I'm thinking of exploring other opportunities outside HE.
(Anonymous)
 
Working in HE certainly affects earning potential when compared to other sectors such as industry where similar skills are useful. It can be difficult to attract funding for PRISM roles since they are not seen as part of the traditional scientific team, and scientific funders (particularly charities) focus on direct costs of research only. If PRISM roles are not supported centrally by Universities or Institutes, there is very little third party funding available to apply for. This has a knock on impact for career progression since there is then even less support for professional development and training. Clear paths for progression in PRISM roles, particularly within individual Institutes, don't often exist, so in order to develop a career you often need to move around different roles in different Institutes and/or Universities. This must have an impact on these Institutes/Universities since there can be relatively low retention of staff and a loss of institutional memory.
Programme Manager (anonymous, organisation not disclosed)
 

Fixed term contracts, especially if yours is the only income, make planning for your future very difficult. Buying a house is a long term, major investment and you are very aware that you may not have a job when the fixed term expires. This could lead to significant financial loss if you don’t secure a new role and either cannot pay the mortgage, or you have to move for a new role. For this reason, I have chosen to rent but am acutely aware that I pay substantially more in rent than I would for a mortgage which impacts my finances and makes saving for the future more difficult.
 
Previously I worked as a post-doctoral researcher in biology and made the conscious decision to leave that career to try to improve my chances of a stable role and better work life balance, which I hoped would improve my mental health. I really enjoy my current PRISM role and it has improved my work/life balance. I work with a great team, and the role uses a lot of skills from my previous career and means I am still very close to science. In terms of other improvements though, I am still on fixed term contracts, there are limited roles like this one available and I don’t feel these roles are understood or appreciated outside my academic team.
 
I am worried that institutions perceive PRISM roles as interchangeable with no consideration given to specific skill sets. In my current role for example I have had the opportunity to use my technical lab skills to help facilitate the research.This may not have been envisaged at the beginning of the work but exemplifies how I see these roles which is to facilitate and assist in developing the research using current or learned skills as needed.
 

To find myself in a role that is not understood in the wider University environment and with no progression pathway does impact on my mental health. It means that once I reach the top of my grade there is no further recognition of experience, skill development or role growth. The only way to move up is to apply for a role outside of the PRISM remit. This is not what I wanted when I became a PRISM. I want to build a career around the role, facilitating and strategically developing the research areas I work in.
Programme Manager (anonymous, organisation not disclosed)
 

It's more difficult to be accepted for a rental tenancy without a guarantor (a humiliating experience at my stage in life) while on a fixed-term contracts. I'm London-based, and have had to move every year/every other year since 2018. Also trying to navigate getting the next role in plenty of time so that I find something that feels like career progression/development rather than having to accept the vacancies available on re-deployment in proximity to the contract end date. By design, this encourages a move well before the end of the contract.
Anonymous PRISM at University College London
 
Last edited: 07 Sep 2022

Contact: a.roeding@exeter.ac.uk