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.
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