February 2018
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Academic bloat

As I’m coming up to the end of my PhD and the time where I finally submit that tome I’ve been writing (hopefully only three months to go!), I’m currently having to look around the job market for things to do afterwards. Yes, I’m looking for a job.

Generally this isn’t a good time to be looking for jobs, I’m told, but fortunately as a statistician looking for a research post in a university, things aren’t too bad. Except the motivation to work in a university gets utterly destroyed by today’s little gem I discovered on the academic jobs website, jobs.ac.uk.

In my search, two posts came up at the University of Birmingham’s School of Health and Population Sciences. The first one was a fairly bog-standard research fellow job—perhaps a grade above what I’d be looking for, but actually on the face of it not a bad match to my expertise. The advert is very clear about what the candidate is supposed to do, for example:

The post holder will set up, co-ordinate and manage a cohort study of new and existing chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) patients identified from 50 general practices.

The cohort is part of a programme of work which also includes a cluster randomised controlled trial to evaluate two methods of case finding for undiagnosed COPD in the community, and a series of observational and interventional studies to investigate the interrelationships between occupation and COPD. The cohort will include the recruitment of over 50 general practices in the West Midlands and the follow-up of ~2500 patients with COPD.

Great. Hard work, overseeing a whole study of over 2500 patients for a little over four-and-a-half years, but proper science. It’ll need a pretty awesome person specification to have the skills and expertise required to do that. And sure enough, the advert says so:

The successful candidate will have a good first degree in a health-related field (a PhD or equivalent experience would be an advantage), experience of managing a cohort study or similar large study in primary care/community settings, and good quantitative and qualitative research and analysis skills.

That’s pretty intense. Salary?

Starting salary in the range of £27,319 to £35,646 a year (potential progression on performance once in post to £37,839).

Hmm. Not bad, but with a PhD, and with the scale of the work that’s expected, one might expect something a little toward the upper end of that scale. All in all, on the face of it, not a bad proposition.

But wait, what’s this? There’s another advert in the same School (which seems to be the fashionably pointless en vogue name for a “Department” these days) for something called a “Research Facilitator“. Not heard of one of those before. I wonder what it is?

The Research Facilitator is a senior administrative post…

Ah. Administrative. Not really my cup of tea. Let’s continue.

…within the College of Medical & Dental Sciences Research & Knowledge Transfer (R&KT) Office…

Research and What Office?

…specifically occupying a core role within the Research Development Team.  This post has particular affiliation to the School of Health and Population Sciences and associated research activity, occupying a senior administrative position within the School, with management responsibility for all research related admin activity.

So far, about half a dozen ways to say your job is to provide admin support for researchers in the medical and dental school.

The Research Facilitator within Health and Population Sciences is part of a small team of similar roles, each providing dedicated support to a specific Strategic Research Theme and having affiliation to a primary School within the College.

And you won’t be the only one, even within the School. Or College. No wait, definitely College. One Facilitator per School, several Schools per College. Makes perfect sense. Then it’s three Colleges to the Yard, Five-and-a-half yards to the Rod, Pole or Post-holder…

Following this, there is a whole load of bumph about how wonderful the School is. At the bottom of that paragraph is the only hint of what it is you’re actually supposed to do.

…the post holder will provide high level support to the Head of School and School Research Leads, supporting the development and delivery of the School’s R&KT activity/strategy.

What on Earth does that mean? Who are School Research Leads? Do we give them lots of forms to fill in? Is that what “supporting the development and delivery” of an “R&KT strategy” is? What qualifications are needed? Any ability to, y’know, actually do research?

And then, the killer blow…

Starting salary is normally in the range of £36,715 to £43,840, with potential progression once in post to £49,342 a year.

Let’s remind ourselves of the research fellow’s expected salary:

Starting salary in the range of £27,319 to £35,646 a year (potential progression on performance once in post to £37,839).

So the “facilitator” gets a higher salary than the one who actually does the research? So when I’m offered a brand new 10-page form to fill in by the facilitator (supposedly to make my research more, er, facilitated, I presume) it’s going to be a little hard not to feel at least a little bit resentful.

Here’s an idea: perhaps the facilitator vacancy could be scrapped, and a new research fellow post be created, so that, y’know, the salary bill for the department would be about £8-9k cheaper—and still more research would get done!


3 comments to Academic bloat

  • Matt Spraggs

    Hi Michael,

    Don’t know if you remember me from the Tensing Denmark trip a few years back. Since then I’ve got myself lost in a four year undergraduate engineering course (oh what a mistake) at… Birmingham.

    The above is typical of the stance Birmingham is taking on salaries these days. They even saw fit to give fairly hefty pay rises to administrative and executive staff this year, whilst cutting teaching budgets (in real terms)!

    Hope things are going well for you 🙂


  • I’m told tube drivers earn about 60K p.a.

    And they wonder why all the maths PhDs end up working for the banks.


  • K. Dalgleish

    I’m a University administrator. While you were studying hard, I was working just as hard after my degree, in low-paid jobs for very little reward or recognition. I worked my way ‘up’ and now spend 99% of my time hand-holding academics who can’t engage, can’t handle budgets, fail to manage their workloads, have no sense of institutional strategy and treat administrators and their students as if they are dirt. A University without research is a terrible thing but let’s not forget that without administrators there would be no funding, no facilities and of course, no students.

    And let’s not forget that for all they are evolving, HEIs are still houses of progression for academics only – the ‘ceiling’ for administrative staff is around £50k and most will never progress beyond £25k-£30k. Try managing a team who see the academics in their school progressing annually when they’ve sat at the same grade for 10 years.

    I’ve been grateful for School Research Leads in every HEI I’ve worked in – without them, the culture is often one of arrogant academics, in ivory towers using public money for self-indulgent research with little in the way of societal impact. Research and Knowledge Transfer Offices will strive to ensure their researchers get money, make the most of collaborative opportunities and understand and practice public engagement. You might be one of the few exceptions who doesn’t need this support but in my experience, you’d be in a very small minority. The research skills involved in a large study are just one set of skills among many. Who recruits the participants? Who oversees and advises on legal and ethical issues? Who handles admin, correspondence, negotiates finances, manages relationships? I work in a research intensive University and know about as many academics who could do all of that as I do administrators who could write up the research.

    But good luck with getting a job – my advice would be learn to love administrators, they can make your life so much easier. Start by having a bit more respect for that ‘little’ job of admin support.

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