Part-time Academic Research in the Arts/Humanities as a Career Path 

Full time positions in academia aren’t for everyone. Whilst much has been written about the increasing casualization of academia and the rise of adjunct teaching positions, often on pitiful salaries with no or few employee benefits, little has been written about positive part-time possibilities in academia. Caveat: the following applies mostly to Western European/UK and US academia.

At present, part-time research positions largely exist at the postdoctoral stage. Such employment is typically connected to existing projects led by established professors. There is sometimes a dangerous expectation that such employment is an “in-between phase” between a student PhD existence, and full employment as a lecturer, assumed to be the desired outcome for many. For some, full employment/tenure as a lecturer may not be the desired outcome. In assuming it is, the key danger is that part-time postdoctoral researchers may exploit themselves, working near full time hours as they rush to publish and establish themselves.

However, what about those who genuinely enjoy the freedom connected with the research process, but who have no desire to pursue tenure or full-time permanent employment? To my knowledge, there are few permanent part-time positions available for those who have established themselves, enjoy the research process, but who do not want to spend all their working hours involved in teaching, university administration and research?

Part-time researchers may wish to seek to build a business on the side, establish and work as an academic (or general) translator, perhaps develop their skills in another profession that suits part-time work (e.g. counselling and psychotherapy), balance employment with parenting commitments, or quite simply want a more varied work life and/or a refuge from what can be – especially given the current worker surplus – unpleasantly competitive work environments (the toxic discourse surrounding “excellence” springs to mind). A part-time research track with full employment rights offers the benefits of a steady income, covering the basic costs of living, whilst freeing researchers up to use and engage their valuable (yet sometimes little valued) skills in other domains.

Currently, it seems there are few options available for such researchers, aside from a temporary existence moving from postdoctoral project to project – such an existence brings with it the difficulties associated with changing location, yet without the full security and luxuries of a full income. There should be a path for established researchers who wish to continue engaging in academic research, yet without the pressure of feeling marginalized, or as if tenure/full time academic employment was the only appropriate possible outcome.

At the same time, with these goals in mind, there must be a strong emphasis on workers’ rights and fight against exploitative practices. This career path could easily be co-opted in the way that adjunct teaching has been – the part-time employment of scholars to boost REF submissions is a case in point. Incidentally, there might also be a legitimate part-time teaching path, with full employment rights and good working conditions – yet moving to secondary school or college teaching is also a possibility here. Half-time hours should be just that – perhaps a challenging goal given the nature of humanities research,  properly recompensed with full employment privileges, and not treated in the same way that adjunct teaching positions are currently treated. This is difficult as at present it is sometimes stigmatized and viewed as a “holding pattern” over academia for those who are perceived to be either waiting for full tenure, or are on their way out of the system.

Some questions:

  • What kinds of initiatives and policies could promote such work in a way that respects researchers’ workers’ rights?
  • Does this already exist in some countries?
  • Is it possible within the current academic systems?
  • What kind of help could be offered to researchers considering such a path? E.g. negotiating freelancer frameworks in different countries, mentoring etc.
  • What is the best time at which to seek such a career path? Straight out of the PhD or once a researcher has an established reputation and significant publication record?
  • What does a part-time researcher need exactly? (Source of funding, affiliation(?), ability to travel to meetings/conferences, access to archives or journals – mostly free or cheap)

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