What does it take to move from precarity to security?


Dr Dani Barrington is a Research Fellow jointly appointed by Monash University and the International WaterCentre, and an Honorary Fellow at The University of Queensland.

Her work focuses on water, sanitation and hygiene (WaSH) in developing communities, meaning she is often referred to as ‘The Toilet Lady’ by strangers and ‘Sani Dani’ by at least one of her friends.

She tweets at @Dani_Barrington.

Photo by Oanh Tran
Photo by Oanh Tran

A lot of my friends and family are appalled that my contract ends in a few weeks and won’t be renewed.

But it makes complete sense to me. The university never had money to pay me in the first place.

For the past three years, I have been a research-only academic. This means that my salary has been funded from a government grant that my team and I won almost four years ago.

We have been working with informal settlements and enabling actors in the South Pacific to improve water, sanitation, and hygiene according to the priorities of communities themselves. It has seen me spend a large proportion of my time overseas conducting fieldwork.

But when that grant runs out, so does my current job.

When I explain this to those not in academia, I’ve been asked: “Then why would you choose a career where you have to keep applying for your job every couple of years?”

The answer is that I love what I do (in case you couldn’t tell from my social media posts), and strongly believe in the role of public intellectuals to keep our society questioning itself.

Like many post-docs,** I dream of one day holding an ongoing position. What that really means is a lectureship, even though I know many of those can also be fixed-term nowadays. Lecturers are required to both teach and research, but they don’t have to find their own salary.

The dream job, right?

The thing is, once you have an ongoing position you have so much on your plate that you can’t actually conduct all of the research you need to in order to meet your key performance indicators (KPIs), so you need researchers to help you. Then you have to find those researchers – like me – a salary!

I know it’s incredibly difficult to get a lecturer position unless you have a lot of experience in both teaching AND research.

So, as well as my research-only workload, I do a lot more in the hopes that it will put me in a better position for a continuing role. This means that when you hear I’m giving a lecture or shadowing a unit coordinator, I’m doing that voluntarily. As in, in my own time. As in, I’m not being paid for it.

It may be during business hours, but what it really means is that I’ll be making up my research hours over the weekend. Without this teaching experience, I know I won’t be competitive for a teaching position in the future.

On social media, you will also hear about my “work-related” activities such as editing a journal, sitting on the board of a charity (Share the Dignity – check them out!) and speaking in public forums. Again, as I’m research-only, these elements aren’t “technically” part of my job. My contract says that I will give 100% of my time to research.

But, if I don’t do all of these things, I won’t stand a chance of ever securing an ongoing position. It is expected that if I want to continue in academia I will devote time to these service activities. Plus, like I said, I really love what I do!

So, there you have it. After 5 years of undergrad, 3.5 years of postgrad, living overseas for 9 months volunteering in my field and working as a post-doc for almost 4 years, I still don’t have a stable job.

I don’t say this to complain, but to explain: I do think that I am good at what I do; I’ve answered enough selection criteria lately to know that I would rock at any of the jobs I have applied for.

The Australian government invests a lot of money into PhD training. Most Australian full-time PhD students have at least their tuition covered by the government, if not their living allowance. But there is a fundamental breakdown in the system where we are funding students but concurrently slashing research budgets across the country. Since June 2013, the Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) have shed close to 20% of their workforce, and analysis shows that they won’t stop there. Universities are seeing similar cuts, with the University of Western Australia (UWA) set to shed 100 academic positions in the coming weeks. These figures only talk about the researchers and lecturers who were successful in gaining a position in the academic job market to begin with.

Australia is a smart country, but this system of undervaluing our PhD qualified citizens means that we are losing them to overseas opportunities. If we really are going to be the “Innovation Nation” then we need to make research and teaching positions in Australia more accessible and attainable to our best and brightest.

**  ‘Post-docs’ here meaning those of us who have recently obtained our PhDs and work on fixed-term or casual research contracts.


  1. I’m with you Dani, it was 10 years ‘post doc’ time for me, 5 funded, other 5 applying for grants and jobs and continuing on ‘gold coin donation’ basis, all ‘out of love’; because the projects keep going no matter there’s salary or not, the coauthors, the collaborators, the grant reports, more applications; because it’s really cool data, because ‘this paper will hit it”, you really keep hoping, and celebrating small wins but the job opening never shows and years go by; and let’s don’t even touch the ‘let’s-start-a- family part! but there you go, the ‘Innovation Nation’ encourage girls and women to do science, want more school kids to choose science careers and need more PhD students! …do we really need heaps of undervalued, unpaid, frustrated scientists? there’s lots of us already!


    • It is a sad state of affairs CA. I like to think of Post-Docs as struggling actors or writers, except instead of fame and fortune all we really want is a full-time position (actually pay scale seems largely irrelevant if we can at least afford food whilst doing what we love!)

      And yes, the family thing… on the one hand, I have an amazing partner who I know will be incredibly supportive if/when we start a family – unfortunately he is also an Australian STEM PhD holder who has recently been made redundant by a research organisation (!), so currently we have a pact to not start a family until at least one of us has a job…


  2. You say you have to do all this to get a teaching position,yet on my part of the world,10 industry experience working for an intermational organization land many lecturing positions in International Relations, WITHOUT a PhD! Those of us closing in on the end of our PhD cant even get a one hour class per week to teach so we can build our teaching experience. None of it makes sense to me.


    • I admit to not being familiar with the field of Industrial Relations in Australia, so I can’t really comment on that part – except to say that 1) I do think “real world” experience in a lecturer can be really valuable to students and 2) I’m not sure how much research lecturers with industry background/no PhD get to do? Perhaps it is more teaching only positions? I love teaching, but I also really want to keep my research brain ticking along.


  3. Skip the academic BS. Dont be just cannon fodder for someone else’s success! Be an entrepreneur. Start your own business. Hard at first (but so is trying to be in the 1% that will get a grant or job),but very rewarding emotionally and financially. Thats what I tell my students and kids!


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