Research funding for casuals

The National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) invited Tseen and I to speak to precariously employed (casual) academic members. This post is based on the talk that I am giving today. Thanks to the NTEU Victorian Division for hosting this event.


I can’t save you

It Gets Worse!

There are serious structural problems in universities worldwide. The number of permanently employed staff is shrinking. The number of precariously employed staff (casual, adjunct, paid by the hour) is increasing. I can’t change that. This situation isn’t getting any better. It gets worse.

  • Unionism (like the National Tertiary Education Union in Australia) provides an organised industry-wide approach to the problem. The union is your best bet for speaking truth to power, whether that be in representing you personally when you have an individual grievance, representing all members in discussions with the university, or talking directly to the government about sector-wide issues.
  • I can’t do that. My advice represents an individual approach to a specific part of the problem. This post talks about how you might secure research funding, which might help you to secure more permanent employment.
  • However, keep in mind that I write from a position of privilege. I’m permanently employed as an administrator at an Australian university. I’ve been doing this, on and off, for thirty years. So I don’t know your experience they way that you do. Keep that in mind as your read this post – your mileage may vary.

I can’t pay you to write grant applications

I’m talking about how you might secure some research funding because research funding does two good things. First of all, it allows you to do some research of your own. Depending on how much it is (and how expensive your research is), it might allow you to do a bit of desk research, attend a conference or write a paper.

Additionally, research funding is a shiny thing to put on your CV. It says to a potential employer that you can secure funding. Every university is interested in that.

Given that the overall percentage of securely employed staff is shrinking, you might think that universities would encourage precariously employed staff to apply for funding. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. The conditions that you work under may vary from country to country and from institution to institution. However many precariously employed staff report that:

  • The university won’t let precariously employed academics hold a grant. That is, they won’t let you put your name on the front page of a grant application.
  • They won’t pay you to write a grant application (unless it is for someone else). That is, they don’t see it as part of your job.
  • They often won’t let you attend training, like the sort of training that I run on how to write better grant applications. That is, they won’t develop your skills in this area.

Who cares about you?

The key question here is: Who cares about you? Or, more precisely, in what way do people care about you.

The university cares about you in terms of risk. Because you don’t have an on-going employment contract with them, they don’t want to take a risk by putting you in charge of a project.

However, there are lots of people who don’t see you that way. They see you in terms of your expertise. You have an extraordinarily high level of expertise in your chosen area. We tend to overlook that when we are surrounded by people with even more expertise. Outside of the university, there are lots of organisations who don’t have that level of skill and knowledge, and would like to have it.

People who care about your expertise include:

  • Philanthropic funding bodies.
  • Industry funders.
  • Most government funders.

Most funding agencies care about your expertise, not your employment status.

Think like a kindergarten

If funding is going to help you do more research and maybe get a permanent job, then I don’t care where you get your funding (as long as it is legal). Think like a kindergarten. Kindergartens are masters of raising funds – they send kids home with chocolate to sell, they run working bees, they run fates… They have a whole range of ideas for raising funds.

Stop thinking about the one or two major research funding agencies in your country, and start thinking creatively. Some possibilities include:

  • Contract research for an industry organisation.
  • Philanthropic funding, in conjunction with a community organisation.
  • Policy advice to a government organisation.
  • Crowdfunding and micro-patronage.

It isn’t easy, but it is possible.

Where it gets tricky…

There are some administrative issues that you need to think about. Most funding agencies will only sign a contract with an organisation. You are not an organisation.

You could see whether your university would be willing to do this. However, a lot of the time they won’t.

If they say no, you’ll need to work with someone else.

  • A partner organisation, if you are working with one.
  • Your co-researcher’s university.
  • An auspicing agency, if the funder will accept that.

If you are consulting or crowdfunding, then you will be managing the funding through your bank account. Be aware that this may raise issues around taxation and, for consulting, around insurance.

The power of teams

Fundraising is absolutely a learnable skill. It isn’t easy, but it is worth learning. However, not everybody is cut out for it. Similarly, while grant writing is also a learnable skill, some people are better at it than others.

That’s OK, because research is a team sport. You don’t need to do this alone – in fact, it is better for your mental health if you don’t do it alone. Team up with a buddy and do it together. Be clear about who is doing what, and support one another as you go along. It will be more fun, and you’ll probably have a better chance of success.

Good luck.

About Jonathan O'Donnell
Jonathan O'Donnell helps people get funding for their research. To be specific, he helps the people in the Faculty of Science at the University of Melbourne in Australia. All opinions are his own. He has been doing that, on and off, since the 1990's (with varying degrees of success). He loves his job. He loves it so much that he has enrolled in a PhD to look at crowdfunding for research. With Tseen Khoo, he runs the Research Whisperer blog and @ResearchWhisper Twitter stream, about doing research in academia. His ORCID is 0000-0001-5435-235X. The views expressed here are his personal views and are not the views of the University of Melbourne.

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