The Long and the Short of Research Contracts

In today's fast-changing employment environment, permanent R&D job positions are almost a thing of the past. If you look around you, practically everybody is on one kind of contract or another. There may perhaps be a few old-timers who are still on the "iron bowl," but for today's average early-career R&D scientist, the term iron bowl is not part of their vocabulary.

A contract position need not be less rewarding than a permanent one, and contract employment has its advantages, although many of them apply to the employers. Contracts give them more flexibility in managing resources, allowing quick adjustments in staffing in response to changes in priorities. This is particularly true in the field of R&D, where companies need to make constant progress. For the employee, the contract job is often more manageable, as it is usually better defined by specific objectives. You are more likely to work on cutting-edge research areas. The downside? You will have fewer career-development options simply because of the ephemeral nature of the contract.

However, as I found out from my many years of working in contract positions, the world of contracts may not be as simple as it seems. Contract terms and conditions vary considerably from organization to organization or even within the same organization. The differences can be significant, and even alarming, for the unsuspecting candidate who finds out the truth only after accepting the job. I was among those naïve ones when I signed up for my first contract research job.

Although armed with a Ph.D., I was a stranger to the employment market, because I had not held a paying job before. My first search for an R&D position was based on a straightforward--if idealistic--premise: I wanted to be able to pursue my scientific dreams in the area of my interest. As I hardly made any demands, everything started off well. At the interview, I found out that my credentials and research experiences matched the requirements of the position perfectly. I was also attracted by the project because it happened to match my interests exactly and was at the leading edge of science. A tour of the laboratory convinced me that that was where I would like to work. I made up my mind to go for it straightaway.

After another brief interview at the human resources department of the organization and subsequent processing of documents, I was officially offered the job. I was so thrilled that I signed the contract immediately, not knowing what I was in for. My first shock came just a few weeks later. I had asked for a personal computer but was turned down. The administrator in charge told me simply that I was not entitled to that because my contract did not state that I was. So I had to buy my own. A year and half later, when an abstract of mine was accepted for oral presentation at an international conference, I was really keen to attend the conference. But to my dismay, I found out that I was not entitled to travel funds either and would have to either finance myself or find someone to sponsor me.

Those were among my first lessons. In other words, I learned never to take for granted things that are not explicitly stated in the contract agreement. The only standard thing I found is the mandatory contributions to your personal Central Provident Funds, which all employers must make. If you do not see anything you are expecting in print on your agreement, ask the employer and clarify it before signing the contract. Fortunately for me, that was only a 2-year contract. I was more alert when I went in search of my second contract R&D job. I got a much better deal the second time.

Some of my friends were less lucky, though. One told me that his first 3-year contract was devoid of annual bonuses. And that was in the years during which his permanently employed colleagues were taking home at least 4 months of salary (including bonuses) before Christmas. So, Christmas was never a time of celebration for him. His contract, as I discovered later, allows only a gratuity upon cessation of the contract. Yet another friend lamented to me that she had to spend a big portion of her salary on renting an apartment while her fellow colleagues enjoyed fully paid condominium-style accommodation.

Therefore, I urge fellow scientists, if you are looking for a contract R&D job, be sure to clarify the terms and conditions of the contract with your potential employer so that you won't be disappointed later. In the university, for example, there is a vast difference between a position funded by the university and one that is funded by project grants. University-funded R&D positions are often on fixed-term contracts and are renewable, but project-based positions are on variable terms and are limited by the duration of the project, which may range from 1 to 5 years. A university-funded staff member is entitled to the standard package given to all regular staff members, but a project-based staffer may not necessarily be entitled to all those benefits.

However, this does not mean that as a project-based staff member, you need necessarily forgo all the benefits. You could always negotiate with the principal investigator who oversees the grant to support your uncovered needs from the grants. Certain items such as computers, printers, and travel expenses could be taken from the grant if the PI had budgeted for it in the first place. And if they did not, they may be able to help you apply for a variance in the usage of the money. This is of course subject to approval and also depends on whether the PI is inclined to do it for you. So, you have got to negotiate well.

In addition, if you are going for a project-based contract, be aware of the stage the project is in. If you are joining immediately upon commencement of the project, chances are that you can hope for a longer-term commitment. But if you joining a project that is halfway through, you may find it hard to renew your contract later, as it will depend almost entirely on how much money is left in the pot. However, provided there are enough funds left, most research grants are renewable subject to their satisfactory progress. The risk is yours, though, because the PI will not feel any obligation to take care of your career.

There is another type of contract tenable only at research institutes and centers. It encompasses fixed-term positions that are generally supported by massive block grants--in the range of millions of dollars--and are not subject to the limitations of project grants. The general terms and conditions are more or less standard for each institute. Such positions are usually renewable upon expiry of your first contract, subject to your satisfactory performance. If you are the type who goes for job stability, these are obviously better bets than project jobs.

If you are an expatriate, know that there are different terms and conditions for foreigners. Some expatriate contracts include additional benefits for your housing and for your spouse and children. These may include medical benefits, annual return air tickets for the whole family, and educational allowances for your children. The range and amount of benefits may vary quite a lot, depending on your position. On the other hand, there are also many employers who do not readily offer such extended benefits to female staff members. So, if you are a woman, you have better check that out, especially if you already have or are planning to start a family. Always look out for unwritten norms that you may not be familiar with.

Whatever it is, if you want to get the best out of your job hunting, know and be specific about what you want, then spare some time to find out what the job contract entails before signing on the dotted line.

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