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First some background. Two years ago I joined a research group as a research associate. My intention in obtaining that position was to publish with the group and build some academic capital, but in the two years I have been there, I have been steered toward support work and software development, and away from research. I have not been included in any of the group's publications and have had to publish unrelated work on my own.

I subsequently found out that to justify the Ph.D. requirement for the position I hold, my employers added a few sentences to the job description to suggest that research would be the central focus of the work. Within my group I am seen as a system administrator and IT guy. This is apparently what my employers really wanted.

I’m also acutely aware that I lack the superior eloquence of my more persuasive colleagues. (This inability would hamper me not only in academia but in virtually any career.) My superiors cannot be persuaded that the system I have been assigned to create, intended to demonstrate (nonexistent) technical capabilities to a skeptical funding agency, has already been executed by several competent, experienced and well-funded teams of more than one person. The project is an all-consuming, deeply anxiety inducing death march for which I am underqualified. Against this, I have at least three competing projects which cannot receive the exclusive, full-time attention each deserves, and I am continually interrupted with trivial software installation requests and technical failures rare enough not to have been documented in the ever-expanding global online archive of technical minutia, to which StackExchange is a prominent contributor. The perspective is that information technology hasn’t specialized in the past 30 years–nothing is too trivial to undertake (except for them) or too specialized and technical to require immersion and consistent practice. It is the menial and urgent work of cleaning digital bedpans.

I don’t have a family or children–I did not want them. I wanted to work in an environment where I could be paid for research. The compensation is $24K less than the administrative position I previously held. I feel that it is self-defeating for me to continue supporting professors, postdocs, and postgraduate and undergraduate students. There is little incentive to promote an individual assigned to projects that provide funding for the group, and to activities that support the research efforts of others, but which are unlikely themselves to result in publication.

But since my work as a mental technician is valued, I'm wondering whether I might as well seek better compensated employment outside of academia, where I would not have the indignity of supporting persons whose career opportunities are foreclosed to me.

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Yeah academia today seems too competitive. In my opinion, one should only go into academia if they are truly the best of the best. Industry seems like a better fit (people will value you more than in academia). Or consider liberal arts colleges. These are environments in which there is more emphasis on teaching. Generally, the order of importance is (i) teaching, (ii) research, and (iii) service. This type of environment may be less cutthroat than major research universities. –  marialopex Feb 27 '13 at 19:15
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I have been steered...away from research.... my employers added a few sentences to the job description to suggest that research would be the central focus of the work. — You are being abused. Don't walk. Run. (But don't make the mistake of confusing your abusive situation with academia in general.) –  JeffE Feb 27 '13 at 19:46
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I suggest you leave academia if you can find a good job in industry. In academia there are always some people who are previously assumed winners and consequently there are some people who are previously assumed losers (and of course, there some people in between). Even if you are a real winner but you are from the second group, academia will do any thing to make you a loser. –  Vahid Shirbisheh Feb 27 '13 at 20:11
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I am sorry to read about your problems in academia, and I hope you find a better environment whether you decide to stay in research or opt for a different career path. No matter what you eventually decide, choose your next employer wisely. The private sector is often idealised as far as salary or recognition is concerned, and if you think you will never find yourself in a similar situation there, you are in for a rude awakening. –  Anthony Labarre Feb 28 '13 at 9:10
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I have worked in academia and industry and have had good and bad experiences in both. The current job pays a substantially below-market salary. This may be the worst aspect. It was my error to believe that the trade off of salary for a potentially engaging research position was worth it. My impressions of intellectual aridity in industry and the stultifying bureaucracy of administration have kept me from going back. The salary would be all right if it were a faculty position, or even if the projects were better matched and involved publishable work. –  Anon Feb 28 '13 at 17:32

5 Answers 5

up vote 32 down vote accepted

The answers so far have many good points: you are being abused, you have been misled, you would do well to seek employment elsewhere, perhaps you were not assertive enough, and so on. But I believe none of that matters much compared to your decisions from this point on. You sound like a person who prefers to think ahead and plan important decisions rather than improvising—many researchers are thinkers who want to weigh their options and take their time to come to decisions. If you wish, you may plan for retribution and for taking a fight, but in the end this will not make your current workplace any more healthy for you to work in. I would suggest the following concrete steps of action:

Find the job advertisement you responded to, the written job description, your letter of application with any supplements (even if it was just an email), your employment contract, and any other documents (including emails) that pertain to the decision to accept your current employment. File these together in a place where they are safe and where you can find them if needed. Make copies. Assert to yourself that you were promised something that was not delivered.

Gather the articles you have written or started to write, regardless of whether they are published or not. Also, make a list of other work you have performed during your employment. For example, list the features you have implemented in the software system you described. File them together in a place where you can easily find them. Assert to yourself that you have performed well in your work despite the situation.

Look for a new job that is certain to either include research opportunities or to be totally unrelated to research but limited enough to allow you the mental capacity you need to conduct research on your own. Perhaps this position can be found within your current university, but in another group. Choose carefully and ask direct questions about what is most important for you: "how many days a week will I be able to work on research?", "how many days a week will I have to do overtime?", etc. Ask to meet one or two of your potential co-workers and ask them if they believe you would get what you are looking for. Be friendly and remember it is not their fault your current supervisor is misbehaving. Assert to yourself that you can consider the options in your own time and that the responses to your direct questions are what matters in your choice, not feelings that you are fabricating out of previous bad experiences.

Agree on the date when you will start in the new job, taking into account the conditions of your current employment. When you have signed the contract for the new position, immediately notify your current supervisor that you will move to another job and ask for a prioritised list of tasks that you should complete before leaving. Complete these tasks to the best of your ability and ask for a letter of reference. Assert to yourself that you have fulfilled the conditions of your employment and are entitled to a reference.

If your supervisor asks for a reason for you leaving, or becomes unreasonable, explain shortly that based on the job description, you thought you had a research position but it has turned out to be a technical position. Your supervisor is likely to try to bargain with you, and try to promise you more research opportunities in the future. Don't trust this promise—it comes from the person who misled you and who cannot be trusted. Stay firm but polite and state that you feel it is time for you to move on. Keep repeating this if the supervisor insists: you wanted to do research but the position is technical, and it is now time for you to move on. Assert to yourself that you have no obligation to explain your personal choices.

If your supervisor does not write the letter of recommendation, politely but shortly remind him a few (three) times (do it over email and save the emails), but then let it be. He will owe you one, and if you ever meet in the future, he will be the one who didn't behave properly. Assert to yourself that you have resolved the situation by your own actions and that any remaining problems are not yours.

If you got a new research position, engage frequently with your new supervisor and agree on writing a joint article. Make it something simple that you can complete soon. Focus on getting that article out, even at the expense of other assignments. Then keep repeating the exercise, taking on larger and larger projects, involving other members of your group. Share your successes and failures in your new job with your supervisor and your peers, and listen to their encouragement and advice.

If you didn't get a new research position, relax in your new job. Don't take on new things and just let your supervisor assign tasks to you. However, always carry out those tasks well. In your spare time, you can now complete the work you had started before, and build a small portfolio to support you in applying for a research position. Assert to yourself that you are not going into the game that your supervisor went into—you proceed in your own pace.

The most important thing after getting out of your current situation is not to bring with you any maladaptive behaviour that you may have developed as a result of the stressful and unreasonable environment you have worked in.

Good luck!

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+1 for "Assert to yourself..."!! –  JeffE Mar 1 '13 at 1:29
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Many thanks--will get back to work (after this online bellyaching) and put your plan into action. –  Anon Mar 1 '13 at 6:47
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+1; First of all, you were "led" by false promises, and should not be subject to them if you dont want to, and if you dont find it to be fulfilling enough. If the pay is low, the work is boring and the expectance of your dreams' fulfillment is close to nil, just leave. I think this response is well thought, well explained and is worth an acceptance. –  Ricardo Segovia Mar 1 '13 at 14:54
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Thanks for the clarification in response to my answer, as below. I wish I could do +n for this answer. BEST WISHES for your future. –  CyberFonic Mar 2 '13 at 11:48
    
+1 Just beautifully written and entirely true, I cannot disagree with anything at all. Oh, maybe suggest one clarification: on paragraph of "prioritized list of tasks to complete before leaving", perhaps make clearer that this isn't open-ended - you'll work on them as best you can, in order, until your last day of work previously determined and communicated. –  BrianDHall May 1 at 13:04

Your writing certainly does not betray a "lack of eloquence"; in fact, it's probably better than most of the computer scientists I know!

That said, as JeffE has indicated, you are being mishandled by your employers, and I would strongly encourage you to find a new position as soon as possible. However, it is important to point out that your situation is not academic versus industrial, but instead good employer versus bad employer. The distinction is crucial.

In any position, there will be parts of your job that are less appealing than others; the absolute "dream job" which you're happy about 100% only exists in Utopia. The key is to make sure that the important parts of your job give you more satisfaction than the less desirable aspects take away. Here, this clearly isn't the case. That does not mean that you can't find what you're looking for, either in industry or in academia. What it does mean is that you need to find it somewhere else than where you are, because it's clear the job isn't going to change in any sort of meaningful way in the short term.

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Thank you for your response. The grant driven aspect of the work has led my supervisor to set wildly unrealistic deadlines. One case in particular could fairly be called abusive--I was not consulted. The result only could have been failure. I don't believe I have ever experienced the level of anxiety and panic I had before the deadline was lifted, thanks to a scheduling conflict at the funding agency where a demo was to be produced. I suspect that such predicaments will recur indefinitely. My coworkers have called this project a nightmare. Rightly or wrongly, I am too traumatized to stay. –  Anon Feb 28 '13 at 6:42

You are being taken advantage of.

You should check the rules at your institution relating to authorship. It sounds like you have made a significant intellectual contribution to the papers that were published, so you deserve to be listed on them as an author. There are means by which you can have yourself rightfully listed as an author on the papers.

The practice of more established academics taking advantage of postdocs and research assistants is widspread in university departments worldwide. Your situation is all too common.

It does however sound like that you "walked into" the situation a little bit, and that you should have been more assertive and forthright from the start about your role in the team, your contribution to the papers that were published, and your rights as an author.

You should move on and view the situation as a learning experience for next time, and improve your self confidence and assertivenes.

Btw not sure what not having a wife and kids has to do with anything apart from you are able to take more risks with your career?

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This sounds terrible and also highly questionable on the part of the research group. To provide help is difficult since the question really is one for you to solve in the sense that you need to think about your options. As I understand you stand very good chances of getting employed if you decide to leave your current position so employment does not seem to be the issue. This is a positive aspect of the situation because you have a "way out".

The decision is whether you value to continue with research (in its true sense). Added to your will is also the market of research positions. A careful check of what is out there and also possibly some contacts with groups/persons that are working on topics that within your sphere of interest. this allows you to sound out your possibilities so that you could set a time frame on your decision, when to pull the plug.

So i think the decision is exclusively yours and it hinges on probing your interests and the possibilities around you. I hope this is of some assistance.

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Perhaps the situation in Ireland is different from other parts of the Commonwealth. But I would have thought that the role of "research associate" would be that of a support person and not on the track to acquiring a PhD nor a means of building up "academic capital".

In my experience, you'd first need to acquire a PhD as the first step to building up your "academic capital" - another term for publish or perish (aka get funding or perish)

In the absence of more information it would appear that there is a difference between what you thought you were being hired for and what your employer hired you to do. Another point ... you say "employer"; is that an academic institution? or some enterprise undertaking research?

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I have a Ph.D. There are other postdocs in the group with the same title who focus on research. However, I was informed somewhat after the fact that the group really wanted a much more qualified technical support person than it could otherwise obtain without changing the title. For the administration to approve the position, the candidate was required to have earned a Ph.D. The job description had to include the duties normally expected of postdocs: work on original research, publish, assist with grant preparation, etc. The actual duties deviate significantly from the approved job description. –  Anon Feb 28 '13 at 6:00
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Ireland left the Commonwealth in 1948. –  TRiG Aug 22 '13 at 10:56

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