How to make casual employment work for you

Anuja CabraalDr Anuja Cabraal (@AnujaCabraal) has been a researcher for almost ten years. Over this time, she has worked on a lot of different topics, including learning and teaching, banking and architecture. Her favourite research areas are migration & identity studies and social & financial exclusion.

She is also a trainer and consultant with Nvivo, a qualitative research software program designed to help make the process of qualitative data analysis easier.

She completed her PhD in January 2011 in the area of microfinance and social & financial exclusion.

Anuja blogs about research methods and information sharing as Anuja Cabraal, A Research Enthusiast.


Life as a casual can be very empowering, and it all comes down to attitude.

There is so much negative talk about being a casual in a university environment, especially from people undertaking, completing, or having just graduated with their PhD.

Robot in the sky (Photo by Jonathan O'Donnell; taken at the Ghibli Museum)

Robot in the sky (Photo by Jonathan O’Donnell; taken at the Ghibli Museum)

While I can understand it, and do recognise the challenges (I moaned about it myself, initially), I also made the most of it and have found a lot of freedom and excitement in the work I have been doing.

There is always the important issue of financial security, but I believe that if you put that aside and focus on the positives of being a casual (and, yes, they do exist), you can be in a position where finance issues resolve themselves.

The main thing to remember as a casual is that you have choice and opportunity, and these can be very valuable.

The key is to focus on the positives, to reframe your thinking from chasing the “goal” of a permanent position (or even a postdoc) to consider some of the following:

Is an academic life really for you?

Too many people during and after their PhD focus on trying to get a permanent, postdoc or other fixed-term academic position in a university because it is the ‘natural’ next step. They aim for this without even thinking about why they want it.

Ask yourself if being an academic, or an early career researcher, is something that you really want. Think about the positives and negatives of this. I’ve also been told by a few professors that if you leave academia after completing your PhD, and come back after a few years, it is easier to get promoted compared with entering immediately post-PhD.

Think about your skills

Think about the skills you have gained over the course of your life. You may have gathered them through other roles, as well as during your studies. Write down everything, big or small. You never know when it may come in handy. For example, I gained the skill of knowing how to use NVivo (a qualitative research software program), and have been approached to do research work (both as a research assistant and as an expert), do consultancies, and run NVivo workshops because of this skill. My point is you never know where the work will come from, so start focussing on the skills and talents you do have, and build on them. I haven’t written many papers as first author, but have never been out of work since I finished my PhD (two years ago now). In fact, there have been times where I have had to juggle a multitude of jobs. It is all about how you see yourself, then how you promote yourself. Focus on this first, then focus on developing in the areas where you are not as strong. You can do this if you want a job in or outside of academia.

Some tips on how to recognise your skills:

  1. Make a list of all the different things that you have done over the years.
  2. Make a list of your research interests.
  3. Take notice of what other people ask your advice about.
  4. Ask other people (e.g. colleagues, managers, friends) what they think are your five greatest assets.

Be an entrepreneur!

Think about what you whinge about the most and what support and services have been lacking during your career or studies. Could you provide those skills or services to other people for a fee? You might be able to turn it into a business idea. If you are a casual, you are not tied to any university, or even locked into regular working hours. You have the time and flexibility to explore business opportunities.

If your idea doesn’t work so well, you can always tweak it, take on more casual work, or – if it starts to go very well – you can always tell the employer that you want to cut back on your hours. It will give you more time to build your business, and you will have the financial security with the casual work to supplement your income before you launch it completely.

Remember that you – and you alone – are in control of your future.

I think too many people get scared about the fact that they may not get a job, and fall at the feet of anyone who is willing to give them work, then complain about what they are doing. Why not take the initiative instead? Build your online profile through Twitter and blogging, and network with a wide range of people. Think about the type of research you would like to do, and look online for opportunities. Talk to people (in and out of academia) about your research passions, and find common ground. You never know who might give you some money to do the work you want to do.

By doing this, I have been able to fund my own position for about the last year and a half. Remember, no university school is going to say you can’t work there if you are bringing in funding!

I recognise that not everyone will be able to source their own research funds, or want to start their own business, but it’s worth considering a combination of the tips above. I incorporated a few of them when I finished my PhD, and I have had to turn work away.

It has been empowering and liberating to be able to choose what work I want to do, and to set my terms.

You may find that you can make casual employment work for you, too!

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7 Responses to How to make casual employment work for you

  1. bollywoodmel says:

    thanks for the post, this is something I only thought about this year when,after years in full-time permanent work, I didn’t get any annual leave or holiday pay as a uni casual for the first time ever! I agree that it’s a complicated issue that some people have made work for them. I wonder if any employers could weigh in on how they assess the “permanent” casual applicant against others? Does it make a difference when you decide you want some of the perks of being on a permanent contract from the perspective of an employer culling applications?

  2. ecspaeth says:

    So often, success for PhD students is defined as getting a permanent job in academia. It’s like one giant gold star.

    Thanks for reframing things with this post. With casual work there’s more of the unknown, but also more freedom. Ah, the possibilities… I currently work doing technology training as well as my PhD. Perhaps I’ll combine them one day!

    • anujacabraal says:

      As you said, too often, the goal seems to be the permanent position. It is great to see that you are starting to see some of the other possibilities and opportunities you have.

  3. Reblogged this on Research Staff Blog and commented:
    Some thoughts on the pros of casual contracts

  4. Jenine says:

    Brilliant post Anuja! I have a very similar perspective, and have done what you say above for the past 10 years! Part of this time was doing my PhD but I was always working on different projects then too (which in hindsight may not have been the best idea, but I’m now glad) – I’ve always had my hands in lots of ‘pies’ :) Which means there are always opportunities, and if you are open to opportunities, they will come to you. I now get to decide who I work with, when and where. I travel lots which I love, and I’m always working with new people so I’m constantly being inspired for research and finding new ways to do things. I looove my research role that I have created (every single day is different). I agree, you are in charge of the life you create, why not create an awesome one :) Well done to you!

    • anujacabraal says:

      Thanks Jenine! I must admit (to everyone), that Jenine was one of the people instrumental in helping me with the approach I have. It is great to see another example of how you can make casual employment work for you.

  5. Jonathan O'Donnell says:

    The Adjunct Project has put out a call to US adjunct staff to quit.

    http://www.adjunctproject.com/quit/

    There are lots of comments that resonate with this post.

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