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Column: 'I had to give up hope of finding a permanent job in an Irish university'

Ilaina Khairulzaman had the choice of leaving Ireland or leaving academia.

Ilaina Khairulzaman

LOOKING FOR A job in Irish universities was demoralising as there were no permanent contracts for the type of role I was applying for. 

In Ireland, you get a graduate visa for two years after completing a postgrad in order to find a job. This is difficult when the role you want doesn’t offer permanent contracts, which is the case for most graduate jobs in third levels these days. 

Being from Malaysia, temporary and short-term contracts weren’t an option for me as I needed job security in order to apply for a work permit.

While completing my research masters in immunology in Trinity, I had become passionate about communicating science and public engagement. After graduation, I stayed in Trinity and worked in a science communication role developing a public science programme and organising events.

Low wages and no security

Even though this wasn’t a research role, I was classified as a research assistant, one of the lowest paid roles in academia. I was hired for four months initially and this was extended to six months.

These roles are highly skilled and they require a minimum of a masters or PhD yet they don’t get any recognition in terms of pay or security. Some positions I came across when job hunting were classified as admin roles which is ridiculous given the skill level they were looking for. 

This lack of recognition affected my confidence, as you start to wonder if people are taking your job seriously and whether it’s just a tick box exercise to fulfil a requirement of their funding grants.

Currently, the Irish Universities Association research assistant payscale starts at under €23,000 which is not a livable salary in Dublin right now. With the way jobs are being offered in Irish universities, people are looking to move abroad for better conditions and lower living expenses.

Academia is going to end up with a lack of diversity and different voices, which will have a huge impact on the quality of work that Irish universities produce.

The harsh reality of academia

There’s so much emphasis on bringing international students to study here but not much support when you need to find a job. I felt like there was nowhere to go if I wanted to stay in this field. 

The answer I received most often when job hunting was: ‘That’s just the way it is’. It wasn’t that they didn’t want to give me the role or interview, it was that I wasn’t going to have a future with them once my graduate visa expired. 

Younger lab heads and lecturers are having conversations about how academia needs to change and evolve but there’s a lot of old thinking among senior scientists who feel because they went through this, then the younger generation should too. 

It shouldn’t be that way. That’s a whole culture in academia that needs to change.  

I feel very much at home in Ireland, having been here since starting my degree in bioscience in IT Carlow. However, I had to face the reality there was a chance I would have to go back to Malaysia or move out of the area I was qualified for and loved.

I kept fighting and looking for jobs but in the end I had to give up hope of finding a permanent job in an Irish university.

Luckily, a month before my graduate visa was about to expire, I was offered a public engagement job in a non-profit, Sense About Science. I’m really enjoying my new role and they’re really supportive. 

This entire process was very stressful and a constant worry for two years. I only realised the effect it was having on me once I settled into my new job and a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders. 

Ilaina Khairulzaman is a public engagement professional and a Malaysian cailín who fell in love with Ireland.

Academic Uncertainty Investigation 

Do you want to know more about how prevalent precarious contracts are in the third level sector in Ireland?

The Noteworthy team want to do an in-depth investigation into how universities and institutes of technology are allowed to employ so many researchers and lecturers on these contracts.

They also want to look at the impact that short-term and temporary contracts are having on the sector as a whole.

Here’s how to help support this proposal> 

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About the author:

Ilaina Khairulzaman

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