Contract researchers constitute an expanding occupational group in UK higher education and contribute significantly to national research output. Despite recent concern and debates over their marginal status and inferior conditions of employment, little is known about the actual complexities of contract researchers' working lives. Drawing upon qualitative interviews, an attempt is made to remedy this lacuna by portraying certain kinds of occupational knowledge and practices utilised by social science contract researchers. The paper focuses on the understandings and strategies which are developed and refined as researchers attempt to sustain employment in a highly insecure realm. What is portrayed ir not the technical expertise required for this kind of research, but rather the knowledge, acumen and action which are more informal, tacit and indeterminate. This paper examines the cognitive and interactional processes which need to be developed and combined with technical expertise, if employment is to be maintained in such a competitive and insecure field.