Loretxu Beigouignan, Catherine Preston and Hiske van Duinen are among the key people behind KI's Postdoc Association. Here they are discussing the terms for foreign postdocs at KI.

Postdocs demand better terms


It began as a survey among Karolinska Institutet’s postdoctoral students, which showed that many postdocs were dissatisfied with their situation. Discussions to improve these terms are in progress.

“We sensed there was a general feeling of dissatisfaction. There were rumours about unhappy and dissatisfied postdocs everywhere,” says Hiske van Duinen, herself a postdoc at Karolinska Institutet (KI).

Hiske van Duinen mentions how difficult it has been getting postdocs to come forward to talk about how they feel. Not even a guarantee of anonymity has helped. The newly founded Postdoc Association prepared a questionnaire survey to gauge the general mood and frame of mind among postdoctoral students.

Funding in six-month periods only

The survey showed that as many as one-third of all postdocs claim to have been unfairly treated at some point. Postdocs who are funded by stipends are a particularly vulnerable group.

Apart from the fact that stipend holders are not entitled to social security benefits, KI’s rule about extending stipends by only six months at a time entails a number of practical problems for non-Swedish citizens. Without being able to show that you meet the requirements for residency in Sweden – which include being employed or studying for at least a year – it is practically impossible to obtain a Swedish national registration number.

“Without a national registration number, getting access to health care is problematic and something as simple as opening a bank account can turn into a major venture. Practical problems of these and other kinds have led to widespread dissatisfaction,” says Hiske van Duinen.

Investigation in progress

KI’s management group has read the results of the survey and an investigation into the matter has been launched.

“KI’s postdocs are important to us and we take their views very seriously,” says Dean of Research, Hans-Gustaf Ljunggren.

Although he made some comments about the way the survey was conducted, he nevertheless takes it seriously. In his view, the Postdoc Association is an interest group that rigorously pursues the issues regarding the postdocs’ situation at KI.

“We always listen to what the group has to say. Everything that concerns the postdocs’ terms and situation is vitally important and we give it high priority.”

Increased stipend limit

As an initial measure, the minimum stipend level for postdocs was increased to SEK 20,000 per month on 1 October 2013. This means that KI also provides compensation when a stipend from a certain foundation or provider or from another country falls below the limit.

“Some foreign researchers come to KI with stipends from their home countries. Sometimes they are too low to cover the cost of living in Sweden, which can become a problem,” says Hans-Gustaf Ljunggren.

Why stipends at KI are extended by only six months at a time – particularly when funding for a two-year period is in place – is a question that neither Hans-Gustaf Ljunggren nor Human Resources Director Mats Engelbrektson can answer. There is an investigation in progress which aims to address issues such as this.

According to Hiske van Duinen, many of the postdocs agree with the demands put forward by the Postdoc Association, which were recently published in a debate article in KI’s internal newspaper KI-bladet (see link and quick facts). In a short questionnaire prepared by the association, which was sent by e-mail to 400 postdocs, 97 percent of the respondents were fully in agreement.

“The management’s criticisms of our association and our questionnaire survey are an attempt to undermine the credibility of our argument that there is a general problem,” says Hiske van Duinen.

Stipends as a form of funding

The pros and cons of stipends as a form of funding for young researchers have long been debated. While stipends are tax-free, both for the recipient and the provider, stipend holders are not entitled to any form of social security benefit. While Hans-Gustaf Ljunggren recognises certain problems in this fact, he does not question the existence of stipends as a form of financial assistance per se.

“Stipends are a social institution, often set up by benevolent donors to allow people, for shorter periods, to pursue activities they would otherwise not have been able to. Stipends are awarded in the fine arts, literature and science,” he says.

Robert Andersson, chief negotiator for the public sector at the Swedish Association of University Teachers (SULF) has little understanding for this kind of argument.

“You could ask yourself why is it that only research is affected by this attitude, and from young researchers in particular. Research isn’t a hobby, it’s a profession”.

He says that, like in any profession, you have to operate within your budget and employ accordingly.

“The worst part of this situation is that many postdocs feel cheated. The terms are relatively unfamiliar to them when they arrive at KI, which of course is regrettable”.

Unsatisfactory terms can lead to sub-par research

“The main reason why many postdocs choose to study in Sweden and at KI is because of the excellent research facilities it provides. Having to constantly worry about your six-month stipend and what happens if you fall ill could have an adverse effect on the end-result of your research project,” says Hiske van Duinen.

“We came here for the sake of research and all we want is the same rights and obligations as all the other postdocs. We want to live a normal life.”

Text: Natalie von der Lehr
Photo: Natalie von der Lehr