More and more researchers are competing for career development positions in academia. The picture shows the Vasaloppet ski race in 2009.

Career system strained

2015-04-21

It takes longer and longer for researchers to become permanently employed in academia, according to a report from the Swedish Research Council. Since there are very few career development positions, more and more researchers are forced to take various insecure, temporary jobs.”Sweden needs a more effective, nationwide career system,” says Director-General Sven Stafström.

About one-third of those who defend their thesis remain within higher education. In the Swedish Research Council’s report Career structure and career paths in higher education, three groups of doctorates were followed until 2012 (1995-96, 2002-03 and 2008-09).

Career development positions for researchers and teachers in higher education are postdoc for two years, followed by a four-year position as assistant lecturer or research fellow.

But nowadays the career path to permanent employment is significantly longer than six years for most researchers – and the four-year career development positions are obtained even later. Yet there are still 60 percent more lecturers and professors than in 2001.

More competition

One reason for the slower career path is that there are more and more competing for the career development positions that exist, and a plethora of insecure, temporary jobs have appeared. The number of PhDs graduating each year has doubled since the beginning of the 1990s.

“This increase has not been met by more career development positions to become more qualified. More people are employed in higher education, but as “researchers” and postdocs. This indicates a disintegration of the Swedish career system, where many researchers are now forced to take a series of different fixed-term employment contracts, one after the other. The career system is strained,” says Stina Gerdes Barriere, an analyst at the Swedish Research Council who carried out the study.

Another reason for career paths deteriorating is that career development positions (assistant lecturer and research fellow) were removed from the higher education ordinance in connection with the government’s autonomy reform in 2011.

It was hoped that the social partners themselves would regulate the positions, but that did not happen and new career development positions were introduced in 2012. However, this does not give the right to be tried for a permanent position, even if educational institutions themselves may choose to do so (read more in the fact box).

Many fixed-term employment contracts

The many fixed-term employment contracts are a major problem, according to the Swedish Association of University Teachers, SULF.

“Insecure temporary jobs, such as research fellow or other types of fixed-term employment, have a negative effect on a person’s performance – especially if they are combined with each other for a long time. People feel they are replaceable and that causes stress,” says Karin Åmossa, chief investigator at SULF.

“For those who are about to choose a career after graduating, academia presents a confusing jungle of different forms of employment, which means that many graduates would rather go to another employer where they know what is what.”

She would like to see a career path with clarity in its requirements for progressing in academia.

“Career development positions are there for individuals who want to become more qualified and, indirectly, for the seat of learning to obtain the best people and have them develop into excellent researchers in their area.

At the moment there are just too many in the system, so there must be more competition early in a person’s career so that they have a chance to make other reasonable choices,” she states.

“It is not fair to let people go on working year after year on short, substitute jobs. We have to bear in mind that it is the people in the system who creates quality in research and teaching.”

Imbalance

Karin Åmossa considers that part of the current problem is a result of the Swedish Research Council and other funders.

“There is a clear correlation between external financing and fixed-term employment contracts. There is an imbalance today; 60 percent of research funding at seats of learning is through external resources and only 40 percent is from basic government grants.

She believes that it should be the other way round.

“Researchers with a lot of external funding become like small businesses, where their own group is the most important. They don’t see themselves as a part of an organisation and do not take responsibility for the overall situation or long-term strategy. The seat of learning becomes a shell for them to operate in.

The reverse is also true – the seat of learning does not take responsibility for those with external funding because they are not included in the long-term planning, since nobody knows whether the funding will continue,” Karin Åmossa continues.

Stina Gerdes Barriere at the Swedish Research Council agrees that external funding is more variable than basic government grants.

“Swedish Research Council funds can go to different subjects and people. If recruitment is based on individual research leaders, things become uncertain and the seat of learning does not dare not employ people.”

Her ideal scenario is no temporary employment in academia apart from postdocs, and clearly regulated career development positions which provide an opportunity for continued employment as a lecturer or professor, after assessment.

Takes the issue very seriously

The Swedish Research Council’s Director-General Sven Stafström takes the issue of career paths very seriously:

“I believe that most people in Swedish higher education agree that too many young researchers are employed in an insecure manner and this makes a lot of research talent, mainly in competitive areas, choose a non-academic career,” he says.

The report on career paths is one of several structural analyses from the Swedish Research Council which will be the basis for the next government bill on research (2017-2027). By summer 2015 the Swedish Research Council is planning to publish a summary report which will include a proposal for a nationally coordinated career system in higher education.

Text: Eva Barkeman
Photo: Gustav Mårtensson / Aftonbladet / IBL Bildbyrå

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