Professor installation 2019 at the University of Gothenburg.

What is required to become a professor?

Svenska 2020-02-18

Swedish higher education institutions have been given more freedom to decide how to go about employing a professor. Since 2011, they have more freedom to decide the criteria on which to base the assessment of scientific and educational skill. Curie has taken a closer look at the process at a few universities.

Sweden has just over 6 500 professors (2018), which represents just over one sixth of all higher education research and teaching personnel. 28 per cent of the professors are women.

A professorship is the final step in an academic career. The title may entail more opportunities within research and teaching, greater influence over the own subject area, and better opportunities to apply for major and/or international grants. At many higher education institutions (HEIs), a professorship is also linked to a higher salary and a permanent position.

The way in which professors are appointed has varied over the years. In 1999, it became possible to be assessed for promotion to professor. The purpose was to increase the number of professors, and also to give relatively young researchers the opportunity to achieve this position. Applying for promotion became an individual right.

In 2011, Swedish HEIs were given more freedom to decide how to go about employing a professor. In this way, they also decide more for themselves the criteria on which to base the assessment of scientific and educational skill.

Counteracting inflation in professors

Only a few HEIs have retained the right to assessment for promotion. Most have tightened up the rules, but retain the opportunity for promotion if this is in the interest of the operation. The only HEI to have entirely abolished the opportunity for promotion is Karolinska Institutet, KI, which has chosen to make all professorships subject to competition.

“We wanted to counteract inflation in professors; there were far too many in some departments. We want a professorship to be a leading academic position, and for it to be issued as a call and applied for in competition,” explains Anders Gustafsson, Pro-Vice-Chancellor.

The calls are also a good tool for promoting mobility between different HEIs, according to Anders Gustafsson.

“It’s good to acquire new talent; I think it would lead to greater mobility if more HEIs made the appointment of professors competitive.”

The call must not be too narrow

When professorships are subjected to competition, the way in which the call is worded matters a lot. It must not be too narrow, and there must be room for competition. For this reason, KI’s recruitment committee looks at the wording of all calls.

“This scrutiny is important,” emphasises Jenny Wiklund Pasia, coordinator at KI’s HR department.

The committee looks for factors such as who is able to apply – for example, there should preferably be both women and men qualified to apply under call.

“Of course, we sometimes get internal applicants for advertised professorships. I see a value in having these too assessed in open competition,” comments Anders Gustafsson.

Two-track assessment

KI uses a two-track assessment process for professorship applications. One track focuses on both education and research, and places great demands on teaching skills. The other track focuses more on research, and for this the demands on educational skills is not as high.

The educational assessment is part of the assessment conducted by external experts. But there is also a specific in-house group of educational assessors, who evaluate applicants for professorships with a teaching focus.

KI is currently recruiting seven strategic professors with clear responsibility for teaching. These professors will have to show that they are prepared to lead the development of the teaching activities to safeguard research-proximate education of high quality, at the same time as carrying out excellent research.

“This initiative will strengthen the teaching at KI,” Anders Gustafsson states.

Peer review is a good tool

Åsa Karlsson Sjögren is Professor of History and Dean of the Faculty of Humanities at Umeå University. Each third-cycle education area at the faculty has a professor who is responsible.

The position includes 50 per cent research time, funded by the faculty. Other professors have 20 per cent faculty-funded research time.

When applications for professorships are assessed, two aspects are important, says Åsa Karlsson Sjögren:

“We have to comply with the Higher Education Ordinance, and safeguard the peer review process, where the recruitment committee decides whether the matter shall be sent out for peer review. Peer review is a good tool.”

Must be a need for a professor

A few years ago, the rules for promotion to professor were tightened. The largest change is that a need for one or several professors in the subject in question at the department now has to be established. The head of department has to describe this need before a decision is made whether to issue a call for the professorship, or if a senior lecturer can be assessed for promotion.

“Before, the discussion was largely about an individual’s right to promotion. But now there has to be a need for a professor in that particular subject and environment, and they must be of benefit to the operation,” says Åsa Karlsson Sjögren.

Calls for professorships shall be issued unless there is a particular operational need to promote a proposed candidate who is already active at the HEI. The possibility of promotion therefore remains. According to the faculty’s criteria, a person seeking promotion to professor shall have qualifications that significantly exceed the minimum requirements set for a professorship advertised in a call.

“I see the chance of promotion as something positive. The new criteria are good; it mustn’t be easy to become a professor, but it must be possible.”

Greater requirements

At Chalmers University of Technology, professors are expected to develop their own subject areas and have a leading role when it comes to teaching, research, collaboration and also internal work. So says Julie Gold, Chair of Chalmers’ recruitment committee.

They also place stringent demands on skills in teaching and leadership for persons applying for professorships. To become a professor at Chalmers, you will normally have to have supervised at least three doctoral students up to their degree award.

“We also have external education experts who review the teaching skills in particular,” says Anders Palmqvist, who is Chalmers’ Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research and Third-Cycle Education.

Associate professor a stage in the process

At Chalmers, there is also the option to apply for promotion to associate professor. The scientific and teaching requirements are slightly less stringent than for a professorship, but considerably higher than for a docentship. A person applying for promotion to associate professor shall have supervised one doctoral student up to degree award, or two up to award of a licentiate degree.

“This is a good stage following a docentship. You can, for example, apply for promotion to associate professor when the first doctoral student has reached their goal and been awarded a doctoral degree. Then there is one further level to strive for, or else you can stay where you are,” Anders Palmqvist explains.

A further career step can also benefit scientific productivity.

“You retain the drive, and are less prone to settle down.”

The title of “associate professor” also makes international collaboration easier and increases the chances of receiving research funding from bodies such as the European Research Council, ERC. This is because the Swedish title of “biträdande professor” is translated into English as “professor”.

Would rather recruit junior researchers

Chalmers have a career system similar to the US one, with a “tenure track”. Junior researchers should be able to advance right up to professor, provided you fulfil the requirements at various assessments along the way.

“We would rather recruit in this way than at professor level,” says Anders Palmqvist, who also emphasises that it is difficult for Swedish HEIs to compete internationally in the recruitment of prominent professors.

Nor is it always desirable to replace a professor who leaves their post.

“This might be an opportunity to review the strategy and recruit a more junior researcher with a different subject focus in order to develop that area,” underlines Julie Gold, Chair of the Recruitment Committee.

Chalmers also works in the long term to increase the proportion of women at all levels of the HEI, via the Genie project (Gender Initiative for Excellence). Today, 16 per cent of the professors are women (18 per cent of all permanently employed professor aged 67 or under).

Sceptical towards uniform rules

Irrespective of whether a professor is promoted or recruited, the overall assessment of the applicant’s competence is what counts.

“Sometimes there is something lacking in one area, but in exceptional cases this can be weighed up by another skill that is of great value for the subject area, and then supplementary education can be offered,” Anders Palmqvist explains.

This can occur particularly in recruitment from other countries. But applicants from departments that do not carry out all that much teaching may also be included, despite having fewer qualifications in teaching, or a smaller number of doctoral students who have been awarded degrees.

Uniform requirements for professorships at all Swedish HEIs are probably not possible or even desirable, in the view of the persons Curie has talked to.

“It’s not a good idea if it means we have to return to a system where you can be promoted to professor,” says Anders Gustafsson at KI.

Anders Palmqvist is also sceptical. He does not think it is possible to achieve uniform rules for the different HEIs.

“If these were introduced, then it would be better to do so at faculty level, for example that all faculties of medicine had the same requirements for a professorship. When you change universities, you don’t usually change faculties. Then it would be good to have the same views of what a professorship entails.”

There are also other tools for achieving a fair system, emphasises Julie Gold at Chalmers.

“It is important to work transparently and to involve more persons in the process from the start. This is about everything from the call for the position to having the professorship candidates giving scientific and teaching presentations in open forums, so that the faculty is also involved in the process.”

Text: Natalie von der Lehr
Photo: Johan Wingborg

1 comment

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  • Susanne Schlisio

    This article does not reflect the current situation of announced Professor ships at KI. Prof positions announce here at KI are designed for a very specific person in mind, and they are announced in a way that nobody can compete for it. And if they do (happens on very few occasions) , and another candidate from outside succeed to be ranked number one by the reviewers, Karolinska Department closes that position and will announce it few years later again for the specific researcher in mind in their department.



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